Kūya | Biography



Kūya (903-972) was an itinerant Japanese priest who, along with Genshin and Jakushin, was among the first promoters of the practice of the Nembutsu (chanting of Buddha Amitābha’s invocation) amongst the common people in order to attain salvation and entry into the Pure Land of Amida.

Kūya's origins are unknown, but some sources claim that he may have been a grandson of Emperor Ninmyō (810–850) or a son of Emperor Daigo (885–930).

In his youth, as an itinerant lay priest, Kūya travelled in rural areas, directing and assisting in the repair of roads and bridges, improving wells and dikes, and supervising burials. In these activities he closely resembled Gyōki (668–749), a revered monk of the Nara period.

In 924, Kūya formally entered the priesthood at the Kokubunji in Owari Province (modern Aichi Prefecture).

He later spent periods of devotion and study in Harima Province (modern Hyōgo Prefecture), on the island of Shikoku, and perhaps in the far Northern provinces as well.

But beginning in about 938, his public demonstrations of the Nembutsu in the markets of Heian-kyō, the capital city (modern Kyoto), began to attract a large following among the common people.

He soon became known as Ichi no Hijiri ("the holy man of the markets") and Amida Hijiri ("the holy man of Amida").

In 948 he received full ordination at Enryaku-ji, the headquarters of the Tendai School, and took the priestly name Kōshō.

When an epidemic swept Heian-kyō in 951, Kūya undertook several projects designed to ease the sufferings of the people,

- including the carving of images of the 11-headed Kannon (Guan Yin) and other benevolent deities, the copying of the Daihannyakyō (Mahā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra) in gold letters.

Rokuharamitsu-ji temple in Kyoto

He also founded a temple, originally named Saikōji, and now called Rokuharamitsu-ji in Kyoto:

The temple, near Higashiyama in Kyoto, remains closely associated with Kūya, and it was also the site of his death, at age 69, in 972.

Kūya's Nembutsu, a chant accompanied by dancing to the beat of a small cymbal or drum, was probably an adaptation of shamanic practices.

He also praised Amida and the Nembutsu in simple verses that were posted in the marketplace.

Before Kūya, the Nembutsu was used as a magical charm, at funerals, and in the intense meditations of Tendai monks.

Kūya was the first to prescribe it as a simple expression of faith to be used by the uneducated and the poor, and he is even said to have taught it to prostitutes and criminals.

He thus contributed to the Heian-period developments that carried Buddhism beyond the confines of court and monastery

- and influenced the founders of the Pure Land (Jōdo) schools that emerged in the Kamakura period (12-13th centuries), advocating exclusive devotion to the Nembutsu and appealing to persons from all social strata.

Like Gyōki and the Kamakura innovators, Kūya functioned on the periphery of the ecclesiastical establishment while maintaining ties with influential, aristocratic patrons, and he was thus free to convey his teachings to a diverse audience.

There are many legends about his deeds, and the wooden image of him enshrined at Rokuharamitsu-ji (done in the Kamakura period) emphasizes his Hijiri character:

- he is clad as an ascetic and carries his cymbal and a staff topped with antlers;

- he leans forward as if to begin his dance, and from his mouth issue 6 tiny images of Amida Buddha, representing the 6 characters of the written Nembutsu.