Showing posts with label Kukai. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Kukai. Show all posts

14 October 2011

Sound, Word, Reality

Sound Word RealityKŪKAI'S 声字実相義 (Shōji jissō gi) [1] is one of a trilogy of texts that set out to both answer his critics and to instruct his students. Each of the three texts is rather dense, and fairly esoteric in itself. I have been working through a commentary on this work for a book I am editing which reprints Professor Thomas Kasulis's article: ‘Reference and Symbol in Plato’s Cratylus and Kūkai’s Shōjijissōgi’ [2] alongside translations of the two dialogues and some introductory essays.

In his text Kūkai develops a way of interpreting mantra, a hermeneutic, which relies on different syntactical analyses of the combination word: Shō-ji-jissō 'sound, word, reality'. He analyses the Chinese as though it were a Sanskrit compound to demonstrate that we can construe the relationships in various ways, some more profound than others. This is a novel approach, but where does this principle of sound, word, reality come from?

In this exegesis Kūkai makes use of some lines extracted from chapter two of the Mahāvairocana Abhisaṃbodhi Tantra:
The perfectly Enlightened One's mantras
Are made up of syllables, names, or clauses;
Like the statements made by Indra,
They are meaningful and effective.[3]
In the verse ‘the perfectly enlightened one’ stands for the Body Mystery of the Dharmakāya and corresponds to reality; “mantras” make up the sounds that constitute the Speech Mystery; while the “syllables” and “names” correspond to word. Note that he does not equate these with the Mind Mystery. So the verse itself demonstrates the principle in action. Kūkai believes that there are hierarchies of being, or layers to reality, and that by paying careful attention to our mundane level of perception that we can get insights into higher levels because not only is each phenomena interpenetrated by all the others, but the levels of being or perception also interpenetrate each other. As in Indra’s net an insight at one level provides access to all levels. To reinforce this Kūkai shows that the principle holds good for the Mahāvairocana Sūtra as a whole, and even for the single syllable ‘a’.

The 'power' of a mantra, then, is related to its associative relationships with aspects of experience. This ties into a tradition which goes back to the early days of the Mahāyāna in Gandhāra – in the north-west of what is Pakistan (including the towns of Peshawar and Taxila, and the Swat Valley). There we find, in texts and sculptures, the local alphabet being used a mnemonic. For many years the sequence of alphabet, still not fully explained, lead people to think that it was invented or ‘mystical’. But Professor Richard Salomon, in three published articles, has shown that the alphabet is that of the local language, now called Gāndhārī, though Buddhists often still refer to it as the Arapacana Alphabet or the Wisdom Alphabet. This alphabet was written in the Kharoṣṭhī script which was most likely modelled on the form of Aramaic writing used by the Achaemanid Persian who administered that area for a time. Kharoṣṭhī, like Semitic and Tibetan scripts, has only one vowel sign which is modified by diacritics to indicate different vowels. The unadorned sign is ‘a’. Like other Indic scripts each written syllable has an implicit ‘a’ vowel unless accompanied by diacritics.

The mnemonic use of the alphabet seems to be closely associated with meditation practices in prajñāpāramitā texts, particularly the larger 18,000, 25,000, and 100,000 line versions. The first five letter of the Gāndhārī alphabet – a ra pa ca na – came to be associated with the wisdom deity Mañjuśrī (his mantra is oṃ a ra pa ca na dhīḥ) and with the Prajñāpāramitā tradition generally. This tradition pervades the Mahāvairocana Abhisaṃbodhi Tantra. In some Buddhist texts, e.g. the Lalitavistara Sūtra, the original Gāndhārī alphabet is substituted for the Sanskrit alphabet. Curiously the MAT has a kind of hybrid – the consonants are from Sanskrit, but in most cases they are only accompanied by a single vowel as in Kharoṣṭhī.

Each letter in the alphabet was made to stand for a word, and each word was the focus of a reflection on śūnyatā. So for example 'a' stands for the Sanskrit word anutpāda ‘non-arisen’. The reflection was akāro mukhaḥ sarvadharmāṇāṃ ādyanutpannatvāt "The syllable 'a' is a door because of the non-arisen-ness of all dharmas." This is pointing to the idea that dharmas, as the objects of the mind, are neither existent nor non-existent - when we have an experience, nothing substantial comes into being. There is no doubt that we have experiences, and objects present themselves to our minds, but the ontological status of the experience itself is indeterminate. The original insight of Buddhism was that mistaking experience for something substantial, and treating it as something which could be held on to was the cause of suffering. Hence reflecting on the contingent, impermanent, and unsatisfactory nature of experience was one of the prime methods of accessing the insights that freed one from suffering. These reflections clearly continue that original Buddhist tradition.

In Tantric texts the syllable is not simply a sign for the verbal sound, but has become a fully fledged symbol of the aspect of reality indicated by the word it signifies. This symbolic function is in the foreground in Tantra to the point where merely visualising the written form of a letter is seen as putting one in touch with the quality it represents. This finds its apotheosis in the meditation on the syllable 'a' – where one simply visualises the letter, usually written in the Siddhaṃ script, and by such close association one becomes imbued with the wisdom which sees dharmas – mental phenomena – as the really are.

The correspondence between the sound of the letter, the word it reminds us of, and the reality it points to in the example above is seen by Kūkai as a special case of a general principle. But the point is that here we have sound, and word and reality.

realityjissōsarva-dharmāṇāṃ ādy-anutpannatvāt阿字門,一切法 初不生故 [4]

Although it is not entirely obvious from the translations and commentaries, I believe that this is the idea that underlies Kūkai's analysis of “sound, word, reality”. The sound /a/ stands for the word 'non-arising' (anutpāda), i.e. not coming into being; and this reminds us that 'all dharmas have the primal quality of not having come into being'. That is to say that when we perceive a dharma we do have an experience, but though we have an experience nothing permanent, satisfying or substantial comes into being. In Mahāyāna terms the experience is empty of intrinsic being (svabhāva śūnyatā).

Of course finding a correlation is not the same as finding a cause; and finding a precedent is not the same as showing a genetic relationship. However I think this explanation is a plausible account of the origins of the sound, word, reality.



  1. There are two complete translations of this text into English: Hakeda, Y. (1972) Major Works, p.234-245; and Giebel, R. (2004) Shingon Texts, p.83-103. The text is also partially translated and discussed in detail Abe, R. (1999) The Weaving of Mantra, (esp p. 278ff.) though his reading is one which relies heavily on contemporary Semiotics jargon, which I struggle to make sense of.
  2. Philosophy East and West, 1982.
  3. Hodge, Stephen. (2003) The Mahāvairocana Abhisaṃbodhi Tantra. Routledge, p. 129. Hodge translates from the Tibetan. The Tibetan text replaces the line about Indra with ‘by mastery of the words’. The Chinese reference is Taisho 18.850, 83a22-a23. The Chinese text is:
    等正覺真言 - Děng zhèng jué zhēnyán
    言名成立相 - Yán míng chénglì xiāng
    如因陀羅宗 - Rú yīn tuó luó zōng
    諸義利成就 - Zhū yìlì chéngjiù
  4. Chinese text from Kumārajīva's translation of the Pañcaviṃśatisāhasrikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra (T.223).

10 July 2009

Kūkai's journey to China : Kentōshi Ships and Weather

To see my Google Map click here

One of the marvels of modern technology is that we have easy access to all kinds of information. I've been trying to visualise Kūkai's journey to China and to understand the scale of it. Using the internet I was able to locate a journal article which discusses the detail of the journey, then using Google Maps I have been able to visualise it and get a sense of the scale of it. The route outlined here relies on an article by Robert Borgen in Monumenta Nipponica.*

Kentōshi (遣唐使), which means 'Envoy to the Tang' i.e. mission to Chinese court of the Tang (T'ang 唐) dynasty,** was used to describe both the people and the ships they went on. We don't have much definite information about the vessels, but it is assumed that they were built on the model of the Chinese junk which were developed in China during the Han Dynasty (220 BCE - 200 AD) which were being used for ocean voyages by the 3rd century. Such Chinese ships visited Japan for trade. We know that the Japanese and the Koreans definitely used Chinese junks as models for later ships. It's often stated that because the ships had a flat bottom and no keel that they could only use the sails when the wind was directly behind them. However the boats used a very large rudder which projected well below the bottom of the ship, and did much the same job as a keel, i.e. it stopped the wind pushing the boat sideways when sailing to windward. They could probably have managed to sail close hauled at between 45-60° to the wind. Which in fact means that they could sail in much the same way as an early square rigged European ship such as Magellan had sailed around the world in.

