The Buddha Mahavairocana, the ‘great illuminator’, was the special form of the Enlightened One for the Shingon sect. This sect, whose name means ‘true word’, was founded in Japan by Kukai (774–835), better known under his posthumous title of Kobo-Daishi, ‘propagator of the law’. In 804 Kobo-Daishi went to China, where he was initiated into the esoteric doctrine of the Chen Yen, or ‘true word school’. Returning to Japan in 806 he established a monastery on Mount Koya and propagated the mysterious teachings of Shingon. Kobo-Daishi attained national prominence, in 823, by his appointment as abbot of the great temple complex at Miyako. When a decade or so later he considered that his earthly mission was finished, the contemplative monk had himself buried alive, in samadhi, at a secluded spot on Mount Kayo. His body is believed never to have rotted, but awaits resurrection at the advent of Mirokubosatsu, the Buddha who is yet to come.
Legend recounts that nothing could disturb him. Once sea serpents strove to trouble his meditations, but Kobo-Daishi dispersed them with magic, projecting upon them the rays of the evening star. Another time, as he was praying in a temple, he used a magic circle to baffle the demonic Oni. Kobo-Daishi maintained that deities and demons of the various religions were manifestations of Dainichi-nyorai, whose body comprises the whole cosmos. He was present even in a speck of dust. Such a point of view represents an attempt to unify pantheons, to find unity within increasing theological diversity.
Dainichi-nyorai is depicted as seated in deep, serene contemplation on a white lotus; around him are ranged his emanations, stretching outward through bodhisattvas and saints to the myriad beings which comprise the universal order. These emanations are, as it were, the ideal forms, indestructible potentialities destined to manifest themselves in the dynamic aspect of the universe. They are kon-go-kai, ‘elements of diamonds’, and their manifestations occur in the tai-zo-kai, the unrefined, ‘primitive element’. By means of elaborate ritual, according to the Shingon sect, it is possible to evoke magical powers that allow Dainichinyorai to realize his presence on earth.