Kobo Daishi

The priest Kobo of ninth century Japan was a universal genius and scholar of vast erudition, one of the outstanding figures in his country’s history.

Kobo Daishi (this is his ecclesiastical name, literally “the Great Teacher who spreads the Law”) was born in 774 A.D. as the son of the governor of Sanuki province of Japan. He went to the university at the capital to master Chinese classics and poetry, Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism. At 20 he became a monk, and at 24, when sitting in meditation on a cliff by the seashore, there was an experience of illumination which determined his life.  His learning and piety so impressed the Emperor that he commissioned Kobo to go to China to find the inner heart of Buddhism and bring the knowledge back to Japan. Buddhism, of course, was already established in Japan, but for two centuries it had developed mostly within a small circle on Hinayana lines, without any extensive appeal.

Kobo studied under various masters in China, including Indian teachers from Kashmir and Southern India, from whom he learned Sanskrit. Finally, at the capital Chang An, he met a very old teacher, the patriarch of the Mantra yana or sect of the True Word. When Kobo arrived, this master said: “I have been awaiting you so long.  Now at last you have come”. He told him to make ready quickly to receive the teachings, and in a few months Kobo was made his successor in the patriarchal line. The master said: “Now go back quickly to your own country, present the doctrine to the Emperor, then spread it among your people and so promote their welfare”. After this charge, the master died in a few days. Kobo’s ship was caught in a typhoon on the way home, and it took 55 days to accomplish the journey to Japan, which today takes only 24 hours. He found that his patron, the Emperor Kammu, had died, but he presented to the new Emperor many sutras, pictures and relics from China, and then left the court for over a year, devoting himself to arranging and studying the material he had brought, to travelling as a begging monk, and to his yoga practices.

Three years later, again a new Emperor ascended the throne. This was the brilliant Emperor Saga, a poet and painter of distinction, and – perhaps even higher accomplishment – a great calligrapher. He was one of the so-called “Three Great Calligraphers” of the period, the others being Hayanari Tachibana and Kobo Daishi. As a natural result, they became intimate friends, and the Emperor granted great favours to Kobo. From this Emperor the saint received as a gift, Mt. Koya, on which he built a monastery which today is probably the largest in Japan. From this time on the sect of the True Word or Mantra was established on a firm foundation.

It is hard even to list the secular achievements of the versatile genius of Kobo Daishi. In scholarship, painting and calligraphy he was not merely among the best of his time, but of the whole of the cultural history of the Far East. Where we should say “even Homer nods”, the standard Japanese proverb is “even Kobo makes a mistake”. He introduced tea into Japan, invented a new writing brush, built reservoirs for irrigation, constructed bridges, and set up public baths at medicinal hot-springs, some of which he himself discovered.

In his time education was not open to the children of families below the fifth rank; in other words, the common people were completely shut out. Kobo opened near the capital the “Institution of Liberal Arts and Wisdom” for the children of commoners. The education given was of two kinds, secular and sacred. The secular students were taught Confucianism (note the tolerance of this Buddhist priest), Chinese composition and writing, grammar, and a general ethical training. Those who wished to become priests could choose to study the True Word teachings or those of any other sect, and in addition were required to master a good deal of secular learning.

The best epitome of Kobo Daishi’s gifts is the invention of the Japanese alphabet. Before his time the language had no alphabet of its own, and had to be written by using random Chinese characters having approximately the same phonetic value as the syllables to be written – a clumsy system indeed. Perhaps Kobo’s Sanskrit studies convinced him of the advantages of a phonetic script – at any rate, it was he who first classified the fifty syllables of the language in the most scientific way (still used in the grammars) following the Sanskrit model. And he selected certain simplified symbols to represent them. So far the scholar.

Then the poet in him thought that for teaching the new alphabet he would embody the syllables in a poem in a particular metre, using each syllable once and once only. But Kobo was not only scholar and poet, he was also a saint. He decided that his poem should declare the essence of Buddhism, and chose four lines of the Nirvana-sutra as representing the heart of the Buddhist doctrine, to paraphrase in his poem.

The stanza in the original Sutra is as follows:

All earthly things pass away

This is the law of all existence.

Going beyond this law of extinction,

We are in the bliss of Nirvana alone.

The extreme difficulty of the task may be imagined, but Kobo solved it brilliantly with a poem of great beauty:

The blooms are fragrant, but alas! they fall.

Who in this world can remain for ever?

Crossing this day the mountains of transient existence

We see no more shallow dreams, nor are deluded.

In this poem, each letter of the Japanese alphabet occurs in the original once and only once. For over a thousand years, it has been repeated by every Japanese who recites the alphabet, or uses a dictionary. There is still in existence a manuscript with the poem brushed by Kobo in his wonderful calligraphy, in the new symbols selected by him – the whole representing one of the most remarkable feats of secular and religious genius in history.

Kobo’s achievements in the spiritual realm are no less impressive. He wrote a great many works, most of them still extant, developing and expounding his system. He always stressed the fact that man can realize his Buddha nature in this very life, and it is not to be sought for in the state after death.

His life and teachings show certain salient points, which include the following : Deep learning, Unity, Joy, Benevolence and Humility, and Illumination.

