Buddhism Kūkai
Klaus Pinte
  • LAST REVIEWED: 13 September 2010
  • LAST MODIFIED: 13 September 2010
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393521-0088


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.

    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.

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