Japan: Shingon Buddhism, the Path of Enlightenment According to Kukai
Updated: Nov 5
Shingon is a school of Japanese Buddhism, also referred to as tantric Buddhism or Vajrayana Buddhism. This school is based on esoteric teachings that use rituals, meditations, and mantras to achieve enlightenment. This spiritual tradition was introduced to Japan in the early 9th century by Kukai, later known as Kobo Daishi. From ancient roots to modern practice, let's see how Shingon has shaped Japanese spirituality.
Danjo Garan, Koyasan © O. Robert
Passionate about ancient history and Japanese art, I stumbled upon the origins of Shingon Buddhism about fifteen years ago during one of my trips to Japan. Captivated by the unique history of this spiritual tradition, I decided to document the statuary of the Shingon pantheon in my own way for its aesthetic and artistic qualities.
This photographic research allowed me to gradually trace the course of history until I had the privilege and honor of photographing driftwood sculptures, secretly kept in certain temples and museums. These sculptures, never exhibited or shown to the public, are considered to be the oldest works created by the founder of the Shingon tradition, Kukai (see below).
Accompanied by my wife in this endeavor, I was able to benefit from her impressive knowledge of her native country. This allowed me to access ancient writings, impossible for a foreigner to translate, even one who speaks Japanese. Gradually, we began to search for these Shingon temples scattered throughout the territory or that had, at some point in time, a direct connection with Shingon.
Buddhism in Japan With an Outline of Its Origins in India.
I would like to clarify here that this personal exploration of Shingon Buddhism, as well as my studies on statuary and sacred sites of Japan, is merely a reflection of my personal appetite for the history and art of this country. Having no particular belief, my work is devoid of any religious message or affiliation to a spiritual tradition. Therefore, it should be viewed as a documentary research.
Contents of this article:
© O. Robert
What is Shingon Buddhism
The universal founder of Buddhism is Gautama Siddhartha (also called Buddha) who lived in India around 2,500 years ago. The name Buddha literally means "One who has awakened to the truth". His teaching is based on the doctrine of seeking enlightenment.
This doctrine describes the path to follow to awaken to the "Truth of the Universe" and thus achieve perfect enlightenment. The Buddhist doctrine is essentially based on practice and experience. It is guided by 3 fundamental principles which are the observance of precepts, meditation, and the pursuit of wisdom.
The history of Buddhism in Japan has undergone many transformations over the centuries. Religious wars, internal disputes within different spiritual traditions (called schools), the merging of some of these schools into new religious currents are all reasons that have substantially changed the spiritual landscape of Japan.
Today, 13 Buddhist spiritual currents still exist. The Shingon school (or sect) is the oldest still in practice today, following the Nara school of Buddhism which, for its part, is no longer practiced.
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The esoteric Shingon Buddhism was introduced to Japan in the early 9th century by Kukai (see below), later known as Kōbō Daishi, after his trip to China.
Over the centuries, the Shingon school established numerous temples, with the most famous being Kongobuji, located on Mount Koya (Koyasan) in Wakayama Prefecture. It was founded by Kukai himself in 819. This place quickly became the main administrative and study center for Shingon practices and studies.
The teaching of the founding monk Kukai is called Mikkyo in Japanese, which means "Secret Teaching." The uniqueness of Mikkyo lies in its oral and spiritual transmission. There are little or no writings on the subject. Mikkyo emphasizes that the teaching should be experiential in the quest for enlightenment and passed on from one person to another.
In the Mikkyo teachings, five deities are recognized, referred to as the 5 Buddhas, with Dainichi Nyorai being the central Buddha and often depicted in Shingon temples.
Jurakuji Temple and Daihoji Temple © O. Robert
Characteristics of Shingon Buddhism
When the monk Kukai founded the new school of esoteric Buddhism, which he named Shingon, meaning "True Words," he differentiated himself from previous schools of thought by imposing 2 fundamental pillars in his teaching:
Every practitioner has the possibility to achieve enlightenment during their physical life on earth without resorting to reincarnation (this concept is called Sokushin Jobutsu);
To bring eternal peace to Japan through practices and deeds.
The core teaching of Shingon Buddhism is that enlightenment is possible in this very life, through esoteric practices. Unlike other Buddhist schools, which see enlightenment as a process spanning multiple lives through reincarnation, Shingon teaches that rapid enlightenment is attainable through correct practice.
Rituals, mantras, mudras (hand gestures), and meditation are all essential for this realization. The main mantra used in this school is the mantra of Vairocana, the cosmic Buddha, representing ultimate reality.
Statue of Kukai, Mutsu Gokokuji Temple © O. Robert
Kukai, Founder of Shingon Buddhism
In the 9th century, during the Heian period, a Japanese monk named Kukai (774-835) was sent to China to study Buddhism for several years before returning to Japan to teach what he had learned.
Kukai was born in Zentsuji in the Sanuki province (now known as Kagawa). He was also an engineer and calligrapher. Among the many achievements he accomplished during his life, his invention of the Japanese Kana writing system is perhaps the most famous. This system allows for writing foreign names or those non-existent in the traditional Japanese Kanji system. It is still in use today (Katakana, Hiragana).
At the age of 15, Kukai began studying Chinese classical texts under the guidance of his maternal uncle Ato-no Otari, a great scholar and specialist in Chinese literature. In 791, Kukai traveled to Nara, the capital of Japan at the time, to study at the prestigious state university.
The top bureaucrats of the era were invariably chosen from the graduates of this university, and Kukai was destined for a bureaucratic career. During his studies in Nara, he developed an interest in Buddhism. At that time, the Nara Buddhism was the only (and the first) known school of Buddhism in Japan.