Of his deep learning enough has been said, but it is noteworthy that he never condemned other systems of thought, whether Buddhist or even outside Buddhism. As has been seen, he did not expect everyone to master the complete Buddhist doctrine, and at his university Confucianism and other branches of secular learning were taught. It was partly this broad tolerance which enabled him to found his sect with so little opposition.

Unity is a fundamental doctrine in his system. All beings, living and even inert, have as their essence the nature of Buddha, which however transcends them. In fact, it is only the Buddha-nature which has absolute reality. From the point of view of meditation technique, certain objects such as the sun are more easily taken as symbols of the essential Buddha-nature than others. By prolonged concentration on such a symbol, the mind easily becomes completely one-pointed, and then the symbolized is seen in the symbol. In the same way, the mantras or certain mystic syllables are meditated upon to focus the mind.  It is hinted that the meditation on the mantras can also give great powers, but in the teaching of Kobo the aim is illumination.

Meditation on a mantra, such as the word OM, or the syllables A-BI-RA-UN-GEN, with concentration on the sound and on the meaning, is said by Kobo to be one of the most direct ways to illumination, and for this reason the sect is known as the Sect of the True Word or Mantra. It is, in fact, the doctrine of mantra as taught in the classical yoga of India. As further aids to concentration, mystic diagrams are used, and gestures with the hands. All these things have deep spiritual meaning, but the purpose is simply to bring serenity and concentration to the mind so that it may realize the Buddha-nature in itself and in everything.

The illumination brings with it Joy, which expresses itself in realisation of beauty in conduct, in thought and in art. Kobo’s whole life was a work of art, and it might be said that the productions of his hands almost founded Japanese culture. Some account of his significance in the history of Far Eastern art is given in Fenollosa’s Epochs of Chinese and Japanese Art.

Of his universal benevolence enough has been said but it might perhaps be thought that such a man would have every reason to be proud of his fame. It is sufficient to say that this teacher, the most learned and gifted man of the age, often travelled for long periods as an angya or mendicant monk in remote parts of the country where he was not recognized. There is a life-size bronze statue of the master as an angya, his thick powerful body clad in a shabby robe, carrying only a staff, begging-bowl and rosary, and on the massive head a big round straw hat throwing the face into shadow. In this way the great genius elected to pass years of his life.

The glory of his Illumination was experienced even by those who might have felt their interests threatened by his activities. After the foundation of the True Word in Japan, a great meeting of all the Buddhist sects was held at the Imperial Court, and in long debates Kobo established his doctrine against the objections of the other sects. The accounts say that he entered into meditation during the discussions and that all saw a brilliant radiance coming from his body. It is certain that the others were not antagonised by the triumph of the new sect, and good relations prevailed during the rest of Kobo’s life.

In his sixty-second year, he entered the final meditation, entrusting future affairs to his disciples with detailed instructions. The tradition is that he did not die but passed into a trance, and is concealed somewhere in the dense and mysterious forests of Mount Koya. When the next Buddha incarnates, Kobo will emerge to greet him.

As has been seen, a characteristic doctrine of the teacher is that of mantra. The use of mantra is, however, not confined to the True Word sect nor to Buddhism, but has been well-known to nearly all great mystics. Here are three quotations on mantra from other  Mahatmas:

St. Francis: “When I say Ave Maria, the heavens smile, the angels rejoice, the world exults, hell trembles, the devils fly.”

Swami Rama Tirtha: “All the planes of being, all the worlds, all phases of existence are covered by the syllable OM. When chanted, it puts the mind in a state where it is one with God. This is a fact which can be verified by experience”.

Shri Dada: “From the yogic point of view, all spiritual learning is contained in one word, and it is OM. If you want any worldly advantage such as wealth, health or power, then you may concentrate on other words such as Rama or Hari, but if you want to see God within your soul then OM is the best object of your concentration.”

In conclusion here is an extract from one of the works of Kobo Daishi, the  Jewel Key . The translation is that of Dr. Anezaki:

Vast, vast, extremely vast

Are the scrolls of yellow silk,

Hundreds and thousands of the Inner teachings and the Outer.

Profound, profound, very profound

Ways are marked and ways shown, hundreds of ways.

What benefit in writing and reading, finally to die ?

Unknown and unknowable, self never knows self ;

Thinking, thinking and thinking, yet no sign of wisdom

Mad are the beings in the three realms of existence

And none knowing his own madness ;

Blind are the beings, born of the egg or the womb,

And yet all unaware of their blindness !

Born, born and reborn without limit,

And still dark as to the origin of birth ;

Dying, dying, and dying without end,

Yet veiled is the ultimate goal of life.

The healing power of the Outer doctrines has wiped away all dust ;

Now opens the store of the True Word,

By which ‘the hidden treasures are brought to light,

In which are embodied all virtues and power.

The Buddhas in the innumerable Buddha-lands

Are nothing but the Buddha within our own soul ;

The Golden Lotus, multitudinous as the drops of ocean water,

Is living in our own body.

Myriads of figures are contained in every mystic letter ;

Every piece of matter embodies a Deity.

On realizing this everyone shall attain

The glory of illumination in this very life.


© Trevor Leggett