When Saicho sailed for China in 804 C.E., a second ship carried a remarkable contemporary. Although Kukai was less known than Saicho at the time they made their separate pilgrimages, Emperor Kammu had discerned his promise and encouraged him to develop it. As if by some intent of destiny, half the fleet was lost at sea, and only the two ships bearing monks ever made port, and their fortuitous success altered the subsequent history of Japan. Saicho returned with the precious teachings of Mount T'ien-t'ai and founded the Tendai school, whilst Kukai garnered the doctrines imparted secretly in Ch'ang-an and brought them home as the Shingon school. Although of strikingly different characters and contrasting approaches to buddhavachana, the Word of Buddha, together they permanently transformed Japanese spirituality, infusing Japanese Buddhist thought with a startling freshness whilst imparting a distinctive colour to Chinese expressions of the dharma.
Kukai was born in 774 to an aristocratic and scholarly family – the Saeki – on the small island of Shikoku. His quick intelligence manifested itself from an early age, but his exceptional insight and capacity for synthesis caught the attention of his family. When his maternal uncle, Ato Otari, was the tutor of Crown Prince Iyo, he brought Kukai to the capital – Nagaoka, the first capital of Emperor Kammu after he left Nara – to study Chinese poetry and the Confucian classics. Ato Otari foresaw a brilliant career for Kukai in the imperial court and placed him upon the path which traditionally led to high government service. Within three years Kukai had entered the university and begun the course of Confucian studies reserved for elite bureaucrats. Apparently he experienced some dissatisfaction with the nature of his studies and took up Taoist teachings on his own. During this period of intense, if favoured, preparation for a career, a mysterious event altered his whole life.
Although he referred to this change of heart in his later writings, he never openly explained it, perhaps because he was privately ordained a priest, which at the time was illegal. He seems to have met Gonzo, an influential priest of the Daianji Temple, who gave him the secret and sacred Kokuzogumonjiho, the practice of the mantra of Akashagarbha. Doubtless he learnt a great deal about Buddhist doctrines at the time, but he was – and remained throughout his life – more interested in Buddhist practice. Soon he left the university and flatly renounced a career in the imperial government, retreating to the quiet mountains for contemplation and practice of the mantra. He probably spent time with the Jinen chishu, the unofficial School of Natural Wisdom, which combined meditation with use of the Kukozogumonjiho, and with the yamabushis, the enigmatic ascetics known for their meditation and magic in remote and rural Japan.
Somehow Kukai managed to secure a place in the imperial mission to China in 804, perhaps through the influence of highly placed relatives. He sought passage to China because he had discovered the Dainichikyo, the Maha Vairochana Sutra, which reveals a great mandala, a sacred diagram, and its tantric meaning. He realized that he needed a knowledgeable teacher to guide him in understanding this text, and he knew that he would find that teacher only in China. In order to make the journey, Kukai agreed to spend twenty years in China as a student scholar, although he in fact returned in 806 at the behest of his Chinese teacher. Whilst Saicho sought the successors of Chih-i on Mount T'ien-t'ai, Kukai made his way to Ch'ang-an, the old centre of Buddhist thought in China and the locus of tantric practice. When he arrived in Ch'ang-an, he found exactly what he had hoped to discover.
There are myriad forms of tantric Buddhist practice, ranging from mystic contemplation of sacred sounds, colours and figures to elaborate rituals. They are all based upon the principle that once one has discerned the limitations inherent in discursive thought, theory and practice can be combined in meditation and ritual to realize directly in consciousness the object of one's devotion. Because of the variety of objects that might be chosen and the diverse motives of practitioners, tantric practice can range from the purification of consciousness and feeling to degraded magical manipulations designed to affect the world around one. Although tantric ideas can be traced back to the Vedas and to some Hindu yoga practices, they arose out of various dharanis, mystical utterances which gnomically express spiritual truths, and especially truths which cannot be formulated adequately in ordinary speech. The brief Heart Sutra consists of gnomic utterances of this kind. As a practice, tantra uses upaya, various 'skilful means', to invoke divine realization which transcends discursive consciousness.
