Kōbō Daishi, or Kūkai, is one of the most revered religious figures in the history of Japan and known as the ‘father of Japanese culture’. He is the founder of the Shingon Sect of Buddhism and is often affectionately referred to as O-Daishi-sama, meaning ‘The Honoured Great Teacher’.
Kōbō Daishi’s birth name was Saeki no Mao. He was the son of a regional aristocratic family in Shikoku, the smallest of Japan’s major islands. He had the opportunity to study the Confucian classics and other traditional subjects at the national university and was on track to become appointed as a government official. However, before graduating he became convinced that Buddhism was the only way to bring true happiness to the people. He took the name Kūkai and left university to become a wandering ascetic in the mountains of Japan.
In his early thirties, in 804, Kūkai traveled to China as a student monk. He met the famous Master Huiguo at the Quinglong monastery in the capital of Chang’an (now Xi’an). Huiguo was a well-renowned monk with over 1,000 disciples, however he believed that in order for the lineage to survive it must be transmitted to a foreigner with strong beliefs in teaching and benefiting sentient beings. He took Kūkai as his personal disciple and trained him in the authentic teachings of Shingon Esoteric Buddhism, which had been brought to China from India. Within three months, Kūkai had received abhiseka (empowerment) and became the eighth patriarch of Esoteric Buddhism, attaining Buddhahood and receiving the lineage name Henjo Kongo, meaning “the universally shining vajra“.
Soon afterwards, on his deathbed, Huiguo instructed Kūkai to return to Japan and spread his teachings. Upon his return to Japan in 806, Kūkai began to introduce the highly sophisticated theological system that promises that enlightenment is attainable in this existence through the proper performance of philosophical training and rituals involving mind, body and speech.
Kūkai believed that works of art were particularly important in esoteric rituals and so he brought from the continent many images, texts and ritual implements that later became prototypes for objects used in ceremonies at esoteric temples throughout Japan.
Kūkai planned to establish a monastery deep in the mountains, far from worldly distractions, where Buddhist monks could go to practice and pray. In 815 he was granted the area of Kōyasan by the Emperor. Today, 1,200 years later his monastery is still flourishing. Kūkai also served as the abbot of Tō-ji temple in Kyoto and Tōdai-ji temple in Nara.
In 835, at the age of 62, Kūkai entered into eternal meditation. He had vowed that until the world came to an end he would never stop praying for the liberation of all beings from suffering and it is believed that, to this day, he is continuously praying inside his mausoleum at Okunoin in Kōyasan. After entering eternal meditation the Emperor issued a decree that Kūkai would be given the name Kōbō Daishi, meaning “The Great Master of the Propagation of the Buddhadharma”.
Almost a century later, in 921, a monk opened the door to the mausoleum. He is said to have found Kōbō Daishi still sitting in the meditation pose but his hair and beard had grown all the way tot he floor. He cut Kōbō Daishi’s hair and beard, changed his holy cloth, and closed the door. To this day, the Buddhist monks at Okunoin still offer two meals a day to Kōbō Daishi. Every day at 6:00 and 10:30am, visitors can see the monks carrying the meal to the mausoleum.
For over a millennium, generations of people have made the pilgrimage to the mountain temple of Kōbo Daishi in Kōyasan.
N.B. The mausoleum of Kōbō Daishi cannot be photographed and therefore is not shown in the pictures.
- Koyasan and Kumano Access Bus
- UNESCO World Heritage Koyasan Leaflet in English
- Koyasan Reihokan Museum Leaflet in English
- Dai Garan Kongobuki Koyasan leaflet
- Kongobuji Temple Leaflet
- Guide to Koyasan
- Kōyasan – the 1200th Anniversary Since The Foundation
- Information provided by guide during night cemetery tour