Kūya Rui | Kūya's Praise


Rokuharamitsu-ji temple in Kyoto

1. Introduction

Kūya (903-972) was a Buddhist wandering ascetic in Japan who was the pioneer of popularising 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.

Because of his perceived historical significance, scholars have frequently tried to reconstruct a historically accurate account of his life:

To do this, they have accepted only a few primary sources as credible:

a) A description of a dedication ceremony held by Kūya in 963 written by Miyoshi Michimune that is included in the Honchō monzui (compiled in the middle of the 11th century);

b) a brief biography of Kūya by Yoshishige Yasutane in the Nihon ōjō gokuraku ki (c. 986);

c) an eulogy titled the Kūya Rui, a memorial biography written in 972 (the year of Kūya’s death) by Minamoto Tamenori while a university student in Kyoto.

Of these, scholars regard the Kūya Rui as the most important source because it is the earliest text to give an overview of his life and much of its contents is repeated in later accounts of Kūya’s life.

The author of the Kūya Rui, Minamoto Tamenori, makes no indication that he was a disciple of Kūya, personally knew him or had ever seen him:

Toward the end of the text, he tells us that in order to write the eulogy he visited Kūya’s disciples and main temple and collected from Kūya’s Dharma companions’ dozens of documents, including votive prayers, which he then put in chronological order.

This suggests that much of Tamenori’s information on Kūya came from admirers and thus that the content of the text was determined in part by them.

Although Tamenori never tells us when he wrote the Rui, he does provide a number of clues to help us figure it out. The first clue he provides is the term Rui in the title:

The kanji for Rui was originally used in China to indicate a funeral oration that lauded a person’s life, usually rulers but occasionally eminent Buddhists.

There were, for example, Rui composed for the great Indian scholar and translator of Buddhist texts Kumārajīva as well as for Huiyuan (334–416) and Daosheng (?–434).

The kanji had also been used in ancient Japan for shinohigoto, which were funeral orations particularly for members of the imperial family.

Although Rui rather than shinohigoto were very rare in Japan, and Tamenori’s Rui differs from Chinese Rui in that it has a long preface in prose followed by a short section in verse, Tamenori’s use of the term does designate the text as a funerary oration:

As such, it was probably presented not long after Kūya’s death, most likely at a memorial service for Kūya, if not the funeral itself.

On the basis of the nature of the text, some historians suggest that the Rui was probably presented on the 1st anniversary of Kūya’s death, while others argue that it was written within 49 days of when Kūya died.

The author of Kūya Rui signs the text as Imperial University student Minamoto Tamenori:

During his years at university, Tamenori showed an interest in Buddhism and almost certainly became a member of the Kangakue (Society for the Advancement of Learning), which formed in 964.

In an introductory text on Buddhism titled Sanbōe written by Tamenori and presented to Princess Sonshi in 984, there is a detailed description of the Kangakue:

He describes what members did when they met twice a year on the 15th of the 3rd and 9th months as follows:

At dawn on the 15th they discuss the Lotus Sūtra, and in the evening they meditate on Amida Buddha. Then, until dawn on the following day, they compose Chinese verses in praise of the Buddha and of his teachings, and these verses are recorded and kept within the temple.


This description indicates that Kangakue members were interested in Pure Land Buddhism, in furthering their knowledge of Buddhism, and in cultivating their poetic skills.

2. Kūya Rui | Kūya's Praise

Kūya Rui, one scroll with preface.
By Imperial University student Minamoto Tamenori

On the 11th day of the 9th month of the 3rd year of Tenroku [972] Kūya Shōnin died at Saikō temple in Higashiyama. Oh how sad it is!

The Shōnin did not reveal who his father and mother were, nor did he mention his place of origin. Some knowledgeable people say that he was a scion of the imperial family.

His personal character was such that lice would not stick to him. Someone once tested this by putting dozens of lice in his clothes, (but after a short while) the lice were gone.

As a youth he was a lay devotee. He travelled through the 5 home provinces and the 7 circuits, visiting famous mountains and holy grottos.

When he saw a road that passed through a treacherous terrain, he would shave the face of it down with a spade, feeling sympathy for suffering, tired men and horses. By throwing his walking stick, he determined the place of water veins.

