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Buddhism Kūkai
by
Klaus Pinte

Introduction

Kūkai (空海, b. 774–d. 835) is most commonly revered as the founder of the Shingon denomination of Esoteric Buddhism in Japan. He is reported to have been initiated into Esoteric Buddhism by Huiguo (惠果, b. 746–d. 805) during a research stay in China (804–806), from which he brought a vast array of texts, scroll paintings, and other ritual implements. The voluminous textual corpus attributed to Kūkai bears evidence of his envisioning a unity of Indian, Chinese, and Japanese Buddhist denominations, ultimately culminating in Shingon. Often juxtaposed to Saichō (最澄, b. 767–d. 822) because of the remarkable diplomatic insights he applied to interacting with both the imperial court and the established Buddhist institutions, Kūkai is regarded as one of the most prominent Japanese scholar-monks of the Heian period (784/94–1185). He is celebrated not only for his systematizing philosophical capacities, but also for his broad knowledge of Tang dynasty (618–907) culture. Also known as one of the three famous calligraphers (sanpitsu 三筆), Kūkai is a pan-Japanese cultural hero who, among numerous other legendary accomplishments, has been credited with the invention of the kana script. Devotees still venerate him as a popular “living saint,” remaining alive in eternal meditation on Mt. Kōya (Kōyasan 高野山). Kūkai’s lay name is Saeki (no) Mao (佐伯真魚); his posthumous title, Kōbō Daishi (弘法大師); and his “treasure name,” Henjō Kongō (遍照金剛). Popular appellations include Daishi (大師), Kōya Daishi (高野大師), and Odaishisama (お大師様).

General Overviews

Despite some exceptions, such as Katō 2006, Japanese secondary material on Kūkai is too often characterized by a bias toward venerating him as the founding father of the Shingon school (see Matsunaga 1984). At present, two monographs offer a substantial introduction in English to Kūkai: Hakeda 1972 and Abe 1999. Anyone interested in the subject should first have recourse to these books. Although Hakeda 1972 is the best point of departure for undergraduate students to retrieve information on Kūkai’s life and read translations of his major works. Abe 1999 undoubtedly remains the standard academic reference. Shaner 1985 is one of the few English-language publications that deal extensively with Kūkai’s philosophy. To absorb the cultural atmosphere of the Heian aristocratic circles in which Kūkai flourished, Weinstein 1999 is authoritative. Among introductions to the general background of Japanese Buddhism, Eliot 2005 is one of the best classics. English introductions to Shingon include Kiyota 1978, but for additional information, refer to R. K. Payne’s entry on Shingon.

  • Abe, Ryūichi (阿部, 隆一). The Weaving of Mantra: Kūkai and the Construction of Esoteric Buddhist Discourse. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999.

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    The best available English-language study on Kūkai, including partial translations of his work and a selective bibliography for further study. Gives an unprecedented discursive analysis of Kūkai’s thought and approach to Buddhism.

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  • Eliot, Charles. Japanese Buddhism. London: Kegan Paul, 2005.

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    Reprint of the 1935 standard overview of Buddhism in Japan, containing sketches of Kūkai’s life and doctrine, especially pp. 234–242 and 337–344. For Esoteric Buddhism during the Heian period, see pp. 233–253; on Shingon, pp. 336–359.

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  • Hakeda, Yoshito (羽毛田, 義人). Kūkai: Major Works, Translated, with an Account of His Life and a Study of His Thought. New York: Columbia University Press, 1972.

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    A must for everybody interested in Kūkai, but portrays him as founder of Esoteric Buddhism in Japan. Contains a selection of abridged translations, easily accessible to undergraduate students. Reprinted, 1984.

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  • Katō, Seiichi (加藤, 精一). Kōbō Daishi Kūkai ronkō: kenkyū to hyōron (弘法大師空海論考—研究と評論). Tokyo: Shunjūsha, 2006.

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    (Study of Kōbō Daishi Kūkai: Research and critique.) Critical analysis of Kūkai studies in Japan by one of the leading specialists in the field. Recommended for advanced students.

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  • Kiyota, Minoru (清田, 稔). Shingon Buddhism: Theory and Practice. Tokyo: Kenkyūsha, 1978.

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    One of the few noteworthy English-language introductions to Shingon, including an annotated bibliography and glossary of technical terms on pp. 148–158 and 159–178, respectively. Highly recommended for intermediate readers.

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  • Matsunaga, Yūkei (松長, 有慶), ed. Kōbō Daishi Kūkai (弘法大師空海)>. Tokyo: Mainichi Shinbunsha, 1984.

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    One of the many comprehensive Japanese works on Kūkai, written by the 412th abbot of Kongōbuji, the Shingon headquarters on Kōyasan.

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  • Shaner, David Edward. The Bodymind Experience in Japanese Buddhism: A Phenomenological Study of Kūkai and Dōgen. New York: State University of New York Press, 1985.

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    Interesting contribution to Japanese religion using Husserlian phenomenology but heavily dependent on secondary sources such as Hakeda 1972. On Kūkai’s philosophy, see pp. 67–128.

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  • Weinstein, Stanley. “Aristocratic Buddhism.” In Cambridge History of Japan. Vol. 2, Heian Japan. Edited by Donald H. Shively and William H. McCullough, 449–516. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1999.

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    Standard reference work discussing the cultural background in which Kūkai flourished. On Kūkai, see especially pp. 473ff.

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Bibliographies

Although there are several Japanese books offering guidance in searching for decent publications on Esoteric Buddhism (for example, Matsunaga 1996), annotated bibliographies exclusively dealing with Kūkai are quite rare and often remain restricted to collector’s items or lean toward overspecialization (see, for example, Takagi 1990). Thus far, Inui 1990 is the only recommendable printed bibliographical resource published in English.

  • Inui, Hitoshi (乾仁, 志), ed. “Bibliography of Studies on Kōbō Daishi and Shingon Buddhism in Western Languages.” In Special Issue: Mikkyō: Kōbō Daishi Kūkai and Shingon Buddhism. Edited by Kōyasan Daigaku Mikkyō Kenkyūjo (高野山大学密教研究所). Bulletin of the Research Institute of Esoteric Buddhist Culture (密教文化研究所紀要) 4 (October 1990): 141–183.

