MANDALA - The Legend of Kukai


A Pictorial from the Movie

Chamber 1 第一堂


Kukai (774-835AD), titled Kobo Daishi, is Founder of the Shingon branch of Esoteric Buddhism.

Kukai was born in 774AD in Sanuki Province, Shikoku, to the 佐伯 Saeki clan. Third in the family, his birth name was 真鱼 Mao. His father's family were local aristocracy whose ancestors were reputed to have been the provincial governors. The clan had produced many administrators and scholars. Kukai, who from childhood had been regarded as highly gifted, was sent to the capital at fourteen to study under his maternal uncle, the tutor to the crown prince. At seventeen he succeeded in entering the university, where he studied the 五经 Chinese Five Classics (the Classic of Changes, Classic of History, Classic of Poetry, Collection of Rites, and the Spring and Autumn Annals). It was in this period that he undoubtedly accumulated the wealth of knowledge that so astounded Chinese literary circles when he later visited Tang Dynasty China.

Mao studies the chinese classics in the university.

During this period, locally prominent families acted as district officials and military officers; they were the final units in local administration, though at the same time they were also members of their own village communities. Their lives were complicated in that they always embodied two sides, the ruler and the ruled, the exploiter and the producer. With the decline of the 礼教 ritsuryo system, exploitation by the central authorities grew so much that the local gentry hardly knew whether they were supposed to act as agents of the exploiters or as protectors of local interests. The reason early Buddhism pervaded this class so widely lies in this basic contradiction in their lives.

Telling his friend about his rejection of secular studies and of his true ambition.

Kukai's later abandonment of his university life in the capital and his espousal of ascetic practice also seemed to originate from the contradictions and troubles faced by local landowners. He would have fully absorbed the sufferings of the farming community and been perplexed by the gentry's conflicting stance regarding the common people. His university education would have been no use at all to him in resolving those problems. Day after day there would have been repeated the stereotyped lectures and readings of the Chinese classics that formed the backbone of ritsuryo ideology.

Mao leaves behind his studies to wander in the mountains, later meeting another buddhist priest (Gonzo?) who would be his first teacher.

Finally bored with his classes, he left his studies to go wandering in the mountains, by chance meeting a buddhist priest who taught him the Mantra of Akashagarbha. It is a method where one must recite this mantra a million times within a hundered days. Because of this fateful meeting, he chose unhesitatingly to throw away everything for a life of asceticism. Believing what the Great Sage (the Buddha) says of the truth, he started its recitation devotedly, hoping for some result, as one would rub two pieces of wood together to make fire.

Mao meeting "Mara" near Cape Muroto, appearing as a sweet & innocent young girl. But he walks away from her, proceeding to purify his mind by meditating under a waterfall.

Mao reciting the mantra of Akashagarbha night after night at Cape Muroto, until he saw the Bright Star.

He climbed Mount Otaki and continued this practice up to Cape Muroto by the sea. The valleys reverberated with the echo of his voice. Upon completion in the dawn of the hunderedth day, a Bright Star (Venus?) appeared in the dark sky, transforming into the great sword of Akashagarbha (Maha-vairocana?), giving him his first esoteric awakening experience.

Mao receives an esoteric vision of Maha-vairocana Buddha.

From that time on he despised the fame and wealth of the court and city, and was determined to spend his life in the midst of the precipices and thickets of the mountains as a monk. As a result of the mantra, the power of his memory and intellect was increased greatly, perhaps to a somewhat superhuman level. He then returned to Nara and took the tonsil to be ordained as a monk, and was given the Dharma Name of Kyokai. At the age of 22 he went to Todaiji Temple where he received his full Bhikku percepts, at the same time changing his Dharma Name to 空海 Kukai.

Mao is ordained as the Bhikku Kukai at Todaiji Temple in Nara.