The idea that the Japanese were poor sailors seems to be an assumption related to their decision to sail in the typhoon season, but as I pointed out in an earlier post (Why did Kūkai sail in summer?), the Japanese envoys were concerned to get to the Tang court on New Years day in order to offer their tribute at the appropriate time, and this must have over-ridden the concerns of the sailors. In fact the Japanese were highly attuned from ancient times to the annual changes to their climate wrought by the monsoon, and I find it very unlikely indeed that they did not understand the wind patterns. Note also that by Kūkai's time, in the early 9th century, envoys from the nation of Po-hai (north of Korea) to Japan regularly timed their journeys to take advantage of seasonal winds.

It's very often stated that the winds were against the ships sailing across the sea to China, but the prevailing wind during the summer monsoon in that region is from the south-east. This means that the Kentōshi ships, sailing south and west, were most likely cutting across the wind - a favourable geometry for sailing. With a wind from the south-east (135°) they could probably have sailed in any direction from say 0° - 75° and 195° to 360°. In fact a line joining Tanoura to Ming-chou is at about 252-3° which in sailing terms is a 'close reach' and probably well within the capabilities of the ships.

It is quite unlikely that they could have made the journey at all if they had to row ships that probably weighed over 100 tons all the way, and it does not seem so unreasonable to me that they relied on sails most of the time - even sailing north from Fu-chou to Ming-chou. Note that all four ships of the mission survived a typhoon, some of them two typhoons, and a 500 mile ocean crossing so they must have been reasonably well built. European ships of a similar size and square rigged could make about 5-7 knots, and, allowing for variable wind conditions and given that they would have paused during the night when they could, I initially guessed that they might average about 20 or 30 miles per day.

Previous missions would have made a quick jump across the straights of Korea probably via Tsushima Island, a journey of about 150 miles with a longest stretch of open water of about 35 miles. On a good day the Kentōshi ships could have sailed that distance in a single long day. From there the boats would have hugged the coast all the way to China. However in the 7th century Japan's long term enemy Silla had, with the help of Tang China, unified the whole Korean peninsular under their rule, leaving the Japanese with no bases on the mainland and a more powerful antagonist as neighbour.

The four Kentōshi ships left from Naniwa (modern day Ōsaka) and headed for Hakata (Fukuoka) on Kyūshū Island, a distance of 330 miles most of which is in the usually pacific Inland Sea. Note however that in 803 when the mission first sailed the boats were almost wrecked by a (rare) storm in the Inland Sea. From Fukuoka the ships hugged the coast of Kyūshū down to Tanoura (since merged into Ashikita), the last stop before heading west across the East China Sea. We don't know how good the navigation techniques were at this time, though simply sailing west would mean hitting China at some point, but the ships ideally would make land near the modern city of Shanghai or north of there. They left from Tanoura on the 6th day of the 7th month of Enryaku 23 (ca 14 August 804).

Of the two ships that completed the journey in 804 Ship Two is said to have taken about two months to get to Ming-chou (near modern Ningpo). Now here is a puzzle: Abe, Hakeda, and others give this time frame, but Abe says that the Vice Ambassador who lead Ship Two died in Ming-chou on the 25th day of the 7th month of Enryaku 23. This is a mere 19 days after leaving Tanoura. So, assuming this is not a misprint, either the Vice Ambassador died at sea less than half-way across, or Ship Two made very good time crossing the 540 miles, averaging about 30 miles a day. The latter figure is not unreasonable if they met no more storms, and my other assumptions are correct.

Ship One, the ship that Kūkai was on, took much longer to make the crossing, coming to land on the 10th day of the 8th month (ca 17 September 804) after 34 days at sea. They landed near the city of Fu-chou, in Fukien province (modern day Fuzhou, Fujian). It is sometimes said that this was 1000 miles south of where they intended to be, however the map above makes it clear that the distance from Fu-chou to Ming-chou by sea is about 390 miles, and by land about 360 miles to Hang-chou (using a route something like that suggested by Borgen). In a straight line Ship One covered about 750 miles in the crossing, which means they averaged at least 22 miles per day. In fact we know that they didn't go in a straight line because they were blown off course by the typhoon.

On the return journey (late June early July of 805) which was apparently without major incidents Ship One took nineteen days to make landfall at Tsushima (the island in the Strait of Korea); while Ship Two took twenty eight days to arrive at Hizen on Kyūshū Island. This is about 29 and 19 miles per day respectively - quite comparable to the outward journey suggesting that 20-30 miles per day is a good measure of the average speed of the ships.

typhoon over the East China Sea
Typhoon Tokage near Japan
Image Courtesy NASA Earth Observatory
Typhoons make a rather wavy line as they progress towards Japan from the Pacific Ocean, typically they follow the prevailing winds which spiral out from a massive region of high pressure over the Pacific and into a low over continental Asia. In August the typical typhoon would swing around Kyūshū and head up the Sea of Japan - though a lot of variation has been observed. As the typhoon approached the wind would have swung around initially from the south-west, to the west - the winds swirl in anti-clockwise to the centre, and have become a tight knot by the time they reach Japan. On the western side of the storms the winds are blowing more or less to the south and this explains how Ship One might have been sent far southwards. Ship Two somehow escaped this. The trailing edge of the typhoon seems to have blown Ships Three and Four eastwards back to Japan, though this suggests that there was already a significant distance between them and Ships One and Two by this stage.

Borgen's article is an important source of information about ships 3 and 4 from the Kentōshi flotilla - but that is another story. Hopefully you can see that using Google maps in this way really does makes the scale of the journey clearer, and you find my route plausible where I have supplied details not vouchsafed by history. The historical sources are vague on the construction and design of the ships, but I hope my reinterpretation of the Japanese as intelligent and able boat builders and sailors is both welcome and sound - I hate it when historians assume that people are stupid because they (the historians) don't understand what was going on!

* Borgen, R. The Japanese Mission to China 801-806. Monumenta Nipponica, Vol 37(1), 1982, p.1-28. In this article I also indirectly cite or use information from: Abé, Ryūichi. The Weaving of Mantra: Kūkai and the Construction of Esoteric Buddhist Discourse. (Columbia University Press, 2000); and Hakeda, Y.S. Kūkai : major works : translated and with an account of his life and a study of his thought. (New York : Columbia University Press, 1972).
** I tend to use the Pinyin version of Chinese transliteration with Wade-Giles equivalents in parentheses at the first occurrence. If there is only one transliteration it is Wade-Giles and I don't have a Pinyin version. Some names have changed substantially since Kūkai's time.

For other materials related to Kūkai and his voyage see my Kūkai bibliography.

Aug 2010 Update.

Since writing this essay I have studied the Diary of Ennin (Ennin, E.O. Reischauer (Translator] Diary: Record of a Pilgrimage to China in Search of the Law) paying particular attention to his records of wind and sailing directions. Although he records about a dozen combinations, the ships he sails on never seem to sail into the wind, and only run before it. It now seems more likely to me that the ships couldn't manage anything more than a broad reach - about 45° either side of the wind direction, i.e. that they could not use a head wind. I've noted that the prevailing wind at the time of year is from the South-East (or perhaps the East) and this may tally with their leaving from quite far south on Kyūshū - they expected to make leeway to the North while travelling West. Although my lines on the map are straight it seems likely the storm blew them far to the south, and that they then sailed North/N' West to make landfall. I have no idea if the could accurately determine latitude.

09 May 2008

Why did Kūkai sail in Summer?

Anyone familiar with the story of Kūkai will know that his journey to China in 804 began by sailing from Nagasaki out into the Sea of Japan. It is usual to comment on the relative lack of seaworthiness of the Japanese ships, and on the lack of nautical knowledge of the sailors since they sailed at a time when the winds were against them, meaning that the rudimentary sails could not be used; and when typhoons regularly swept in wrecking any ships daring to be out of harbour. This is a given in all the biographies in English.

However as long ago as 1995 TŌNO Haruyuki cast doubts on this way of telling the story, at the same time as questioning another long held belief: that the Japanese Emperors presented themselves as equals to the Chinese Emperor, and that the Chinese went along with this. This latter is interesting because it sheds light on the nature of the embassies sent from Japan.