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    One of the few bibliographies of Western-language studies on Kūkai and Shingon, incorporating a general overview of bibliographies, catalogues, dictionaries, encyclopedias, and works on Japanese Buddhism, fundamental to any layman in the field. The part on Kūkai covers translations of his major works and studies on his life and thought, especially pp. 151–158.

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  • Jayarava’s Raves.

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    Short essays by Jayarava, a Western Buddhist, on Buddhist texts, philology, ethics, psychology, and practice. Online bibliography covers English material on Kūkai, but at times it is unreliable in its biased commentaries.

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  • Matsunaga, Yūkei (松長, 有慶), ed. Mikkyō o shiru tame ni bukku gaido (密教を知るためのブックガイド). 2d ed. Kyoto, Japan: Hōzokan, 1996.

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    (Book guide for understanding Esoteric Buddhism.) Very useful bibliographical guide covering a broad range of subjects related to Esoteric Buddhism but mainly addressing Japanese books. On Kūkai, see pp. 153–169.

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  • Takagi, Shingen (高木, 訷元). Kūkai shisō no shoshiteki kenkyū (空海思想の書誌的研究). Kyoto, Japan: Hōzōkan, 1990.

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    (Bibliographical study of Kūkai’s thought.) Bibliographical study of Japanese secondary material published on Kūkai’s thought, recommended only for users with specialization in Japanese philosophy.

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Primary Sources

Kūkai’s collected works (zenshū 全集) are available only in Japanese book series, of which neither online nor CD-ROM digital versions had been provided by 2009. A comprehensive English version is still lacking. Kūkai wrote in a premodern Japanese version of literary Chinese (kanbun 漢文), but for those familiar with modern Japanese, the most accessible collection is the edition by Kōbō Daishi Zenshū Henshū Iinkai 1987, while Mikkyō Bunka Kenkyūjo 1968 remains of high value for advanced research. Based on content, style, absence from early catalogs, and so on, some texts have, however, been identified as spurious in premodern times. In most collections, therefore, the order of the texts reflects this traditional understanding of Kūkai’s authorship, but their interpretations are too lenient by modern standards. Some of the texts attributed to Kūkai are now understood clearly not to be his work, and the authorship of others is still being contested (see Matsuda 2003 and Fröhlich 2007), but an encompassing English publication on authenticating and legitimating mechanisms in Kūkai’s textual oeuvre is still unavailable. There are plenty of Japanese articles discussing individual texts, and as many conflicting opinions, but, beyond the information and selection of texts in the Teihon Kōbō Daishi Zenshū (Kōyasan Daigaku Mikkyōbunka Kenkyūjo Kōbō Daishi Chosaku Kenkyūkai 1992–1997), very little consensus on alleged authenticity is given in one place. Major texts attributed to Kūkai are also preserved in Japanese editions of the Buddhist canon and in other Japanese collections of Buddhist scriptures. Takakusu, et al. 1924–1935 remains the most widely used and accessible version of the Buddhist canon. There are several online versions of the Chinese Tripiṭaka, such as that of the Chinese Buddhist Electronic Text Association (CBETA), but most comprehensive still is the searchable Saṃgaṇikīkṛtaṃ Taiśotripiṭakaṃ (SAT) Daizōkyō Text Database.

  • Bussho kankōkai (佛書刊行會), ed. Dai Nihon bukkyō zensho (大日本佛教全書). 150 vols. Tokyo: Bussho Kankōkai, 1912–1922.

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    (Great collection of writings on Japanese Buddhism.) Japanese collection of Buddhist texts reprinted in 1970–1973 by the Suzuki Research Foundation (Suzuki Gakujutsu Zaidan 鈴木學術財團) in 100 volumes and in 1981 by the Association for the Promotion of Classics (Meicho Fukyūkai 名著普及會) in 150 volumes. For Kūkai’s works, see Vol. 2, pp. 16–28 and Vol. 106, pp. 1–30.

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  • Fröhlich, Judith. Rulers, Peasants, and the Use of the Written Word in Medieval Japan: Ategawa no shō 1004–1304. Bern, Switzerland: Peter Lang, 2007.

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    Although sometimes lacking precision, this book on the significance of writing and reading includes a chapter on the economic and ritual influence of the acceptance of a forged record purportedly the work of Kūkai: Kōya goshuin engi (高野御手印縁起), pp. 69–119.

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  • Kōbō Daishi Zenshū Henshū Iinkai (弘法大師空海編集委員会), ed. Kōbō Daishi Kūkai Zenshū (弘法大師空海全集). 8 vols. 8th ed. Tokyo: Chikuma Shobō, 1987.

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    (Collected works of Kōbō Daishi Kūkai.) This collection offers the premodern Japanese (bungo 文語) readings of Kūkai’s entire work, parallel to their richly annotated modern Japanese translations, forming an ideal alternative for those who have not learned classical Chinese and/or its Japanese reading (kanbun no kundoku 漢文の訓読).

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  • Kōyasan Daigaku Mikkyōbunka Kenkyūjo Kōbō Daishi Chosaku Kenkyūkai (高野山大学密教文化研究所弘法大師薯作研究会), ed. Teihon Kōbō Daishi Zenshū (定本弘法大師全集). 10 vols. and supplement. Koyasan, Japan: Mikkyō Bunka Kenkyūjo, 1992–1997.

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    (Collection of Kōbō Daishi Kūkai’s authentic works.) The best collection of “original” texts to date, including useful information on the mostly sectarian Kūkai authorship discussion.

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  • Matsuda, William J. “The Founder Re-interpreted: Kūkai and Vraisemblant Narrative.” M.A. thesis, University of Hawaii, 2003.

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    Analysis of Kūkai’s autobiographical writings and biographical texts composed after his death, based on Genette’s narrative ideas. Includes also references to other attributions, such as the Iroha poem (p. 1, n. 2). Available online.

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  • Mikkyō Bunka Kenkyūjo (密敎文化研究所), ed. Kōbō Daishi Zenshū (弘法大師全集). 7 vols and introduction. Osaka, Japan: Dōhōsha, 1968.