Whenever there were skeletal remains in open plains and old fields, he would pile them up in one place, pour oil on them, and then burn them while reciting the name of Amida Buddha.

When he was over 20 years old, he entered the provincial temple in Owari and took the tonsure. Kūya was the acolyte name he gave himself.

At the Mineai temple in the Iiho district of Harima province, (there was) a complete collection of all the scriptures:

The Shōnin lived (for several years in the Dōjō of the temple and carefully read all the scriptures.

Whenever he had difficulty understanding a text, a golden figure would always appear in a dream and teach him its meaning.

After he awoke he would ask scholarly colleagues about the text and their answers would be just as the figure in the dream said.

In the sea between the territories of Awa and Tosa is an island called Yushima.

The geographical features of the island are mysterious and its nature is quiet and otherworldly:

People say that a statue of the Bodhisattva Kannon there displays miraculous powers. The Shōnin went all the way to the island seeking a vision of Kannon:

6 times each day he worshiped at this statue. For several months he did ascetic practices, but received no vision.

So the Shōnin stopped eating all grains and burned incense on his arms while facing the statue for 7 days and nights without moving or sleeping.

On the last night while facing the holy statue, the Shōnin saw a marvellous light emit from it.

When he closed his eyes he could see it; when he opened them, he could not. Scars remained where he burned the incense on his arms.

The Shōnin thought, Mutsu and Dewa are lands of the Ezo (north of Japan, island of Hokkaidō), where the teachings of the Buddha rarely reach and the sound of the Dharma is hardly heard.

He thereupon loaded on his back a statue of the Buddha, along with Śāstras and Sūtras:

There he blew a large conch, and explained the most precious Dharma. Because of this, the vulgar indigenous people of the area flocked together and converted to the truth.

In the 1st year of Tengyō [938], Kūya returned to the capital.

In the marketplace, he began to discreetly beg for food. If he received anything, he would use it for Buddhist services or give it to the poor or sick. He was thus called holy man of the market.

He constantly recited without pause Namu Amida Butsu and the people called him Amida holy man.

Where water was not available in the eastern and western sections of the capital, he dug wells. These are the wells that are now widely called Amida wells.

In that same year [938] Kūya built a tower at the gate of the prison in the Eastern part of the capital. The tower had a statue of the Buddha that shined brightly like the full moon and a bell that rang sharply in the wind.

A few prisoners shed tears, saying, We have unexpectedly seen the face of the Buddha and heard the Dharma. Such a wonderful thing has released us from our pain.

Long ago outside the north gate of the imperial garden Shinsen’en there was a sick woman whose beauty had deteriorated with age.

Feeling pity for the woman, he visited her in the morning and evening and asked how she was doing.

He hung a bamboo food basket from inside his sleeve pocket and following her wishes would personally buy malodorous raw meat and vegetables from her and then give them to her so she would get well.

After 2 months the woman appeared to be recuperating. When she recovered, however, she looked as if she could not say anything.

The Shōnin asked her what she was feeling and she answered saying, I am filled with (explosive) vitality. I wish to have [sexual] intercourse with you.

After thinking about it for a while, the Shōnin finally indicated that he would allow it.

At this point the sick woman cried out saying, I am the old fox of Shinsen’en. The Shōnin is truly a holy man. She then immediately disappeared and the mat she was lying on suddenly vanished.

The Shōnin prayed to an image of Amida, requesting to see the next world he would be born in.

That night in a dream he went to Amida’s Pure Land and sat on a lotus. The place was magnificent just as is written in the Sūtras.

After he awoke he was filled with joy and intoned, We hear that Paradise is a place far away, but by worshipping the Buddha it can be reached. Those who heard this praised him.

In the summer of the 7th year of Tengyō [944], he invited Dharma companions to create hanging pictures of 33 Kannons, Amida’s Pure Land and Fudaraku Mountain’s Pure Land.

These were magnificent and offerings were given to them.

(In the 4th month of the 2nd year of Tenryaku [948]), he went to Tendai mountain.

There he became a disciple of Enshō, a bishop with the rank of Seal of the Dharma.

The bishop, impressed with Kūya’s activities, urged him to take the precepts. He thereupon entered the ordination hall and received the Mahāyāna precepts.

