The Monk Konghai

(This article was published in the Shenzhen Daily on November 9, 2015.)

A statue of Konghai at Lingyin Temple, Hangzhou

The Japanese word for "Great Teacher" (大師) is spelled "Daishi" in Roman characters, and pronounced die-shee. (The Chinese spell it dashi in Hanyu Pinyin, and pronounce it da-shuh). One Great Teacher in Japan has been designated THE Daishi, since he stands out above the rest. His name was Kukai (Ch. Konghai) and his full title "Kobo Daishi" (Hongfa Dashi)--the Great Teacher who Spreads the Dharma (the Buddha's teachings).

Born on the island of Shikoku in 774, Kukai's life inspired a pilgrimage to 88 temples on that island which tradition says started not too long after his death in 835. It continues to this day. (I had the privilege of completing it in 2001.)

But perhaps of greater interest to our readers is that Kukai came to Chang'an--modern Xi'an--for study in the early 9th century. He was shipwrecked on the coast of Fujian, and, after a delay, traveled to the capital, where he lived at Ximing Temple. (The historical temple has been lost, but he is still honored at a reconstruction.)

But it was at Qinglong Temple where he met the Chinese Master Huiguo, who himself had been a disciple of Amoghavajra, a monk of the Indian tradition and one of the great translators of Sanskrit texts into Chinese.

So in three generations an esoteric Buddhist tradition sometimes called "Vajrayana" changed hands from an Indian monk to a Chinese one, and then on to a Japanese one.

Returning to Japan, Kukai founded Shingon (Chinese Zhenyan, but also called "Tangmi" or "Esoteric [Doctrine] of the Tang [Dynasty]"). This teaching died out in China and is now being revived, but has remained fairly popular in Japan.

Images of Kobo Daishi can be found in temples along the route he followed through China.

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