The various texts and ritual techniques encompassed by the term *Buddhist tantra’ became established in East Asia (China, Korea and Japan) from the eighth century. The various claims of supernormal power and the images of sovereignty that commonly occur in tantric texts first created great interest in the courts of East Asian kings. But it was the sublime speech of the mantra, the sublime form of the mandala, and the sublime mental states of divine possession that are central to tantric practice that were to gain wide influence in the Buddhist traditions of East Asia.
The most important figure in the dissemination of Buddhist tantra in Japan was Kukai (774-835). It is important to note, however, that Kukai and his Chinese teachers did not refer to their tradition with the term ‘tantra’, but rather as *esoteric Buddhism’ (mikkyo). Kukai was not the first exponent of esoteric Buddhism in Japan, but he was certainly the most famous. Born into an aristocratic family, he was selected by the Japanese court to go to China for an extended period of study. He sailed for China in 804 and proceeded to the Tang capital, where he met the esoteric master Huiguo, from whom he received a series of initiations. Kukai returned to Japan after thirty months in China, carrying with him a collection of texts and ritual objects. He eventually received the permission of the emperor to establish a new sect, which he called Shingon (true word’), on Mount Koya. After an active career as one of the most important cultural figures of his age (he is reverentially referred to as Kobo Daishi, *Great Teacher Who Spread the Dharma’) he *entered samadhi’ on Mount Koya in 835. Although memorial services were performed each week for seven weeks after his death, no funeral was performed. Kukai appeared to be alive, and his hair and beard continued to grow. He was sealed inside a mausoleum, where priests continue to change his clothes. His followers believe that he is not dead, but in a state of deep meditation, from which he will rise when the next buddha, Maitreya, appears.
Kukai was the author of a number of influential treatises in which he set out the theory and practice of esoteric Buddhism. Like other East Asian masters, he regarded esoteric Buddhism as the fulfilment of the Mahayana, offering a special path to the most highly qualified disciples (he set forth a ten-stage hierarchy of disciples, beginning with the *goatlike’ and ending with the proper disciples of Shingon). He also clearly distinguished between the exoteric teachings and the esoteric teachings. The exoteric required lifetimes of practice on the bodhisattva path, while the esoteric teachings provided the means for achieving buddhahood in this lifetime. In the exoteric teachings, the true nature of enlightenment could not be expressed because it was beyond ordinary language. However, the esoteric teachings had their own language, the *true words’ of mantras which could express the ultimate reality. These teachings were also received from a different buddha.
One of Kukai’s innovations appears to be his reinterpretation of the term dharmakaya. As we have seen, Indian Mahayana texts had described three bodies of the Buddha. The nirmanakaya or *emanation body’ was the form of a buddha that appears in the world. The sambhogakaya or *enjoyment body’ was the form of a buddha that appears in pure lands. The dharmakaya, literally *body of qualities’, was not a physical body but a corpus of transcendent qualities shared by all buddhas. In some texts, it is represented as a cosmic principle. Kukai claimed that whereas the exoteric teachings had been preached by the nirmanakaya Sakyamuni, the esoteric teachings had been preached by the dharmakaya, which he identified as Mahavairocana, as a direct and unmediated expression of his enlightenment. Esoteric practice is designed to unite the disciple with the dharmakaya, through the transformation of body (through mudra or gesture), speech (through mantra) and mind (through samadhi).
The selection below is taken from a work entitled Transforming One’s Body into the Realm of Enlightenment (Sokushin Jobutsugi). Although the exact date of composition is unknown, many scholars believe that this work was written in the final years of the reign of Emperor Saga (r. 809-823), when Kukai – having gained the acceptance of his innovative teaching by the Buddhist establishment of his day – began his work of initiating many eminent priests into the esoteric Buddhist discipline. In 822, for example, Kukai’s alliance with Todaiji, the largest temple complex in the ancient capital, Nara, enabled him to build in that temple Kanjodo, Abhseka Hall, the first Japanese Buddhist structure erected exclusively for performing esoteric Buddhist rituals and ceremonies.