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    Collection of Kūkai’s works in classical Chinese with the indications for Japanese readings (kanbun no kundoku 漢文の訓読), including an introductory volume that mainly contains biographies. For advanced philological research, valuable indices are in Volume 7.

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  • SAT Daizōkyō Text Database Committee (Daizōkyō tekisuto dētabēsu i’inkai; 大蔵経テキストデータベース委員会), ed. SAT Daizōkyō Text Database (Taishō shinshū daizōkyō tekisuto dētabēsu 大正新脩大藏經テキストデータベース). 1998–2008.

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    Covers the first 85 volumes of the Taishō canon and offers linked searches of Japanese-language secondary scholarship through the INBUDS (Indian and Buddhist Studies) database and Digital Dictionary of Buddhism (Denshi Bukkyō Jiten; 電子佛教辭典).

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    • Takakusu Junjirō (高楠, 順次郎), Watanabe Kaigyoku (渡部, 海旭), and Ono Genmyō (小野, 亦妙), eds. Taishō shinshū daizōkyō (大正新脩大藏經). 100 vols. Tokyo: Daizō shuppan kabushiki kaisha, 1924–1935.

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      (Newly revised Buddhist text repository of the Taishō period.) The Taisho canon (commonly abbreviated T.) includes 3,360 works in total, with twenty-eight traditionally attributed to Kukai: nos. 2161, 2190, 2199a-b, 2200, 2203a, 2211a-g, 2221–2233, 2236a-c, 2237, 2246, 2284, 2425–2428a-g, 2429–2431, 2461–2464, 2701, and 2921.

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    Biography

    Kūkai’s disciple Shinzei (真済, b. 780–d. 860) is believed to have composed the earliest biography of Kūkai. Many Japanese introductions (nyūmon 入門) have been published on Kūkai’s life, but by far the best Japanese study is Katō 1989. The most accessible overviews in English are Hakeda 1972 and Abe 1999 (both cited under General Overviews). Hakeda gives the most accessible survey of Kūkai’s life, especially pp. 13–60, and includes a useful chronological table on pp. 277–279. Hakeda discusses Kūkai’s China experience on pp. 29–34. Abe includes useful information on Kūkai’s date of birth (p. 20 and p. 454 n.1), and on Kūkai’s dissent (pp. 69–112). His biography is discussed on pp. 4–8, 22–23, 40–42, 46–47, 55–63, and 386–388. For his travel to China, see pp. 113–150. Abe’s analysis of Kūkai’s autobiographical writings is found on pp. 74–75, 84–85, and 89–90. On pp. xv-xviii he includes a chronology of Kūkai’s interaction with the Nara clergy. Kūkai’s autobiographical writings are also discussed in Matsuda 2003 (see Primary Sources). However, a book-length work incorporating full English translations of Kūkai’s biographies and autobiographical writings is still lacking. Although it is also treated by Hakeda and Abe, Borgen 1982 gives the most detailed English account of the Japanese embassy Kūkai joined when he went to China in order to study Esoteric Buddhism. Abe 1995 is one of the few English studies on Kūkai’s relationship to Saichō (最澄, b. 767–d. 822), and Hinonishi 2002 is the only recent source addressing the subject of Kūkai’s epithets. The most comprehensive treatment of Kūkai’s relation with major temples such as Tōji and Kongōbuji is in Sawa 1974. Even though not scholarly in scope, illustrated biographies (eden 絵伝) are important material for the study of popular devotional views on his life. There are several Japanese articles on the subject, but most of them are outdated. Sekiguchi 1988, however, may be representative of the few more accessible accounts.

    • Abe, Ryūichi. “Saichō and Kūkai: A Conflict of Interpretation.” Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 22.1–2 (1995): 103–137.

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      Influential article offering a revisionist look at the relationship between the two pivotal figures in the history of Heian-period Japanese Buddhism, suggesting an emphasis on policy rather than on personal affairs.

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    • Borgen, R. “The Japanese Mission to China, 801–806.” Monumenta Nipponica 37.1 (1982): 1–28.

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      Kūkai’s journey to China, with many details not included in other accounts, including partial translations of the ambassador’s report to the emperor, and Kūkai’s letter to the governor of Fujian.

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    • Green, Ronald S. Kūkai, Founder of Japanese Shingon Buddhism.

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      One of the few decent online English resources on Kūkai. Contains excerpts from a very accessible, though still unpublished, book-length biography.

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    • Hinonishi, Shinjō (日野西, 真定). “The Hōgō (Treasure Name) of Kōbō Daishi and the Development of Beliefs Associated with It.” Translated by William Londo. Japanese Religions 27.1 (2002): 5–18.

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      One of the very few English publications on this subject, tracing the origins of namu daishi henjō kongō (南無大師遍照金剛), the mantra for praising and hailing Kūkai.

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    • Katō, Seiichi (加藤, 精一). Kōbō Daishi Kūkai den (弘法大師空海伝). Tokyo: Shunjūsha, 1989.

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      (Biography of Kōbō Daishi Kūkai.) Regardless of its publication date, still one of the most authoritative works on Kūkai’s life and aftermath. Largely based on primary sources, this remains one of the best introductions for both beginners and advanced learners with an intermediate knowledge of Japanese.

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    • Sawa, Ryūken (佐和, 隆研). Mikkyō no tera: sono rekishi to bijutsu (密教の寺.その歴史と美術). Kyoto, Japan: Hōzōkan, 1974.

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      (Esoteric Buddhist temples: Their history and art.) Comprehensive work on Esoteric Buddhist temples in Japan and their art, including chapters on temples where Kūkai studied and lived, temples he is said to have founded, and related temples (pp. 1–16), on Kongōbuji (pp. 17–33) and Tōji (pp. 59–63). Also discussed in Abe 1999 (see General Overviews).

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    • Sekiguchi, Masayuki (関口, 正之). “Eden ni miru Kōbō Daishi shinkō (絵伝にみる弘法大師信仰).” In Zusetsu nihon no bukkyō (図説日本の仏教). Vol. 2, Mikkyō (密教). Edited by Masayuki Sekiguchi, et al., 290–302. Tokyo: Shinchōsha, 1988.