According to Shingon teaching, these teachings were imparted by the Buddha Mahavairochana, whose attendants are the Bodhisattvas Manjushri and Samantabhadra. Vajrasattva took them up and transmitted them to Nagarjuna. Eventually they were mastered by Hui-kuo, the seventh patriarch, who gave them to Kukai. Shortly after Kukai arrived in Ch'ang-an, he met Hui-kuo at the great Ch'ing-lung Temple where he lived. The old teacher instantly recognized in Kukai his successor and immediately initiated him into tantric secrets. Within three months he had received the final initiation and was ordained as a master of the doctrines and practices guarded by Hui-kuo. Soon Hui-kuo died and Kukai obeyed his teacher's instruction to return to Japan as the eighth patriarch of Shingon. Even though it is difficult to imagine that a disciple could attain such heights in only two years, Kukai's remarkable genius is shown by the list of his accomplishments, for in addition to his initiations he also learnt Sanskrit, studied Chinese and Sanskrit poetry, mastered calligraphy and learnt several minor arts. When Kukai arrived in Japan, he sent a report to the court, but Emperor Kammu had died and his successor, Emperor Heizei, showed little interest, and it was years before his school was officially recognized. Despite Saicho's assistance, the court delayed acting, in part because the texts and teachings which Kukai brought with him were extremely arcane, not systematized, and too new even in China to have an established reputation. The cool response of Kukai to Saicho may have been due to the latter's success at court and his full acceptance before Kammu's demise.
Emperor Heizei retired in 809, and Kukai soon made friends with young Emperor Saga. Kukai was sent to the Takaosanji Temple near Kyoto, and from this centre he exercised considerable cultural influence on the court. In 816 the emperor gave him permission to build a monastic complex on Mount Koya, and the temple was consecrated three years later. Named Kongobuji, it symbolized the union of the two chief mandalas – called mandaras in Japanese – used in the Shingon shu. Just before Emperor Saga resigned in 823, Kukai was placed in charge of the great Toji Temple in Kyoto. The next emperor, Junna, allowed fifty Shingon monks to take up residence at Toji, thereby making it the first temple in Japan devoted exclusively to one school. From this moment, Kukai and his school found their place in the Land of the Rising Sun. The centre of Shingon activity was moved to Toji, and Kukai performed tantric rituals at the imperial court. He opened Japan's first egalitarian School of Arts and Sciences, which accepted students from all walks of life, but it was given up by the temple a decade after Kukai's death. In 830 Kukai completed his systematization of Shingon doctrines in his Jujushinron (Ten Stages of Mind Development). Poor health forced him to resign from the Toji Temple and retire to Mount Koya in 831, but in 834 the imperial court instituted regular tantric rituals and Kukai participated in their performance in 835, two months before he died. When Kukai passed into what his disciples called 'eternal samadhi' on Mount Koya, he was buried on its eastern peak. With his passing, the greatest exponents of the Heian period were gone, but like Saicho, his elder contemporary, his influence continued to inspire his school for centuries. He was posthumously granted the title Kobo Daishi, 'Propagator of Dharma', by which he is most widely known today.
Shingon means 'true word' and refers both to the full expression of buddhavachana, the Word of Buddha, which for Kukai involved arcane instruction, and to the power of the Word to transform consciousness and perception. According to Kukai, human beings tend to abide in one of ten distinguishable stages of development. These stages represent a spectrum of conscious ness and being, from ignorant existence to the threshold of enlightenment. Intense intellectual development and even great spiritual knowledge are virtually useless unless they can be translated into practice at the level of mind, speech and body. This threefold practice, including study, the use of mantras and the contemplation of mandalas, works to move consciousness and being from level to level towards total enlightenment. Every teaching and doctrine represents one or another of these levels, and Shingon crowns them all without rejecting any. Kukai knew that tantric practices arose out of the discovery that results achieved by ancient forms of yoga involving disciplined withdrawal from the senses might be gained by selective use of sensations. He also knew that by the seventh century this discovery had been used to justify degrading erotic practices known as 'left-handed Vajrayana', and he condemned them as unorthodox and dangerous. For Kukai, enlightenment, and neither powers nor magic, was the goal taught by Buddha. Therefore, he taught, it is important to understand the stages of mind development possible for any human being.
