Heian Buddhism
Tiantai and Shingon

The Heian period (794-1185) was the golden age of imperial court society. In its immortal works of literature, we see a world of consummately refined men and women who saw themselves as eschewing the grosser forms of violence, but whose lives centered around the love or art and the arts of love. We envision women seated sedately behind screens, perhaps waiting for the sweet intrusion of a lover; and we recall delightful parties centered on “verse-capping" or moon-viewing, and fashionable excursions to romantic mountain temples. ... The literary works reflect the world of the bijin (the “beautiful people") who saw themselves dwelling kumonoue (“above the clouds"), devoted to miyabi (courtly elegance and taste). Needless to say, they were only a tiny percentage of Japan’s overall population, and the lives of those whose toil supported this elegance were far less advantaged. ... The literature reflects a looming, almost intoxicating sense that such beauty and love is fleeting, and will be gone once one tries to grasp it. Heian people had a deep sense of mono no aware, “sensitivity to things." This sweet/sad feeling came out of attention to the transitoriness of human life and of all else [in] this “dewdrop world," while at the same time appreciating beauty all the more in realizing it was passing away. (IJR, 102-5)

Outstanding among the Buddhist leaders of the Heian period was Kukai (774-835), a man whose genius has well been described: “His memory lives all over the country, his name is a household word in the remotest places, not only as a saint, but as a preacher, a scholar, a poet, a sculptor, a painter, an inventor, an explorer, and — sure passport to fame — a great calligrapher." Indeed, his reputation was so great that Shingon Buddhism, the sect of Buddhism that he founded, is centered as much on the worship of Kukai the saint as it is on the teachings of Esoteric Buddhism, the larger tradition to which Shingon belongs. From the ninth century to this day, faithful Shingon believers have revered Kukai as a living savior who still sits in eternal meditation on Mount Koya ready to respond to those who call on him for help. The divinization of Kukai is the product of an imagination inspired by faith, and it is also based on the memory of a real person of extraordinary accomplishments. (SJT, 153)
Kukai entered a state university at the age of eighteen and studied the Confucian classics. At the university, he met a Buddhist monk who showed him a scripture with esoteric passages. This inspired Kukai to leave the university. He took up the life of a wandering ascetic, and during his travels read Buddhist texts. One text was the Mahavairocana Sutra from the mature Tantric tradition. Kukai was attracted to its promise of sudden Awakening to the inner essence of Buddhahood, but was not able to understand the esoteric use of mudras, mantras, and mandalas that the text advocated for this attainment. So, he decided to travel to China to find a teacher who could teach him this esoteric path. In 803, he became ordained as a Buddhist monk and left for China the next year.

In China, Kukai received his training from the great Tantric master Hui-kuo (746-805). Hui-kuo had received transmission from two Tantric lineages: one based on the Mahavairocana Sutra, the other based on the Vajrasekhara Sutra. Under Hui-kuo, Kukai received initiation into the meditative techniques associated with both Tantric lineages, and then received ordination as a Tantric master. ...

