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Shingon Buddhism and Islam: Similar Notions of Existence and the

Goal of Being Human

By:David Buchman

In 1996 during my dissertation field work on the contemporary situation of Sufism in
Yemen, I interviewed Amin, a young, bright, twenty- one year old member of the
country’s Shadhiliya ‘Alawiya Sufi order’ located in the capital San’a. Part of the
interview centered upon gaining insight into his tolerance and understanding of other
religions. The topic came to Buddhism, and he blurted out the statement, “the Buddha
was a prophet and a true Sufi”. Surprised at such a response, I asked him why, and Amin
Because the Buddha left the world to achicve closeness to God. The Buddha was truly
sincere (ikhla!) in his desire to purify his heart to reach God. He forgot everyone else and
remembered (dhakara) only God. He was a great prophet and we Muslims must learn
from his example.
The life story and teachings of Shakyamuni Buddha are currently taught in the
standardized and required Yemeni high school class on world philosophy, along with the
lives and works of Plato, Aristotle, and other ancient and modern philosophers. For Amin,
and many of his Sufi companions, the Buddha, Plato, and Aristotle became Islamicized as
being among the prophets of God of which sound !ad!th in Islam number to be 124,000.
For Amin the Buddha is a Sufi ascetic (zahid), a denier of worldly pleasures in order to
realize the Truth. Amin’s understanding reflected the teachings of his spiritual master: the
Buddha was a prophet and a great Sufi, an example for all “Sufis” (i.e. followers of
spiritual, masters) of whatever religion. Hence, for the Sufis of the Shadhiliya ‘Alawiya
order, and other orders in Yemen, Buddhism was not just a religion, but also taught a
spiritual path best characterized in the life story of the Buddha himself.
As I was to learn, those Muslims who followed a Sufi master usually had a sympathetic
interpretation of Buddhism and other religions as divinely revealed d!ns; most other
Muslims viewed Buddhism as a humanistic moral system outside of divine guidance and
mercy. This negative understanding of Buddhism comes of the fore when basic and
narrowly defined Islamic tenets are posited against a simplified understanding of
Buddhist notions of reality. The non-Sufi informants argue that since Buddhism does not
mention a supreme being in terminology resembling that employed for the Islamic
divinity, Buddhism has no real concept of God.
As for Amin, he viewed the Buddha as a prophet and his way as exemplary of ascetic Sufi
practice for two reasons. First, his spiritual master told him to believe in the prophecy
(nubuwwa) and messengerhood of the Buddha. Second, there are similarities between the
teachings and practices of Buddhism and certain Islamic and specifically Sufi teachings
and practices. Building on this second reason, I compare a central doctrinal notion of the
Shingon School of Buddhism, that enlightenment occurs “with this very body”, with the
related Islamic notions of God, the universe, and perfect human (insan kamil). This
analysis goes beyond Amin’s ascetic comparison between the Buddha and practical
dimensions of the Sufi path and argues that Shingon Buddhism and Islam have similar
notions of existence and the goal of being human.
Buddhism: Basic teachings and differing schools
Buddhist teachings state that the religion was founded by Shakyamuni Buddha over two
thousand five hundred years ago within a province of what is now northeastern India. The
teachings of Shakyamuni developed into three main branches: Theravada, Mahayana, and
Vajrayana. These branches contain various schools or lineages that differ in their
interpretations of Shakyamuni’s basic teachings: samsara, nirvana, and the eightfold path.
The goal of every Buddhist is to reach a state of being called, in Sanskrit, nirvana, which
literally means “to become extinguished” from one’s selfish passions and ignorance.
Nirvana has been translated as “enlightenment”. Shakyamuni achieved this state and
claimed that it is only in nirvana that a person attains to true reality, knowledge, and
happiness. Shakyamuni said that while there are many degrees of nirvana, most people
never even achieve its lowest levels, but rather remain within a state of ignorance, non-
reality, and suffering called in Sanskrit samsara, which means “endless cycle” and refers
to the countless repetitions of birth, death, and rebirth of all unenlightened creatures
within an unreal yet highly painful existence. Except for the enlightened, every being is
condemned to be reborn into one of the infinite worlds of the universe, both seen and
unseen. Such beings, described as “sentient”, include gods, devils, ghosts, plants, insets,
animals, humans, and, in some Buddhist schools, even inanimate objects.