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An Expedition to China
In 804, Kukai had the opportunity to join an official expedition heading to Xi'an - the Chinese capital at the time - and visit the successors of the Tang dynasty. His personal aim was to learn more about esoteric Buddhism. On this expedition, Kukai was accompanied by another monk named Saicho, who would also later become famous as the founder of the Tendai Buddhist sect.
After spending some time in China, Kukai had the chance to learn the basics of esoteric teachings from the Chinese monk and master Huiguo. The Japanese government then mandated him to live in China for a minimum of 20 years to refine his foundational knowledge and receive esoteric teachings from renowned masters.
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Return to Japan
After only 2 years of study, Kukai had amassed an impressive amount of knowledge and demonstrated through his practice and understanding that he was fit to carry the values of Chinese Buddhism to Japan and establish a new school there. Recognizing his exceptional competence, his peers and teachers decided to let him leave. He then returned to Japan in the province of Tsukushi (now known as Fukuoka Prefecture) on Kyushu Island, bringing with him a vast collection of books and artworks of Chinese esoteric Buddhism.
However, since he had violated the 20-year stay obligation imposed by the Japanese government, he was barred from entering the Japanese capital. He then decided to build several temples in Fukuoka and throughout Kyushu Island. The most famous is Tochoji temple, built in 806 in Fukuoka.
Several years later, this ban was finally lifted, and Kukai received the emperor's permission to travel to the capital, Kyoto. Immediately, he proclaimed his commitment to spread the doctrine of esoteric Buddhism throughout the country. One of the most beautiful temples in Kyoto from that era is Toji, renowned for its magnificent pagoda.
Pagoda of Toji Temple, Kyoto © O. Robert
Kukai gradually extended his teachings to many other prefectures. He decided to return to his home island of Shikoku, where he began teaching his Chinese knowledge and decided to create a new school of thought in Japanese Buddhism, the Shingon school.
Legend has it that Kukai embarked on a journey around the island of Shikoku 1200 years ago to spread the values of his new school. During his multi-year journey around the island, Kukai is said to have personally decided to build 88 temples and actively participated in their construction.
A scholar, scientist, and curious individual, the monk possessed skills in many fields other than religion. So much so that he is believed to have created many sculptures representing the deities of the Buddhist pantheon during his meditation and retreat periods in the mountains.
These 88 temples now constitute the most famous pilgrimage in Japan (Henro). It involves connecting these temples on foot through the four prefectures and covering a distance of just over 1200 kilometers.
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In 816, Emperor Saga granted Kukai permission to establish a major spiritual retreat in the mountains of the Kii Peninsula in Wakayama Prefecture. He chose to create the spiritual and administrative center of the Shingon sect on Mount Koya (Koyasan). Kukai passed away there in 835. This place, now a major tourist attraction, is a must-visit for anyone interested in Japan's spiritual or cultural history.
This beautiful village, surrounded by hills and forests, is home to over 120 active Shingon temples today. With tourism becoming a vital economic lifeline in recent years, many Koyasan temples have opened their doors to visitors, offering unique experiences such as participating in ceremonies, chants, and morning prayers alongside the monks. These temples that welcome tourists are known as Shukubo.
Danjo Garan, Koyasan © O. Robert
From Kukai to Kobo Daishi
The name Kobo Daishi was posthumously bestowed upon Kukai by Emperor Daigo in 921. This name primarily signifies "The acknowledgment of the excellence of an educator's efforts and works in disseminating the teachings of esoteric Buddhism." Although both names (Kukai and Kobo Daishi) can be used interchangeably, it is mainly the name Kobo Daishi that Ohenro pilgrims use in their prayers.
Devotees believe that Kobo Daishi did not die but rather entered an "eternal meditation" on March 21, 835. His body is preserved in a building located within Japan's largest cemetery in Koyasan, the forested cemetery called Okuno-in. Naturally, his remains are not visible to tourists. Only a select few monks have access to this temple and bring food offerings daily to Kobo Daishi. The Shingon sect today comprises around 3,600 temples throughout Japan.
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Contemporary Representation of Shingon Buddhism
Shingon Buddhism is thus the richest and most complex tradition that has played a major role in Japan's religious and spiritual history. Its esoteric teachings and ritualistic practices offer practitioners a path to enlightenment, a concept that stands unique among Buddhist schools.
Shingon temples can be found throughout Japan and are identifiable by their distinct architecture and rituals. Esoteric art, like mandalas, also plays a central role in Shingon practice.
Today, Shingon Buddhism continues to be a major force in Japanese religious culture. Mount Koya remains a significant pilgrimage site for many devotees and monks. By some estimates, there are around 10 million followers of Shingon in Japan, though the number regularly varies depending on counting criteria.
Roofs and Mantras Books, Mandaraji Temple © O. Robert
For its followers, Shingon Buddhism offers a profound perspective on the human quest for enlightenment. In a world often marked by temporality and change, the Shingon school emphasizes the importance of seeking the eternal within the transient.
The belief that enlightenment is attainable in this lifetime underscores the potential of every moment and the urgency of spiritual realization. Kukai, in introducing these teachings to Japan, did not merely establish a school of thought. He provided a path for those seeking to transcend the duality of the mundane and the sacred.
In a contemporary age where many feel a spiritual disconnect, the ancient wisdom of Shingon reminds us that enlightenment is not just a distant destination but a journey lived here and now, through every gesture, mantra, and meditation. Shingon calls its pilgrims to deeply experience each moment with intention and awakening.
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My articles on Buddhism, Shintoism, or Taoism are merely a reflection of a personal interest in art and history. They do not aim to convey religious messages, influence, or convince readers in any way. My texts solely seek to document the cultural evolution of countries through photography. The Henro pilgrimage mentioned in my articles allowed me to bring technical and organizational coherence to this work on statuary. I have therefore traveled it several times with this sole purpose.
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