Tag Archives: Kukai

Shingon Pilgrimage

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a weary pilgrim

wades through seas of emptiness

not making a sound

The famous pilgrimage course of Shikoku island celebrates and worships the spirit of Kukai (Kobo Daishi) who founded the esoteric Shingon (True Word) sect of Mahayana Buddhism in Japan.  He lived from 774-835, and founded his head temple on the beautiful Mt. Koya on the main island of Honshu.

I have always loved his name.  The kanji “ku” signifies air, or sky, and “kai” means sea.  The haiku above, therefore, is a play on his name: Sea of Emptiness.

Many years ago, I brought my class of 26 students for an overnight stay in a temple on Koya-san.  We had an unforgettable experience walking through the unique graveyard (Okuno-in) to Kukai’s mausoleum.  It is said that he did not die, but has been in deep meditation for 1000 years, and it is easy to believe in that powerful setting.  We enjoyed a dinner at the temple served by the monks (there are 50 ways to eat your tofu), and then rose early for meditation and chanting.  During the next class at the university, I asked my students to share their impressions of the journey. Everyone had found the experience profoundly moving, but one guy cracked the class up by telling us that the best part for him was staying up half the night drinking beer and sake with the younger monks.   I found it delightful that they could also laugh at their own humanity.

Speaking of which, Kukai was a contemporary of the monk Saicho (767-822) who founded the other early sect of Mahayana Buddhism, Tendai, based on Mt. Hiei.  Although they studied in China at the same time, and worked together in their younger years, they had a falling out concerning the proper training for esoteric studies.  These two great and holy men spent their final years resenting each other, and not speaking.  On the one hand, this is disillusioning.  On the other hand, I find consolation in the human failings of even the exceptional among us.  I wrote about this in the post on Jesus and the fig tree, and it underscores Mary Oliver’s reassurance that “you don’t have to be perfect.”  Whew!