In his earlier writings, Kukai worked to demonstrate the utility of studying esoteric Buddhism for deeper understanding of the exoteric schools. In contrast, his focus in Transforming One’s Body is to provide the theoretical underpinning to his claim that all sentient beings are endowed with the psychosomatic qualities that enable them to transform their bodies into the bodies of buddhas. Thus, through the mastery of the esoteric meditative-ritual system, practitioners are empowered to convert instantaneously their ‘body-mind’ into the realm of enlightenment. It appears therefore that the work is aimed at those advanced scholar-monks who rapidly formed themselves into the first generation of Japanese esoteric Buddhist initiates.
According to the Shingon tradition, Transforming One’s Body was written in conjunction with Shoji jissogi (Voice, Letter, Reality,) and Unjiki (On the Sanskrit Letter Hum). Transforming One’s Body, together with these two works, was thus prepared as part of the trilogy – on body, speech and mind – that represents the core of Kukai’s philosophy.
I have awakened myself to the originally non-arising,
Leaped far beyond the path of languages,
And attained deliverance from all suffering.
Extricating myself from the chain of causes and conditions,
I have understood the emptiness that is just like empty space.
The Body as the Six Great Elements, the Four Mandalas, and the World
This is a verse uttered [by Mahavairocana Tathagata] in the Mahavairocana Sutra, the text that gives as one of the Tathagata’s seed mantras, ‘a vi ra hum kham’. The letter a corresponds to the ‘originally non-arising’ [in the verse], which is none other than earth [the first of the six great elements]. The letter va [the Sanskrit character that has to be written first to yield the Sanskrit character vi] indicates leaping ‘far beyond the path of languages’, the function of element water. Purity and freedom from suffering is the work of the letter ra, fire; and not to be captured by karmic causation is the letter ha [the character that serves as the basis for drawing the letter hum], wind. ‘Just like empty space’ is the letter kha, space. Finally, ‘I have awakened’ is consciousness [the sixth element].
In another verse Lord Mahavairocana proclaims:
Taking forms analogous to living beings
I skilfully manifest the dharma-ness
Of all phenomenal existence
Thus established, one after another
Are all the world-saving buddhas, sravakas
Pratyekabuddhas, heroic bodhisattvas
All human teachers, then finally the worlds
Of all sentient and non-sentient beings
What sort of picture does this verse attempt to present? It demonstrates how the six great elements [which are the constituents of Mahavairocana’s body] give rise to the four forms of the dharmakaya’s mandalas [of worldly appearance, symbols, words and actions] and the three kinds of world [of enlightened beings, living beings and material existence]. What is called ‘all phenomenal existence’ [in the verse] signifies mind; ‘dharma-ness’ points to forms. That is to say, ‘all phenomenal existence’ concerns names commonly shared by diverse things, while ‘dharma-ness’ indicates differences among things. Therefore the verse says: ‘Thus established, one after another / Are all the world-saving buddhas, sravakas/ Pratyekabuddhas, heroic bodhisattvas / All human teachers, then finally the world / Of all sentient and non-sentient beings’.
‘All phenomenal things’ means the mandala of words; ‘dharma- ness’, the [mandalas made of the dhamrakaya’s] symbolic bodies.
The beings listed as buddhas, sravakas, pratyekabuddhas, bodhisattvas, teachers and sentient beings are the bodies making up the mandalas of worldly appearance. ‘The world of non-sentient beings’ provides the ground on which the lives of these beings unfold. ‘The world of non-sentient beings’ is a general term to refer to the mandala made of symbols.
The buddhas, bodhisattvas, sravakas and pratyekabuddhas in the verse correspond to the world of enlightened beings; the sentient beings, the world of living beings; and non-sentient beings, the world of material existence. The one that ‘skilfully manifest[s]’ these beings of the verse is none other than the six great elements, and those manifested are ‘those analogous to living beings’. Namely, they are the four forms of the dharmakaya and the three kinds of world.
