Encyclopedia entries on Japanese religiosity and syncretism

Bilingualism and Japanology > Shikoku > Mount Koya > Buddhist Syncretism

Mount Koya, Japan

by Steve McCarty

Originally published in the Encyclopedia of Monasticism,
pp. 893-895. Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers (September 2000)

Mount Koya (Koya-san) was founded in 816 by imperial decree for Kobo Daishi [Kukai] (774-835), who had returned from the T'ang dynasty capital of Ch'ang-an imbued with Chinese civilization and Indian Mantrayana Buddhism. To believers Kukai sits inside a locked Koya-san temple in a meditative state that may be compared to the Buddha's Parinirvana. Koya-san remains the headquarters of Kukai's Shingon Buddhism, with Kongobuji the head temple of the sect. Today Koya-san remains a mountaintop monastic town in Wakayama prefecture near southern Nara prefecture. Despite the remote location a train runs to Mount Koya from Umeda in downtown Osaka, making for a convenient day trip. Unlike the cities of Kyoto and Nara, Mount Koya consists almost entirely of monasteries and religious sites set in nature. Towering evergreen forests provide relief from Japan's sultry summer, but the winter is freezing, and cryptomeria allergy is common before spring. The library of Koya-san University publishes books and journals on esoteric Buddhism.

Statue of Kukai holding the vajra (Tibetan: rdorje) of Esoteric Buddhism

On an inhospitable plateau periodically ravaged by fires, the monasteries of Koya-san have been nearly abandoned at times. Kukai attracted a great number of disciples, including his relatives from Shikoku Island [see companion article on Shikoku]. However, although he innovated in the critical classification doctrines among Asian religions of his era, he insisted that Shingon monks obey all the precepts harking back to the historical Buddha. Combining such ethical integrity with erudition in Chinese and Sanskrit, the historical Kukai set a standard that the following generations who remained in Japan found that they could not attain. Thus, it became necessary for Kukai to abide with believers soteriologically as Kobo Daishi. Shingon was also able to adapt to changing trends with a syncretism going back to Kukai himself, whose calligraphy includes a "Namu Amida Butsu" scroll long before Amidism began to eclipse the Asian mainland style of monasticism in Japan. Holy men known as Koya Hijiri mixed Shingon creatively with Amidism as they roamed the Japanese countryside, where Buddhism was for the first time becoming a mass religion. The Koya-san Holy Men told tales that beautified Kukai while subtly warning the public to take care of the Great Saint's messengers [see a striking example in the companion article on Shikoku]. They popularized the pilgrimage of the 88 sacred places of Shikoku Island that purportedly recapitulate the life of Kukai from birth to enlightenment. With the idea that St. Kukai walked together with the pilgrim (dogyo ninin), the celebrated pilgrimage of Shikoku gave new impetus to sustain the Shingon sect through the medieval period of civil warfare. Thus, today with 13 million nominal members Shingon is the only large sect surviving from the classical Nara and Heian periods.

Closed to women until recently, Mount Koya now has accommodations in about 50 of more than 100 temples with vegetarian fare featuring Koya-style tofu. Some visitors find the sprawling graveyards of interest for the historical figures who sought a resting place on such sacred ground. Many designated national treasures can be seen, including Buddha images and temple buildings that were spared from fire. A day trip, preferably with a guide who is bilingual in Japanese associated with the Shingon religion, is recommended. One can write to the Research Institute of Esoteric Buddhist Culture, Koyasan University, Wakayama-ken, 648-02, Japan.

A Shinto shrine on Buddhist Koya-san, not surprising given Kukai's ecumenism

Research on Japanese religiosity and syncretism

Three entries in the Encyclopedia of Monasticism, edited by Prof. William Johnston (University of Massachusetts). Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn Publishers. ISBN 1-57958-090-4 (September 2000).

Companion entries: Buddhist Syncretism in Japan | Shikoku, the Pilgrimage Island of Japan

These three entries are interrelated but can be read in any order. Encyclopedia sections after each article on Further Reading (mostly original sources in Japanese), See also (related entries), and Related Web sites are not included at this time. Some of the many photos by the author used in the encyclopedia are included in these articles, with assistance from Prof. Malcolm Swanson in Kita-Kyushu.

Related multilingual research, including Legend of the Woman Diver (English-Japanese), and guides are available at the Global Shikoku Internet Project (Japanese-English).

Updated on 27 October 2016

Click to e-mail Steve McCarty

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