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      (Kōbō Daishi faith as seen in pictorial temple histories. In Japanese Buddhism Illustrated. Vol. 2, Esoteric Buddhism.) Interesting chapter on folk belief about Kūkai and scenes from his life in artistic representations, part of a richly illustrated series on Japanese Buddhism.

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    • Shinzei (真済), ed. “Kūkai sōzuden (空海僧都伝).” In Kōbō Daishi Zenshū 弘法大師全集 (Collected works of Kōbō Daishi Kūkai). Edited by Mikkyō Bunka Kenkyūjo (密敎文化研究所). Introductory vols. (shukan 首巻) 1–5. Osaka, Japan: Dōhōsha, 1968.

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      (Biography of Priest Kūkai. In Collected Works of Kōbō Daishi Kūkai.) The biography of Kūkai, Director of Priests, is attributed to Kūkai’s direct disciple Shinzei (真済, 780–860), and is believed to be the earliest extant, and therefore most accurate, biography of Kūkai. Hakeda 1972 (cited under General Overviews) is largely based on this text, but as yet there is no full English translation available.

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    Legends and Attributions

    Kūkai is revered as a universal saint (see Pilgrimage and Devotion) and has been described in hagiographical writings as possessing magical powers and excelling in his broad knowledge of Chinese culture, including literature, calligraphy, and arts. Kūkai legends have brought about several series of attributions, ranging from mystical contacts with long-deceased Buddhist masters, through the invention of the kana script, to the introduction of homosexuality. Although Kūkai legends have penetrated a vast array of publications, as yet no comprehensive monograph solely dedicated to the subject is available. Some of these topics, however, have been treated in a revised biography, Abe 1999 (cited under General Overviews). Abe also discusses the attribution of the kana syllabary (pp. 390–398). On Kūkai and male-male sexuality, Schalow 1992 is the core source, although Faure 1998 and Pflugfelder 1999 also include further references.

    Pilgrimage and Devotion

    Kūkai worship still plays a central role in the religious experience of thousands of people in contemporary Japan. Aside from those to the tourist site of Kōyasan, pilgrimages in honor of Kūkai are made throughout Japan. Probably best known is the pilgrimage to eighty-eight sacred places in Shikoku (Shikoku hachijūhakkasho 四国八十八箇所), treated by Moreton 2001 but intelligently discussed by Reader 1999 and Reader 2005, written by one of the leading experts in this subject, as is Tanabe 1998. Probably the first English treatment of Kūkai’s more general popular allure is Casal 1959, while Kitagawa 1976 offers an introduction to devotional aspects. Although presented as a nonacademic travel account, Nicoloff 2008 is exemplary of publications that include references to the belief in Kūkai’s eternal presence on Mt. Kōya. Tanabe 1999 offers the first English translation of a text legitimizing the Kōyasan pilgrimage.

    • Casal, U. A. “The Saintly Kōbō Daishi in Popular Lore.” Folklore Studies 18 (1959): 95–144.

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      One of the first English-language studies of Kūkai worship. Recommended for contextualization purposes.

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    • Kitagawa, Joseph Mitsuo (北川, ジョゼフ, 三夫). “Kūkai as Master and Saviour.” In The Biographical Process: Studies in the History and Psychology of Religion. Edited by F. E. Reynolds and D. Capps, 319–341. The Hague: Mouton, 1976.

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      Interesting entry on Kūkai devotion in a collection of essays based on seminars held at the Divinity School, University of Chicago, in 1972 and 1973.

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    • Moreton, David C. “The History of Charitable Giving along the Shikoku Pilgrimage Route.” M.A. thesis, University of British Columbia, 2001.

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      Although not very innovative, offers a discussion of Kūkai as the alleged founder of the Shikoku pilgrimage (pp. 7–10).

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    • Nicoloff, Philip L. Sacred Kōyasan: A Pilgrimage to the Mountain Temple of Saint Kōbō Daishi and the Great Sun Buddha. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2008.

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      Not presented as an in-depth scholarly work, but draws a well-written picture of present-day Mt. Kōya. Definitely recommended for introductory purposes and including brief, though generally useful, annotations, especially on annual festivals and rituals. For a discussion of Kūkai’s life and legend, see pp. 31–74; on Kūkai’s mausoleum (gobyō 御廟), p. 229ff.

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    • Reader, Ian. “Legends, Miracles, and Faith in Kōbō Daishi and the Shikoku Pilgrimage.” In Religions of Japan in Practice. Edited by George J. Tanabe Jr., 360–369. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999.

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      Short essay on Kūkai worship, by one of the leading specialists in Japanese pilgrimage culture, in a highly recommendable book for anyone interested in the long-neglected practical aspects of Japanese religion.

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    • Reader, Ian. Making Pilgrimages: Meaning and Practice in Shikoku. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2005.

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      Leading examination of Shikoku hachijūhakkasho (四国八十八箇所) practice, focusing on contemporary Japan but also discussing historical background (especially pp. 107–186). Includes several appendices of great practical use for both researchers and practitioners.

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    • Tanabe, George J., Jr. “The Founding of Mt. Kôya and Kûkai’s Eternal Meditation.” In Religions of Japan in Practice. Edited by G. J. Tanabe, Jr., 354–359. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999.

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      Translation of the Kongōbuji konryū shugyō engi in a collection of religious texts dating from the 8th century through the 20th, each preceded by a useful introductory summary and contextualization. Also includes bibliographical references and index.

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    • Tanabe, George J., Jr., and Ian Reader. Practically Religious: Worldly Benefits and the Common Religion of Japan. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1998.

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      See especially “The Benefits of a Saint: Kōbō Daishi,” pp. 166–170.

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    Material Culture and Visual Arts

    As an artist, Kūkai is especially known for his calligraphy, as discussed in Kimura 1973, Yamamoto 1984, and Kodama 1998. However, the statues, ritual implements, texts, scroll paintings, mandalas, and other objects that he brought back from China and listed in his Inventory of Imported Items may have had a much deeper influence on Japanese culture (Bogel 2007). Kūkai’s art is also discussed by Sawa 1974 (citedunder Biography) and Bogel 2009. There are also several series of painted scrolls depicting scenes from Kūkai’s life (gyōjō zue 行状図絵) that form an interesting source for studying popular and devotional aspects surrounding Kūkai legends and biography. Aside from the treatment in Sekiguchi 1988 (see Biography), illustrated biographies are also discussed in catalogues of special exhibitions, such as Kyōto Kokuritsu Hakubutsukan 2003.

