Kobo Daishi – the Founder of Esoteric Buddhism in Japan

Like many of the world’s great religions, Buddhism has many sects. The Shingon or “True Word” school of Buddhism arose in Japan largely due to the efforts of a monk named Kūkai (774-835) – posthumously known as Kōbō Daishi.


Many Shingon temples feature prominent statues of Kōbō Daishi, like this one at Tatsueji on the island of Shikoku:

Kobo Daishi

In 804, Kūkai traveled to China as part of a government-sponsored expedition to learn more about Buddhism. While there, he studied esoteric Buddhist teachings under a Chinese Buddhist master named Huiguo. Three years later, Kūkai returned to Japan, and in 816, Emperor Saga granted permission for Kūkai to establish a mountain retreat and Buddhist center atop Mount Koya.

Today, Mount Koya is considered the heart of Shingon Buddhism in Japan.

Although forced to spend many years away from Koya while serving the Emperor and the Japanese state, Kūkai returned to the mountain in 832 and remained there, ordaining monks, praying for the welfare of Japan and its people, and meditating.

In 835, Kūkai dedicated himself fully to meditation, even giving up food and water. He was entombed on Mount Koya – beneath the towering cedars in the place now known as Okunoin (“the temple at the end”), and although official reports state that Kūkai died on the 23rd day of the third month of 835 (by the Japanese calendar), Shingon legend says that he remains alive, in a permanent state of deep meditation, praying for the welfare and people of the world.


(This photo shows the cemetery at Okunoin, but not Kōbō Daishi’s tomb. Photography is prohibited in the area around his mausoleum.)

During his lifetime, Kōbō Daishi established many temples, carved sculptures, translated sutras, and is sometimes credited with inventing the phonetic kana syllabary still used in writing Japanese. His life and teaching remain a significant influence on Japanese Buddhism and culture, and the thriving community he established on Mount Koya remains one of Japan’s most significant centers of Buddhist teaching and practice.