Shakyamuni realized that the suffering, limitation, and pain of samsara is caused by the
ignorance and blind passions of the sentient beings. The only way to end this suffering is
by breaking out of samsara and attaining nirvana through following the teachings
(Sanskrit dharma) of one who has broken out already. The sentient being who has reached
the highest levels of nirvana is called a “Buddha”, one who has “awoke” from the
ignorance and passion of samsara into the knowledge and compassion of nirvana. The
dharma has been codified in writings called sutras, which number in the thousands and
vary from school to school.
Theravada, Mahayana, and Vajrayana vary in how the basic concepts of samsara and
nirvana are interpreted, and in how the practices of the eightfold path are carried out. The
uniqueness of Shingon teachings and how they compare to similar Islamic notions are
better understood in light of the differences among the three major branches.
Theravada argues that samsara and nirvana are best understood as separate realities. In
addition, Theravada claims that only a few people who truly abandon the world to
become monks and nuns have the possibility of attaining to nirvana. Finally,
Theravadists say that the only Buddha for our time period is Shakyamuni, and no other
should be of concern. They limit the sutras to those written in Pali, a dead Indian
language related to Sanskrit. Theravadans claim, with much disagreement by other
schools, that the Pali texts are the oldest and most authentic of Shakyamuni’s sutras.
Mahayana appeared later and argues that samsara and nirvana are not distinct things: they
are two sides of a single reality. According to a well-known Mahayanist aphorism,
“Samsara is nirvana and nirvana is samsara” Mahayanists claim that beside Shakyamuni,
there are other Buddhas and almost-Buddhas (Bodhisattva), which when called upon can
help even the laity achieve nirvana. Hence, Mahayana teachings claim to be able to help
more people attain nirvana than Theravada teachings. Mahayana schools utilize numerous
other sutras, which appeared hundreds of years after Shakyamuni’s death and are written
in languages such as Sanskrit, Chinese, Burmese, and Tibetan, among others.
Buddhists do not agree on whether or not Vajrayana is a branch of Buddhism or
another form of Mahayana. However, for the Shingon Buddhists, Vajrayana is as
distinct from Mahayana, as Mahayana is from Theravada. The Shingon School agrees
with the two sided Mahayanist samsara nirvana concept of reality but emphasizes the
nirvana aspect of existence over its samsaric appearance. Hence, all sensuous aspects
of samsara which, from the point of view of the other schools, lead to blind passion
and ignorance – and so should be turned away from in one’s daily life – are
transformed under Vajrayana practice and belief into supports for the practitioner to
achieve nirvana. For example, sexual relations, which in the other schools are viewed
as an activity that keeps one in samsara, can, within strict Vajrayana rituals, lead a
practitioner to enlightenment. Vajrayana teachings see the samsaric world as a direct
reflection and support to nirvana. All people can achieve nirvana in their life no
matter how bad their behavior, strong their blind passions, and ignorant their minds.
Shingon Buddhism: “Attaining enlightenment with this very body”
Shingon Buddhism is among the oldest Japanese schools of Buddhism extant today. It
was founded by the well-known culture hero Kukai (d. 835) in the 9
century on Mount
Koya, where he set up the still active central monastery. Shingon has over one million
Japanese adherents and is considered a Vajrayana School of Buddhism, similar in world-
view to the Tibetan lineages of Buddhism and to certain teachings and practices of the
Japenese Tendai school. Shingon Buddhism bases its teachings on two late Mahayana
sutras, called “Diamond Peak” and Mahavairochana. Kukai’s vision derives from his
interpretation of these two sutras.