In the same scripture, it is also stated [by Mahavairocana]: ‘ “O Lord of Secrecy [Vajrasattva], there is a method of building mandalas with all sorts of divinities rightly distributed and positioned, complete with their seed mantras and attributes. Listen clearly, now I explain this to you.” He then expounded the following verse: “Practitioner of mantra, [by means of your visualizing exercise] place circular altars in your body / Generate the great vajra disk in the area between your feet and navel / Then between navel and chest visualize the water disc / Above the water disc is the fire disc, and on top of it locate the wind disc.” ’ The ‘vajra disc’ is formed of the letter a, which is the earth. As for the meaning of the discs of water, fire and wind, the line already clearly expresses it. The circular altars indicate emptiness. ‘Practitioner of mantra’ means consciousness [the sixth element]. The ‘divinities’ described in the prose are the dharmakaya’s bodies in their worldly manifestations; their ‘seed mantras’ are the dharmakaya’s bodies made of words; and their ‘attributes’, its bodies made of symbols. The dharmakaya’s bodies made of action are already ingrained in these three bodies.
Body, Language and Non-duality
According to the exoteric teaching, the four great elements [earth, water, fire and wind] are non-sentient existence; however, according to the esoteric teaching, they are none other than tathagatas’ symbolic bodies. The four great elements do not exist separately from mind [the sixth element]. Although mind is distinguished from form, they share the same nature. Form is mind, mind is forms. They interfuse with one another without difficulty. Therefore, knowing is the objects of knowledge, and the objects, knowing. Knowing is reality, reality knowing. Although there seems to be a distinction between creating and the created, they freely intertwine. Because ultimately all things transcend the division between creating and the created, how is it possible for naturally existing reality to be created? All names such as ‘creating’ and the ‘created’ are the secret names [of esoteric Buddhist divinities]. Do not indulge yourself in all sorts of sophistry by attaching yourself to conventional and shallow usage of these terms. All things [consisting of the four great elements] invariably make up tathagatas’ bodies, the bodies made up of the six great elements, the essentials of the universe of the dharma. These bodies constantly interpenetrate with one another; yet grounded firmly in reality, they remain eternally unchanged.
Making Your Body Enlightened – A Speedy Process
It is said in another scripture: ‘Each letter of Mahavairocana Buddha’s three-letter mantra [om bhuh kham] is boundless. When you empower your heart by [concentrating there] the power of this mantra and the mudra attached to it, the mirror wisdom is formed there [in your heart] and you will obtain the adamantine vajra body, which is bodhicitta. When you empower your forehead in the same manner, the wisdom of equality is formed there, and you will obtain the body adorned by all sorts of fortune, the body of a bodhisattva designated to be the crown prince of dharma. When you empower your mouth, the wisdom of subtle observation is formed there, and you will obtain the body of the buddhas’ wisdom, the body capable of turning the wheel of dharma. When you empower the crown of your head, the wisdom of action is formed there and you will obtain the body of buddhas’ miraculous transformation that conquers [those evil beings] hardest to conquer. Finally, when you empower yourself by means of these mudra and mantra, you will obtain Mahavairocana Buddha’s body as boundless as the entire universe and as empty space, the body which is none other than the wisdom of the essential nature of the universe.’
According to another scripture, ‘When you immerse yourself in the meditation on the dharmakaya’s reality, each and every karmic relation becomes equal to all other karmic relations, and each and every form is equal to all other forms. Just like a space within empty space, they become indistinguishable from each other. When you concentrate yourself in this meditation and practise it incessantly, you will directly enter the first stage of enlightenment in this very life and instantly accumulate within yourself merit and wisdom that can normally be collected by a bodhisattva only at the end of his or her countless transmigratory lives, across an immeasurably extensive aeon. Because multitudes of tathagatas will shower you with their empowering blessings, you will pass through the final stages of bodhisattvas’ enlightenment and attain transcendental wisdom. Now you will see no difference between yourself and others because both you and others equally are bodies of dharmakaya. With unconditioned great compassion you will accomplish great works of buddhas by providing benefit to countless living beings.’
