If you are interested to come to Shikoku and experience the Shikoku Pilgrimage of 88 Buddhist temples you might wish to know about the central figure, monk, poet, holy pilgrim, and founder of “Zen Buddhism”, Kukai.
Kukai (空海) , these two characters are “air” and “sea”, is known by a lot of other names too. As a boy he is reported to have been called, “Toutomono” (Precious One), and “Mao” (True Fish). But one name you will hear when people refer to Kukai is “Koubou Daishi” (弘法大師 ), and this means “The Great Teacher of Dharma”. “Koubou Daishi” is the name given to Kukai posthumously.
There is a massive amount of information we can find on Kukai, as much of his life was documented and he was very much a real historical figure. In addition to what we know of him historically, there are also several fantastic legends that are also associated with him. You will need to decide for yourself what to believe as you hear both history and legend.
For example, we know of the years in which he traveled to China to study and learn Esoteric Buddhism, specifically the Mahavairocana Tantra which was unreadable to him because it was written in Sanskrit, specifically the Siddham script, which was beyond his academic reach at the time.
Kukai went to China and deeply impressed Huiguo, the master of Esoteric Buddhism in China, and because of the student’s great aptitude, and the failing health of the teacher, instruction and initiation was accelerated over a short period of time.
Soon after, Kukai returns to Japan, and what follows is an incredible list of achievements in his short life. He writes books. A lot of books. Attributed to Kukai are: Indications of the Goals of the Three Teachings, The Admonishments of Konin, The Difference Between Esoteric and Exoteric Buddhism, Attaining Enlightenment in This Very Existence, The Meaning of Sound, Word, and Reality, The Meaning of the Word, The Ten Stages of the Mind, and The Precious Key to the Secret Treasury.
You will hear the term “Shingon Buddhism”. This is the kind of Buddhism that Kukai developed, and is a revolutionary style of Buddhism which would, over time, eclipse the former kind of Buddhism which is called, Tendai Buddhism.
Kukai is the creator of the “kana” system of phonetic readings of Chinese characters. This is a huge contribution to the reading and writing power of the entire nation. Kukai is like the Johannes Gutenberg (father of movable type and printing press) of Japan. The educational and information reformation to the country cannot be understated.
Kukai is a master civil engineer and put into motion the construction of some incredible temples and structures that you can see and enjoy even today. He is the mastermind behind Toudaiji (東大寺), the great Eastern Temple, of Nara, Touji (東寺), the East Temple of Kyoto, Saiji (西寺), the West Temple of Kyoto (sadly this one was burned down), as well as the Mannou-Ike (満濃池), which is an artificial water reservoir still used today in Shikoku. The creation of the reservoir has saved thousands and thousands of people from certain drought and starvation.
Poet, negotiator, consensus maker, engineer, civil servant, monk, priest, leader, healer, writer, and artist. Kukai was many things to many people and a genius as well as deeply spiritual. Kukai also established the 88 Buddhist Temple Pilgrimage, which you can surely walk and enjoy as you go along.
This very short blog on Kukai does not do any justice to the man, but I hope that it is a start of your introduction to Koubou Daishi, and that it gives you some inspiration to read more and learn more as you go along. Some people revere Kukai as a saint and a holy person, so you might want to keep that in mind as you meet other pilgrims. We do know for certain that he was a powerfully important and significant historical figure, that he existed for real, and that there are artifacts and structures that exist today as testament to his having been here, and to have made life better for many people both in his day, and in the lives of people centuries to come.