In his Jujushinron, Kukai said that the lowest stage of consciousness and behaviour is impulsive and instinctual. Here people live blindly, acting like sheep, and devoid of moral and spiritual values, being barely distinguishable from animals. The second stage is characterized by an emergent ethical awareness coupled with na1vet~ and ignorance. Individuals at this level have a sensitivity towards others and practise simple precepts, especially dana, charity, but they are afraid of forces and conditions they do not comprehend. For Kukai, this state is embodied in Confucian doctrines as ordinarily understood, in which the ethical life is given ultimacy. The third stage is marked by fearlessness on the mental and physical planes, owing to a conviction that rebirth is a literal fact. Literal-minded people, including most Taoists, Hindus and Buddhists, dwell in this stage, because their faith in rebirth reflects their attachment to, and wish to preserve, the transitory ego. In Kukai's view, people belonging to these three classes, though quite different from one another, are nonetheless worldly-minded.
At the fourth stage a human being understands the anatman or no-soul doctrine and realizes that the temporary ego consists merely of the five skandhas or aggregates: form, feeling, ideas, actions and consciousness. He does not, however, recognize the anatman nature of all dharmas or constituents of existence. Such an individual is a shravaka, a hearer of the Word. The fifth and middle stage in the spectrum of consciousness and being heralds a fundamental change in consciousness. People at this level understand the cause of suffering – tanha, or thirst for embodied existence – and seek on the one hand to eliminate the creation of new karma and strive on the other for nirvana. Such are the pratyeka buddhas, who know how to win enlightenment for themselves but lack the upaya or skilful means to help others towards the same goal. The sixth stage witnesses the translation of prajna, wisdom, into karuna, compassion, the first step in the Mahayana or Great Vehicle. For Kukai, it was best represented in Japan by the Hosso school. These three stages represent a fundamental turning of consciousness away from the distractions of a transient world, which pretends to permanence, towards the seemingly less certain but more real world of spiritual striving.
In the seventh stage an individual realizes that the mind is unborn, anupadaka, without beginning or ending. This realization is rooted in the subtle dialectic of Nagarjuna known as the eightfold negation, in which no fixed negative or affirmative notion is allowed to stand unchallenged. Here the mind under stands what it cannot seize upon – shunyata, the Void – and discerns the unavoidable corollary, shunyatashunyata, the voidness even of the Void. Kukai thought that the Sanron or Three-Treatise school exemplified this stage of mind development. The eighth stage is a subtle shift in consciousness which is represented by the Tendai school and its view of Buddha as omnipresent Reality. For Kukai, even the exalted understanding represented by Tendai thought could be transcended, and this is why he resisted Saicho's suggestion that Tendai and Shingon are identical. The ninth stage is the epitome of exoteric thought according to Kukai, for here one recognizes the interdependent origination of dharmadhatu, the realm of truth and law, beyond which lie full realization and enlightenment. The Kegon school, Kukai said, embodies this stage. Kukai held that the eighth and ninth stages – the Tendai and Kegon levels in his schema – were limited only in that their standpoints remain theoretical, whereas the highest stage involves realization in consciousness of the fundamental truth to which they point.
Since the human being is both mind and body, full enlightenment encompasses the whole being. The tenth stage – which is really a transcendence of all stages – is the complete comprehension of Shingon, the True Word, which means the union of the individual's mind and body with the mind and body of Mahavairochana, Buddha at once immanent in Nature and transcending it. This stage is one of absorbing spiritual practice, where the learning of the earlier stages and assimilation of the later stages culminate in unqualified identity, without loss of consciousness. At this level, one is not other than Mahavairochana, a statement which remains incomprehensible until it is realized. From this standpoint, Shingon necessarily claims to be wholly esoteric. Even though its practices are tantric in origin, the school prefers to call itself esoteric in order to separate itself from a host of degenerate magical rites and superstitions which are called tantric.
Kukai wrote a treatise in which he distinguished esoteric and exoteric Buddhist thought in four ways. First of all, who or what teaches the Word of Buddha? Exoterically, the teaching function of Buddha in the world is said to be carried out by the nirmanakaya, a being who can operate in the world and who uses upaya, skilful means, to evoke understanding in those who listen. Esoterically, however, teaching comes from Mahavairochana, the dharmakaya buddha who is Absolute Truth without upaya. To the philosophical question "How can Absolute Truth be said to teach?" the answer is that nothing can be attributed to Absolute Truth, but from the standpoint of spiritual experience, Truth is experienced as Teaching. Secondly, what is the quality of Buddhist teaching? Exoterically, enlightenment is an experience which utterly transcends any conceivable formulation in language. Esoterically, True Words (shingon) correspond to Mahavairochana, and it is possible to experience Truth through mantras (sacred sounds), mudras (sacred gestures), samayas (symbols) and mandalas (sacred diagrams). Thirdly, what are the effects of the two kinds of teaching? Exoterically, the path to enlightenment is seen as gradual and requiring a virtual infinitude of lives to be traversed to the goal. Esoterically, the practice of sanmitsu, using samadhi (meditation), mantra and mudra to concentrate wholly mind, speech and body, can lead directly to union with Mahavairochana. However statistically remote such a probability may be for any human being, it is nonetheless possible to attain enlightenment in one's present body.