The Vajrayana school views all aspects of samsara as potentially positive supports
leading to nirvana. This view was given a powerful expression by Kukai who said that
nirvana “can be achieved with this very body” (sokushin jobutsu) According to him other
schools of Buddhism view the body as representing the worst aspects of samsaric
existence: the body’s appetites, sensuality, and emotions must controlled and even denied
in order to tame the blind passion inherent in it. In addition, “body” in the form of the
physical senses – such as sounds, sights, colors, movements—are defiling dangers on the
road to enlightenment. Kukai promoted a radical idea in his saying that enlightenment
“can be achieved with this very body”: the very thing that keeps one in samsara becomes
For Kukai the word “body” is polysemous (Kasulis 1995): it refers not just to the negative
non-snirvanic physical body, but to the whole being of the person, both the seen and
unseen aspects of an individual. In the Japanese expression Kukai used, sokushin jobutsu
(“attaining enlightenment with this very body”), the word for body is shin, which is the
same sound used for the Japanese word for “heart,” the source of the unseen aspect of a
human being. When Kukai says that nirvana can be achieved with this “very body” he
means that the whole human reality, the heart and physical body, attains to nirvana.
More importantly, when Kukai says “body”, he says this within a complex metaphysical
and cosmological scheme, in which the concept and reality of “body” plays a pivotal role.
Following Vajrayana teachings, Kukai claimed that all existence is nothing but a
hierarchy of levels of nirvana. He conceived of this nirvanic hierarchy in two new ways.
First, nirvana has a supreme anthropomorphic source called Dainichi Nyorai – the
Japanese pronunciation of a Chinese translation of another Sanskrit word for nirvana
called mahavairochana, the same name as the title of one of the dual source sutras of
Shingon Buddhism. Dainichi Nyorai means “the Great Sun Shining on All”, and is a
personified form of nirvana that creates the world, and preaches the dharma to the sentient
beings it created.
Second, Kukai said that the universe and all existent beings within it are a hierarchy of
“bodies” reflecting and deriving from the single “body” of Dainichi Nyorai. The
relationship between the “bodies” of the universe and the “bodies” of Deinichi Nyorai has
two points of view. The first point of view is that of Dainichi Nyorai himself, and it
equates the “bodies” of the universe with the “body” of Dainichi Nyorai. This idea was a
“secret” teaching, in Japanese mikkyo. From this perspective there is no duality in
existence, all is Dainichi Nyorai and has never been anything else. Everything is nirvana,
and there is no true samsara, “nirvana is nirvana”. Another way to express this
perspective is to say that for Dainichi Nyorai samsara is the “body” of Dainichi Nyorai
self-disclosing himself to himself in the form of other “bodies” for the sake of himself.
The achievement of enlightenment with this “very body” is the self-disclosure of Dainichi
Nyorai’s “body”/ “bodies” in existence.
The second point of view posits a duality between the source of existence on one side and
a hierarchical mirror image manifestation of this source on the other. Kukai calls this
perspective “public teachings”, in Japanese kengyo. It states that samsara is not Dainichi
Nyorai and can never be he; rather it mirrors his reality in the bodies of sentient beings.
Each body – each thing in existence – is a reflection of other “bodies”, all going back to
the source-body, Dainichi Nyorai in himself. These “bodies” are arranged in a hierarchy
of existence based upon enlightenment: those bodies that mirror the enlightened reality of
the “source-body” better are higher and more real. The goal of practitioners is to make
their bodies mirror perfectly the body of Dainichi Nyorai and attain the highest level of
enlightenment possible. Shingon Buddhists become an image of Dainichi Nyorai, but they
never become him.
Kukai argued that both perspectives are true, but said that the secret teaching, mikkyo, is
a more accurate description of reality than the public teaching, kengyo.