    • Bogel, Cynthea J. “Situating Moving Objects: A Sino-Japanese Catalogue of Imported Items, 800 CE to the Present.” In What’s the Use of Art? Asian Visual and Material Culture in Context. Edited by Jan Mrázek and Morgan Pitelka, 142–179. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2007.

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      Innovative study on the influence of Kūkai’s catalogue on the material culture of Japan. Highly recommended for everyone interested in this subject.

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    • Bogel, Cynthea, J. With a Single Glance: Buddhist Icons and Early Mikkyo Vision. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2009.

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      The most up-to-date and comprehensive study on visual culture of 9th-century Esoteric Buddhist art, innovative for its broad theoretical foundation.

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    • Kimura, Kunio (木村, 邦夫). “Shodōshi ni okeru Kūkai no kenkyū: sono hito to sho” (書道史における空海の研究: その人と書).” Kōbe Daigaku Kyōiku-gakubu Kenkyū (神戸大学教育学部研究集録) 50 (1973): 17–36.

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      (A study of Kukai in the history of Japanese calligraphy: His personality and writings.) A general overview of Kūkai’s calligraphy.

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    • Kodama, Masayuki (児玉, 正幸). “Kūkai no mikkyō fukyō senryaku to shite no shogei.” Kanoya Taiiku Daigaku gakujutsu kenkyū kiyō (鹿屋体育大学学術研究紀要) 19 (1998): 73–80.

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      (Kūkai’s use of calligraphy in missionary work for the Mikkyō sect of Buddhism.) Short essay on based on a comparison of Saichō’s and Kūkai’s use of calligraphy.

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    • Kyōto Kokuritsu Hakubutsukan (京都国立博物館), et al., eds. Kūkai to Kōyasan: Kōbō Daishi nittō sen nihyaku nen kinen (空海と高野山弘法大師入唐一二〇〇年記念). Osaka, Japan: NHK Kinki Media Puran, 2003.

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      (Kūkai and Mount Kōya: Treasures of a sacred mountain. Special exhibition.) Includes calligraphies both in Kūkai’s hand (see pp. 34–37, plate 2) as well as those attributed to him (see p. 98, plate 46), illustrated Kūkai biographies (see pp. 45–49, plate 11), and early copies of Kūkai manuscripts (see p. 100, plate 49).

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    • Yamamoto, Chikyō (山本, 智教). “Kōbō Daishi to Mikkyō Bijutsu” (弘法大師と密教美術). In Mikkyō bijutsu daikan (密教美術大觀). Vol. 4, Ten, hōgu, soshi (天法.具.祖師). Edited by Ryūken Sawa (佐和 隆硏) and Takashi Hamada (濱田 隆), 171–178. Tokyo: Asahi Shinbunsha, 1984.

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      Short essay on Kūkai’s artistic production in a major collection of Esoteric Buddhist art, including a discussion of his calligraphy.

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    Textual Production

    Kūkai’s writings have been the main sources for studying his life and philosophy, and his perceived authorship has played a major role in creating Shingon orthodoxies (see Primary Sources). Kūkai’s textual oeuvre covers a broad range of genres, including commentary literature, doctrinal treatises, linguistic and semiotic works, ritual manuals, and apologetic fiction. Although some major texts have been made available in English (see Hakeda 1972, cited under General Overviews), the bulk of his work remains untranslated.

    Inventory of Imported Items

    In 806 Kūkai completed his Inventory of Imported Items (Go-shōrai mokuroku 御請來目録), listing materials he collected during his two years of study in China. The primary text is included in Takakusu, et al. 1924–1935 (cited under Primary Sources). After having been presented to the court, this catalogue became very important in the development not only of the Shingon monastic curriculum but also that of Japanese material culture; see, respectively, Abe 1999 (cited under General Overviews) and Bogel 2007 (cited under Material Culture and Visual Arts). Kūkai’s catalogue has been partially translated into English as A Memorial Presenting a List of Newly Imported Sutras and Other Items in Hakeda 1972 (cited under General Overviews), and its contents and importance are discussed in Abe 1999. Partial translations are also in Keene 1955 and de Bary, et al. 2001.

    • de Bary, Theodore W., Donald Keene, George Tanabe, and Paul Varley, eds. Sources of Japanese Tradition. Vol. 1, From the Earliest Times to 1600. 2d ed. New York: Columbia University Press, 2001.

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      Partial translations of Kūkai’s popular works, mainly adapted from Hakeda 1972(see General Overviews). On Kūkai and Esoteric Buddhism, see pp. 153–174. For the translation of the Goshōrai-mokuroku, see pp. 162–165.

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    • Keene, Donald, ed. Anthology of Japanese Literature from the Earliest Era to the Mid-Nineteenth Century. New York: Grove, 1955.

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      Basic reference work on classics in the literature of Japan, containing a chapter on “Kūkai and His Master,” which gives a partial translation of the catalogue on pp. 63–66.

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    Scriptural Commentaries

    As a Buddhist scholar-monk, Kūkai wrote several commentaries on Buddhist scriptures, including texts from the sutra, tantra, and vinaya literature. These commentaries most often took the form of “title-analyses” (kaidai 開題), a particular form of textual exegesis that analyzes titles of scriptures and explicates their importance (Murakami 2000, Murakami 2004). One example is the Rishukyō kaidai (理趣經開題), a commentary on Amoghavajra’s (b. 705–d. 770/4) Dairaku kongō fukū shinjitsu sanmaya-kyō (大樂金剛不空眞實三昧耶經), also known as the Principle Transcending Sūtra (Rishukyō 理趣經), and another is the Dainichikyō kaidai (大日經開題). For background, see Gelfman 1979. Another example is Kukai’s commentary on the Japanese selection from the Chinese version of the Mahāvairocanābhisaṃbodhitantra (Dainichikyō 大日經), by Śubhākarasiṃha (b. 637–d. 735) and Yixing’s (一行, b. 683–d. 727) Daibirushana jōbutsu jinben kaji-kyō (大毘盧遮那成佛神変加持經). Both the source texts and Kūkai’s commentaries are in Takakusu, et al. 1924–1935 (cited under Primary Sources). One exception to this format was his composition of the Secret Key to the Heart Sūtra (Hannya shingyō hiken 般若心經秘鍵), a highly influential exegesis of Xuanzang’s (玄奘, b. c. 600–d. 664) Hannya haramitta shingyō (般若波羅蜜多心經), which has often been included among his major works. Even though there are no English studies or translations of the majority of his commentaries, the Secret Key has been translated into English in Hakeda 1972 (cited under General Overviews) and into German by Kawahara 1992.