The name Kōshō is inscribed on his ordination certificate, but he never changed his acolyte name.

In fall of the 5th year [951], appealing for donations to both rich and poor, he called on Dharma companions to make a gold statue of Kannon approximately 3 meters in height, and a statue of Bon’ō (Brahma), Taishaku (Śakra Deva, Indra), and Shitennō (4 Heavenly Kings), each 6 shaku tall (about 178 centimetres):

These are now at Saikō temple.

He also copied the entire 600 volumes of the Great Perfection of Wisdom Sūtra in gold ink, which is now in the Stūpa Hall of Shōsui temple.

The local place to make the crystal scroll shafts for the Sūtra went unsettled. He dyed the paper and ground the gold ink, but had difficulty obtaining scroll shafts.

The Shōnin visited the Hase temple of Washū where he appealed to Kannon saying, Would you please grant a disciple of the Buddha’s request for scroll shafts. After he made this appeal, he left.

That night he stayed at the home of the monk of Katsube temple in Sōnokami district. The priest of this temple then asked him, Why visit temples? The Tathāgata resides nowhere.

The Shōnin replied, Śakra is on Mt. Ryōjū, Kannon on Fudaraku. Suitable places connected with Buddhas have existed since long ago.

The priest of the temple then asked him, Holy man, what are you seeking?

The Shōnin answered,
Crystal scroll shafts to decorate and roll up the Great Perfection of Wisdom Sūtra.

The monk responded,

Long ago I heard from an old man that the patron who built this temple made a vow to copy the Great Perfection of Wisdom Sūtra in gold ink. After a while he was able to collect all the scroll shafts, but did not have occasion to copy the Sūtra.

When he was about to die, he put all the scroll shafts in a stone box and buried them in the ground. He then made a vow saying, ‘I will again be reborn as a human and copy the Sūtra.’

Perhaps the Shōnin is the one who took this vow reborn or perhaps the Shōnin in a previous life is the one who took this vow.

When Kūya and the priest together dug at the place, they found the shafts as expected.

The crystal shafts, the purple-polished gold characters, the navy blue emerald paper, and mica cases were now ready. After 14 years, the effort to make the Sūtra was complete.

In the 8th month of the 3rd year of Ōwa [963], a dedication ceremony was held.

So that there could be a wide gathering for the ceremony and there would be widespread joy, a wild field was divined southeast of the imperial palace and west of the Kamo River and a splendid hall was built there.

In front, the waves of White Heron Lake were replicated (where Prajñā Pāramitā Sūtras were preached, near Rājagṛha by Buddha Śākyamuni) and the back was modelled on Veṇuvana (Bamboo Park near Rājagṛha).

Officials and commoners gathered like clouds, and aristocrats lined up like stars. The Sūtra was put on barges with dragon-head and waterfowl prows.

As the barges (approached) each other, musical pieces played on jade flutes and red-stringed instruments were performed one after the other in praise of the Buddha.

It was a magnificent sight for everyone.

For the ceremony 600 virtuous elders attended. After a while, lunch consisting of many types of food was offered to the assembled elders.

Among those in attendance was the virtuous Jōzō of Yasaka temple.

At the ceremony, the number of Bhikṣu who came to beg for food could be counted in the hundreds. There was one among them that Jōzō was very surprised to see:

Jōzō was the 8th child of Miyoshi no Kiyoyuki and an expert physiognomist:

When Jōzō saw the Bhikṣu’s countenance, he paid him the highest respect and took him by the hand to the top seat of honour. The Bhikṣu sat without bowing.

Jōzō took the bowl of food that he received and gave it to the Bhikṣu. The Bhikṣu took the food and without saying a word, ate it.

He was given food again and again, eating all of it. About 36-48 litres of food were put in the bowl, but he was again given food, which he ate.

The whole time Jōzō showed the Bhikṣu deep gratitude.

After the Bhikṣu left, all the food that he ate was miraculously returned to its original amount. Jōzō saw this and said, Monju (Mañjuśrī) is impressed with Kūya’s work.

