Kobo Daishi, the Koyasan Monastery, and the Yamabushi

Kukai (Kobo-Daishi) (774-835) was born at Buyobu-ga-ura (Sanuki), of the Saiki family. He entered a Buddhist temple while still quite young and, at 19, took the name of Kukai. In 804, he went to China as part of the train of the Japanese ambassador, and then traveled to the T'ang capital, which was then the greatest city in the world, where the Chen-yen (Shingon) school of esoteric Buddhism was the most popular of all Buddhist schools. Because mastery of Sanskrit was mandatory to the study of esoteric Buddhism, he mastered this language by studying in the temple under the master Hui-kuo, who felt that Kukai was the one and only suitable individual to whom to pass his teachings. Kukai returned to Japan in the autumn of 806, bringing with him a prodigious number of volumes of texts on esoteric Buddhism, as well as Sanskrit works. He gained entry into court circles as the leading exponent of Chinese culture and won the patronage of emperor Saga, which facilitated his spreading the teachings of Shingon. He engaged in a discussion, organized by the emperor, between the most learned bonzes and surpassed them all in eloquence and science.

In 816, he retired to Mt. Koyasan (Kii), where he founded the temple of Kongobu-ji, which became one of the largest in Japan. Although Kukai was not able to finish the temple during his lifetime, Mount Koya, the place of his internment, became the most hallowed center of the Shingon sect. In 823, Kukai was granted the temple, Toji, located at the entrance to Kyoto, and received permission to use the temple exclusively for Shingon clerics. Toji and Mount Koya thus became the bases for Shingon in Japan. Thus the foundations were laid for the religious organization of this sect. Emperor Saga abdicated in 823 in favor of emperor Junna during whose reign Kukai achieved his highest glory and, in 834, he received permission to establish a Shingon chapel in the imperial palace. By this time, many of the Buddhist sects were dominated by esoteric Buddhism. In all of his many pursuits, Kukai considered that even the making of tea or writing poems in the presence of the emperor and nobles were forms of religious activity.

Many statues and paintings, whose authenticity is at least doubtful, are attributed to him. He invented the alphabet called hiragana, and wrote the poem (iroha-uta) composed of 47 syllables after the manner of Japanese poems. He was an acknowledged master of calligraphy. In 921, Kukai received from the emperor Daigo the posthumous name of Kobo-Daishi, by which he is generally known. He carried the sword called "ama-goi-ken" which had the design of the rain dragon wound around it. Kukai died in 835 and his body resides in the inner shrine of Mt. Koya.

Koya-san: A mountain in Kii, also called Takano-yama, Nanzan, famous for its numerous Buddhist temples. The first, Kongo-bu-ji, was founded by Kukai in 816. Thanks to the liberalities of the emperors and the daimyo of the province, the monastery became very prosperous. It occupied 223 hectares of land on which rose 723 main buildings, besides 440 outhouses. During the Middle Ages, it had soldiers of its own (sohei)- Yamabushi - who, more than once, caused disturbance in the neighborhood. (The armor illustrated is probably quite typical of Yamabushi armor).

Koya-san was for a long time, a place of exile for persons of rank. There Hidetsugu, nephew to Taiko, was invited to commit seppuku (1595); to that place too Oda Hidenobu, Chosokabe Morichika, Masuda Nagamori, etc. were banished after the battle of Sekigahara (1600). A certain number of temples were destroyed by fire; and the decline of Buddhism, after the Restoration, dealt a last blow to the prosperity of the famous monastery. The immense cemetery of Koya-san preserves the tombs, if not the bodies, of a great number of celebrated men: Taira Atsumori, Kumagaya Naozane, Takeda Shingen, Akechi Mitsuhide, 1i Kamon no kami, the bonzes Kobo-Daishi (Kukai), Enko Daishi (Genku), etc. It is believed that those who have their tomb near that of Kobo-Daishi, obtain through him the grace to start a new life in Paradise (Jodo) hence, the great number of funeral monuments erected in this place.

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