Tōno shows that there is evidence to throw doubt on the supposed equality of the two emperors. It is true that as early as 607 a mission to the Sui dynasty emperor Yang-ti (隋煬帝 ) presented a letter which described the Japanese emperor as Son of Heaven, the title of the Chinese Emperor, however Yang-ti saw this as an affront.

Tōno's article concentrates on the embassies to T'ang China. In 632 a Chinese imperial envoy clashed with the Japanese court over protocol and did not read the letter from the Chinese Emperor. Tōno suspects that this was an attempt to subdue the Japanese. Note that this was a period of massive expansion westwards, with Chinese troops pushing on past the Tarim basin, where they were stopped by an Arab army also intent on expansion. It was the time of the greatest extent of the Chinese Empire.

Until 663 the Japanese were influential in the Korean peninsular. However in that year the Paekche (from whence Buddhism was introduced into Japan in 552) were defeated by a coalition of the T'ang and Silla, despite being shored up with Japanese forces. In 668 the alliance defeated the Koguryo thus unifying Korea. Although the Japanese continued to see Po-Hai (in present day Manchuria) as a tributary state, Tōno points out, from this time onwards it would not have been possible for the Japanese to insist on equal status. Indeed the embassy of 671 can be seen, according to Tōno, as a declaration of surrender!

After a break of 30 years another embassy was sent to the T'ang court in 702. It was at this time that the Japanese concede to paying tribute every twenty years. This was a pragmatic move on the the part of the Japanese in the face of a rampant T'ang state in the process of crushing opposition in other quarters. Evidence of this promise, more or less hushed up at home, is seen in a letter from a monk on Mt T'ien T'ai who is asking for permission to pass on information to the Japanese monk Ensai in 840 where he mentions that "... and they [the Japanese] have promised to pay tribute once in twenty years" (p.45). This would not have been common knowledge in Japan, and though careful records of many other occasions were kept, letters from the Chinese Emperor were mostly lost. In one letter from the Chinese Emperor 735 begins by writing "I order the king of Japan..." (p.52).

It obvious that in the Japanese mind Japan was the centre of civilisation. The ritsuryō code for instance, despite being modelled on a T'ang Chinese legal code, refers to other nations including the Chinese as barbarians. Tōno cites the fact that no one of the royal family ever went to China as this would have admitted to the Japanese people that they were subordinate.

Although Tōno does not mention it, we could also comment on the relative weakness of the Japanese nation until the reforms of Kanmu began to take effect. Japan had been essentially bankrupted by a succession of natural disasters and the flurry of temple building that ensued as a remedy, and by a number of expensive and sometimes disastrous military campaigns against the Ainu. In Kūkai's day there was forced labour and military service. Many people were homeless, and farming so difficult that many left the land to become beggars. In the face of a strong and dynamic T'ang Japan would have looked weak, and perhaps it is only the long sea distance that prevented them from being assimilated along with other neighbours.

Tōno's conclusion is that the embassies to the T'ang court were to offer tribute as agreed in order to keep the Chinese Emperor from casting a military eye eastwards. It is this fact which gives us the clue to why the embassies were sent when they were. As I mentioned it is common knowledge that Summer is a bad time to sail to China; and it is assumed that the Japanese were simply ignorant of the seasonal winds. However Tōno reminds us that emissaries from the Po-hai state regularly visited Japan at the time, and judging by their arrival and departure dates they were adept at using seasonal winds. (p.58) Tōno also argues that the Japanese ships were more sophisticated than has previously been thought, that they used cloth sails in addition to bamboo matting. However they did lack keels which meant they could not use the sails unless the wind was behind them.

The offering up of tribute to the Chinese court was ideally done at the New Year celebrations - the Chinese year beginning on the second full-moon after the winder solstice, usually sometime in February. The average travelling time to China for all of the missions, which can be worked out from a chart in Tōno's article, was six months. This meant leaving in the 6th month, or late summer (July or August) in order to arrive in time for the ceremony in January or February. Far from being ignorant of nautical and seasonal knowledge the Japanese probably knew exactly what to expect, but were forced for political reasons to attempt the crossing at this time. The knowledge of what to expect was probably what accounted for the reluctance of Japanese officials to go on such trips.

After Kūkai's trip in 804-6 only one more Embassy was sent to the T'ang court. Perhaps this was because it was clear, even in 806, that the T'ang dynasty was falling apart. It staggered on until 906 but was racked by civil strife and war. In other words there was no longer any threat to induce a offering of tribute, and Japan had gotten onto a firmer footing as well. Thanks to Kūkai the Heian period was one of a flowering of Japanese culture as distinct from imported Chinese culture.

TŌNO, Haruyuki. "Japanese Embassies to T'ang China and their Ships," Acta Asiatica. 1995 v.69: 39-62.
image: Illustration of a Chinese ship of the type that would have visited Japan during the Edo period (from Tōno article).

14 December 2007

Immanence vs Transcendence

The problem of Immanence v.s. Transcendence is one with relevance to any spiritual tradition, but it has special resonance for Buddhists. Simply put we may say that if Buddhahood is absolutely transcendent then we are cut off from it; and if Buddhahood is absolutely immanent then we are not released from suffering by attaining it. Clearly a Buddhist approach will be to take a middle way. But what are the practical implications of this?

I want to look at some of the approaches to this problem in the history of Buddhism, and show that Kukai came up with a highly creative solution to the problem.

While the Buddha, and perhaps his first few generations of Awakened disciples, lived there was less of a problem with immanence or transcendence because there were living exemplars. However in the Pali texts there is some concern for the way in which one can Awaken. One text which has had a huge influence on the Western Buddhist Order in this regard is the Upanisa Sutta from the Samyutta Nikaya. This text describes a progressive series of steps: suffering, faith, joy, rapture, calm, bliss, concentration, knowledge and vision of things as they are, withdrawal, dispassion, freedom, knowledge of the destruction of the mental poisons. Sangharakshita has called this the spiral path, and it is also sometimes called the 'positive nidanas' (although this is not a traditional term). Bhikkhu Bodhi wrote a pamphlet about the sutta and the idea, using the term Transcendental Dependent Arising after the Nettipakarana. The idea of a progressive path is present in a number of other suttas as well.

The key point here is that through practice - of awareness, of meditation - one can go through a series of stages which culminate in Awakening. The Upanisa Sutta offers an elegant solution to the problem. Unfortunately it seems Buddhists, including the guardians of the Pali Canon, lost sight of this important teaching and so over the centuries had to come up with a number of other solutions.

One Theravada approach is represented by Peter Masefield's book Divine Revelation in Pali Buddhism. Masefield argues that is it necessary to meet a Buddha in person in order to Awaken, that the possibility of becoming Awakened died with the Buddha. His thesis is remarkably easy to refute because although he bases it on a large number of quoted examples from the Pali Canon, he has overlooked many counter examples. Many people become Awakened without direct contact with the Buddha - thousands in the Therigatha alone. The position is one in which the Buddha is absolutely transcendent. We could also adopt a higher criticism approach to counter Masefield's literal reading of the texts as well, but that would take up more space than I have here.

The problem of Immanence v.s. Transcendence underlies the doctrine of the two truths which is central to the later Mahayana. The absolute truth says that Awakening is beyond the reach of language, ie it is transcendent. However if Awakening is absolutely transcendent, then we can not experience it, and so we have the relative truth. The relative truth says language is able to point to Awakening without actually encompassing it, or perhaps that language can describe the path, but not the goal, ie that Awakening is immanent.

The most prominent amongst the later theories is the Tathagata-garbha or Buddha Nature doctrine. In this theory each being already contains a germinal Buddha only waiting for the right conditions in order to manifest. Spiritual progress is often perceived in terms of clearing away defilements which obscure our true nature. The kind of practice most closely associated with this theory are generically called "formless". The quintessential practice is zazen, or 'just sitting'. The 'object' of meditation is simply the play of the experience arising and passing away.

However there are problems with the Buddha Nature theory. Buddha nature is often described as indestructible and eternal. There is a clear conflict with the doctrine which proclaims that everything is impermanent. Also if every being has Buddha Nature and we accept a theory of rebirth, then it creates a problem in that our Buddha Nature must transcend our death(s). How does this Buddha Nature follow us through the cycles of birth and death? Buddha Nature begins to sound all too like the Upanishadic idea of an Atman. A further problem is that it open the way to adopting the wrong view that we are already Awakened and need make no effort to change.

