Kuukai 空海
KEY WORD : art history / iconography
Early Heian period Buddhist priest (774-835), patriarch of the Shingon 真言 sect of Esoteric Buddhism mikkyou 密教, and famous calligrapher. As a cult figure and culture hero credited with everything from inventing kana かな script to introducing homosexuality to Japan, Kuukai is the subject of numerous portraits (see *Koubou Daishi 弘法大師 and *Chigo Daishi 稚児大師) as well as being the legendary creator of many famous works of art. Born noble family in Zentsuuji 善通寺, Sanuki 讃岐 province Kagawa prefecture, at age fifteen Kuukai went to Nara where he studied Confucian classics. At seventeen he entered the National University where he wrote a treatise, SANGOU SHIIKI 三教指帰, comparing the relative merits of Confucianism, Daoism, and Buddhism, praising the latter. At nineteen he was ordained at Toudaiji 東大寺 and took the name Kuukai, meaning Sea of Void. In 804, Kuukai went to China where he studied with the great Esoteric master Huiguo (Jp: Keika 恵果; 746-805) at Qinglongsi 青竜寺 in Chang'an (Jp: Chouan 長安). Not only did Kuukai receive the highest level of ordination (which allowed him to transmit the teaching) but he also gathered ritual implements, several hundred texts, and ten mandala *mandara 曼荼羅 paintings during his stay. In 806 Kuukai returned to Japan, and in 810 began to petition the government for official recognition of the Shingon sect. In 816 he obtained land for a Shingon meditation center on Mt. Kouya 高野, and in 822 got exclusive control over Touji 東寺 in Kyoto, making it the center of Shingon practice and worship. In 836 Kuukai died and was entombed at the *Oku-no-in 奥の院 on Mt. Kouya, although Shingon orthodoxy teaches that he became a Buddha and waits there for the coming of *Miroku 弥勒. Kuukai was given the posthumous title of Koubou Daishi. Kuukai's contributions to art are numerous. As patriarch of Japanese Shingon, he transmitted to Japan a sect which was to quickly become a leading patron of the arts. The Shingon emphasis on ritual led directly to the creation of variety of new subjects in painting and sculpture, as well as to the production of numerous ceremonial implements. Key among painting themes are the *Taizoukai mandara 胎蔵界曼荼羅 (Womb Realm Mandala) and *Kongoukai mandara 金剛界曼荼羅 (Diamond Realm Mandala), the first versions of which were brought by Kuukai from China to Japan. In addition, Kuukai's Shingon, with its close adaptation of central Asian Tantrism, led to the production of both fierce and benevolent multi-armed and multi-headed deities whose heavy proportions reflect the Hindu sculptural tradition. Kuukai is also credited with founding hundreds of temples across Japan, many of which are located on remote mountains. Thus Kuukai is at least indirectly related with the establishment of the asymmetrical Heian period mountain temple centered on the pagoda, a sharp contrast to the balanced orthodoxy of Nara period *garan 伽藍 temples centered on the lecture hall *koudou 講堂. The mandala-like sculptural arrangements in temple buildings is also attributed to Kuukai. More common but even less grounded in fact are the numerous legends which ascribe Kuukai's hand to both famous and obscure paintings and sculpture. For instance, the sculpture group in the Touji Kondou has long been attributed to Kuukai and legend similarly attributes the stone Buddhas on Sado 佐渡 Island to his hand. By the late Heian period Kuukai was reputed to have done both Buddhist portraits and even paintings in ink. Far less plausible is the legend that Kuukai created many of the hotsprings in Japan, striking the ground with his magic staff to unleash curative hot waters. Kuukai's greatest, and undisputed, contribution to Japanese art is in calligraphy, where he revolutionized the Japanese approach to the art and served as a model for generations of later calligraphers. Considered one of the Three Brushes, sanpitsu 三筆 or Three Great Calligraphers, Kuukai excelled in calligraphy as a youth, but achieved greatness after learning Chinese grass script sousho 草書, seal script tensho 篆書, square script reisho 隷書, mixed script zattaisho 雑体書, and even Sanskrit siddham writing in China. Kuukai was influenced by the calligraphy of the 3c master Wang Xizhi (Jp: *Ou Gishi 王義之) as well as that of his near contemporary Yan Zhenqing (Jp: Gan Shinkei 顔真卿; 709-84). After going to China, Kuukai produced his greatest works, including the Sanjuujou soushi 三十帖策子, Fuushinjou 風信帖 (letters from Kuukai to Saichou, Touji), Kanjou rekimei 灌頂暦名 (List of Individuals Receiving Rights, Jingoji 神護寺). Kuukai's unique flying white style hihakutai 飛白体 is perhaps best seen in his inscriptions on the portraits of the Seven Shingon Patriarchs Shingon Shichisozou 真言七祖像, Touji.


(C)2001 Japanese Architecture and Art Net Users System. No reproduction or republication without written permission.