GYŌGI (670–749), born Koshi no Obito, was a Buddhist monk who popularized Japanese Buddhism during the Nara period (710–784). According to the Genkō shakusho, a collection of biographies of priests, Koshi no Obito was born in the Kubiki district of Echigo (present-day Niigata prefecture) to a family that claimed to be descended from Korean royalty. In his youth, because he was so often in the company of birds and cows, he was called Ushitori ("cowbird"), but he soon began to concern himself instead with the needs of his fellow people. His ministrations on behalf of common people attracted hundreds of followers. At the age of fifteen, he "left the world" (i.e., took mendicant orders) and entered Yakushiji, one of the seven great Nara temples. Under the guidance of the monks Eki, Dōshō, and Gien he became acquainted with the doctrines of the Hossō (Skt., Yogācāra) school of Buddhism.
In 694 Gyōgi was ordained a monk by Tokuei, who administered the 250 full monastic precepts (gusokukai; Skt., upasampadā ). He later retired with his mother to Mount Ikona in order to practice austerities. In this action Gyōgi, whose religious name means "foundation of ascetics," followed the example of the mountain ascetic (hijiri ) En no Gyōja, who had done the same a few decades earliers.
Gyōgi did not persist in this life of retreat, however. Soon he started to travel extensively and to propagate Buddhism, not only in its religious, but also in its magical aspects. At the same time he undertook numerous projects that demanded strenuous physical labor: He constructed roads, built bridges and dikes, and planned and dug out irrigation canals. Gyōgi was a remarkable sculptor and artisan; he invented a new kind of earthenware and is credited with the introduction of the potter's wheel. Also active in welfare work, he built free clinics and lodging houses. In the province of Kii he built forty-nine Buddhist temples. In all these activities he was convinced that his engagement in manual labor was an "expedient means" (upāya ) to nirvāṇa. Hence his testimony: "That I have attained [understanding of] the Lotus Sūtra was possible only through making firewood, gathering herbs, drawing water, and laboring thus." In his sermons he stressed that there was no antagonism between Shintō and Buddhism, and he tried to reconcile Shintō gods and buddhas. It is not accurate, however, to trace to Gyōgi the origin of Ryōbu Shintō, or Shintō-Buddhist syncretism.
Gyōgi's activities and sermons earned the high esteem of Emperor Shōmu (r. 724–749). In 745 he appointed Gyōgi to the office of daisōjō, the highest office in the Buddhist hierarchy. At that time, Gyōgi was also sent by the emperor to the sun goddess Amaterasu's shrine at Ise, bearing a Buddhist relic as a present to the deity. By that gift he hoped to receive her approval for the construction of a huge statue of Buddha Vairocana (the Daibutsu) to be erected in the Tōdaiji in Nara, a large temple that had been completed a few years earlier. In a dream Shōmu received the answer of the sun goddess, who said: "This land is the country of the gods. [The people] should worship them. But the wheel of the sun is Dainichi Nyorai [Skt., Mahāvairocana]." With these words Amaterasu identified herself with Buddha Vairocana. Thereupon, Gyōgi traveled about the country to collect money and gold for the construction of the Daibutsu. Although in his lifetime Gyōgi was already considered a bodhisattva, he was not granted this title by the emperor until the year of his death. He is considered to be the manifestation of Mañjuśrī, the bodhisattva of divine wisdom. Gyōgi died in Tōnanin Hall of Sugiwara Temple in 749.
Traditional accounts of Gyōgi's life can be found in many sources, including the Shoku nihongi, the Nihon ryōiki, and the Genkō shakusho. For modern secondary sources, see especially Hori Ichirō's Folk Religion in Japan, edited and translated by Joseph M. Kitagawa and Alan L. Miller (Chicago, 1968), and H. H. Coates and Ishizuka Ryūgaku's Hōnen, the Buddhist Saint, 5 vols. (Kyoto, 1949).
J. H. Kamstra (1987)