In the early 9th century when Kukai was introducing esoteric Buddhism to the Buddhist intelligentsia of Japan, the general view seems to have been that Buddhahood takes three incalculable aeons to attain. This is a more or less infinite amount of time - from any point of time Awakening is always sometime in the very distant future, and therefore essentially unattainable. The view comes from an over literal reading of Mahayana sutras. Yes the Buddha did have to spend aeons perfecting the perfections, but again the stories of the Pali Canon which show disciples regularly Awakening in very short spaces of time seem to be lost. Since practice cannot result in Awakening, it is directed towards mundane ends such as the prosperity of the emperor and the empire. Another aspect of establishment thinking was that the Dharmakaya was absolutely abstract, that there was no possibility of contact with it - ie that the Buddha was absolutely transcendent in the final analysis.

Kukai's great catch cry was "Awakening in this very existence!". So how did he overcome the immanence/transcendence problem? Kukai's approach was a radical take on the theory of interpenetration which is central to the Avatamsaka Sutra. Although the idea of interdependence is not found in the Pali Canon it is a logical consequence of "things arising in dependence on causes". If everything depends on causes then everything must depend, indirectly at least, on everything else. Kukai believed that interpenetration was the nature of reality and that nothing at all was left out of this, including crucially the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas. If everything is permeated by the Awakened mind of the Buddha, especially in his Dharmakaya aspect, then Awakening is immanent not just in beings, but in every atom of the universe. He seems to have taken to heart the image from the Avatamsaka Sutra which describes the universe as a great sutra, the letters of which are the items of experience (dharmas).

This approach gets around the problems inherent in the Tathagata-garbha approach. If we accept that there is any possibility of Awakening, then we are in contact, however faintly, with Awakening. In this theory practice consists of making the most of our connection by making our body speech and mind conform to those of the Dharmakaya via the medium of mudra, mantra, and mandala.

Kukai rejected the idea of an absolutely transcendent Dharmakaya - largely as far as I can tell on the basis of Nagarjuna's rejection of the validity of the existence/non-existence duality. Although it is incorrect, in his view, to state that things exist, it is equally wrong to say that they do not exist. The relationship is one of dependent arising, of course. It is not always obvious because of his esoteric approach to practice, but in many ways Kukai was a back to basics Buddhist.

The idea that Awakening is possible here and now, is a necessary corrective. It is explicit in the Pali Canon, and contra Masefield, there is no reason to believe that the conditions of the present preclude Awakening. Although I find Kukai's solution to the problem attractive and creative, I also see it as unnecessarily complex. In the absence of the early teaching on progressive conditionality, it is probably the next best thing, and at least it holds open the possibility of the Awakening in the present.

image: Wikipedia

10 September 2007

Kukai Bibliography

If you are interested in Kukai (空 海) and only know English then your choice of reading material can seem quite limited, especially if you only look at what is in print right now. There are of course a number of websites but these largely parrot what is found in Hakeda and Yamasaki. I wrote the current Wikipedia article on Kukai a couple of years back using pretty much those same sources, with additional notes from Abe. (Note there are moves afoot to abridge my text, so it may already look different).

So where to go to get more depth on The Daishi when there are all too few Shingon teachers outside of Japan? This is my working bibliography of English language sources on Kukai, with some annotations. All of this stuff is available through interlibrary-loan in the UK, and probably Europe and the US; and some of it is available on the web. If you don't know about interlibrary-loan ask your local library to explain it.

Abé, Ryūichi.
  • 'Scholasticism, exegesis and ritual practice : on renovation in the history of Buddhist writing in the early Heian Period. in Adolphson, M, et a. (eds) Heian Japan : centers and peripheries. Honolulu : University of Hawai'i Press, 2007
  • The Weaving of Mantra: Kūkai and the Construction of Esoteric Buddhist Discourse. New York : Columbia University Press, 1999.[Something of a mixed blessing this book. Unrivalled for detail in places, and with very helpful part translations of some of the major works and many minor works. An excellent companion to Hakeda's Major Works but not a place to start. However it is frequently drowned in the jargon of semiotics and thereby made obscure. I also have a sneaking suspicion that Abe has misunderstood the Buddhist attitude to vijnana in making it a source of meaning rather than a source of delusion, or confusion. Not for the faint hearted.]
  • Saichō and Kūkai : a conflict of interpretation. Japanese journal of religious studies. 1995 22(1-2) p.103-137.[A revisionist look at the relationship between these two pivotal figures in Japanese history suggesting that personal feelings had less to do with their split than political aspirations]

Arai, Yūsei [Abbot]. Shingon Esoteric Buddhism : a handbook for followers. (Kōyasan, Japan : Kōyasan Shingon Mission, 1997).[A good glimpse into modern day lay Shingon. Note that Shingon nowadays incorporates a strong Pure Land theme, and the focus for lay people is not "Awakening in this very existence", Kukai's catch cry, but praying to Odaishisama for rebirth in Sukhavati. The process of this change is brought out in Statler and others.]

Benn, C. China’s golden age : everyday life in the Tang dynasty. Oxford University Press, 2002.[Benn offers us a detailed glimpse of the Changan that Kukai would have visited - fantastically wealthy, ethnically diverse and cosmopolitan, and more densely populated that Manhattan Island!]

Borgen, R. The Japanese Mission to China 801-806. Monumenta Nipponica, Vol 37(1), 1982, p.1-28.[The full story of Kukai's journey to China with many details not included in other accounts, part translations of the Ambassador's report to the Emperor, and Kukai's letter to the Governor of Fukien. Borgen's account of the journey is essential reading for this very important aspect of Kukai's biography.]

Deal, W. E. 'Hagiography and history : the image of Prince Shōtoku' in Tanabe, G.J. (ed.) Religions of Japan in practice. Princeton, N.J., Princeton University Press : 1999. [In terms of background to Kukai it is important to understand Prince Shōtoku and his legacy.]

de Bary Theodore Wm. [Ed]. Sources of Japanese Tradition. [vol 1.]. New York : Columbia University Press, 1958, 1964.[Valuable history and part translations of some of Kukai's better known works.]

Gardiner, D. L.
  • 'Japan's first Shingon ceremony' in Tanabe, G.J. (ed.) Religions of Japan in practice. (Princeton, N.J., Princeton University Press : 1999)
  • Transmission problems : the reproduction of scripture and Kūkai’s “opening” of an esoteric tradition. Japanese Religions, 28(1) 2003, p.5-68.
  • Metaphor and Mandala in Shingon Buddhist Theology. Sophia: International Journal for Philosophy of Religion, Metaphysical Theology and Ethics, 47/1: 43-55, April 2008.
  • Transcendence and Immanence in Kûkai's Thought. Esoteric Buddhist Studies: Identity in Diversity, Proceedings of the International Conference on Esoteric Buddhist Studies. Koyasan University, Japan, Septermber, 2006), March 2008, Koyasan University
see also Gardiner's publications page at Colorado College website.

Gibson, M and Murakami, H. Tantric poetry of Kukai (Kobodaishi) : Japan's Buddhist saint. New York, White Pine Press : 1987.[Not as interesting or useful as I had hoped. The work of two enthusiastic scholars of literature with a relatively shallow understanding of Kukai and Shingon. However there is so little of Kukai's poetry available in English that it is worth having. See also Green. Hakeda translates a fair amount of poetry in Major Works as well.]

Giebel, R. W. (trans.) Shingon texts. [BDK English Tripitaka 98 I-VII]. Berkeley, Ca. Numata Center for Buddhist Translation and Research, 2004.[Giebel's translations appear to stick close to the text, but this does not make for good readable English. It leads him for instance to employ neologisms such as 'inexponibility', 'differentiatingly', and 'intercorrespondent' in order to find a single English word for each one in Chinese. Some seem gratuitous such as esoteric sutras being 'veridical' rather than truthful. Key technical terms are sometimes translated with no footnotes, so that the translations are unreadable unless you either know already what the text says, or are deeply versed in Buddhist jargon and can guess the underlying term. What, for instance, are the discourses of the Dharma-Buddha? Another example is the terms used in the more sophisticated esoteric version of the 'Trikaya doctrine'. Frustratingly text names are translated into idiosyncratic English with only a reference to the Taisho edition of the Chinese Canon. Thus the well known Dasabhumika Sutra, becomes the Treatise on the [Ten] Stages (T26.133c-134a). It is not at all clear who the intended audience is. This makes Giebel valuable only as a check on other more felicitous translations. Read Hakeda instead, and then Abe. The one good point is that he translates all of the quotes in the Benkenmitsu nikyō ron : The difference Between Exoteric and Esoteric Buddhism, which Hakeda does not]

Grapard, Allan G. 'Precepts for an emperor' in White, David Gordon. Tantra in practice. University of Princeton Press, 2000, p.147-164.A translation of the text Kukai wrote for the abhisheka ceremony of Heizei, the sometime rebellious former emperor turned bhikshu. Useful as comparison with Abe's commentary on this text as it relates to the Benkenmitsu nikyō ron.]