In the final year of the Kōhō era [968] at the north gate of Saikō temple a snake had a frog in its mouth and was about to swallow it:

Children who saw this at the time threw rocks at the snake hitting it, but the snake refused to let the frog go. When (the Shōnin) noticed what was happening, he put his hands together, and recited:

Poisonous beasts, poisonous dragons, poisonous insects, when they hear the sound of a priest’s staff will all aspire to gain Enlightenment.

He then shook his staff 2-3 times.

The snake lifted its head, listened, and appeared as if it were thinking. The snake opened its mouth and spit out the frog. The snake and frog separated from each other, one going east and the other going west.

A chief councillor of the 3rd senior court rank, whose name was Fujiwara Morouji (913–970) and who was the chief supervisor of Mutsu and Dewa provinces, had made a pledge to be a disciple of the Shōnin in this world and the next.

The Provisional Precept Master Yokei who held the rank of Dharma Bridge later became Morouji’s teacher.

In the 7th month of the 1st year of Tenroku [970] Morouji passed away and was buried on a hill in Higashiyama.

The Shōnin took a piece of paper, inked a writing brush, and wrote a letter, which he sent to the palace of Enraō (Yama, death deity). The letter stated:

A certain chief councillor of Japan in Jambudvīpa is a patron of Kūya. There is a limit to our present reincarnation and Morouji has gone to the other world before me.

Enraō, know the circumstances of Maō (Asura) and have mercy upon Morouji.

Yokei approached the coffin and read this. The letter was then burned, whereupon the atmosphere changed and the mourners’ spirits were uplifted.

There was an elderly nun in the western part of the capital. She was the former wife of the upper 5th rank Deputy Governor of Yamato, Tomo no Asomi Norimoto.

She practiced the Nembutsu incessantly her whole life. She had a close relationship with the Shōnin and they called each other good friends.

Recently, she was sewing a set of vestments for the Shōnin. On the morning of his death, she was to bring his garments to him.

The nun said to a servant girl, Today the life of my master will end. Take these to him quickly.

When it started to get dark, she returned and reported that he died. The nun was not surprised or sad, which at the time greatly bewildered people.

Oh how sad it is! Kūya lived for 70 years and for 25 years after his ordination.

On the day he died, he bathed, put on clean clothes, sat down, burned incense, faced towards the west, and closed his eyes.

At that moment, music came down from the heavens and an unusual fragrance rose in the room.

The young and old of the town in great numbers came running:

When they arrived at the room and saw incense burning and the Shōnin sitting erect without breathing, they sighed deeply saying, It is heaven. Oh, how sad it is!

The ignoble are not to eulogize the noble, nor are children to eulogize elders. I am an ignorant young man. To recollect the life of the Shōnin and eulogize him is in order to truly honour his virtues.

There was a saying among the ancients: Use a rock to polish a jewel and salt to wash gold.

For bringing out the essence of something, use the inferior to reveal the superior and the ugly to make it attractive.

With this in mind, I learned the accumulated memories of Kūya’s life by visiting the disciples left behind at his main temple and by collecting and putting in chronological order dozens of documents of his Dharma companions and of votive prayers.

On the basis of these, although lacking ability to adequately praise him, I eulogize him with the following words:


A holy man of brilliance,
   he was virtuous beyond measure.
Practicing the way of a Bodhisattva,
   he began as an Ubasoku (Upāsaka).
Through mountain ascetic practice,
   he drove away the 6 thieves.
His mind abiding in the non-material,
   he begged for food in the marketplace.
He saved the world from suffering,
   and called upon Dharma companions.
Lice left his body,
   and poisonous snakes sensed his virtue.
Because of him,
   an ailing fox spirit rejoiced (in the garden).
Monju came to him for a time,
   and Kannon did not hide from him.

Oh, how sad it is!

Reciting the name of Amida,
   he fixed his thoughts on Paradise.
In pursuit of wisdom,
   he unified his heart with Jōtai (Ever Wailing).
He met each person with sincerity,
   and everyone received his teachings.
In the capital, righteous virtue was his crown;
   high ranking nobles and officials knew his name.
In the ninth month as the grass faded,
   the wind in the sky was pure.
The air in the room was fragrant,
   while music came from the heavens.
Transcending the sea of life and death,
   he went to the castle of Nirvāṇa.
At seventy years of age,
   he was welcomed into the Pure Land.

Oh, how sad it is!