In yet another scripture, it is said, ‘Ground your practice on ritual meditation on the innately awakened wisdom expounded by Vairocana Buddha, a self-transformation of the dharmakaya. Base your knowledge on the wisdom embodied in Vajrasattva, the great universally good, another self-transformation of the dharmakaya. Then, in this life of yours, you will be able to meet a mandala- master and have him guide you into the mandala, the realm of enlightenment. Having completed the rite of upholding the esoteric precepts, you will dwell in the samadhi of [the bodhisattva] Samantabhadra, the universally good. Then draw Vajrasattva into your body, the body that is also Samantabhadra’s body. Because of the miraculous power of the Buddha’s blessings protecting you, in an instant you will acquire countless methods of practising meditation and chanting dharani. With a power beyond measure, you will even be able to transfigure the karmic seed of selfish attachment planted deep in the minds of your disciples. By that time you will have accumulated in your body merit and wisdom that can normally be collected by a bodhisattva only at the end of his or her countless transmigratory lives, across an immeasurably extensive aeon. This will mark your rebirth in the family of buddhas. You will become one who is born from the mind of all tathagatas, born from buddhas’ mouths, born from buddhas’ dharma, born from the teaching of the dharma. You will become the one who inherits the wealth of dharma – which is none other than the teaching of manifesting your enlightened mind by means of practice of the three mysteries [body, speech, mind; mudra, mantra and mandala].’ This line explains the merit you will acquire from your master’s ritual empowerment when you receive for the first time the precepts of the enlightened mind from the master.
‘As soon as you take even a glimpse of the mandala, you will instantly generate pure faith. Because you will gaze at the divinities in the mandalas with a mind filled with joy, you will plant the seed of Vajradhatu [the enlightened realm inhabited by vajra-holding divinities] in the alaya, the deepest region of your consciousness.’ This line describes the merit you will acquire when you observe for the first time the divinities in the mandala, an assembly vast as an ocean.
‘You will then receive abhiṣeka [initiation into esoteric teaching] and be given a name as a vajra-holder [i.e., practitioner of esoteric teaching]. From this moment on, you will acquire a vast, profound knowledge of esoteric practices that will enable you to leap over the two paths of Hlnayana practitioners and the ten stages of bodhisattva practice. You incessantly ponder and train yourself in the teaching gate of great Vajrasattva’s fivefold secret yoga [the meditative knowledge that transforms the four principal forms of delusion – desire, attachment, love and gratification – into four female bodhisattvas personifying, respectively, aspiration, commitment, compassion and bliss in benefiting beings, the four paths by means of which Vajrasattva’s pure enlightened mind engages in its saving activities]. As a result, you will free yourself from attachment to the emptiness of both subject and object, reach the first stage of enlightenment in this life, and continue your spiritual ascent. Having mastered the fivefold secret, you will be neither tainted by nor attached to the dualistic division between samsara and nirvana. Dividing your body into the bodies of ten billion beings, you playfully and skilfully enter into the five transmigratory realms [of hell dwellers, hungry ghosts, animals, fighting demons and humans] to benefit diverse living beings. With the act of helping them attain enlightenment, you will give yourself proof that you have already reached the spiritual state attained by Vajrasattva.’ This section explains the inconceivable merit accrued from practising the rituals prescribed in esoteric Buddhist scriptures and ritual manuals.
It is also said elsewhere, ‘With the vajra of the three mysteries serving as your karmic seed for growth, you will obtain the fruit of enlightenment, namely, the three bodies of Vairocana Buddha [dharmakaya sambhogakaya and nirmanakaya].’
All these scriptures describe the ritual practices of the samadhi that enable you to attain enlightenment with miraculous, inconceivable speed. Therefore, if you resolutely dedicate yourself to practise regularly, day and night, your body will soon be endowed with the five miraculous powers [universal vision, universal hearing, omnipresence, knowledge of one’s own past and future karma and the knowledge of reading the minds of others]. Continue your practice, and then without abandoning this body of yours, you will enter the ranks of buddhas.
Translated by Ryuichi Abe from Kobodaishi zenshu, vol. 1, ed. Hase Hoshu (Kyoto: Rokudai shinposha, 1909-1911, 1966), p. 506.
Source: Lopez Donald S. (2004), Buddhist Scriptures, Penguin Classics; First Edition.