774 Born to Tagimi Saeki and his wife Tamayori. With the child name Mao (according to other sources, with the child name Tōtomono). The Saeki family was a locally influential noble family in Tado District in Sanuki Province, present-day Zentsūji City in Kagawa Prefecture.
789 Instructed in the Chinese classics by his uncle.
791 Kūkai goes to Nara, the main city at the time, to study at Daigakuryō (大学寮) State University. Their graduates usually worked as high officials after graduation. Kūkai probably began to study Buddhism intensively during this time.
804 Kūkai travels to China as a participant in a government-funded voyage on 4 ships, only two of which reach China. Kūkai’s ship docks in Fujian province, where it is first impounded. Passengers are denied access to the city. Kūkai, who speaks fluent Chinese, explains their situation to the governor of the province and the ship is given permission to dock. The voyage participants continue to Chang’an, the capital of the Tang Dynasty.
805 Kūkai meets with Master Huiguo (746-805) and is initiated into the teachings of Esoteric Buddhism at the Qinglong Temple. Huiguo makes him his successor after only one year and gives him the name Henjō Kongō.
806 Kūkai’s plan was to spend 20 years in China. But after only 2 years, he returns to Japan as the eighth patriarch of Esoteric Buddhism, having learned Sanskrit and Chinese calligraphy and poetry.
810 Kūkai is appointed head of the Tōdai-ji temple in Nara and continues to work on his writings and studies, which formed the basis of Shingon Buddhism in Japan.
816 Receives permission from the emperor to build a temple complex on Kōya-san (Mount Kōya) and has Kongōbuji (金剛峰寺) built. Dedicated in 819, Kongōbuji is one of the main Shingon temples and was declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 2004.
821 Kukai is responsible for the reconstruction of the destroyed Manno Water Reservoir (Mannōike) in Sanuki Province on Shikoku. In the process, he uses engineering techniques learned in China that are being applied for the first time in Japan.
828 Kūkai founded a private school (shugei shuchiin) in Heian kyō, today’s Kyoto, in which he wanted to introduce the ordinary people to the esoteric teachings of Shingon. The school is closed after his death.
835 Died at Kōya-san (Mount Kōya) in present-day Wakayama Prefecture, south of Osaka.
921 Received posthumously the honorary title of Kōbō Daishi (弘法大師, “The Grand Master Who Propagated the Buddhist Teaching”), conferred by Emperor Daigo.
Kūkai is still revered by his followers today as Odaishi-sama (お大師様, “The Great Master”).
Kūkai and the Legend of Emon Saburō
The beginnings of pilgrimage on Shikoku
The legend tells of Emon Saburō, who, in 824 AD, was the first pilgrim on Shikoku.
He lived with his eight sons in the province of Iyo (in the present-day city of Matsuyama in Ehime Prefecture) and was a fabulously rich man. The head of a powerful family, but also selfish, greedy and stingy.
According to this legend, one day a wandering monk came to his door and asked for alms. But Emon refused to give anything and drove the monk away. The monk returned the next day and was driven away again. Eight days in a row the monk returned to Emon’s house and each time he was driven away. Finally, on the eighth day, Emon’s anger broke out and he beat the monk with a bamboo broom. The monk’s begging bowl broke into eight pieces and the shards scattered on the ground. The monk left the place and did not return.
Soon after, the first of Emon’s eight sons died. And within a short time, all his other sons died, one after the other. After the eighth and last son died, Emon realized that the reason for the death of his sons must have been the bad treatment of the monk who had asked for alms at his door. Emon also realized that the monk must have been Kūkai. He set out to find Kukai to ask for his forgiveness.
Emon circled the island of Shikoku twenty times clockwise, but could not find Kūkai. Already completely exhausted, he decided to circle the island one more time in the opposite direction, counterclockwise. In this direction he hoped that he would meet Kūkai. But even then, he did not succeed in meeting Kūkai. Nearing death from exhaustion, he fell at the foot of the mountain path leading up to Shōsanji (Temple 12) in Awa Province (present-day Tokushima Prefecture).
As he lay there dying, Kūkai appeared and forgave him for his past deeds. He also granted Emon’s last wish to be reborn in his home province so that he could do good and help others in the next life. With Emon’s death, Kūkai wrote “Emon Saburō reborn” on a small stone, placed it in the palm of Emon’s hand, and buried Emon beside the road.
A short time later, a child was born to a wealthy family in Iyo Province ( today Ehime Prefecture). This child kept his hand closed for a long time. No one was able to open it. When finally a priest was called who managed to open the hand, a small stone with the inscription “Emon Saburō reborn” was found in the palm. After the child grew up, he performed many wonderful and good deeds for the community. Among them was the construction of the Ishiteji (Stone Hand Temple) in Matsuyama. The stone found in his hand can be seen in a small museum at Ishiteji, Temple 51.
This legend conveys a number of customs of the Shikoku pilgrimage that are still current today:
The custom of giving osetai or alms to the needy. Using one’s wealth to endow temples. It represents the origin for the practice of circumnavigating the island in a counterclockwise direction, promising absolution for the pilgrims.