“I called on the abbot [Huiguo] in the company of five or six monks from the Ximing Temple. As soon as he saw me, he smiled with pleasure and joyfully said, ‘I knew you would come! I have waited for such a long time. What pleasure it gives me to look upon you today at last! My life is drawing to an end, and until you came, there was no one to whom I could transmit the teachings. Go without delay to the altar of abhiseka with incense and a flower.’ I returned to the temple where I had been staying and got the things which were necessary for the ceremony. It was early in the sixth month then that I entered the altar of abhiseka for primary initiation. I stood before the Matrix Mandala and cast my flower in the prescribed manner. By chance it fell on the Body of Mahavairocana Tathagata in the center. The master exclaimed in delight, ‘How amazing! How perfectly amazing!’ He repeated this three or four times in joy and wonder. ... Early in the seventh month I stood before the Diamond Mandala ... [and when] I cast my flower it again fell on Mahavairocana, and the abbot marveled as he had before." (SJT, 163)
In 806, Kukai returned to Japan with mandalas, scriptures, and Tantric ritual materials. In 809, the emperor ordered Kukai to serve at Takasan-ji, the temple that was the center of the Heian Buddhist world. There, Kukai systematized Tantric doctrines, organized Tantric materials and sutras, and vigorously propagated Tantric Buddhism. In 816, the emperor gave Kukai permission to build a monastery on Mt. Koya, some distance from the capital. Until his death in 835, Kukai was also in charge of To-ji, a temple in the capital that was to be a center for Tantric art and practice. (Buddhism: Introducing the Buddhist Experience, 284-5; cf SJT, 154-7)
The teachings of Shingon are intended to guide people to [the] tenth stage of virtuous Buddha-consciousness. They do so by stressing that the highest Buddha is the Dharmakaya, the essential enlightenment nature of Buddhahood. This Dharma-body is a luminous reality of wisdom and compassion that penetrates and embraces all existence such that the Dharmakaya is actually one’s own innate Buddha-nature. Kukai identified this ultimate suchness of the universe with Vairocana Buddha, symbolized by the sun, which radiates its light to all beings in the universe. For Shingon, Vairocana, as the Dharma-body of the universe, preaches and acts continuously throughout the cosmos. ...
Kukai himself wrote: “There are three bodies of the Buddha and two forms of Buddhist doctrine. The doctrine revealed by the Nirmanakaya Buddha [the historical Buddha] is called Exoteric; it is apparent, simplified, and adapted to the needs to the time and the capacity of the listeners. The doctrine expounded by the Dharmakaya Buddha [Dainichi] is called Esoteric; it is secret and profound and contains the final truth. (IJR, 107)
Shingon also teachs that the secret and constant teaching of the Dharmakaya can actually be communicated to a person through the mysterious words, symbols, and ritual movements of Tantric Buddhism. The mantras that one recites bring into awareness Vairocana’s speech, the mudras that one forms with his or her hands give one a felt sense of Vairocana’s body, and the mandalas on which one concentrates bring forth Vairocana’s state of mind. Thereby, one unlocks the Three Mysteries (sanmitsu 三蜜) of Vairocana: his speech, body, and mind in the universe. ... Shingon believes that by realizing these mysteries in one’s own experience, the long journey to Buddhahood, which in the other traditions may take eons to complete, can be attained in just one lifetime and in one’s very mind and body. (Buddhism: Introducing the Buddhist Experience, 286-7; cf. SJT, 156-7)
“In truth, the Esoteric doctrines are so profound as to defy their enunciation in writing. With the help of painting, however, their obscurities can be understood. The various attitudes and mudras of the holy images all have their source in Buddha’s love, and one may attain Buddhahood at sight of them. Thus the secrets of the sutras and commentaries can be depicted in art, and the essential truths of the Esoteric teaching are all set forth therein. Neither teachers nor students can dispense with it. Art is what reveals to us the state of perfection. (Kukai, quoted in SJT, 155)
Broadly speaking, the Diamond World mandala represents reality in the buddha realm, the world of the unconditioned, the real, the universal, and the absolute. The Womb World mandala represents reality as it is revealed in the world of the conditioned, the individual, the particular, and the relative. Each mandala is fully meaningful, however, only when paired with the other. (Japanese Mandalas, 37)