Green, Ronny. The Mysterious Mirror of Writing: Kūkai’s Poetry and Literary Theory. Unpublished manuscript. Available:[Probably the only critical work on Kukai's poetry in English. See also on Ronny's website excerpts from unpublished book length biographies of Kūkai and Gyoki ]

Hakeda, Y.S.
  • Kūkai : major works : translated and with an account of his life and a study of his thought. (New York : Columbia University Press, 1972).[The one book that no one interested in Kukai can do without. Continues to stay in print fortunately. Probably the best biography to date, and of course Hakeda's excellent translations of Kukai's writing. This is the bible as far as I'm concerned. That said you may need to do some background reading (Such as Snodgrass for instance, and Yamasaki) and interpretation to understand Kukai. In his translation Hakeda does not get in the way as is the case for Giebel and Abe. ]
  • The religious novel of Kūkai. Monumenta Nipponica, Vol 20(3/4), 1965, p.283-297.[Discusses the Sango Shiiki as a literary text, ie a novel. Many of the insights in this paper are incorporated into Major Works]
  • (trans.) Awakening of Faith. (New York : Columbia University Press, 199?).[This is a text which was very influential on Kukai's thinking - for instance you can see the influence in the structure of the Sokushin jōbutsu gi : Attaining Enlightenment in this Very Existence]

Hare, Thomas Blenman. Reading writing and cooking : Kūkai’s interpretive strategies. The Journal of Asian Studies. 49(2) May 1990, p.253-273.[Problems of language and meaning; includes the best description of the Kokūzō gumonji no hō practice which Kūkai undertook when he left university.]

Haresaku, Masahide. Encounter with an empathic, personal god : a seminar on Shingon Mikkyō. [Trans. Paul L. Swanson]. Bulletin (Nanzan Institute for Religion & Culture). No.5, 1987, p.2635.

Henshall, K.G. A history of Japan : from stone age to superpower. (2nd ed.) (New York : Palgrave Macmillan, 2004)

Hinonishi Shinjō. "The Hōgō (Treasure Name) of Kōbō Daishi and the development of beliefs of associated with it," Japanese Religions. 2002, v. 27 (1), pg 5-18. (Translated by William Londo)[Fascinating little article which traces the history of the Kūkai Mantra: namu daishi henjō kongō.]

Hisao Inagaki. Kūkai's "Principle of Attaining Buddhahood with the Present Body," in Payne, R.k. (ed) Tantric Buddhism in East Asia. Boston, Wisdom : 2006. p.99-118. [Another translation of the classic Sokushin jōbutsu gi]

Hodge, S. (trans.) The mahā-vairocana-abhisambodhi tantra : with Buddhaguhya’s commentary. (London : Routledge Curzon, 2003).
[By far the best English translation of this most important Shingon text. Hodge works from the Tibetan translation which has minor differences, mostly structural, to the Chinese, but includes the seminal commentary and summary by Buddhaguhya. The introduction contains much useful information and I found myself wishing that Hodge had allowed more space for it. It lacks an index which would have been useful. ]

Hori, Ichiro. On the concept of hiriji (holy-man). Numen. 5 (2) 1958, p.128-160.
[Kukai is of course famous as a mountain ascetic (yamabushi) and this paper delves into the Japanese tradition of seeking out lonely peaks for meditation, and discusses Kukai's predecessors as well as both Saicho and Kukai as yamabushi.]

Kasulis, T.P. Reference and Symbol in Plato's Cratylus and Kukai's Shojijissogi. Philosophy East and West, 32 (4), Oct., 1982, p.393-405. Available online:[The problem of how words function as symbols/signs is at the forefront of contemporary philosophy, and this paper compares theories from ancient Greece and medieval Japan.]

Keenan, L. K. En the Ascetic in Tanabe, G.J. (ed.) Religions of Japan in practice. (Princeton, N.J., Princeton University Press : 1999).[More on of Kukai's main yamabushi predecessors - see also Hori]

Kimbrough, R. Keller. Reading the miraculous power of Japanese poetry : spells, truth acts, and a medieval Buddhist poetics of the supernatural. Japanese Journal of Religious Studies 32 (1) 2005, p.1-33.

Kitagawa, J. M. Kūkai as master and saviour in Reynolds, F.E. and Capps, D. (eds) The biographical process : studies in the history and psychology of religion. (Mouton : The Hague, 1976).

Kiyota, Minoru. Shingon Buddhism : theory and practice. (Los Angeles : Buddhist Books international, 1978)

Matsuda, Willaim J. 2003. The founder reinterpreted: Kūkai and Vraisemblant narrative. 
MA Thesis. University of Hawaii.

Orzech, Charles. The legend of the iron stupa in Lopez, Donald S. [ed.] Buddhism in practice. Princeton University Press. 1995.

Rambelli, F.
[Rambelli writes from a hard-core semiotics point of view, which is to say he is concerned with the relationship of 'signs' to the 'things'. Ironically semiotics jargon is frequently and bizarrely obscure and difficult for the lay person. Rambelli is also fond of neologisms: Kukai is 'polyhedrical'; and two words are "synonymical variants" of each other rather than simply synonyms. Not for the faint hearted, and I recommend boning up on semiotics for a few months in advance.]
  • - The semiotic articulation of Hosshin Seppō : an interpretive study of the concepts of mon and monji in Kūkai’s mikkyō in Astley, I. (ed) Esoteric Buddhism in Japan. (Copenhagen : The Seminar for Buddhist Studies, 1994). p.17-36.
  • - True words, silence, and the adamantine dance : on Japanese mikkyō and the formation of the Shingon Discourse. Japanese journal of religious studies. 1994 21(4) p.373-405.[I'm not convinced that Rambelli's approach in this paper - to the extent that I understand it of course - is workable. Is the contemporary semiotic model capable of comprehending the way Kukai understood "meaning"? I think of Foucault's ideas in the Order of Things on how epistemology changed amongst the intellectuals of renaissance Europe away from resemblance as a source of knowledge, toward difference. Both Rambelli, and I think Abe, seem to place too much emphasis on difference in interpreting Kukai: his world view was one in which resemblance was the key to knowledge. Rambelli seems to overlook to implications of all dharmas being marked by shunyata for instance!]

Reader, I. Legends, miracles, and faith in Kōbō Daishi and the Shikoku Pilgramage in Tanabe, G.J. (ed.) Religions of Japan in practice. Princeton, N.J., Princeton University Press : 1999[Summary of some of the legendary material which constellates around Kukai]

Rouzer, Paul. “Early Buddhist Kanshi : court, country, and Kūkai”. Monumenta Nipponica. 2004, 59(4) : 431-61.

Shiba, Ryotaro.
Kūkai the universal : scenes from his life. New York, ICG Muse Inc. 2003.[Appalling novel based very loosely on the life of Kukai in which Kukai becomes a carousing and boozing wideboy freely indulges in pleasures of the flesh! The translation doesn't help with several infelicitous coinings such as baptism for abhisheka. Although Shiba is a celebrated author of historical novels in Japan, this is more novel than historical. Don't bother.]

Snodgrass, A. The Matrix and Diamond World Mandalas in Shingon Buddhism. India, Aditya Prakashan : 1997.[Important book. A very good introduction to Shingon doctrine, and a very detailed survey of the two mandalas. One idiosyncrasy is that uses dhāraṇī as the general term rather than mantra. This is in line with some of Kukai's thinking, but not a general practice. In print in India]

Statler, O. Japanese pilgrimage. London : Picador, 1984.[One of the best sources of legendary material about Kukai - an aspect of him that is badly neglected by English speaking academics. Out of print, but 2nd hand copies do pop up from time to time.]

Takasaki Jikidō. “Kōbō Daishi (Kūkai) and Tathāgatagarbha Thought”. Acta Asiatica. 1985. 47 : 109-129

Tanabe, G.J.
  • 'The founding of Mount Kōya and Kūkai's eternal meditation' in Tanabe, G.J. (ed.) Religions of Japan in practice. Princeton, N.J., Princeton University Press : 1999
  • Kōbō Daishi and the art of esoteric Buddhism. Monumenta Nipponica. 1983, 38 (4), p.409-12.

