Heian Buddhism
Tendai and Shingon

Sculpture of Saicho/Dengyo Daishi, Founder of Tendai Buddhism
Sculpture of Kukai/Kobo Daishi, Founder of Shingon Buddhism
Icon for the Heian Period (Kanji: Heian Jidai)
Murasaki ShikibuThe 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 Text of Genji Monogatari (Tale of Genji)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)
Koyakun (Koyasan mascot)
Kukai with the Two World Mandalas
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)
Young Kukai (from the movie Legend of the Demon Cat)
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.
Chinesee sculpture of Kukai receiving the transmission of Zhenyan (Shingon) Buddhism from his master, Huiguo

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. ...
Kongokai: Diamond World Mandala

Taizokai: Womb World Mandala
Shingon mandala with a flower in the center (for abisheka ritual)
Shingon initiation ritual“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 [a.k.a. Womb World] 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. ...
Dharmakaya Mantra
Three Bodies of the Buddha image divided into "exoteric" and "esoteric" teachings
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)
Sanskrit mantraShingon also teaches 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 mudramudras 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)
Bamboo page divider
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)
Koyakun (Koyasan mascot)
Womb World Mandala
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)
Koyakun (Koyasan mascot)
Diamond World Mandala
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. ...
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...)
Priest performing ritual with Two World Mandalas in a Shingon temple
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 Temple (with Two World Mandalas on the sides)
Koyakun (Koyasan mascot)
Diamond World Mandala

Shingon & the State

Map of Heian-kyo (Kyoto)
Kyoto’s “East Temple

Toji: Kyoto's "East Temple": click for a virtual tour
Koyakun (Koyasan mascot)
Goma ritual being performed in a Shingon temple
The Goma Fire Ritual
Fudosan Kongoji Kanji
The Goma begins with preparatory practices to purify and protect the area and the practitioner. After special prayers are said, the altar is prepared for the fire ritual. The hearth is purified and the wood is placed. After the fire is ignited, the deities are requested to enter the fire, the fire is purified, offerings and thanksgiving are made, and the deities are invited to return to their realm. Finally, the protections are removed and the merit generated is dedicated to the benefit of all sentient beings.
Fudo Myoo
The physical fire of the Goma burns offerings made to the deities embodied in the fire. The offerings are transferred from physical form to the deities through special offering mudras and mantras.
The symbolic naika or inner fire burns away obstacles to enlightenment and negative karma, allowing us to purify our karma, transform negative emotions and energies, and sow the seeds of light, compassion, and wisdom. (Fudosan Kongoji)
Tendai Sangha icon
Shingon priest performing ritual
The Goma Fire Altar is central to the Hondo or Prayer Hall. However, the hondo is more than just a room or hall, but more like a Mandala with the Goma Altar at its heart, and its fire well as its ‘heart of heart’. Thus the Goma Altar is a ‘sealed’ area, and is sacred, with the fire itself taking the central position. The back and sides of the Altar are sealed by sacred rope. Objects or offerings being placed onto the Altar or into the fire well from the sides (there is quite often an assistant, especially during a public service) being made always under the rope. The celebrant conducts the ceremony by offering prayers and offerings from a seated, lotus position from outside the sealed Altar, by way of a front Torii or ‘gateway’. The Altar is cleaned and the fire box is made ready and a variety of offerings are ready to hand (Water, a variety of grains, and fire utensils) all of which are offered into the building fire at different stages of the ceremony. At first the fire becomes stronger, and then the drum-beat becomes stronger, and the intoned mantra becomes empowered, and the area more purified, so the veil separating Earthly and Heavenly Buddha Realms is slowly drawn aside. And for a very short time, all is one. At this point Goma maki (prayer sticks) are offered in to the fire and consumed, thus increasing its power.