Perhaps this doctrine is most easily misunderstood. Kukai insisted upon the radical possibility of sudden enlightenment, but he did not harbour delusions about human nature. Even though he held that certain texts and practices are more efficacious than others in achieving the goal, he also pointed out that a sutra or practice was only as helpful as the recipient was ready to use it fully and without qualification. His fourth distinction between exoteric and esoteric doctrines illustrates his view. Exoterically, the benefits of the dharma vary with classes of beings, and some schools even deny that certain kinds of people are at all capable of enlightenment. Further, exoteric schools tend to subscribe to some version of the doctrine of periods, wherein people of each subsequent age are less capable of attaining enlightenment than their predecessors, until the time will come when no one will be able to do so, whatever their spiritual strivings. Esoterically, Kukai taught, Mahavairochana works ceaselessly for all sentient beings, overriding the tendencies of any age, so that even a person who only practises at the crudest level will receive some benefit.
Much Shingon ritual centres around two mandalas Kukai learnt in China and combined into a single dual mandala, called Ryokai Mandara. Each mandala is taken as a psycho-spiritual representation of the interior life of a self-conscious being, which is also a representation of the universe from a spiritual standpoint. The first mandala, called Taizokai Mandara or Realm of the Womb, represents Mahavairochana as the dharmakaya in the totality of phenomenal existence. In its layout it symbolizes both radiating compassion and the growth of any individual, both potentiality and enlightenment. Bodhichitta, the seed of enlightenment present in every sentient being, is nourished in the womb of compassion, and the disciple who uses this mandala aright can rapidly increase its growth into Truth itself. Depicting the universe from the standpoint of compassion, the mandala gives the aspirant an accurate and spiritually relevant picture of reality. Mahavairochana is depicted in the centre of the mandala, surrounded by an eight-petalled lotus and by four Buddhas and Bodhisattvas representing the nine kinds of consciousness in their pure condition. Twelve sections surround this unified centre and unfold its meaning in degrees of manifestation and diversity.
The second mandala, the Kongokai Mandara or Diamond Realm, represents the spiritual practices that lead to enlightenment. In it the vajra or diamond symbolizes the power of wisdom to penetrate ignorance through insight. Set out in nine sections in rows of three panels each, the mandala invites two interpretations corresponding to clockwise and counter-clockwise movements around the diagram. Clockwise, the mandala illustrates the apparent movement of enlightenment from the centre, which is Mahavairochana, to the periphery, which is Vajrasattva, from the unmanifest core of reality to its compassionate manifestation. Counter-clockwise, the mandala signifies the return of conscious ness to its source, reintegration through practice. Whichever way the eye traces the movement of the mandala, it passes through one thousand, four hundred and sixty-one deities, each representing a stage of consciousness and degree of illumination.
In addition to the intense meditative rituals associated with the dual mandala, Kukai instituted the kanjo, or initiation into the secret doctrines and practices of Shingon, a ritual which is repeated at several levels as an aspirant gains knowledge and perfects his practice. Learning about the mandalas is one such kanjo. Kukai also established rituals designed to benefit the country and the uninitiated public, including goma, a burnt- offering ritual which reflects the Agni sacrifices of the Vedas. The four types of goma rituals are used to ward off national calamities, increase prosperity, invoke divine compassion and subdue evil.
Since Mahavairochana, the Great Illuminator, is to be discerned everywhere, every sound, colour and number expresses his cosmic True Word. The laws of Nature and of human conscious ness reflect in more or less obvious degree the pure Thought of Mahavairochana. Since his thought, speech and body constitute the triple universe, Shingon aims to evoke their reality in the thought, speech and body of every human being. For Kukai, all ritual, all practice and every idea rightfully serves this end alone. Kukai searched for the most profound Teaching he could find, and having found it, sought to embody it in his words and deeds, teaching others not to imitate him but to do the same.