Metaphysical correspondences: God and Dainichi Nyorai as source of being and
Kukai’s metaphysics, cosmology, and description of attaining enlightenment are similar
to Islamic conceptions of God, the universe, and the Sufi goal of becoming a perfect
human, especially when viewed in terms of the ideas of such Sufi thinkers as Ibn al
‘Arab! (d. 1240) and Abê !amid al-Ghazal! (d. 1111)
What is most striking about Kukai’s teachings is the objectification of nirvana in the form
of an anthropomorphic being called Dainichi Nyorai who creates the universe and
preaches dharma. In Buddhism supreme reality is usually not characterized as an
objective reality outside of personal experience, in contrast to the Islamic concept of God.
Supreme reality in Buddhism is non-objectified and expressed as a direct experience, as
the name nirvana implies. Certain Buddhist teachings do objectify supreme reality, but
such objectification takes the forms of many Buddhas who hold different functions in the
upkeep of the samsaric/nirvanic complex of reality. The idea of a single all-powerful
being, as the source of nirvana, is not stressed in Buddhist teachings.
For Kukai the role and function of Dainichi Nyorai parallels Islamic notions of God. The
Koran and !ad!th claim that God is single supreme being, the source of all light and being
in existence, the creator of all “that is other than God”, ma siwa Allah, and the sender of
messengers and prophets to all people to inform them of their happy ends (bashara) and
warn them (nadhara) of punishment if they do not follow the truth.
The following traditional Shingon commentary (taken from Watanabe 1999: Chapter
Two) on the two main characteristics Dainichi Nyorai, “Great Sun Shining on All”, uses
the metaphors of light is similar to the Muslim description of God. This light imagery of
Dainichi Nyorai is similar to al-Ghazal!’s commentary (al-Ghazal ! 1998 ) on the Light
Verse (24:35), which established a metaphysics that equates light with God. The Koran
states that “God is the light of the heavens and the earth” (24:35) and in al-Ghazal!’s
Mishkat al-anwar (1998) he interprets “light” to mean knowledge and being. Hence, all
the knowledge and existence found in the universe both unseen in the heavens and seen
on the earth are nothing but dim reflections of God’s knowledge and existence. Similarly,
the light of Dainichi Nyorai is the source of all being and knowledge.
According to Kukai, unlike the physical sun which shines on the one hand and creates
shade on the other, Dainichi Nyorai always shines upon everything without making any
shade. This first characteristic explains that Dainichi Nyorais, light “creates” all things in
samsara without discrimination. Just as the physical sun’s light shines on all, so also the
light of existence of Dainichi Nyorai gives existence to all things. Light is equated with
being and the light of Dainichi Nyorai is the source of existence. As creator, Dainichi
Nyorai’s lights creates the cosmos, Just the Muslim God creates the universe from the
light of his being.
Second, like the physical sun which helps animals and plants to grow by its light,
Dainichi Nyorai shines upon everything and helps all things to grow into their original
characteristic of being enlightened. This second explanation of the name Dainichi Nyorai
explains its function as a preacher of dharma so that the creatures, which it created, can
actualize their inherent enlightened reality. Here, the light of Dainichi Nyorai is equal to
knowledge. This function of Dainichi Nyorai parallels the Muslim God’s sending
messengers and prophets to humans so that they can remember to actualize the
vicegerency (khalafa) inherent within them. Hence, the light of Dainichi Nyorai is the
knowledge of existence.
Kukai’s conception of samsara and nirvana is also similar to Ibn al ‘Arab!’s
metaphysical understanding of the relationship between God and the world. For Ibn al
‘Arab!, the universe is viewed from two points of view: it is God and it is not God. From
the point of view of “it is not God,” the universe is seen as dark, ignorant, without true
being, and antithetical to true joy and bliss. This perspective is similar to the Buddhist
conception that the world as samsara, as in Kukai’s public (kengyo) teaching that samsara
is only a mirror of Dainichi Nyorai. However, from the point of view of “it is God”, the
universe is seen as degrees (darajat) of divine light –being, and knowledge – and capable
of leading humans to true happiness. This perspective is found in Mahayana and
Vajrayana conceptions that the universe is nirvana, or rather that “samsara in nirvana”.