Toby, Ronald, P. “Why Leave Nara? Kammu and the transfer of the Capital. Monumenta Nipponica. 1985. 40(3) : 331-347.

Tōno, Haruyuki.
Japanese Embassies to T'ang Cina and their ships. Acta Asiatica. 1995 69: p39-62

Totman, C.
A history of Japan. (Blackwell, 2005).

Wayman, A and Tajima, R. The enlightenment of Vairocana. Delhi : Motilal Banarsidass, 1998.[I don't get Wayman, don't follow his arguments, don't see why he highlights the things he does. I haven't found his contribution very helpful. Tajima is more accessible but wildly and uncritically sectarian. Overall you could probably give this a miss. Hodge's introduction and translation is far more comprehensible]

Yamasaki, T. Shingon : Japanese esoteric Buddhism. Fresno, C.A. : Shingon Buddhist International Institute, 1988.[A very good introduction to Kukai and Shingon. Slightly frustrating in that Japanese terminology is used throughout with no links to Sanskrit, which makes it difficult to link it with the wider Buddhist tradition. Expensive on Amazon etc, but still in print and available at a reasonable price from the publisher - they may be slow to respond however.]

Yamamoto, Chikyo. Mahāvairocana-Sūtra : translated into english from Ta-p’I-lu-che-na ch’eng-fo shen-pien chia-ch’ih ching, the Chinese version of Subhākarasimha and I-hsing AD 725. New Delhi : International Academy of Indian Culture, 1990.[A disappointing translation from the Chinese version. The English text is often impenetrable at times when Hodge is perfectly clear. A potential high point is the inclusion of the Siddham script calligraphy of all mantras, by a respected calligrapher. However the calligraphy appears to be quite poor, is not well reproduced, and is frequently not in accordance with the roman transliteration (I didn't have enough patience to work out which was incorrect). If you are not sentimental about the Chinese vs Tibet version issue, and want a single translation of this important text, then go for Hodge.]
(Updated 17-7-2009)

22 August 2007

Early Mandalas

One of the most distinctive features of esoteric Buddhism is the Mandala. Buddhism generally speaks of the person as consisting of body, speech and mind. The Buddha also has three aspects, although these are esoteric rather than mundane. The three aspect of the Buddha are known as the triguhya or three mysteries. These three mysteries correspond to the three aspects of the person. The mysteries of body, speech and mind in the ordinary person correspond to mudra, mantra, and mandala for the Buddha. So mandala represents the mind mystery of the Buddha.

There are many different mandalas, varying across time and text. Each however shares certain features. Mandala literally means circle, and Buddhist mandalas are typically in the form of a circle, or contain as a main feature an encircled area. At the centre of the mandala is the figure of a Buddha - who may be represented as a person, a symbol or a syllable. Surrounding the Buddha will be a number of other figures. If the Buddha in the centre of the mandala represents the cosmic principle of Awakening, then the other figures represent some aspect of Awakening.

Amongst scholars there is some debate about when esoteric Buddhism began. Some like Ronald Davidson argue that tantra proper is a feature of the 7th century. Others point to antecedents from earlier periods of both Buddhism and other religious traditions. For example the Golden Light Sutra is thought to belong to the 3rd or 4th century (it was first translated into Chinese in 414) and it contains what appears to be a mandala of four Buddhas. In the better known version of the sutra, that translated by Emmerick, the mandala appears in a Mahayana context without the usual esoteric features. There is another version of the Sutra, noted by Huntington [1], which makes it clear that the mandala is intended to feature in a meditation practice. This makes it seem more closely related to esoteric Buddhism, and adds weight to the "early tantra" theory. This kind visualisation is much older than we may think. There is, for example, a similar kind of practice in the Rig Vidhāna, a Brahminical text from fourth century BCE. [2]

We usually think of the five fold mandala - with a central Buddha surrounded by four other Buddhas - as being distinctively Buddhist. Early mandalas used a three fold symmetry. The five fold mandala emerges only in the 7th or 8th century in texts which the Tibetans call Yoga tantras. However I have discovered another five fold mandala in an unexpected place. Brhadaranyaka Upanisad III.9 describes the gods and their supports as occupying the centre and the four compass points: Agni occupies the centre, with Soma, Aditya, Yama, and Varuna occupying the north, east, south and west respectively. The list appears in a longish discussion between Yajnavalkya and Vidagdha Shakalya about how many gods there are. The Brhadaranyaka Upanisad is considered to be pre-Buddhist partly because the Buddha of the Pali Canon quotes from it, and satirises it in several places, e.g. the Tevijja Sutta, DN 13.

I think we have here a clear precedent for the type of mandala which becomes important in Buddhism many centuries later. This should come as no great surprise as we know, and I have tried to highlight this in my blog, that Indian religious traditions are quite free in adopting and adapting the practices and ideas of their 'competitors'.

What does this tell us about the origins of esoteric Buddhism? I think the best way to view esoteric Buddhism is that it was a grand synthesis of many religious traditions, with Mahayana Buddhism providing a framework, that occurred in the mid 6th century as a response to the socio-political and religious needs of the times. The fact that we find precedents may not be significant in determining the time of birth for esoteric Buddhism for this reason. To speak for instance of an Upanisadic mandala, or a Mahayana dharani as proto-tantric seems to create the wrong impression of the process. Sawn timber is not a proto-table for instance. Professor Ryuchi Abe makes a similar point in his discussion of the introduction of esoteric Buddhism to Japan. [3] Yes, many elements later incorporated into esoteric Buddhism existed before Kukai arrives back from China in 806. However Abe argues that there was no conception of "esoteric" Buddhism, no esoteric context in which those elements could exist. Buddhism in Japan up to 806 had been Mahayana Buddhism despite the widespread and frequent use of dharanis in ritual, and even translations of esoteric texts. Without the esoteric teachings such artefacts could only be interpreted through the lens of Mahayana Buddhism. This is further born out in several of Kukai's earlier works in which his main aim to establish the esoteric teachings as valid - Benkenmitsu nikyō ron, The difference Between Exoteric and Esoteric Buddhism, being one of the more important texts.

So Mandalas are quintessentially Buddhist, but have a history which pre-dates their use in esoteric Buddhism. Context is important in understanding any aspect of Buddhism.

  1. Huntington, John C. 1987. Note on a Chinese text demonstrating the earliness of tantra. JIABS 10 (2) p.88-98.
  2. Patton, Laurie. 2005. Bringing the gods to mind : mantra and ritual in early Indian sacrifice. Berkeley, University of California Press. p.30
  3. Abe, Ryuchi. 1999. The weaving of mantra : Kukai and the construction of esoteric Buddhist discourse. New York : Columbia University Press
image: Kyoto Journal

29 June 2007

Indra in the Writings of Kukai

Indra on Elephant back weilding his VajraIn this article I want to look at some associations with the Vedic god Indra which have found their way into Buddhism. Indra, under the name Sakka, is a frequent character in the Pali texts, and plays an active and positive role in the Jatakas. Although Buddhists acknowledge no creator god, no supreme being on the model of Jehovah, gods do play an important role in the Buddhist religion.

My starting point will be two mentions of Indra by the 9th century Japanese master Kukai, who I've written about on several previous occasions. In Kukai's writing there are several references to Indra. He uses the image of Indra's Net frequently. It comes from the Avatamsaka Sutra where it conveys the idea of the interpenetration of all things by all things, that is central to Kukai's understanding of the Dharma. I want to pass over this image, however, and look at two other references which are quite different in nature and relate to Indra's role as a god of speech.