    • Gelfman, Wayne Thomas. “The Rishukyō and Its Influence on Kūkai: The Identity of the Sentient Being with the Buddha.” PhD diss., University of Wisconsin–Madison, 1979.

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      The first publication in any Western language addressing Kūkai’s relation to this scripture, giving background information for a better understanding of his Rishukyō kaidai.

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    • Kawahara, Eihō (川原, 栄峰). Kōbō Daishi Kūkai: Ausgewählte Schriften—Sokushin-jōbutsu-gi, shōjijissō-gi, Unji-gi, Hannya-shingyō-hiken. Translated by Yuho Jobst. Munich: Iudicium, 1992.

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      The first annotated German translations of four of Kūkai’s major works, including Geheimschlüssel des Herzsūtra der zur Vollendung gebrachten Weisheit (Hannya-shingyō-hiken), pp. 125–151, previously published in Mikkyō Bunka (Journal of Esoteric Buddhism) 141 (1983): 28–54.

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    • Murakami, Yasutoshi (村上, 保壽). “Kūkai no ‘kaidai’ o yomu (2): ‘kaidai’ ni miru Shingon-shūgaku no ishiki” (空海の『開題』を読む(二) — 『開題』に見る真言宗学の意識). Mikkyō Bunka (密教文化) 204 (2000): 1–24.

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      (Reading Kūkai’s Kaidai. Vol. 2, The consciousness of the Shingon sectarian dogma found in the Kaidai.) One of a series of articles published from 1999 onward by the leading expert on Kūkai’s kaidai, giving an unprecedented objective academic perspective on the proselytizing scope of Kūkai’s apologetic works.

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    • Murakami, Yasutoshi (村上, 保壽). “Kūkai no shisō to ‘kaidai’” (空海の思想と『開題』). In Onozuka Kichō hakase koki kinen ronbun-shū: Kūkai no shisō to bunka (小野塚幾澄博士古稀記念論文集:空海の思想と文化). Vol. 1. Edited by Taishō Daigaku Shingongaku Buzan kenkyū-shitsu (大正大学真言学豊山研究室) and Onozuka Kichō-hakase koki kinen ronbunshū kankōkai (小野塚幾澄博士古稀記念論文集刊行会), 151–164. Tokyo: Nonburusha, 2004.

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      (A few problems in Kūkai’s ‘Kaidai.’ In Kōbō Daishi Kūkai’s Thought and Culture: In Honor of Litt.D. Kichō Onozuka on His Seventieth Birthday.) Part of a series of articles published from 1999 onward by the leading expert on Kūkai’s kaidai, for the first time addressing the problem of the interpretative strategies he used in his commentaries.

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    Doctrinal Treatises

    For scholars, the most appealing of Kūkai’s works have proven to be his treatises, in which he promulgated his vision of Esoteric Buddhist doctrine and praxis. Because they form the basis for understanding Kūkai’s thought, these treatises have been widely studied by (mostly Japanese) scholars in Buddhist philosophy and religious studies. Four of them are included in the standard Japanese edition of the Chinese Buddhist canon (Takakusu et al. 1924–1935, cited under Primary Sources) In the Himitsu mandara jū jūshin ron (秘密曼荼羅十住心論) or Treatise on the Ten Abiding Stages of Mind According to the Secret Mandala (see, for example, Abe 1999, cited under General Overviews), Kūkai argues for the supremacy of Shingon over all other religious systems. As yet, this text has not been entirely translated in English, but Todaro 1984 gives an annotated translation of the last chapter, and some excerpts are included in De Bary, et al. 2001 (cited under Inventory of Imported Items). The second treatise, The Precious Key to the Hidden Treasury (Hizō hōyaku 祕藏寶鑰), is Kūkai’s summary of the Ten Abiding Stages of Mind. An introduction and partial translation of the last chapter can be found in Kiyota 1961 and Kiyota 1967). Full English translations are provided in Hakeda 1972 (cited under General Overviews), but Giebel 2004 offers the most current version. The discussion of the Jeweled Key to the Secret Treasury in Abe 1999 analyzes this text in the broader framework of Kūkai’s thought. The third work is the Treatise on [the Difference between] Exoteric and Esoteric Buddhism (Ben kenmitsu-nikkyō ron 辨顯密二教論), which argues for the supremacy of esoteric over exoteric teachings, because the former were espoused by the Dharmakāya Buddha. There is a roughly annotated translation of the introduction and last part of Treatise on the Difference between the Exoteric and Esoteric Teachings in Hakeda 1972, and Distinguishing the Two Teachings of the Exoteric and Esoteric, in Abe 1999. Full translations are in Giebel 2004 (pp. 15–62) and White 2005. Gardiner 1992 is essential for a better understanding of the exoteric/esoteric taxonomy. The fourth treatise, The Meaning of Becoming Buddha in This Life (Sokushin jōbutsu-gi真言宗即身成佛義), also known as Questions and Answers Concerning the Meaning of Attaining Buddhahood in this Very Body According to the Mantra School (Shingonshū sokushin jōbutsu gi mondō 真言宗即身成佛義問答), discusses the ability to attain buddhahood in one’s very existence, a major theme that characterizes liberation according to Shingon doctrine and has exerted a major influence on other denominations of Japanese Buddhism. The text has been studied in Gardiner 1986 and is partially translated into English in De Bary, et al. 2001; Hakeda’s translation is Attaining Enlightenment in This Very Existence (see Hakeda 1972). Full English translations are included in Giebel (2004 (pp. 63–82) as The Meaning of Becoming a Buddha in This Very Body, and in Inagaki 2006. Wie erlangt man Buddha-Werdung in der gegenwärtigen Existenz (Sokushin-jōbutsu-gi), in Kawahara 1992 (cited under Scriptural Commentaries), is a full translation into German. Abe’s Transforming One’s Body into the Realm of Enlightenment (see Abe 1999) gives the best reading of this work.