The figures of the [Diamond World] are hard and clear like diamonds, inward-looking, meditating on the profoundest levels of truth. The Womb (or Lotus) mandala expresses truth looking outward in compassion, expressing itself in service that represents the interrelatedness of all beings. (IJR, 108)
In Shingon, two mandalas have a special place in bringing the virtuous and enlightened qualities of the Three Mysteries into one’s experience. First is the Womb or Matrix (taizo) Mandala, based on the Mahavairocana Sutra. This mandala represents an enlightened view of the universe from the viewpoint of compassion, and implies that the energy of compassion enfolds, protects, and nurtures one’s Buddha-nature like a womb holding a child. The many deities of this mandala represent the activities of compassion; in Tantric experience, they foster this same compassion in the practitioner. This first mandala, symbolized by the lotus, represents the compassionate gentleness of the universe evolving from unity to diversity.
In [the Womb World] mandala, all kinds of Buddhas and deities are lined up together. If we ask if only the very magnificent Buddhas are lined together, the answer is no. Only the cosmic Buddha Dainichi Nyorai [a.k.a. Mahavairocana] in the center is one hundred percent perfect. Many of the others surrounding it are deities from Indian folk religion. On the very outer edges, a lot of snakes and demons have been included. Now each one of them is an offshoot of Dainichi Nyorai. Each has some kind of special characteristic, and each can become a Buddha by means of that special characteristic. What we find here is a logic by which even something that is ninety-nine percent bad has a hundred percent value by virtue of the one percent of the special characteristic it has. … Therefore there is no such thing as leaving behind something that is ninety-nine percent bad. Because they have a special characteristic in the amount of one percent, they are seen as an offshoot of the one hundred percent that is Dainichi Nyorai. Such a world is woven into the mandala. It is a way of thinking in which everything is embraced and every single special characteristic is nourished. (Japanese Mandalas, 58)
The second mandala is the Diamond (kongokai) Mandala, based on the Vajrasekhara Sutra. In this mandala, the universe is united in the light of wisdom that merges all beings into one. This wisdom concentrates all the universe into the single light of Vairocana Buddha, who is the luminous source of all the mandala’s deities. Penetrating this mandala in Tantric experience is said to infuse the practitioner with the light of wisdom, and transforms his or her life into Awakening. This mandala balances the gentleness of compassion in the Womb Mandala by representing the diamond hardness of wisdom that cuts through illusion and brings diversity into unity.
At the center of the Diamond-world mandala ... is a square called the “Attainment Body assembly. ...
In the center is Vairocana, who manifests four additional Buddhas, each located at the center of each of the squares surrounding Vairocana. ... The four smaller figures around each Buddha are Bodhisattvas, who serve as more specific aspects of that particular Buddha’s wisdom. The use of multiple deities to represent a movement from abstract qualities to their specific applications is a common symbolic device in Mahayana Buddhism. (east-asian-history.net...)
By using these two mandalas with the esoteric practice of mantras and mudras, the Shingon practitioner seeks to unite his or her human activities (speech, body, and mind) with the Three Mysteries of the universe — the speech, body, and mind of Vairocana Buddha in all things. The experience of this union with the Three Mysteries brings about a “mutual empowerment in that both the practitioner and the Buddha are affected. While the practitioner attains Awakening and Buddhahood, Vairocana Buddha actualizes Buddha-nature more fully in the phenomenal world, since every act of the enlightened person is an action of the Three Mysteries. In this transformation process, the practitioner is guided by a Tantric master who alone has the ability to transmit these potent teachings and practices. (Buddhism: Introducing the Buddhist Experience, 287-8)
Shingon in Practice
How does one become a buddha in this life, in this body? Essentially by working with one of the figures in the mandala until one becomes united with that deity, and so shares his or her enlightenment. The deity may be assigned by one’s teacher, or sometimes the right figure is indicated by throwing a flower on a diagram of the mandala, and regarding the one on which the flower lands as chosen. The student is then initiated into the practice of this deity. ... Once initiated, the student can be given the secrets — the hand gestures, chants, and meditations that pertain to the deity with which one is uniting, and so facilitate that process. If you make the secret movements, say the secret words, and think the secret thoughts of a buddha or bodhisattva, you are well on the way to becoming one; you are finally what you do, say, and think. A close working relationship between master and disciple is very important to Shingon; this is a religion which must be practiced, not just studied, even to be understood.
... In [one] practice, the “circulation technique," the student envisions a stream of energy leaving his body with his breath, entering the deity who is facing him, and returning through the opening at the top of the head. This stream may be seen as like a pulley, drawing the student and the deity closer and closer together until the two become one. (IJR, 108-10)

Shingon & the State

Kyoto’s “East Temple