The text that was related to Kukai's decision to become an ascetic, the Mantra of Akashagarbha, was a work of the new, orthodox teachings on esoteric buddhist meditation translated by 善无畏三藏 Shubhakarasimha, one of the founders of Esoteric Buddhism in China. It is clear from this that the priest who persuaded him to lead an ascetic life was himself an esoteric practitioner. It was only a question of time before the clear-sighted Kukai discovered and read one of the central scriptures of Esoteric Buddhism, the 大日经 Maha-vairocana Sutra.

Mao studies the Maha-vairocana Sutra in the Kumedara Temple, but could not fully understand it.

According to the biographies, Kukai came across it beneath the Eastern Pagoda of Kumedara Temple in Yamato Province. The reliability of this story is problematic, and the date is not clear, yet it must be a fact that he encountered the Maha-vairocana Sutra sometime before he went to China in 804AD. Broadly speaking, Esoteric Buddhism is divided into the old and the new. It was thought until recently that Esoteric Buddhism in the Nara period had been confined to the old form, but recent studies have shown that sutras and commentaries of the new school were even then relatively widespread. The Maha-vairocana Sutra and the Mantra of Akaskagarbha, which were both known by Kukai before he went to China, were works of the new school, and Kukai's understanding of them was considerable, but still incomplete. He was still unable to grasp the deeper meanings of certain texts in the Sutra. It was this that prompted him to go to China to seek instruction.

Esoteric Buddhism emerged during the last period of the development of Buddhism in India, and from relatively early times the eastward movement of Buddhism brought sutras associated with it into China via Central Asia. These early works represented miscellaneous Esoteric Buddhism, with their incorporation of magical elements from folk religion or old esoteric school. With the development of the southern sea route to China by Muslim traders in the seventh century, texts of pure Esoteric Buddhism, or the new school, began to be imported to China directly from the center of Esoteric Buddhism, Southern India. Esoteric Buddhism was initially introduced to China by 金刚智三藏 Vajrabodhi, who arrived by sea at Canton in 720AD, and also by Shubhakarasimha (mentioned earlier), who had arrived by the inland route four years earlier, in 716AD. The former represented the 金刚界 Vajradhatu system whereas the latter the 胎藏界 Garbhakosa system. Esoteric Buddhism after the time of these two masters is commonly known as the new school, and was more organized than the older type. It was, in fact, Shubhakarasimha who translated both the Maha-vairocana Sutra and the Mantra of Akashagarbha into Chinese. Therefore there was nothing strange in Kukai's intention to go to China.

Kukai setting off for China with the ambassador on the first ship of the diplomatic fleet.

His chance came sooner than expected. In the autumn of 804AD, at the age of 31, the first of the official diplomatic ships, in which Kukai was traveling headed off to China. After enduring storms at sea for more than 90 days they arrived at Fuzhou in north-eastern Fujian province. It was only through the constant prayers of Kukai that the fleet survived long enough to reach land. However the Chinese officials kept them sealed off on the beach for 2 months as they could not understand the ambassador's letters of diplomacy. He got Kukai to write instead and this time the Chinese officials were so impressed with what they read that they immediately lifted the barricade & sent them on their way.

Praying for the safety of the fleet during the storms at sea. The fleet finally reachs Fuzhou, but the entourage encounter communication problems with the Chinese officials. But this was again solved by Kukai's vast command of the Chinese language.

From the coast Kukai, in the train of the ambassador, travelled over land & water, eventually reaching the Tang capital Chang An after a long and arduous journey that took 51 days. Though Chang An's prosperity had declined following a rebellion, it was still the greatest city in the world at that time. The 真言宗 Zhen Yan school of Esoteric Buddhism was the most popular of all the Buddhist schools in the capital, particularly through the efforts of the famed esoteric master, 不空三藏 Amoghavajra, who had translated and circulated a large number of esoteric scriptures, surpassing even Vajrabodhi and Shubhakarasimha, and who had received the buddhist vows of three successive Emperors.

The long journey from Fuzhou to the Tang capital Chang An. 








More to come…

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