The two references are found in Hakeda's translations of Kukai's major works. In the Shoji jisso gi, or Meaning of Sound, Word, and Reality Kukai quotes a verse from the Mahavairocana Sutra:
The perfectly Enlightened One's mantras Are made up of syllables, names, or clauses; Like the statements of Indra, They are meaningful and effective.[1]
Then in the Ungi gi Kukai is discusssing the meanings of the phonemes which make up the seed syllable hum (ie hūṃ) and says:
Next, if interpreting from the point of view of their common features, it can be stated that each letter embraces the universe principle, all the teachings, religious practices, and attainments, just as [each word in the grammatical] statements made by Indra contains many meanings...[2]
In the first instance Kukai explains away the presence of Indra as an authority on truth by equating the name with a secular Sanskrit grammarian known as Shakradeva. This is plausible, but I think there is a better explanation. In the Shatapatha-Brahmana there is a sory about Indra defeating the demon Vritra. Indra is cheated out of part of his reward by the messenger god Vayu, and as a result decides to make only one fourth of speech, that is the vocal sounds of humans only, intelligible. The speech of birds, animals, and insects are therefore unintelligible.[3] Beck points out that this is a reworking of a Rigvedic myth which reinforces Indra's role as grammarian, or as the god responsible for making Vac comprehensible. Later, although still prebuddhist, in Chandogya Upanishad it says "all vowels are embodiments of Indra" (CU ii.24.3). It seems as though Indra maintained this function in the Mahavairocana Sutra, although this does not sit well with Kukai.

The second idea, that things said by Indra can have many meanings, also harks back to Vedic literature. Brihadaranyaka Upanishad 5.2 shows another Vedic god, Prajapati, conversing with gods, humans, and demons. In answer to questions from each he merely says "da". By this the gods understand daamayata (self-control); humans datta (giving); and demons dayadhvam (compassion). The short section ends with the words
This is what the divine voice that is thunder repeats: 'DA DA DA', 'Be self-controlled! Give! Be compassionate![4]
Now although it is said to be Prajapati speaking it is very clear in Vedic myth that thunder is associated with Indra. Indeed one could say that for the Vedic speaking people Indra was thunder. So this would seem to be one of those cases, common in Indian texts, where one god has assumed the attributes of another. Further more we see the idea that a single syllable can have very different meanings - a phenomena modern scholars call polysemy (from the Greek = multiple meaning). This is precisely what Kukai is exploring in the Ungi gi. Kukai allows for infinite meanings, not only for hum itself, but for each of it's constituent parts.

Later on Indra's role as Vagishvara - or lord of Speech - was taken over by the bodhisattva Manjusri who, in early Chinese imagery, is sometimes depicted as riding a white elephant, just as Indra does. Manjusri has yet to take up this role in 9th century Japan. It is possible that had not occured even in China, which is the likely home of the cult of Manjusri. As the original wielder of the thunderbolt or vajra, Indra is also a model for Vajrapani.

Portrayals of Indra in Buddhist and Vedic literature do seem to vary quite a bit. So much so that Rhys Davids was moved to write in his Dictionary:
Europeans have found a strange difficulty in understanding the real relation of Sakka to Indra... Sakka belongs only to Buddhist mythology then being built up. He is not only quite different from Indra, but is the direct contrary of that blustering, drunken, was god.[5]
As I have said, Indra, often plays a positive role in the Jatakas, and is often shown payin homage to the Buddha. He appears to be a representative of the old Vedic gods, and is often paired with Brahma representing the later Vedantic gods.

Even in this brief treatment I think you can see that the Vedic Indra did indeed find his way into Buddhism and that these two roles - the one who makes things meaningful, and the one who allows for polysemy - are present in the writing of Kukai in 9th century Japan. These things are impossible to prove of course, and there may be some 'black swan' piece of evidence waiting out there to show the theory to be wrong, but the precedents existed and Buddhists have a long history of borrowing from their surrounding culture, so the circumstantial case is quite good.


[1] Hakeda. Kukai : Major Works. p. 238
[2] Hakeda. p. 259
[3] quoted in Beck, Guy. Sonic Theology. p.26.
[4] Roebuck, Valerie J. The Upanisads. p82 (BU 5.2.3)
[5] Rhys-Davids, Pali-English Dictionary. sv Inda, p.121.

image: Indra (with vajra) and consort on elephant. Keshava Temple, Somnathpur.

18 July 2006

Buddhism as a path of gracefulness

Standing TaraThis week I'd like to write about kaji. The word, as I have come to know it, is used by Kūkai in his writings as the Japanese equivalent of the Sanskrit word adhiṣṭhāna which literally means “basis". Kaji is translated by Yoshito Hakeda, in Kūkai : Major works as "grace". Now normally I get a but huffy about Christian words being used to translate Buddhist terms. So if I see abhiṣeka being translated as 'baptism', then I have this voice in my head going: nooooo! Sometimes it's out loud even. But in this case I rather like grace as a translation. Without getting into dictionary definitions I find that grace brings to mind two qualities: firstly bestowing of blessings, and secondly refinement and elegance.

Kukai explains kaji like this: ka is the compassion of the Buddha pouring our like the rays of the sun (Vairocana is an epithet of the sun in India); ji is the receptiveness of the devotee which accepts and retains the light of compassion as water retains the rays of the sun. Alternatively it is the faith (Japanese Shinjin, Sanskrit shraddha) of the devotee. So Buddhism works, in this way of talking about it, because the Buddhas offer to bestow a blessing on us, and we in turn need to be graceful in accepting, or even to be able to accept, that blessing.

The blessing of the Buddhas pours out everywhere, all the time, is sensible in every phenomena, it is in other words Shunyata, or Tathata. This seems to me to be the main point of departure from the Christian idea of God and grace. As I understand it God is supposed to sit up in heaven dispensing grace according to some scheme that cannot be understood, and that is meant to be taken somewhat literally. Kukai however seems to have a more sophisticated view of his god. Mahavairocana is all: all forms are his body, all sounds are his voice, and all mental activity is his mind, all being are simple manifestations of Him. He is omnipresent, omnipotent, omni-everything else. He is represented in human form in two main ways, according to which mandala is being referred to, with differing mudras and symbols; or he is depicted as particular Sanskrit syllables, particularly 'a' (the short 'a' sound as in the English word 'cut'); or as a symbol, such as a dharmachakra, on it's own. But at no time does one get the feeling that Kukai understands Mahavairocana to actually be these things. When he's banging on, as he does, about the Preaching of the Dharmakaya Buddha, I think we can be pretty sure he did not think of Mahavairocana as a radiantly white youth sitting on a lotus and actually talking. That image is there, but everything points to it as a symbol of some deeper reality. He says: "The subject is the object; the object the subject. The seeing is the seen, and the seen is the seeing. Nothing differentiates them" [Hakeda. Kukai : Major Works p.229-30].

The receptivity of the disciple, or ji, was what I was on about last week. As practicioners what we are doing, from this point of view, is opening ourselves up to experience the ka, the blessing of the Buddhas. Through practice we try to align ourselves with the Buddhas, to get onto their wavelength, and to 'be' like them, to the extent that they can be said to 'be' - it's more a matter of transcending being and non-being. And I think that to describe what we do as a cultivating grace works quite well really. We try to move gracefully, to speak gracefully, and, most difficult of all, to think gracefully. I must say that most days I feel about as graceful as a three legged mongrel dog, but I can appreciate the principle. And I can observe people who are more graceful than I and appreciate that grace that they have. The Buddha left a lot of instructions for acting gracefully. Most important to me are the Dasakusaladhamma - the Ten Graceful Ways of Acting, or as we call them in the WBO, somewhat prosaically I now realise, the "Ten Precepts". They re-occur several times in the Pali Canon, but interestingly enough the Shingon School also adopt the same list of ten as precepts. These precepts give a general outline of the way to act gracefully in body, speech and mind. Sangharakshita's The Ten Pillars is a better exposition of the precepts than I could give so if you want to follow this subject up just read his book.

Between us and the Buddhas, then, is a constant interaction, a transaction even. Kaji, Grace, is not the capricious gift of a God whose motivations defy understanding, on a servant who does not even deserve it: rather the Grace of the Buddhas is always given, to all without exception, in every place, at all times and in very moment; we need only have to become receptive to it in order to partake of it. This process is quite straight forward and open to everyone to pursue, although it is not always easy. The process is to train ourselves in gracefulness, to be graceful, and to become ever more graceful.

25 March 2006

Kukai in China

Kukai's journey to ChinaI've not been thinking much about the Dharma per se this week. Most of my reflection time has been spent mulling over Kukai's trip to China in 804-6. It's a fascinating episode in the life of one of my very favourite historical Buddhists - yes one of my Buddhist heros!

Kukai had dropped out of mainstream life to practice as a freelance ascetic, which made him an outlaw in late 8th century Japan. Some years earlier he had written and circulated a satirical attack on the official confucianist doctines of the Imperial state. Having repudiated by word and deed the Imperial orthodoxy, he was the antithesis of an establishment figure.