    • Gardiner, David. “Kūkai’s ‘The Meaning of Realization of Buddhahood in This Very Body.’” M.A. thesis, University of Virginia, 1986.

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      One of the first academic inquiries into the question of realizing Buddhahood in this life as expounded by the Shingon creed. Despite its problematic availability, still recommended for complementary study.

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    • Gardiner, David L. “Benkenmitsu nikyōron ni miru Kūkai no kengyōkan” (弁顕密二教論にみる空海の顕教観). Mikkyō Bunka Kenkyūjo Kiyō (密教文化研究所紀要) 5 (1992): 161–202.

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      (Kūkai’s view of Exoteric Buddhism in the Benkenmitsu nikyōron.) Seminal work that refutes long-accepted misinterpretations of the category of exoteric Buddhism.

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    • Giebel, R. W., trans. Shingon Texts. BDK English Tripitaka Series 98.1–7. Berkeley, CA: Numata Center for Buddhist Translation and Research, 2004.

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      Annotated translations of five major works by Kūkai. Although these were already included in Hakeda 1972 (cited under General Overviews), Giebel has made a successful effort to update some of Hakeda’s outdated terminology. For The Precious Key to the Secret Treasury, see pp. 133–216.

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    • Inagaki, Hisao (稲垣, 久雄). “Kūkai’s ‘Principle of Attaining Buddhahood with the Present Body.’” In Tantric Buddhism in East Asia. Edited by Richard K. Payne, 99–118. Boston: Wisdom Publications, 2006.

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      Annotated translation of Kūkai’s Sokushin jōbutsu gi, with a short introduction. Reprint of Inagaki’s 1975 publication in the Ryūkoku Translation Pamphlet Series no. 4 (Kyoto, Japan: Ryūkoku Daigaku butten honyaku-bu).

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    • Kiyota, Minoru (清田, 稔). “Introduction to the Hizō-Hōyaku: a Classical Text on Japanese Buddhist Esoterism.” Transactions of the International Conference of Orientalists in Japan 6 (1961): 75–87.

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      The first English introduction to the Precious Key, but difficult to retrieve.

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    • Kiyota, Minoru (清田, 稔). “A Translation of the Introduction and the Tenth Chapter of the Hizō Hōyaku.” Mikkyō Bunka (密教文化) 81 (1967): 79–96.

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      Seminal work on the Precious Key, included in the leading journal for Esoteric Buddhist scholarship in Japan.

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    • Todaro, Dale A. “An Annotated Translation of the Tenth Stage of Kūkai’s Jūjūshinron.” Mikkyō Bunka (密教文化) 147 (1984): 71–101.

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      Partial annotated translation of this major treatise by a specialist in the field, completed in the framework of a translation program for Kūkai’s texts hosted by Kōyasan University.

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    • White, Kenneth R. The Role of Bodhicitta in Buddhist Enlightenment, Including a Translation into English of Bodhicitta-śāstra, Benkemmitsu-nikyōron, and Sammaya-kaijo. Lewiston, NY: Mellen, 2005.

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      The first comprehensive study in English on Kūkai’s interpretation of bodhicitta. Because of the technicality of the subject, recommended for advanced students and scholars only. For a fully annotated translation of the Benkemmitsu-nikyōron, see pp. 249–328.

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    Linguistic and Semiotic Works

    One could argue with a good degree of confidence that Kūkai was a linguist avant la lettre: he is not only thought to have intensively studied classical Chinese, Sanskrit, and Siddham script but was particularly fascinated by writing and sound as signs, the power of mantras, and their representation of reality. Hare 1990 deals with the problems of language and meaning in Kūkai’s work, but by far the best treatment of Kūkai’s theory of language and the semiotics of mantra is Abe 1999 (cited under General Overviews). Regarding Kūkai’s theory of language, the following three works have been regarded as crucial (for the primary texts, see Takakusu, et al. 1924–1935, cited under Primary Sources). The first, The Meaning of Sound, Word, and Reality (Shōji jissō-gi 聲字實相義), postulates that Mahāvairocana’s teachings are heard through every aspect and all kinds of phenomenal existence. The most recent standard discussion on the subject of all sensory objects as letters of the world texts, as well as Kūkai’s theory of language and the semiotics of mantras, is found in a chapter of Abe 1999 titled Voice, Letter, Reality. Kasulis 1982 and Paul 1987 were among the first works by Western scholars to address Kūkai’s linguistic philosophy. An English translation of this text is in Hakeda 1972 (cited under General Overviews), but Giebel’s The Meanings of Sound, Sign, and Reality (see Giebel 2004, cited under Doctrinal Treatises) is probably the most accurate English translation. Die Bedeutung von Urlaut und Zeichen sowie ihr Verhältnis zur Wirklichkeit in Kawahara 1992 (cited under Scriptural Commentaries) is a reprint of the German translation published in Mikkyō Bunka (Journal of Esoteric Buddhism) 108 (1974): 56–64 and 110: 94–97. The second work is The Meaning of the Hūṃ Syllable (Unji-gi 吽字義). As Abe’s On the Sanskrit Letter Hūṃ points out, this text solves the problem of Kūkai’s seemingly contradictory claim that syllables are lacking origin, yet all derive from the “A” syllable. The Unji-gi has been translated in English in Hakeda 1972, but the most recent and accessible translation is Giebel’s The Meanings of the Word Hūṃ (see Giebel 2004). For a German translation, consult Die Bedeutung des Zeichens HŪṃ in Kawahara 1992 (cited under Scriptural Commentaries; pp. 81–124). While he was residing at Ximingsi in Chang’an, Kūkai is accounted to have studied Sanskrit and siddham (Japanese shittan 悉曇), the latter being a calligraphic script used for the representation of mantras and seed syllables (Sanskrit bījas). This is illustrated by The Meaning of the Sanskrit Siddham Letters (Bonji Shittanji moshaku-gi梵字悉曇字母釋義). Abe 1999 is by far the best treatment of the text. Abe transcribes the title as Bonji Shittan jimo narabi ni shakugi and translates it as Essential Characters of the Sanskrit Siddham Script and their Interpretations. On bījas in Japan, see Vira and Chandra 1965. The best study on siddham is Van Gulik 1980, one of the few Western-language studies on the subject.

