XIAN, China — A young Buddhist monk crossed the sea to China as a member of a Japanese mission sent there during the Tang Dynasty (618-907). That monk was Kukai (774-835), also known posthumously as Kobo-Daishi.
In China, he studied esoteric Buddhism, which had been brought from India, and later brought the teachings back to Japan and founded the Shingon School of Buddhism.
His name has been passed down from generation to generation in Xian, the capital of Shaanxi Province, then the Tang capital of Changan, and garners respect among local people even today.
Surrounded by walls built during the Ming Dynasty, the streets of Xian are laid out as a grid. The streets of Kyoto, an ancient capital of Japan, were modeled after those of Xian. While the city is now lined with four-star hotels and designer boutiques, many old temples and pagodas still remain here and there, recalling bygone days.
On a hill southeast of the city's south gate is Qinglong Temple, Kukai received the ultimate teachings of esoteric Buddhism under Master Huiguo (746-805). At Huiguo-Kukai Memorial Hall, the temple's main hall, wooden statues of Kukai and Huiguo are now worshiped.
“The sight of Huiguo, a Chinese master, and Kukai, a Japanese master, side by side is an eternal symbol of friendship between China and Japan,” Kuan Xu, the temple's 43-year-old head priest, said quietly.
Near the hall stands the Kukai Monument. It was built by four prefectures in Shikoku, including Kagawa, where Kukai was born, and the city government of Xian. Four decorative stones at the monument's four corners symbolize the four prefectures.
The temple was once packed with Japanese tourists, but due to soured relations between the two countries, the number of visitors has declined markedly.
“I chatted with Japanese visitors on a few occasions here. . . . Master Kukai would feel sorry about the current state [of bilateral relations],” said a 77-year-old woman who was sitting on a bench near the monument.
A gateway to the Silk Road and the center of esoteric Buddhism, Changan was one of the world's most prosperous cities during the Tang Dynasty.
Kukai came across esoteric teachings while studying Buddhism in Japan and joined the official mission overseas, hoping to plumb their depths in Changan.
Upon his arrival in Changan in 804, Kukai took up the study of Sanskrit to read the sacred texts. Later he went to see Huiguo at the Qinglong Temple, then considered to be the headquarters of esoteric Buddhism in China.
Huiguo had probably been informed that Kukai was a man of great ability as well as a genius at calligraphy and languages. When Kukai visited him and was given an audience, Huiguo said with delight: “Since learning of your arrival, I've been waiting anxiously. How excellent it is that we now meet at last!”
Huiguo reportedly bestowed upon Kukai all the esoteric teachings.
Esoteric Buddhism, after experiencing a golden age, gradually fell into decline due to Tang Dynasty policies that oppressed Buddhism while patronizing Taoism, and the outbreak of war at the end of the dynasty.
Qinglong Temple was allegedly destroyed, like other ancient temples there, in the 11th century. The temple in its present form, including the monument and the memorial hall, was reconstructed in the 1980s with the cooperation and financial support of the Shingon School of esoteric Buddhism in Japan and community organizations from Shikoku.
Li Lian, the director general of the Buddhist Institute at China's Northwest University, said: “The esoteric Buddhism of the Tang Dynasty has come to an end. We can learn a great deal from Japanese esoteric Buddhism, which Kukai carried on from ancient China.” Qinglong Temple is also looking into the possibility of sending its own monks to Japan for study.
At the memorial hall, a 49-year-old local man was ardently saying a prayer. When I told him that I was from Japan, he said with a smile: “So, you're from the fatherland of Master Kukai! I hope to visit Mt. Koya someday.”
More than 1,200 years ago, a young Kukai built a bridge between Japan and China. Countless years have passed, and though there have been times when the winds of adversity have blown, there are still some who would cross that bridge even today.