The fire is set as any normal open fire with kindling sticks that are laid over the fire well in a particular pattern. [T]he fire is lit by small, prepared brush bundles or paper ignited from a candle on the altar and the fire builds as more kindling is added. However, what is not seen is the reflection between the growing Goma Fire and the celebrant who also sees the fire growing within him, or her, self, as an ‘inner Goma’. As the Goma fire begins to slowly burn, this also represents the ‘inner spark of wisdom’ that initiated the path of practice. The inner and outer fires become reflective, non-separate, as both ignite, burn in strength, gradually fade and finally die out having consumed everything which not only includes the offerings but also desires, passions, emotions, all opposites, the self, the Hondo, the World, the cosmos, and the Goma itself. All is burnt away- nothing is left, only silence. The Goma Rite begins in silence, builds to a crescendo, fades, and ends in silence. It is almost impossible for those attending, to not be deeply touched by the Goma. (Tendai Sangha)
Koyakun (Koyasan mascot)
Zoroastrian Fire Temple
From Homa to Goma
The Development of the Shingon Fire Ritual
Goma is a Chinese pronunciation of the Hindu term Homa which originated in India about 5000 years ago with earlier Zoroastrian [roots] and refers to offerings made to deities through the fire. (Fudosan Kongoji)

Both Tendai and Shingon Shu’s Goma Fire Rites are among the oldest found anywhere in the world and has its origins in ancient India where it was, and still is, known as ‘Homa’ — or more accurately Agni (Fire) Hotri (Rite/Ritual), and was originally performed by Brahmin Priests. The Homa can still be seen today practiced the length and breadth of India in both simple and quite elaborate forms by river sides, quiet places and Temples. (Tendai Sangha)
Fudo Myoo 
In contrast to the merciful Kannon, Fudo was represented as a “terrible figure, livid in color and of a ferocious expression. He is surrounded by flames and carries a sword and a rope to smite and bind evil. He is generally explained as typifying the fierce aspect assumed by Vairochana when resenting wrong doing.” If Kannon represented the female (or Garbha mandala), Fudo stood for the male (or vajra) and, as such, was popular with the rising warrior class, who —as the guardians of the state in the face of disorder — may have likened themselves to the powerful Fudo. Accordingly, the cult of Fudo spread to regions where nature presented its severest face — rocky crags and seashores. (SJT, 176)
Goma sticks being lit
The wood that is offered in the sacred fire, known as Gomaki or literally “energy for the Goma,” is inscribed with the wishes and desires of others. Through the mystical weaving of offerings and mantra, through the physical energy of the fire, and through the assistance of the deities, the wishes are manifested. (Fudosan Kongoji)
Daoist "spirit generals"Goma Stick (fill in prayer and name)The emergence of Daoism as an organized religion can be traced back to the second century CE, during the social turmoil and political disintegration that marked the final decades of the Han dynasty. ... The movement was called the Way of the Celestial Masters (Tianshi dao). ... Its leaders instituted a peculiar form of government that mixed familiar Han bureaucratic institutions with novel ecclesiastical structures. The families of the faithful were organized into twenty-four parishes, led by priest-officials known as libationers, who performed a combination of civil and religious functions. An important part of the libationers’ duties was their mediating between the parishioners and the various gods and spirits. They also kept household registers that were supposedly held by the gods of the celestial bureaucracy, who watched over each individual and recorded his or her misdeeds. ... [The] communication and supplication of the various celestial powers was supposed to go via proper bureaucratic channels, with a priest submitting a written petition to the appropriate celestial bureaucrat in the same manner as a government official would present a memorial to the court. The whole Celestial Masters movement was permeated with a bureaucratic outlook that extended to the terrestrial and celestial realms, which became a prominent feature of Daoism and popular religion. (Introducing Chinese Religion, 72-4)
The "Three Officials" of Daoism
Tsubaki Grand Shrine Ema
New Year’s Rituals at Tsubaki Grand Shrine
Oesterle: 299.561 N42b
Dainichi Nyorai (Mahavairocana)