The History about who, when and how this pilgrimage has been founded is related with one single soul – Kōbō Daishi also known as Kūkai – or vice versa.
Kōbō Daishi was a renowned monk who established Shingon Buddhism during the Heian era.
He was born in 774 in the province of Sanuki (Kagawa Pref.) on Shikoku Island. When he was young, he studied Chinese classics and Confucianism under the guidance of his uncle, Ato-no Otari. When he was fifteen, he moved to the capital city to enter a government university where most of the graduates moved on to become bureaucrats. During his time at the university, Kōbō Daishi became disenchanted with the secular world and began to develop a strong interest in Buddhism. Consequently, at the age of eighteen, he decided to live his life as a Buddhist monk.
When Kōbō Daishi was thirty-one years old, he happened to read a scripture of Esoteric Buddhism called “Dainichi-kyo” (Mahavairocana Sutra). This sutra had a tremendous impact on him and thus he became very motivated to study more in depth about Esoteric Buddhism. Since Esoteric Buddhism was relatively unknown in Japan, Kōbō Daishi knew he must go to China in order to gain a better understanding of the Esoteric teachings. Fortunately, Kōbō Daishi was able to join a Japanese envoy in 804 that was traveling by boat to Xi’an (the capital of China at the time) to visit the Tang Dynasty. After spending some time in China, Kōbō Daishi was given the opportunity to learn the essence of the esoteric teachings under a priest Huiguo, an authority on Esoteric Buddhism. Master Huiguo then initiated him into the Esoteric Buddhism tradition. It was truly remarkable that Kōbō Daishi was able to master the complex esoteric teachings and be selected to be the eighth patriarch of Esoteric Buddhism in such a short period of time.
In spite of Kōbō Daishi’s initial 20 year directive to study Buddhism in China, he returned to Japan after only two years with the mission from Master Huiguo to spread the teachings of Esoteric Buddhism throughout Japan.
Kōbō Daishi returned to Japan in the province of Tsukushi (Fukuoka Pref.), with a great number of religious textbooks and artworks. However, having disobeyed the 20 year directive from the government, he was not allowed to enter the capital city. After several years had passed, Kōbō Daishi was finally permitted to enter the capital city. Immediately after being welcomed back into the capital city he proclaimed his devotion to propagating of the supreme doctrine of Esoteric Buddhism.
Kōbō Daishi is also known as the father of Japanese culture. He is renown for his talents as a teacher, engineer, inventor, poet, calligrapher and creating the first public school in Japan. Kōbō Daishi has influenced Japanese culture in many ways that can still be seen today. For example, Kōbō Daishi directed the reconstruction of the “Manno-ike”(reservoir) in his hometown. This structure was remarkable in its scale, technology and still stands today. Kōbō Daishi also established the first tuition free university for commoners (Shugeishuchi-in) in Kyoto.
Through his achievements and rising popularity, Kōbō Daishi was summoned and requested to assist on a multitude of tasks and projects. Yet he never lost sight of his desire to create a monastic center for Shingon Mikkyo (Esoteric Buddhism). In 816, after receiving permission from Emperor Saga, Kōbō Daishi officially founded the seminary community of Koyasan. Since its induction, he dedicated himself to the work of creating an Esoteric Buddhism School while providing spiritual support for the common people. Kōbō Daishi entered into eternal meditation on March 21, 835, surrounded by his devoted disciples. He is believed to be alive and continues to provide relief to those who ask for salvation.
In the year of 921 he was given the posthumous name of Kōbō Daishi by Emperor Daigo. The meaning of the name Kōbō Daishi recognizes his excellence as a teacher as well as his work and efforts to spread the word of the Esoteric Buddhism throughout Japan. Although both names are used interchangeably, Kōbō Daishi is the name most commonly used by the followers of Shingon Buddhism.
In the last 1200 years, the teachings, rituals and traditions in Koyasan have not changed. Through the efforts of countless people, the community has been able to preserve its rich heritage and its customs, but there have been some notable changes that have occurred over time. Today there are 117 temples in Koyasan, but there used to be many more. Although many of the ancient buildings have survived for many years, some of the original buildings have been lost due to fire. Another significant change occurred in 1872. This was the year that the law prohibiting women to enter Koyasan was removed. This change not only brought women to Koyasan, but with them many other common people and children came to the mountain community. What was once a place only for male priests gradually transformed into a small town.
In 2004, Koyasan was registered through UNESCO as a World Heritage site. The official title is the “Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes in the Kii Mountain Range”. Since being registered as a World Heritage site, more and more visitors from diverse countries have come to Koyasan to appreciate the rich history and its unique atmosphere. Although the essence of Koyasan has remained the same, nowadays all walks of life are able to live in peace at the site where Kōbō Daishi founded this sacred place 1,200 years ago.