Japan Zentrum

Links und Funktionen



Habilitation Project Paulus Kaufmann

Project Outline

‘To call the Reality of all Dharmas’ - Kûkai on Truth and Meaning

In the early 9th century the Buddhist monk Kûkai (774-835) strove to establish a new form of Buddhism in Japan. This form of Buddhism focuses on complex ritual forms, combining visualizations, bodily movements, the employment of ritual implements and the recitation of mantras. Especially the mantras were considered by Kûkai to be of the utmost ritual importance, as the name of his school “Shingon”, the usual Japanese translation for ‘mantra’, clearly illustrates. The term ‘shingon’ (眞言) literally means ‘true words’, however, and it is by no means coincidental that this translation term was introduced by Kûkai and other Buddhists who were aiming to establish a new form of Buddhism. In a way, the translation gives a concise expression of their discontentment with the tradition, as it makes it clear that the words used in ritual, the mantras are, in their eyes, at the same time the true words of the Buddha. In contrast to the traditional Buddhist view, according to which language can only hint at the truth, but cannot express it directly, Kûkai and his continental predecessors believed that one particular form of language use, namely the recitation of mantras, can indeed reveal the unmediated truth discovered by the Buddha. If we want to understand what is peculiar about the new form of Buddhism, we therefore have to understand the idea that mantras can be means of achieving awakening and influencing the world according to one’s wishes because they express truths.

Since the last decades of the 20th century, scholars of Buddhist and Religious Studies have started to criticize the one-sided focus on doctrinal issues of earlier scholarship and much work has been done since then on material culture and monastic institutions, on Buddhist ritual and art. This has sometimes led to a rigid division of labour between scholars who focus either on doctrine or on ritual. This dichotomy is hostile to Esoteric Buddhism, however, as Esoteric Buddhists were aiming at overcoming the very tension that existed in Mahâyâna Buddhism, as they perceived it, between theoretical claims and ritual realities. Esoteric rituals should rather be understood as expressions of theoretical doctrines and we should also look for Kûkai’s conception of truth in the forms and aims of the rituals that he propagated.

To be able to express truths mantra must be meaningful entities. Kûkai indeed believes that they are and even thinks that the mantras express uncountable meanings at the same time. He believes, moreover, that mantras bear these meanings eternally and naturally without the intervention of any human or divine agent and also without an implicit conventional agreement. He, therefore, defends a peculiar conception of meaning that needs to be clarified in order to understand the esoteric understanding of language. Kûkai not only describes what meaning is, however, but also ascribes meanings in his many sutra commentaries. These have not been analysed carefully in contemporary efforts to make sense of Kûkai’s thought yet. The second step of my research project, therefore, consists in analysing the conception of meaning that is expressed through Kûkai’s ascriptions of meaning, especially in his sutra commentaries.

My project is meant to contribute to the interpretation of Kûkai and his esoteric school of Buddhism. It also aims to contribute to philosophy, however, as the common academic discourse on philosophy is focussed, in Europe and America as well as in Japan, on Western intellectual history. An investigation of Kûkai’s conceptions of truth and meaning will extend the research on these important topics to an author who has not received much attention in philosophy yet.