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KŌBEN (11731232), also known as Myoe Shonin, was an important figure in the Kamakura-period revival of Nara Buddhism. This revival consisted of criticism of the exclusivist doctrines of the Pure Land and Nichiren sects and a renewed interest in, and devotion to, the historic Buddha, Śākyamuni. As a prominent Kegon (Chin., Huayan) mentor, Kōben attempted to introduce Tantric elements into Kegon practice, as evidenced by his compilation of Kegon-Tantric (gommitsu ) rituals and consecrations. He also worked for the revival of traditional Kegon learning, emphasizing the study of Fazang's works rather than those of Chengguan, whose doctrines were transmitted within the Shingon tradition, and the cultivation of Kegon visualization meditations.

Kōben was born in the village of Yoshiwara, on the Ishigaki estate, in Aritakoori in the province of Kii (present-day Wakayama prefecture). In the fall of 1181, following the death of his parents, the boy was sent to the Jingoji monastic complex, located on Mount Takao north of Kyoto, where he began his studies under the master Mongaku. Kōben subsequently studied Tantric doctrines (mikkyō ) and Fazang's Wuzhiao zhang. At the age of fifteen (sixteen by Asian reckoning), Kōben became a novice and received the full monastic precepts (the gusokukai ) at the Kaiden'in monastery of the Tōdaiji, in Nara. Following his ordination in Nara, Kōben began his study of the Kusharon (Vasubandhu's Abhidharmakośabhāya, a major Hīnayāna Abhidharma text). At the age of eighteen Kōben received the transmission of the dual maala s of the jūhachidō tradition from the ācārya Kōnen. Following this transmission, which centered around an eighteen-part Tantric sādhana to be undertaken by new initiates, Kōben began the cultivation of the butsugen ritual, a ritual centered on a visualization of the eyes of the Buddha, and his biography records that he experienced many miracles due to this practice.

In 1193, Kōben received an imperial order commanding him to work for the restoration of the Kegon tradition; thereafter, he took up residence as abbot in the Shōson'in of the Tōdaiji in Nara. Seeing the conflicts that racked the Buddhist world at this time, Kōben decided to retire from all worldly and ecclesiastical concerns. In 1195, Kōben left the Jingoji monasteries, and building himself a rude hut in the Kii mountains he retired, spending his time in the cultivation of sādhana rituals and in meditative visualizations. During this time he read the bulk of the commentaries and sub-commentaries to the Kegongyō (Skt., Avatasaka Sūtra ). This task, it is recorded, was also rewarded with many miracles and visions.

Later, returning to Mount Takao, Kōben began the teaching of the Kegon doctrines, lecturing on the Kegon tangenki (Chin., Huayan tanxuan ji ), a major Huayan commentary composed by Fazang. It was here that Kōben initiated a series of lectures and debates on Kegon doctrine. In 1198 a number of disturbances between monastic factions on Mount Takao broke out, and Kōben, taking with him the chief image (honzon ) of the monastery and its sacred texts, once more retired to his hermitage in the province of Kii. Here he constructed another hut with the aid of a local military leader and, as previously, he devoted himself to meditation, the recitation of scriptures, and writing.

In the eleventh month of 1206, the retired emperor Go-Toba presented Kōben with the Togano-o monastic complex in the hope that it would long be a center for the revival of the Kegon tradition. The monastic complex was given the new name of Kōzanji, and Kōben soon set to work repairing the buildings and reviving the tradition. Kōben was asked many times to administer the precepts to both the retired emperor Go-Toba and the Lady Kenreimon'in, his two most important patrons. After the death of her husband, Emperor Takakura, and her son, the infant emperor Antoku, Lady Kenreimon'in became a nun.

Kōben's fame came to the attention of the shogun in Kamakura, Hōjō Yasutoki, and on numerous occasions he would visit Kōben at his mountain monastery and receive his teachings. Subsequently, Yasutoki left the householder's life to become a monk under the guidance of Kōben.

After Kōben fell ill and died, at the age of fifty-nine, his many disciples continued their master's work toward the revival of the Kegon tradition. Modern scholars have attributed some forty-two works to Kōben. Included among them are essays on Kegon practice and doctrine, numerous ritual texts, literary works, and Japanese poems (waka ), which are preserved in both the Shinzoku kokinshū and the Shin shūishū.

See Also

Fazang; Huayan; Shingonshū.


For a chronology of the life of Kōben and a complete list of his works see the article "Kōben," in Bukkyō daijiten, edited by Mochizuki Shinkō (Tokyo, 19331936), vol. 2, pp. 1083c1084c. For a general overview of Kegon doctrine and its Japanese development, see Sakamoto Yukio's Kegon kyōgaku no kenkyū (Tokyo, 1976), Ishii Kyōdō's "Gommitsu no shisō Kōben," Taishō Daigaku gakuhō 3 (1928):4872, traces Kōben's attempt to establish purely Kegon Tantric rituals, thereby making the Kegon tradition of his day fully Tantric. On the orthodoxy of Kōben in the Kegon tradition, see Kamata Shigeo's "Nihon Kegon ni okeru seito to itan," Shisō (November 1973). A popular work on Kōben is Tanaka Hisao's Myōe (Tokyo, 1961). Like many other Buddhist monks of his day, Kōben kept a record of his dreams, Yume no ki. For a study of this work, see Yamada Shōzen's "Myoe no yume to Yume no ki, " in Kanazawa Bunko kenkyū (Tokyo, 1970). An English-language summary of Kōben's criticisms of Hōnen's doctrines is Bando Shojun's "Myoe's Criticism of Hōnen's Doctrine," Eastern Buddhist, n.s. 7 (May 1974): 3754.

Leo M. Pruden (1987)