The universe is the body of Dainichi Nyorai.
Just as Kukai saw the universe from a samsaric/public point of view, yet emphasized and
spoke about its nirvanic/secret (mikkyo) aspects more than its negative components, so
also, did Ibn al ‘Arab! speak of both aspects of the cosmos, yet spent much time
delineating what the universe means from the perspective of “it is God”. From the
perspective of “the cosmos is God”, Ibn al ‘Arab! claimed – similar to Kukai – that the
universe is the self-disclosure (tajall!) of God’s names and attributes (asma’ wa !ifat),
and all creatures then are the “acts” (af ‘al) of the divine names and attributes. The
universe, “as God”, is the mirror in which God projects his being in the infinite and myriad
creatures of existence, which are nothing but manifestations of His names and attributes. In
the following passages, Ibn al ‘Arab! expresses the idea that the being of the universe is
really a transcription of God’s own being, and then God gains knowledge of Himself
through constantly finding Himself with the universe.
The cosmos is a divine transcription (nuskha) upon a form of the Real [God]. Hence we
Say: God’s knowledge of the things is His knowledge of Himself. (II 390:35)
The Real [God] knows Himself, He knows the cosmos from Himself, and He brought the
cosmos into existence upon His own form. Hence it is mirror within which He sees his
own form. (II 326:26) (translated by Chittick: 1989:297)

Similarly, this conception of the universe as a mirror of God is similar to Kukai’s notion
that the universe consists of “bodies” that mirror the “body” of Dainichi Nyorai and that
the universe is nothing but a disclosure of Dainichi Nyorai to himself.
Macrocosmic similarities: The five divine presences and the four form bodies
While similarities between Islam and Shingon can be drawn from their use of the imagery
of light as the source of true knowledge and being, correspondences are not as
straightforward when discussing the concept of “body”. One way to explain Kukai’s
notion of “body” in Islamic terms is to compare the Sufi understanding of the Five
Divine Presences (al-!aèrat al-ilahiyyah al-khams) with Kukai’s Four Form Dharma-
Islam and Shingon Buddhism have similar hierarchical cosmological conceptions of the
universe. A common Islamic cosmological axiom (see Murata 1992), which is similar to
Kukai’s cosmology, is that there is an essential correspondence between the universe as
the macrocosmic manifestation of God’s light –being and knowledge – and the human
being as the microcosmic manifestation of the same. Each is a mirror image of God: the
universe a macrocosmic image, the human being a microcosmic one, and each mirrors the
other as they both mirror God. Both “cosmos” have corresponding hierarchical levels
ranked by degrees of being and knowledge, the source of which is God. The higher levels
have greater being and knowledge, and the lower ones derive from the higher as dimmer
reflections of being and knowledge.
Similarly, for Kukai, samsara consists of Dainichi Nyorai’s “bodies”, which are not
randomly dispersed in existence. Rather, they are an ordered macrocosmic hierarchy of
“worlds”. Kukai derived the Four Form Bodies of Dainichi Nyorai from the previous
Mahayana cosmological teachings on the trikaya. This term is Sanskrit for “three bodies”
and refers to the cosmological doctrine of the Three Buddha Bodies of Existence:
dharmakaya.(Dharma-body), sambhogyakaya (Rewarded-body) and nirmanakaya
Kukai kept the basic Mahayanic cosmology of the Three Buddha Bodies and reinterpreted
it in two ways: first, he equated Dainichi Nyorai with the Dharma-body. Then he went on
to say that all the bodies of the universe are only aspects or various modes of Dharma-
body based upon the bodies’ ability to mirror the full reality of Dainichi Nyorai. Hence,
he renamed all the “bodies” Dharma-Body. Second, Kukai added a fourth body of
Dainichi Nyorai: the unenlightened beings of samsara, which emphasized his point that
even samsara is already enlightened.
