Kukai, posthumously known as Kobo Daishi, was one of the most important figures in Japanese
cultural history, Buddhist
or otherwise. He is credited with the creation of the hiragana
phonetic script and the "Iroha
" "alphabet". He founded the Shingon
school of Mikkyo
Buddhism. And a pilgrimage route throughout 88 temples in Shikoku
is practised today in memory of him.
He was born in 774 in what is now Zentsuji City, the seat of Zentsu-ji Temple, (which is now the 75th Sacred Place of Shikoku) as the third son of Saeki Yoshimichi, the Lord of the County.
The boy Kukai was so bright and gifted that his parents expected him to go into government service, the most respected profession at that time. When he was 15, he was sent up to the capital, where he studied with his paternal uncle, a great Confucianist and tutor to one of the Emperor's sons.
At 18, he entered the university and studied hard. But soon he was disappointed with the curriculum offered there: the principles of goverment, history, poetry, filial piety and loyalty.
Then he happened to meet a Buddhist monk, who taught him to practice a meditation called Kokuzo-gumonjiho. This is the invocation of Kokuzo (in Sanskrit Akasagarbha). Kokuzo is a mythological bodhisattva, a symbolic form of the space (ku) of experience as a matrix (zo) of vast intelligence. The practice involves 1,000,000 mantra recitations according to a specific method. This was to help enable him to acquire a phenomenal memory of teachings and principles. Which apparently it did.
This made him choose Buddhism and monasticism rather than Confucianism and life in the bureaucracy. He left the university. It was a very difficult decision for him, because he was turning his back on the tradition and expectations of his entire clan. Yet he felt he had no choice.
For many years he applied himself alternately to the intense study of Buddhist sutras and to contemplation deep in the mountains.
At 19, in a cave at Cape Muroto, the southeastern tip of Shikoku Island, he finally succeeded in awakening through practice of Kokuzo-gumonjiho. What he had been seeing all the while was the sky and the sea the Pacific Ocean. In memory of this great moment, he decided to call himself "Kukai": Sky and Sea.
At 24, he finished "Sango Shiiki", a drama in which he compared the three principles he had already mastered, Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism, to demonstrate the supremacy of Buddhism. It was his final declaration of turning to Buddhism.
Yet Kukai was not satisfied with the Buddhism of those days in Japan. He was searching for something like the unity of the Buddha's teachings. Then he found the Dainichi-kyo, a sutra that presented the Buddha Mahavairocana as idealizing the truth of the universe.
But there were passages so obscure that no one in Japan could tell him anything about them. So he decided to go to China. At 31 he succeeded in accompanying the Imperial envoy to Tang China.
At the Chinese capital, Chang'an, the greatest cosmopolitan city at that time, he met Abbot Huikuo, the 7th patriarch of Mikkyo Buddhism, who already had no less than one thousand disciples. The tradition says that the moment he set eyes on the young man from Japan, the abbot knew he was the very person he had long been waiting for as his successor. All those years of hard study and ascetic practices had brought him so close to his Chinese master that, after three months of brief but intense study under the abbot, Kukai was ordained as the 8th patriarch of Mikkyo Buddhism.
At the end of the year (805), Abbot Huikuo passed away. Before his death, he had told Kukai to return to Japan as soon as possible to spread the Teachings to increase the happiness of the people there. But how could he return soon? There were 18 years before another Japanese mission was to come to China ...
Then the Emperor of the Tang Dynasty and a Japanese delegation came to Chang'an to attend his funeral. Kukai was allowed to join their return journey. It was fortunate for the Japanese to have him back so soon, considering his great achievements in the ensuing years. In fact it was not until 34 years later that another envoy sent to China returned to Japan. Three years earier Kukai had passed away.
After 16 months in Chang-an, Kukai brought home from China 247 scrolls of precious sutras, 44 scrolls of Sanskrit mantras and stotras, 170 scrolls of scriptural commentaries, 9 kinds of ritual implements, and a number of religious images and objects. There were also Chinese works of literature, language, medicine, calligraphy and art.
It is generally believed that Kukai introduced to Japan measures and rules, Chinese-type medicines, varieties of seeds, as well as the arts of dyeing of making Indian ink and writing brushes, and of building temples, bridges, and embankments.
He is said to have been the first Japanese to grow tea and process it, to use coal and petrol, and to make Chinese cakes and candies.
He brought all these things to firmly take root in the soil of Japan, greatly raising her cultural standards, until at last she began to produce her own Buddhism and her own culture. This accounts for why Kukai is often credited as a founder of Japanese culture.
In fact, the first thing he did when he came back to Japan was to reread all those enormous volumes of sutras, trying to unite the two kinds of Mikkyo Buddhism -- Kongokai (the contextual principle) and Taizokai (the principle of content) -- into one. Thus he finally created a new Buddhism which he called the Shingon.
Kukai was also fortunate enough to have the Emperor Saga, a scholar, poet and admirer of the more advanced culture of the Chinese mainland, as his patron and longtime friend.
He was granted possession of Mount Koya in Kii (modern Wakayama Prefecture), where he founded a monastic centre of training. It was also his spiritual home, where he wrote many books of immense value, one of which was "Jujushinron" in which he examined all the philosophies and religions known at the that time in the Eastern world, comparing them with his own Buddhism of Shingon. (Unfavourably, of course.)
Later the Emperor presented him with a state temple, Toji in Kyoto, as his headquarters in propagating Shingon. It focuses on this life, saying that men and women have the potential seed or matrix of Awakening within them, and that by following its precepts and practices, anyone can achieve awakening in this lifetime.
Then Kukai founded the first school for children in Japan open to the poor as well as to the rich. A dictionary in 30 volumes which he compiled for the pupils there was the first of its kind in Japan.
It is widely believed that Kobo Daishi invented hiragana (the Japanese phonetic syllabary) and created Katakana (another syllabary) through his knowledge of Sanskrit. Until then, reading and writing were restricted to scholars and aristocrats who could spend years learning thousands of Chinese characters. Now kana syllabaries enabled even common people to write their language phonetically. Noblewomen also took up kana, producing fine novels, essays, diaries and poems. It was with this kana that Lady Murasaki wrote perhaps the world's first great novel, The Tale of Genji.
There are about 3,000 folktales and legends about Kobo Daishi (Kukai) told and retold all over the country. No other person in Japan has ever commanded such devotion. Many of the tales are about how he saved people by bringing forth a spring, digging a well, taming an unruly river, divining a hot spring, healing the sick, giving the blind sight, the crippled ability to walk, and so on. These fictional stories are based on the fact that he never tired of putting the profound ideas of his religion into practice to bring happiness to people.
After his death in 835, those who believed that he had entered instead into a phase of deep concentration (nyujo) began to make the rounds of his memorial places in Shikoku. This is considered to be the origin of the Shikoku Pilgrimage.
Even today formal pilgrims (henro) will start from Koyasan, and after making the circuit of 88 temples, will return to Koyasan via Temple No.1, just as the first disciples of Kobo Daishi did long ago.
In 921 the man who called himself Priest Kukai was posthumously canonized as Kobo Daishi. "Daishi" means "Great Master," a title bestowed by the Imperial Court upon Buddhist priests of the highest virtue. "Kobo" means "to spread the Dharma widely."
There are 23 ancient masters who have been conferred the title of Daishi. But as a popular saying goes: "Kobo made off with the title of Daishi." That is, when one speaks of the Daishi there is no question whom one means.
On Shikoku people often call this saint of saints "O-Daishi-san" as if he were one of their neighbours, revealing their affectionate love of him and their belief that he is still here.