Japanese Buddhism

Kukai and Shingon

Although Mount Hiei. . .

Kukai written out in Kanji
was the most significant Buddhist monastery in early Japanese history, Kukai (774-835) is perhaps the most significant individual in the history of Heian Buddhism. Unlike Saicho, Kukai was native Japanese; he came from an aristocratic family. He was a brilliant and creative man, and as a young man he began by studying Confucianism, but soon mastered Taoism and Buddhism as well.

   The Emperor Kammu sent Kukai to China along with Saicho in 804. At the great T'ang capital of Chang-an, he became the disciple of Hui-kuo (746-805), one of the most significant Buddhist teachers in China at the time. When he returned to Japan, he established a monastery on Mount Koya and thus began the history of Shingon Buddhism in Japan.

   Shingon in Japanese means "True Words," a translation of the Sanskrit Mantrayana. The "True Words" school believed that there were three mysteries of Buddhism: the body, speech, and mind. Each and every human being possesses these three faculties. Each of these faculties contain all the secrets of the universe, so that one can attain Buddhahood through the use of any one of these three. Mysteries of the body apply to various ways of positioning the body in meditation; mysteries of the mind apply to ways of apprehending truth; finally, the mysteries of speech are the true words which were secretly spoken by Buddha. In Shingon, these mysteries are passed on in the form of speech (true words) from teacher to student; none of these true words are written down or available to anyone outside this line of transmission (hence the term Esoteric Buddhism).

   Despite this extraordinarily rigid esotericism, the Shingon Buddhism of Mt. Hiei became a vital force in Japanese culture. Kukai believed that the True Words transcended speech, so he encouraged the cultivation of artistic skills: painting, music, and gesture. Anything that had beauty revealed the truth of the Buddha; as a result, the art of the Hiei monks made the religion profoundly popular at the Heian court and deeply influenced the development of Japanese culture that was being forged at that court. For this reason, although the monks of Mount Hiei became the most powerful Buddhists at court, esoteric Shingon Buddhism was the most important religion of the Heian period and the early feudal period.

Richard Hooker



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1996, Richard Hooker
Updated 6-28-97