Fujisan's Kyareng

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Kukai; The Founder of Shingon Buddhism in Japan

Tokyo Ueno National Museum is currently holding an exhibition of Buddhist arts and artifacts, "Kukai's World: The Arts of Esoteric Buddhism". The exhibition is centered on the spiritual journey and accomplishment of Kukai, the grand master, who established Shingon [Mantrayana] school of Buddhism in Japan during Heian period [794-1192] of Japanese history.

According to Bukyo Dendokyokai's publication, there were some 13 [shu] major schools of Buddhism in Japan with 56 [ha] sub-schools prior to the World War II. Shingo shu is one of the major schools of Buddhism in Japan.

Kukai [773-835] visited China of Tang dynasty as a part of Japanese delegation in 804 to study the Mahavairocana Sutra. He stayed at Seiryuji Temple in Chang-an [Xi'an] and studied for two years of under Master Hui-go [Jap: Keika] about the Mantrayana teachings and the rituals.

Kukai is said to have elevated the Japanese Shinto kamis to the rank of Buddhas, and declared the Japanese emperor as manifestation of Buddha Amitabbha, the Buddha of infinite lights. This greatly pleased both the Buddhist and Shinto, and furthered the Shinbutsushugo [co-existence of Shinto and Buddhism] spirit.

[Vajra; Dorjee - symbolising the wisdom(prajna)aspect of the teachings]

There were paintings of mandalas, Buddhist rituals artifacts and manuscripts written by Kukai. It was greatly inspiring to see the lengthy handwritings of Kukai on religious discourses. There was a Vajra [Tib:Dorje], it was explained at the exhibition site that Kukai threw the Vajra in the air from a certain mountain in China with a prayer to find an appropriate site to build a monastery, and this Vajra fell on Japan's mount koya.

After two years of rigorous study in China, Kukai returned and devoted his life in teaching and practicing Shingon Buddhism in Japan. He was considered acclaimed scholar and inventor, and has contributed greatly in flowering the Japanese religion and culture. He entered Nirvana in 835 at Mount Koya in Wakayama prefecture. Emperor Daigo conferred the title of Kobo Daishi [Great Master] posthumously to Kukai.

Interesting point to note is that Kukai visited China when Sadnaleg [... – 815], also known as Tride Tsugden, was the Emperor of Tibet. He visited the Tang China around the time when the Tibetan military power was at its zenith. In 763, during the reign of 40th King of Tibet, Trisong Deutsen, it is said that the Tibetan army stormed Chang-an, the capital of Tang China. The Emperor Kao Hui had to escape the capture; the Tibetan army installed new Emperor and named Ta-she as title of the new reign. Later, the Tibetan army marched westward as far as Oxus River into the Arabian territories.

From the religious point, the great Samye debate [792-94] between Indian and Chinese Buddhism to establish the veracity of the teachings was done in Tibet around that time. These military and religious developments happened prior to the visit of Kukai to the Chinese capital of Chang-an, which had seen many ups and downs with the Tibetan empire in political and religious field. It is said that one of the three stone pillars recording the peace treaty between Tibet and China was installed at Chang-an city, which China has now destroyed to distort the historical facts. And the Chinese scholars tend to dispute this claim of Tibetan military supremacy.

Had Kukai taken some interest and commented on these early relationships between Tang China and Tibetan empire, it could be held as a very authoritative testimony to the history around that time. Scholars on Kukai may be in a better position to enlighten the historian on this matter. This was what prompted me to visit the exhibition at Ueno Tokyo, and I hope to read Kukai in the near future to see whether the grand master has taken any interest in the land in the west, which has preserved the true teachings of Vajarayana Buddhism to this day.

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