    • Hare, Thomas Blenman. “Reading, Writing, and Cooking: Kūkai’s Interpretative Strategies.” Journal of Asian Studies 49.2 (1990): 253–273.

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      Discusses the problems of language and meaning, including a detailed description of the Esoteric Buddhist meditation practice centered on bodhisattva Ākāśagarbha (Japanese Kokūzō 虚空蔵).

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    • Kasulis, T. P. “Reference and Symbol in Plato’s Cratylus and Kūkai’s Shōji jissōgi.’” Philosophy East and West 32.4 (1982): 393–405.

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      Short semiotic essay for the first time addressing the importance of Kūkai’s language philosophy. Available online.

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    • Paul, Gregor. “Zur Sprachphilosophie Kūkais” and “Die Bedeutung von Laut, Wort und Wirklichkeit, Shō ji jissō gi, annotierte Übersetzung der ersten Hälfte.” In Klischee und Wirklichkeit japanischer Kultur, Beitrag zur Literatur und Philosophie in Japan und zum Japanbild in der deutschsprachigen Literatur. Festschrift für Toshinori Kanokogi. Edited by Gregor Paul,187–198, 199–213. Frankfurt and New York: Peter Lang, 1987.

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      Critical analysis of Kūkai’s language philosophy by one of the leading experts on Japanese philosophy, together with a richly annotated German translation of the first part of Kūkai’s Shōji jissō-gi. As yet there is no English edition available.

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    • Van Gulik, R. H. Siddham: An Essay on the History of Sanskrit Studies in China and Japan. Śata-piṭaka Series, Indo-Asian Literatures 247. Delhi: Jayyed, 1980.

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      One of the best introductions to siddham, recommended for all students in the field. Frequently reprinted in India.

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    • Vira, Raghu, and Lokesh Chandra. Sanskrit Bījas and Mantras in Japan. Śata-piṭaka Series, Indo-Asian Literatures 39. New Delhi: International Academy of Indian Culture, 1965.

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      Collection of calligraphies by famous Japanese priests, including a short introduction. For specialized reference only.

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    Ritual Manuals

    As is characteristic of most ritual texts of the Buddhist tradition, Kūkai’s manuals have been largely ignored by European and American scholarship in the fields of religion and Buddhist studies. However, at least four ritual manuals attributed to Kūkai have been canonized: Dai wajō hōi Heianjō daijō tennō kanjō bun (大和尚奉爲平安城太上天皇灌頂文), Sanmaya-kai jo (三昩耶戒序), Himitsu sanmayabutsu-kai gi (秘密三昩耶佛戒儀), and Gobu darani mondō gesanshū hiron (五部陀羅尼問答偈讃宗秘論); see Takakusu, et al. 1924–1935 (cited under Primary Sources). As yet only two have been addressed in English: the first, Abhiṣeka of the abdicated emperor Heizei, has been partially treated in Abe 1999 (cited under General Overviews) and was translated in Grapard 2000, and the second, which is a preface to the ritual for conferring the Esoteric Buddhist precepts, is translated in White 2005 (cited under Doctrinal Treatises). Tentative English titles for the third and fourth text are Ritual for Conferring the Hidden Samaya Buddha Precepts and Secret Treatise on the Doctrine of Chanting Praise Verses as well as Questions and Answers regarding the Dhāraṇī of the Five Groups [of the Diamond World Mandala]. An annotated translation of the third text is being prepared by Klaus Pinte as part of a larger study on precepts interpretation and samaya vows in Esoteric Buddhism.

    Apologetic Fiction

    The Sangō shiiki (三教指帰, also Sangyō-shiiki) is a text that Kūkai had written by 797. This first masterpiece, in which he evaluates Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism, is considered to be a “religious novel” (Hakeda 1965) avant la lettre, a “quasi-autobiographic fiction and Buddhist apologetic” (Abe 1999 (cited under General Overviews; p. 74), or a “fictional autobiography” (Matsuda 2003, cited under Primary Sources). The title has been translated as Indications to the Three Teachings in Hakeda 1972 (cited under General Overviews; pp. 101–139), and in Abe 1999 (p. 8ff.) as Demonstrating the Goals of the Three Teachings, the latter being the best reading. English translations are in Hakeda 1972 (pp. 101–139), Yamamoto 1985, and De Bary, et al. 2001(cited under Inventory of Imported Items). On Kūkai’s early ideas on Confucianism, see Kinoshita 1968 and Abe 1999 (pp. 102–104). The fictional, apologetic, and autobiographical qualities of the Sangō shiiki are discussed in Matsuda 2003 (pp. 12–22) and Abe 1999 (pp. 102–107).

    Seireishū, Bunkyō hifuron, and Other Poetry

    Probably the best-known collection of works ascribed to Kūkai is the Seireishū (性霊集), also known as Shōryōshū; full title is Henjō hakki seireishū [遍照発揮性霊], literally meaning “Collection in Which the All-Illuminator Displays His Spiritual Nature”). However, aside from the brief discussions in, for example, Matsuda 2003 (cited under Primary Sources), an English-language study and complete translation are still lacking. This collection of prose and poetry in 113 chapters was allegedly compiled by one of Kūkai’s direct disciples and is believed to have marked the transition from anthologies compiled upon imperial decree to those made on an individual basis. For introductions to Kūkai’s poetry, Gibson and Murakami 1987 and Ury 1999 are the best places to start. Aside from the poetry found in the Seireishū, Kūkai also wrote a treatise on the rules of poetic composition, Bunkyō hifuron (文鏡秘府論).

    LAST MODIFIED: 09/13/2010

    DOI: 10.1093/OBO/9780195393521-0088

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