Although there seems to be some debate as to whether or not Kukai (774-835), also known by his posthumous title Kobo Diashi, was ever ordained as a Buddhist priest or monk, there is no question that he is one of the most important figures in Japanese Buddhism.
Kukai was so inspired by the Mahavairocana Sutra that in 804 he took advantage of an opportunity to go on a government-sponsored trip to China in order to learn more about the text. There he encountered the Chen-yen (“Mantra” or “True Word”) school, an esoteric from of Buddhism, and he became the student of two masters, the Indian monk Prajna, and Hui-kuo, a tantric monk. Kukai received various initiations while in China, and returned to Japan carrying copies of important Buddhist sutras and commentaries. He eventually founded the Japanese version of Chen-yen, the Shingon sect, which is still around today.
A key feature of esoteric or tantric Buddhism (also known as Varjayana “Diamond Vehicle”) is the focus on the role the body plays in awakening the mind. As Shashi Bhushan Dasgupta notes in An Introduction to Tantric Buddhism, the tantric schools “hold that the body is the abode of all truth; it is the epitome of the the universe or, in other words, it is the microcosm, and as such embodies the truth of the whole universe.”
In his book, The Bodymind Experience in Japanese Buddhism: A Phenomenolgical Perspective of Kukai and Dogen, David E. Shaner coined the compound “bodymind” to express the non-duality of body and mind: “A close examination of the relation between body and mind in our lived prereflective experience reveals that there is no mediate relationship. We experience and live body and mind as one.”
It is this basic understanding that forms the core of Kukai’s teachings. He expressed the nonduality of bodymind with the term sokushin jobutsu, also the title of a work he composed in his middle forties, Sokushin jobutsu gi. Translated literally, the term is rendered “immediately (soku) mind (shin) become Buddha (jobutsu).” In later times, immediately would truly mean immediately, as in ichinen jobutsu (“buddhahood in a single moment”), but for Kukai it mean in this existence, this lifetime, more or less. Considering that traditionally enlightenment or Buddhahood is attained after many lifetimes, this idea was a bit radical to say the least.
Kukai was not alone in promoting this concept. Saicho, Kukai’s one-time friend and counter-part, who was founder of Japanese Tendai, also used the term. Probably both men were introduced to the concept while in China, and it may have originated in Indian Buddhism, as Kukai used as a source for his treatise a work attributed to Nagarjuna, Aspiration to Enlightenment (very likely apocryphal), that contains the phrase, “we can attain enlightenment in this very existence.” Saicho’s source was the fable from the Lotus Sutra of the Naga king’s daughter, who in a single moment becomes a buddha (unfortunately she must transform herself into a man first).
The Japanese word shin (from the Chinese xin) can mean “mind” or “heart,” and also “body.” For this reason, Kukai’s sokushin jobutsu is often translated as “attaining Buddhahood with this very body.” Yoshito S. Hakeda in Kukai: Major Works explains why:
Judging from the contents of the work by this title, the word ‘body (shin)’ clearly does not mean the body as opposed to the mind but stands for ‘existence’ or ‘body-mind-being’ The choice of the word ‘body’ over the normally expected mind underscores the basic character of Kukai’s religion: emphasis on direct religious experience through one’s total being and not merely through the intellect. Kukai required that any religious teaching withstand the test of actual meditation and of daily life.”
This forms an interesting connection to what I wrote in the last post in regard to the late Ruth Denison and her “body-centered” approach to meditation. When practicing meditation we are often very mindful of the mind, but less mindful of our body. And yet, most of us are aware that body and mind are one, and for that matter, it is not really possible to have any experience that is mind sans body, or vice versa. Denison learned the importance of body awareness in meditation from U Ba Khin who developed a “sweeping” method to focus on the deep interrelationship between mind and body.
How to integrate body awareness into a meditation practice is not a difficult subject, but one that needs to be dealt with another time. For now, these words by Kukai provide the perfect summation:
The Buddha Dharma is nowhere remote. It is in our mind; it is close to us. The element of original enlightenment is nowhere external. If not within our body, where can it be found?”