So how did he come to be included in the diplomatic mission to Tang China in 804? Maybe his relatives pulled some strings, but historians love to point out that his family and clan were Aristocracy in decline, and probably had little influence with the court. It may have been because he volunteered to go on a mission which most people in the right mind did anything they could to get out of. Trips to China involved taking completely unsuitable craft across over 1000km of open ocean, where more often than not they were sunk by storms. It wasn't certain death, but two of the four boats in the fleet were lost in the first week. Kukai had volunteered because he figured that someone in China would be able to explain the Mahāvairocana Sutra to him.

The fact is that we don't know how Kūkai got on the boat, nor the circumstances of his ordination as a bhikṣu. But we know that he caught the boat, survived the storm, and charmed the pants off the Chinese when he got there. Kūkai's boat was blown 1600km south of it's intended destination. The port authorities at the out of the way port refused them permission to land. They sailed north to the city of Fu-chou where their boat was impounded and the crew forced to live in a swamp for a few weeks. Until Kūkai wrote a letter to the authorities that so impressed them that I organised proper accommodation for the rest of the mission - including the official ambassador and his staff. Kūkai again prevailed upon the Chinese when he was at first not permitted to travel to Chang-an the capital. Finally, after a month of travelling overland, and the death of the Chinese Emperor just a few weeks after their arrival, Kūkai managed to get himself posted to Xi-ming temple.

Xi-ming was the greatest temple in China, and contained one of the great libraries in history. It housed for instance the texts brought back from India by Xuan-zang and other Chinese pilgrims. It was the nexus of Chinese efforts to translated Buddhist texts, and Buddhist culture into Chinese. At Xi-ming Kūkai learned Sanskrit, in the space of a few weeks, from an ex-pat Indian monk who had himself been trained at Nalanada. He also studied poetry and calligraphy, and is a celebrated exponent of both arts.

Chang-an at this time was the largest city in the world, with more than a million inhabitants. The regular, tree lined streets were wide, clean, ordered, and foreigners could be seen everywhere. The Silk Rd was still open and Chang-an formed one end of it. It was one of those times in Chinese history which was very open to outsiders and their cultures. These were prosperous times and Buddhist temples in particular prospered. The wealth of the dozens of temples has been described as "incalculable". Amongst the Buddhist temples were of course Taoist and Confucian temples, but also a couple of Nestorian Churches (which gave a Jesuits a fright centuries later!), Manichean and Zoroastrian temples, as well as, possibly a mosque or two.

Kūkai had grown up in rural Japan, and after only a couple of years in the very much smaller capital city Nara, had absconded back to the wilderness. Kūkai even described himself as a child of nature. So what would it have been like for him to arrive in uber-urban Chang-an? What would the impact of this most cosmopolitan of cities?

All we really know is that Kūkai made excellent use of his time in Chang-an. He arrived back in Japan two years later, eighteen years earlier than expected, with a boatload of new scriptures, images and artefacts, but also with a new language and script, and with a new form of Buddhism. It would take almost the rest of his life, three decades, to firmly establish Shingon. But while Shingon waxed and waned in terms of influence on Japanese society, the thing that really revolutionised it was the idea of writing in a syllabic script. Until then all writing was in Chinese characters and most in the Chinese language and only the male aristocracy were suffered to learn Chinese. It is ironic that the most valuable thing that Kūkai brought back from China had been a way for the Japanese to free themselves of the Chinese cultural hegemony!

29 January 2006

Kukai : Buddhist hero of Japan

Image of KukaiIn this post I want to draw attention to and celebrate a Buddhist hero. Kukai is a figure so multi-sided, so multifaceted, that summing him up in a short essay is almost impossible. He is known by three main names, Kukai, Kobodaishi, and Odaishisama (or just Daishisama), and I will try to say a little something about each.

Kukai was the Buddhist monk who brought the Vajrayana teachings to Japan in 804. Not only was a dedicated and deeply realised spiritual practitioner, he was a gifted poet and calligrapher, a competent civil engineer, and a consummate political operator. At a time when heterodox people of any kind could sink without trace, he managed to radically alter not only the face of Japanese Buddhism, but the whole Japanese culture. His Shingon Buddhism was to dominate Japanese society for several centuries, and it is said that with Shingon came the Siddham script which in turn helped to give birth to the Japanese Kana. This in turn enabled an indigenous, vernacular literature to develop, since before this writing was all in Chinese and education in Chinese was denied to women and non-aristocrats. Shingon reinvigorated Japanese Buddhism which had become rather scholastic. Kukai's insistence that Awakening was possible in this very life was apparently novel, and was at first questioned. Without this basic premise however, Buddhist practice is just going through the motions.

Kobodaishi is the title bestowed on Kukai posthumously by the emperor. The title means 'Great Teacher who Spreads the Dharma'. Where Kukai is very much a man in history, Kobodaishi is something more. He is superhuman, and supra-historical. As happens with religious figures in any tradition, the stories about the many grew after his death. Feats and texts where attributed to him that he did not perform or write. This is not necessarily a falsification because myth has to have a vehicle and Kobodaishi happens to be an excellent vehicle for the Japanese mythic imagination. Kobodaishi then is an archetypal figure. He did not really die in 837, but retired to meditate until the advent of Maitreya the next Buddha. This resurrection myth is quite universal in character, Kukai, King Author, Christ, and probably Elvis Presley, will all be appearing again before long. The myth of renewal goes very deep in the human psyche. Shingon practitioners tend to refer to Kukai as Kobodaishi, indicating that 1200 years after his death it is probably the myth rather than the man that informs their practice. Ordinary humans can only inspire us so much. What really moves us are archetypal figures who seem to embody the deepest forces in the world and our psyches.

Odaishi-sama is an almost completely different character. He is one step further removed from Kukai the historical man. In a way we can see the process of myth making quite clearly in this change from Kukai, to Kobodaishi, to Daishi-sama. Daishi-sama is not associated with Kukai's signature form of Buddhism, Shingon, at all. He is the invention of 10th and 11th century wandering shaman-priests who had adopted large dollops of Pure Land Buddhism into their patter. They travelled the countryside practising medicine, soothsaying, and carrying out important rituals. Daishi-sama became a kind of saint to them, and like the Buddha Amitabha, it was said that if you chant his name then you will be reborn in the Western Paradise, Sukhavati, the Happy Land. There is little remaining of the historical character, but he is none the less an important folk figure. Many a person is devoted to the cult of Daishi-sama, chants his name and fervently believes in his saving grace. And why not?

Kukai is the pivot point of a great mythic cycle. From outside space and time Mahavairocana manifested beings to whom he could communicate. He gave Vajrasattva his initiation and asked him to pass it on to other beings. Vajrasattva, an entirely mythic being, then gave the initiation to Nagarjuna. Nagarjuna stands athwart the mythic and human realms. It is thought that he actually lived, and that there were likely to have been two people with that name separated by several hundred years. Or it is believed that he was a wizard who lived for 700 years. His biography is almost entirely made up of mythic elements. Nagarjuna initiated Nagabodhi, another semi-legendary figure, who gave the initiation to Vajrabodhi. Vajrabohi and the succeeding patriarchs of the Shingon lineage are genuine historical personages with relatively straight forward biographies. Skipping a couple of steps we find that Hui-kuo gave the initiation to Kukai making him the 8th Patriarch of the lineage. Then Kukai, after his death, undergoes a series of transitions to become Odaishisama, that is which lead him back into the mythic realm.

Kukai is a key figure in the history of Buddhism. His writings are lucid and fresh even after 1200 years. That many are available in good English translations is a cause for celebration. He is less well studied than he might be because Shingon has not done much proselytising outside of Japan. If you are interested in Japanese Buddhism, in mantra or vajrayana, then Kukai’s works are invaluable. Hakeda's Major works is a reliable translation, but there are also some in the BDK English Tripitaka published by the Numata Centre. Ryuichi Abe's The Weaving of Mantra is a difficult read at times due to the semiotics jargon that he uses, and I don’t entirely agree with his thesis, but it is invaluable as a more indepth study of Kukai. Taiko Yamasaki's Shingon: Japanese Esoteric Buddhism is a good introductory and can be published from Shingon Buddhist International. Engaging with Shingon practice is more difficult because teachers are hard to find in the West. However we can be inspired by Kukai's life, and his written works can help us to understand the Dharma more deeply.

For more info on Kukai see the Wikipedia article, which I can recommend because I wrote most of it (well originally it's all been altered now of course!).