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).
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.
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.
Eliot, Charles. Japanese Buddhism. London: Kegan Paul, 2005.
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.
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.
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.
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.
(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.
Kiyota, Minoru (清田, 稔). Shingon Buddhism: Theory and Practice. Tokyo: Kenkyūsha, 1978.
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.
Matsunaga, Yūkei (松長, 有慶), ed. Kōbō Daishi Kūkai (弘法大師空海)>. Tokyo: Mainichi Shinbunsha, 1984.
One of the many comprehensive Japanese works on Kūkai, written by the 412th abbot of Kongōbuji, the Shingon headquarters on Kōyasan.
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.
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.
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.
Standard reference work discussing the cultural background in which Kūkai flourished. On Kūkai, see especially pp. 473ff.
Users without a subscription are not able to see the full content on this page. Please subscribe or login.
How to Subscribe
Oxford Bibliographies Online is available by subscription and perpetual access to institutions. For more information or to contact an Oxford Sales Representative click here.
Purchase an Ebook Version of This Article
Ebooks of the Oxford Bibliographies Online subject articles are available in North America via a number of retailers including Amazon, vitalsource, and more. Simply search on their sites for Oxford Bibliographies Online Research Guides and your desired subject article.
If you would like to purchase an eBook article and live outside North America please email email@example.com to express your interest.
- Abhijñā/Ṛddhi (Extraordinary Knowledge and Powers)
- Abortion, Buddhism and
- Ajanta Caves
- Ambedkar Buddhism
- Ancient Indian Society
- Archaeology of Early Buddhism
- Art and Architecture In China, Buddhist
- Art and Architecture in India, Buddhist
- Art and Architecture in Japan, Buddhist
- Art and Architecture in Nepal, Buddhist
- Art and Architecture in Tibet, Buddhist
- Art and Architecture on the "Silk Road," Buddhist
- Asceticism, Buddhism and
- Awakening of Faith
- Beats, Buddhism and the
- Bhāviveka / Bhāvaviveka
- Bodh Gaya
- Body, Buddhism and the
- Buddha, Three Bodies of the (Trikāya)
- Buddhism and Ethics
- Buddhism and Law
- Buddhism and Marxism
- Buddhism and Modern Literature
- Buddhist Art and Architecture in Sri Lanka and Southeast A...
- Buddhist Hermeneutics
- Buddhist Ordination
- Buddhist Theories of Causality (karma, pratītyasamutpāda, ...
- Buddhist Thought and Western Philosophy
- Buddhist Thought, Embryology in
- Buddhist-Christian Dialogue
- Cambodian Buddhism
- Canon, History of the Buddhist
- Caste, Buddhism and
- Central Asia, Buddhism in
- China, Esoteric Buddhism in, (Zhenyan and Mijiao)
- China, Pilgrimage in
- Chinese Buddhist Publishing and Print Culture, 1900-1950
- Colonialism and Postcolonialism
- Compassion (karuṇā)
- Cosmology, Astronomy and Astrology
- Culture, Material
- Dalai Lama
- Demons and the Demonic in Buddhism
- Dignāga and Dharmakīrti, The Philosophical Works and Influ...
- Dizang (Jizō, Ksitigarbha)
- Drigung Kagyu (’Bri gung bKa’ brgyud)
- Dzogchen (rDzogs chen)
- Early Buddhist Philosophy (Abhidharma/Abhidhamma)
- Early Modern European Encounters with Buddhism
- East Asian Buddhist Art, Portraiture in
- Ellora Caves
- Emptiness (Śūnyatā)
- Environment, Buddhism and the
- Ethics of Violence, Buddhist
- Family, Buddhism and the
- Feminist Approaches to the Study of Buddhism
- Four Noble Truths
- Funeral Practices
- Gandhāra, Buddhism in
- Gelugpa (dGe lugs pa)
- Gender, Buddhism and
- Hakuin Ekaku
- History of Buddhisms in China
- Image Consecrations
- India, Buddhism in
- India, Mahāmudrā in
- Internationalism, Buddhism and
- Intersections Between Buddhism and Hinduism in Thailand
- Iranian World, Buddhism in the
- Islam, Buddhism and
- Japan, Buddhism in
- Korea, Buddhism in
- Kyōgyōshinshō (Shinran)
- Laos, Buddhism in
- Linji and the Linjilu
- Literature, Chan
- Literature, Tantric
- Local Religion, Buddhism as
- Lotus Sūtra
- Mahayana, Early
- Mahāvairocana Sūtra/Tantra
- Malaysia, Buddhism in
- Mantras and Dhāraṇīs
- Merit Transfer
- Miracles, Buddhist
- Modernism, Buddhist
- Monasticism in East Asia
- Mongolia, Buddhism in
- Mongolia, Buddhist Art and Architecture in
- Mārga (Path)
- Music, and Buddhism
- Myanmar, Buddhism in
- New Medias, Buddhism in
- New Religions in Japan (Shinshūkyō), Buddhism and
- Śāntideva (Bodhicaryāvatāra)
- Nuns, Lives, and Rules
- Oral and Literate Traditions
- Pagan (Bagan)
- Perfection of Wisdom
- Perfections (Six and Ten)
- Philosophy, Chinese Buddhist
- Philosophy, Classical Indian Buddhist
- Philosophy, Classical Japanese Buddhist
- Philosophy, Tibetan Buddhist
- Pilgrimage in India
- Pilgrimage in Japan
- Pilgrimage in Tibet
- Preaching/Teaching in Buddhism Studies
- Psychology and Psychotherapy, Buddhism in
- Pure Land Buddhism
- Pure Land Sūtras
- Religious Tourism, Buddhism and
- Saṃsāra and Rebirth
- Self, Non-Self, and Personal Identity
- Sexuality and Buddhsim
- Shinto, Buddhism and
- Soka Gakkai
- South and Southeast Asia, Devatās, Nats, And Phii In
- Southeast Asia, Buddhism in
- Sri Lanka, Monasticism in
- Sōtō Zen (Japan)
- Stūpa Pagoda Caitya
- Suffering (Dukkha)
- Sutta (Pāli/Theravada Canon)
- Texts, Dunhuang
- Thai Buddhism
- Thích Nhất Hạnh
- Three Turnings of the Wheel of Doctrine (Dharma-Cakra)
- Tibet, Buddhism in
- Tibet, Mahāmudrā in
- Tibetan Book of the Dead
- Tri Songdetsen
- Uighur Buddhism
- Verse Literature, Tibetan Buddhist
- Vidyādhara (weikza/weizzā)
- Vietnam, Buddhism in
- Vision and Visualization
- Visualization/Contemplation Sutras
- Visuddhimagga (Buddhaghosa)
- Warrior Monk Traditions
- West (North America and Europe), Buddhism in the
- Wheel of Life (Bhava-Cakra)
- Women in Buddhism
- Women in the West, Prominent Buddhist
- Zen, Premodern Japanese