Kobo Daishi: Buddhist Superhero

On the lighter side of things, during our trip to Japan this year, we went to the temple of Kawasaki Daishi for Hatsumode, the first temple visit of the new year. Kawasaki Daishi is a pretty famous temple of the Shingon sect in the Greater Tokyo Metropolitan area. While there I got a new Buddhist rosary, or ojuzu (お数珠):

New Ojuzu (Buddhist Rosary)

Some Buddhist rosaries in Japan, like this one, have pictures inside the largest bead:

New Ojuzu, inside

This is a fuzzy picture of Kūkai (空海), founder of the Shingon Buddhism, but in Japan he’s more commonly known by his posthumous name kōbō daishi (弘法大師) which roughly translates to Great Master who spread the Dharma [the Buddha’s teachings]. In Japanese culture Kobo Daishi is kind of a cultural hero similar to Wonhyo in Korea or St. Patrick in Ireland.

Anyway, my five year old daughter was fascinated by the rosary and Kobo Daishi and one day she said out of the blue:

Kobo Daishi has 100 swords, and can shoot fireballs, spaghetti balls and apple sauce balls. He can squish bad guys with a big tree.

I asked her again and she repeated this. Another week or two passed, and I asked her again and she still repeated the same story. She likes to use her imagination a lot when she describes her toys, but I was surprised she was so enthusiastic about Kobo Daishi.

So in the eyes of my daughter, Kobo Daishi isn’t just a Buddhist monk who formalized Vajrayana teachings and training in Japan, and administered construction projects, he “fights the bad guys” and has cool powers:

Ryu and Kukai, SF2

Somehow it sounds like he’s a character from some character from a video-fighting game like Street Fighter 2, as my “artwork” above shows. HA-DOO-KEN!

Namu Daishi Henjo Kongo

P.S. when we visited Fukagawa Daishi temple with Marcus, she had similar, silly ideas.


Author: Doug

A fellow who dwells upon the Pale Blue Dot who spends his days obsessing over things like Buddhism, KPop music, foreign languages, BSD UNIX and science fiction.

4 thoughts on “Kobo Daishi: Buddhist Superhero”

  1. I think Kukai (Kobo Daishi) is not well-known outside of Japan. He had a remarkable influence on Japanese Buddhism and culture in general. Here are some of the salient points in his biography: He started studying Buddhism independently, at a time when that was pretty common. He came across an esoteric sutra that no one knew much about, so he resolved to go to China to study the sutra closer to the source. He managed to get a position on a government mission to China. He met a master of esoteric Buddhism in China, was ordained, and learned the whole esoteric canon in a short time. He returned to Japan with a huge cache of Buddhist writings, art work and ritual implements. He was a master of Sanskrit, and possibly was influential in setting up the 50-syllable system for the Japanese language. He was one of the three greatest calligraphers in Japanese history. He headed a civil engineering project to rebuild an artificial lake in Shikoku. He established a school for general education in Kyoto (maybe the first in Japan open to anyone?). He established the great monastery complex at Koyasan. His influence on general culture is reflected in proverbs like 弘法筆を選ばず , Koubou fude wo erabazu–the master does not select his writing brush. This means that the work of a true expert does not depend on the quality (or lack of same) of his tools. I think there are several other proverbs referring to him.

    Also, Wikipedia notes a list of 26 onsen hot springs that were discovered by him–maybe this is related to hydrological expertise.

    A recent exhibition of art associated with Kukai at the National Museum of Tokyo attracted huge crowds, even on a weekday. Many of his hand-written manuscripts and calligraphy are preserved at Koyasan (and elsewhere?).

    I think anyone who is interested in Japanese culture needs to know something about Kukai!


    1. Hi John,

      That’s so true. Kukai really was quite a talented person, and even if 10% of the stories about him were true, they still add up to an interesting character. I should probably post about him like I did for Wonhyo. Wonhyo’s lesser-known, but I’ve never actually talked about Kukai even in 3 years of the blog.

      That’s kind of silly. 😛


    1. Hi Aaron and welcome to the JKLLR. For all we know we might have passed one another during Hatsumode. 😉

      Thanks for the kind words, and hope it continues to prove useful. 🙂


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