By renaming all these bodies as aspects of a single supreme reality, Dainichi Nyorai,
Kukai agrees with Islamic cosmological principles, especially as regards the basic Islamic
principle of taw!"d, to bring everything back to God. Just as taw!"d demands that all
Muslims conceive that all things in existence derive from and go back to God, so also
Kukai makes everything “go back to” the source of existence by conceiving of all things
as “bodies” of Dainichi Nyorai. Just as the Islamic cosmos goes back to God by being the
macrocosmic mirror image of the divine, so also the Shingon universe goes back to
Dainichi Nyorai by being the macrocosmic “bodies” of Dainichi Nyorai.
If these “bodies” are conceived of as “worlds”, correspondences can be drawn between
these “world”-bodies and the Islamic worlds as discussed in the teachings on the Five
Divine Presences. Just as each “body” is a world that expresses specific qualities of
Dainichi Nyorai in samsara, so also each divine presence reflects specific qualities of
God’s reality within the universe. The universe consists of interrelated worlds ordered
in a hierarchical manner in the cosmos, called “divine presences” or worlds. These have
traditionally been numbered as five. (Chittick 1982) Different thinkers create various
schemes, but like Kukai, they all share one concern: to show the interrelationship of all
existence in light of its supreme source.
Figure I presents how Kukai’s Four Form Bodies of Dainichi Nyorai corresponds roughly
with the Muslim notions of the Five Divine Presences as outlined by Ibn al ‘Arab!’s
foremost disciple al-Qênaw!. Al-Qênaw! summarizes the levels as divine (ilah!),
spiritual (ru!an!), imaginal (mithal!), sensory (!iss!), and all-comprehensive (jami‘)
(Chittick 1982: 115). He also discusses God’s essence (dhat), but not as a level. The
“bodies” in themselves do not directly correspond to the Divine Presences. However,
the “bodies” have higher and lower aspects, the characteristics of which provide a
means to draw preliminary comparisons to the Divine Presences.
(Figure 1)

Five Divine Presences Four Bodies of Dainichi Nyorai (DN)
Essence of God Self-Nature Body, Higher: essence of DN
--not a presnese, unknowable --known only to DN
1-Divine:Supreme Being as “divinity” - Self-Nature Body, Lower, Active and Passive
-- God’s Knowledge of all things -DN’s movement toward manifesting other -
Muhammadan Reality, Pen and Tablet(?) bodies
2- Spiritual :world of the pure light Receiving Body, Higher [Self-Receiving?]
and knowledge -- DN as teacher of dharma
-- Angels
3- Imaginal : world of images Receiving Body, Lower [other-
- Powerful beings with majestic forms Receiving?]
- Buddhas in majestic forms and colors
4- Sensory: Physical world Alteration Body: DN as human Buddhas
- Dark ignorant, Equally- penetration Body
Least real divine presence - DN as unenlightened sentient beings
5- All-comprehensive: Perfect Human Enlightened being perfectly reflecting
the Six
- A being that perfectly manifests Great Elements of DN in the body
all God’s Names and Attributes Alteration Body, also
in a harmonious manner, bringing
together all divine presences in its
God’s essence is not a presence as the other levels. It is that aspect of God that is most
real, knowable only to Him, and is considered beyond the universe, yet also the essence
of all things in the universe. The first body in Kukai’s scheme is called the Self-Nature
Dharma-body (jisho hosshin). This is the essence of all existence, Dainichi Nyorai’s
absolute state of enlightenment. It is beyond time and space. At its highest level, Self-
Nature Dharma-Body is beyond description. The higher aspect of the first Dharma-body
of Dainichi Nyorai corresponds to the Islamic notion of God in His essence, knowable
and attainable only by God. So also, this higher aspect of the first body of Dainichi
Nyorai is only knowable and obtainable only by himself.
