Born a generation later than En no Gyoja
, Gyogi (668-748) showed religious leanings from a very early age. He entered the religious life at the age of fifteen but never became an ordained
priest. He chose, instead, to remain a lay priest outside of the government
controlled official temple system and preaching to the people.
He first entered Asukadera and then later moved to Yakushiji. He eventually became a disciple of Dosho (and other Hosso school scholars) nine years later. In 704 his mother became ill and he returned home and transformed their house into a temple. He later went, with his mother, to a small hermitage on Mt. Ikomayama where they lived until her death.
After his mother's death, Gyogi traveled widely throughout the countryside attracting, like En no Gyoja before him, thousands of followers. Gyogi was a firm believer that the function and purpose of religion was to benefit and serve the people in their daily lives. He was adamantly opposed to the Ritsuryo suystem which restricted priests to a temple and forbid them to preach to the people.
During his lifetime, Gyogi is credited with building 34 temples for monks and 15 for nuns throughout Japan. In addition, he is credited with countless other public works projects such as boat landings, bridges, dams, irrigation systems, wells, hostels, etc. designed to ease the life of the people.
Also like En no Gyoja, it was because he was considered to be a friend of the masses and because he preached spiritual freedom as opposed to the tightly controlled world of the Ritsuryo system that he was considered a menace in the eyes of the government. Therefore, an edict was issued against him in 718, followed thereafter by many others.
But, times and attitudes change. As the Ritsuryo system broke down, people like Gyogi became both more acceptable and more useful to the government. Therefore, he was invited to lecture to Empress Gensho in 721 and shortly thereafter permitted to officially ordain two followers. Emperor Shomu regarded him very highly and, because of this, his star rose and he became an important figure in the capital throughout Shomu's reign.
One of Gyogi's crowning achievments was the significant role he played in the building of the Great Buddha at Todaiji in Nara. By this time his influence was vast and the government put that to use by pressing him into service to raise the funds needed to build the great statue.
Gyogi died in 748 and was buried at Ikomayamaji. He left behind more than 3,000 disciples and was the first individual in Japan to be posthumously given the title Bosatsu ("bodhisattva”) by the emperor.