Kobo-Daishi (Monk Kukai)

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The Life of Kobo-Daishi

Monk Kukai, the founder of Shingon Buddhism.
Posthumously called Kobo-Daishi, he is revered by the honorific title of Odaishi-sama
(the Grand Master).

Monk Kukai was born in 774 in Byobugaura, Tado County, Sanuki Province (present-day Kagawa). His childhood name was Saeki no Mao, but he later referred to himself by the Buddhist name Kukai. His father was Saeki no Atai Tagimi, a district governor of Tado County, while his mother Tamayori Gozen belonged to the influential Ato family. He was a deeply religious Buddhist even in childhood, and there are many anecdotes about him being protected by Buddha.

Kukai demonstrated his cleverness in childhood. He studied the Confucian classics under the scholar Ato no Otari, a maternal relative (said to be his uncle). Later, he continued his studies at the government university in present-day Kyoto, the capital of Japan at that time. However, he discontinued his studies around the age of nineteen and began ascetic training in the mountains. After training in various places, he wrote a book entitled “Roko Shiiki,” which he later re-edited as “Sango Shiiki” (The Goals of Three Teachings). Here, he compared Buddhism with Confucianism and Taoism, declaring the former superior and vowing to pursue it.

In 803, in his capacity as a monk Kukai joined Japanese envoys to Tang Dynasty China to study Buddhism in that country. Their ship was caught in a storm and was blown off course, eventually drifting to China’s Fuzhou Province. There, they were suspected of being pirates, for which reason they were initially denied entry and detained offshore. Kukai, being fluent in Chinese, wrote a letter to the governor of the province explaining their situation. The governor allowed the ship to dock, and the party of the Japanese envoys was finally permitted to proceed on its way.

After studying Sanskrit and Chinese calligraphy in Xi’an, the capital of China during the Tang Dynasty, Kukai studied Esoteric Buddhism under Monk Huiguo at Qinglong Monastery. There, he received Abhisheka (a baptism-like ceremony in Esoteric Buddhism for transmitting precepts, mystic teachings and so on to an initiate). Accordingly, he was recognized as having mastered the teachings of the Vajradhatu mandala (Diamond Realm mandala) and the Garbhadhatu mandala (Womb Realm mandala). While studying at the monastery, he restored calligraphy works of Wang Xizhi at the order of the emperor, who gave Kukai a Buddhist rosary made of bodhi tree seeds. Afterwards, he was known as “Gohitsu Osho” (the monk who writes with five brushes). When Monk Huiguo passed away, Kukai drafted the phrases to be inscribed on the monument of honor. He learned all the teachings of Esoteric Buddhism in just six months, then returned to Japan in 806.

Kukai returned to Kyoto and resided at Takaosan Temple, a private temple of the powerful Wake family. There, he performed incantations and prayers for the spiritual protection of the state along with Abhisheka ceremonies. While busy with literary activities, Kukai was granted Mt. Koya by the emperor so that he could establish a seminary for Buddhist practice and meditation. Construction of temple buildings began in 819. Kukai wrote books concerning theories surrounding the creation of prose and poetry, and supervised the reconstruction of the Mannoike Reservoir. His activities far surpassed those of an ordinary Buddhist monk.

In 823, Kukai was granted Toji Temple by the Emperor Saga, and founded the Shingon Sect of Buddhism. He continued actively contributing to others in various ways. Examples of his activities include rituals to pray for rain at Shinsenen Temple, as well as the establishment of Shugei Shuchiin, the first non-governmental school in Japan.

In January 835, Kukai conducted Goshichinichi-mishiho, a seven-day New Year ritual. This was the first time the ritual had been conducted in the Imperial Court. The ritual is still held at Toji Temple today. On March 21 of the same year, Kukai passed away at Mt. Koya. In 921, the late Kukai was bestowed the posthumous name “Kobo Daishi” by reigning Emperor Daigo.

Traditional accounts and anecdotes concerning Kobo-Daishi are still transmitted from generation to generation, and he continues to be revered by many.

Timeline of Events in Kobo-Daishi’s Life



Year Age Events
774   Born in Sanuki Province (present-day Zentsuji City, Kagawa). Known in childhood as Mao.
788 14 Studies Confucianism under his uncle Ato no Otari.
791 17 Studies at a university.
 20 Enters Buddhist life, becomes a follower of Monk Gonzo.
795  21

Renames himself Kukai.
* Capital transfers from Heijokyo (Nara) to Heiankyo (Kyoto).
Given the commandments of Buddhism at Todaiji Temple.

797 24 Writes “Sango Shiiki.”
804 31 In May, receives imperial permission to study Buddhism in Tang Dynasty China. Leaves Naniwa (present-day Osaka) and drifts to Fuzhou Province, China in August. Proceeds to Changan (present-day Xi’an City), arriving in December.
805 32 Receives Abhisheka in recognition of having mastered the teachings of the Vajradhatu mandala (Diamond Realm mandala) and Garbhadhatu mandala (Womb Realm mandala). Granted the position of high priest Acharya and conferred the Buddhist name “Henjo Kongo” by Monk Huiguo at Qinglong Monastery.
806 33 Leaves Mingzhou Province, China in August. Arrives in Tsukushi (present-day Kyushu), Japan in October. Submits to the imperial court “Shorai Mokuroku,” a catalogue of items brought back from China.
812 39 Grants Abhisheka to Monk Saicho at Takaosan Temple (present-day Jingoji Temple).
813 40 Holds religious debate between eight sects of Buddhism with high priests from other sects.
815 42 Establishes eighty-eight pilgrimage sites in Shikoku.
816 43 Develops Mt. Koya and builds temples.
818 45 Lectures on the Heart Sutra for Emperor Saga.
821 48 Appointed supervisor for reconstruction of Mannoike Reservoir in Sanuki Province (present-day Kagawa).
822 49 Receives imperial permission to build a seminary at Todaiji Temple.
823 50 Bestowed Toji Temple by Emperor Saga. Establishes Shingon Sect of Buddhism.
827 54 Conducts ritual to pray for rain at Shinsenen Temple. Becomes Daisozu (major prelate).
830 57 Writes “Jujushinron” (Treatise on The Ten Stages of the Development of Mind, in ten volumes), and Hizo Hoyaku (The Precious Key to the Secret Treasury, in three volumes).
834 61
Conducts Goshichinichi-mishiho at Shingonin (training place for Shingon Esoteric Buddhism) in the Imperial Palace.
835 62 Granted permission to annually ordain three Shingon monks in January. Passes away at Mt. Koya on March 21.
921   Bestowed the posthumous name “Kobo Daishi” by Emperor Daigo.