In this post I want to draw attention to and celebrate a Buddhist hero. Kukai is a figure so multi-sided, so multifaceted, that summing him up in a short essay is almost impossible. He is known by three main names, Kukai, Kobodaishi, and Odaishisama (or just Daishisama), and I will try to say a little something about each.
Kukai was the Buddhist monk who brought the Vajrayana teachings to Japan in 804. Not only was a dedicated and deeply realised spiritual practitioner, he was a gifted poet and calligrapher, a competent civil engineer, and a consummate political operator. At a time when heterodox people of any kind could sink without trace, he managed to radically alter not only the face of Japanese Buddhism, but the whole Japanese culture. His Shingon Buddhism was to dominate Japanese society for several centuries, and it is said that with Shingon came the Siddham script which in turn helped to give birth to the Japanese Kana. This in turn enabled an indigenous, vernacular literature to develop, since before this writing was all in Chinese and education in Chinese was denied to women and non-aristocrats. Shingon reinvigorated Japanese Buddhism which had become rather scholastic. Kukai's insistence that Awakening was possible in this very life was apparently novel, and was at first questioned. Without this basic premise however, Buddhist practice is just going through the motions.
Kobodaishi is the title bestowed on Kukai posthumously by the emperor. The title means 'Great Teacher who Spreads the Dharma'. Where Kukai is very much a man in history, Kobodaishi is something more. He is superhuman, and supra-historical. As happens with religious figures in any tradition, the stories about the many grew after his death. Feats and texts where attributed to him that he did not perform or write. This is not necessarily a falsification because myth has to have a vehicle and Kobodaishi happens to be an excellent vehicle for the Japanese mythic imagination. Kobodaishi then is an archetypal figure. He did not really die in 837, but retired to meditate until the advent of Maitreya the next Buddha. This resurrection myth is quite universal in character, Kukai, King Author, Christ, and probably Elvis Presley, will all be appearing again before long. The myth of renewal goes very deep in the human psyche. Shingon practitioners tend to refer to Kukai as Kobodaishi, indicating that 1200 years after his death it is probably the myth rather than the man that informs their practice. Ordinary humans can only inspire us so much. What really moves us are archetypal figures who seem to embody the deepest forces in the world and our psyches.
Odaishi-sama is an almost completely different character. He is one step further removed from Kukai the historical man. In a way we can see the process of myth making quite clearly in this change from Kukai, to Kobodaishi, to Daishi-sama. Daishi-sama is not associated with Kukai's signature form of Buddhism, Shingon, at all. He is the invention of 10th and 11th century wandering shaman-priests who had adopted large dollops of Pure Land Buddhism into their patter. They travelled the countryside practising medicine, soothsaying, and carrying out important rituals. Daishi-sama became a kind of saint to them, and like the Buddha Amitabha, it was said that if you chant his name then you will be reborn in the Western Paradise, Sukhavati, the Happy Land. There is little remaining of the historical character, but he is none the less an important folk figure. Many a person is devoted to the cult of Daishi-sama, chants his name and fervently believes in his saving grace. And why not?
Kukai is the pivot point of a great mythic cycle. From outside space and time Mahavairocana manifested beings to whom he could communicate. He gave Vajrasattva his initiation and asked him to pass it on to other beings. Vajrasattva, an entirely mythic being, then gave the initiation to Nagarjuna. Nagarjuna stands athwart the mythic and human realms. It is thought that he actually lived, and that there were likely to have been two people with that name separated by several hundred years. Or it is believed that he was a wizard who lived for 700 years. His biography is almost entirely made up of mythic elements. Nagarjuna initiated Nagabodhi, another semi-legendary figure, who gave the initiation to Vajrabodhi. Vajrabohi and the succeeding patriarchs of the Shingon lineage are genuine historical personages with relatively straight forward biographies. Skipping a couple of steps we find that Hui-kuo gave the initiation to Kukai making him the 8th Patriarch of the lineage. Then Kukai, after his death, undergoes a series of transitions to become Odaishisama, that is which lead him back into the mythic realm.
Kukai is a key figure in the history of Buddhism. His writings are lucid and fresh even after 1200 years. That many are available in good English translations is a cause for celebration. He is less well studied than he might be because Shingon has not done much proselytising outside of Japan. If you are interested in Japanese Buddhism, in mantra or vajrayana, then Kukai’s works are invaluable. Hakeda's Major works is a reliable translation, but there are also some in the BDK English Tripitaka published by the Numata Centre. Ryuichi Abe's The Weaving of Mantra is a difficult read at times due to the semiotics jargon that he uses, and I don’t entirely agree with his thesis, but it is invaluable as a more indepth study of Kukai. Taiko Yamasaki's Shingon: Japanese Esoteric Buddhism is a good introductory and can be published from Shingon Buddhist International. Engaging with Shingon practice is more difficult because teachers are hard to find in the West. However we can be inspired by Kukai's life, and his written works can help us to understand the Dharma more deeply.
For more info on Kukai see the Wikipedia article, which I can recommend because I wrote most of it (well originally it's all been altered now of course!).