The divine level is God as a “divinity”. This presence is the first one and contains all the
knowledge of the universe. Some Sufis (Buchman 1998) refer to it as the Muhammadan
Reality, the source of all that was, is and is to be in existence. Creatures know supreme
reality only as the “divinty” of this level. This level corresponds with the lower aspect of
the Self-Nature Dharma-body. Kukai says that at its lower level the Self-Nature Dharma-
body becomes distinguished into two aspects: One is its objective or active aspect called
the Principle Dharma-body (ri hosshin). The other is the subjective or receptive quality
called the Wisdom Dharma-body (chi hosshin). Perhaps these two Dharma-bodies
correspond to the Koranic Pen and Tablet (85:22), which has knowledge of all things God
creates in the universe. These two aspects of Self-Nature Dharma-body are not separable,
yet it is in this bifurcation of the Self-Nature Dharma-body that comes the other four
bodies. (see Murata 1992: 197-98) Hence, the lower aspect of this Dharma-body
corresponds to the divine level through being the highest degree of Dainichi Nyorai as he
beings to manifest the other bodies.
The next divine presence is the spiritual referring to the angelic realm. This level is the first
degree of the created universe; its substance is of pure light, life, and knowledge. It is the
realm of the angels, and for some Muslim cosmologists it is also the realm of the Koranic
Great Spirit (al-rê :! 78:38 ).
The second of the Four Forms of Dharma-body is called the Receiving Dharma-body (juyu
hosshin), which appears in this world from the Self-Nature Dharma-body in the form of
Buddhas in order to save sentient beings. Buddhas manifest themselves to preach the
dharma. Hence the second Dharma-body could correspond the spiritual world because just
as angels of this realm bring the divine messages to humans, Daincichi Nyorai of the
Receiving Dharma-Body reaches the dharma to sentient beings.
Imaginal is the intermediary world between the spiritual and physical world. It is the
realm of images (‘alam al-mithal) where the jinn reside. It is a world of subtle forms,
where creatures have color and shape but can change these attributes at will. This world is
more real than the physical world in that it has a greater share in all the divine qualities
than does the physical world around us.
Receiving-body Buddha world has a lower aspect that roughly corresponds to the
intermediary realm of the imaginal presence. Dainichi Nyorai is the preacher of the truth
as the Receiving-body Buddha and also the one receiving this truth, as an advanced
sentient being on the path to enlightenment. From both aspects, Dainichi Nyorai receives
pleasure. Hence, there are two types of Receiving Dharma-body. The first one is the Self-
Receiving Dharma-body (jijuyu hosshin) which profits himself from preaching. This
means that the Dharma-body in and of himself takes a form of this Self-Receiving
Dharma-body to listen to the absolute state of enlightenment from himself and enjoy the
bliss of attaining enlightenment. Another is the Other-Receiving Dharma-body (tajuyu
hosshin) which makes others experience this enlightenment. However, this preaching is
not meant for ordinary people but for advanced Bodhisattvas. This Other-Receiving
Dharma-body could perhaps correspond to the intermediary world of Islamic cosmology.
The third form is the Alteration Dharma-body (henge hosshin). This form refers to the
physical world of the Muslim scheme, but in terms of the manifestation of the prophets
and messengers sent by God to teach humans. Alternation Dharma-body appears as a
Buddha in our physical world to preach to sentient beings according to the level of the
listeners and physically dies, just as Shakyamuni did. But just as the prophets and
messengers are still “with” God in their hearts, and are not limited to the physical world,
so also the Buddhas of the Third Form Dharma body are not limited to being in samara: at
the same time they are enlightened and are also “within” nirvana.
The fourth form Dharma-body, Equally-penetration Dharma-body, more closely
corresponds to the Muslim physical world than does the Alteration Body. Equally-
penetration Dharma body takes the same form as unenlightened sentient beings who listen
to the teachings of the Alternation Dharma-body Buddha. He suffers together with the
listener in an unenlightened state of being in order to earn trust or to defeat the ignorance
of that listener. This fourth body of Dainichi Nyorai is the inherent, potential, enlightened
reality of samsaric creatures. Shingon does not exclude enlightenment from anything in
this world and perceives everything as a manifestation of Dharma-body, Dainichi Nyorai,
from the gods to demons. Hence, this fourth body is all those creatures in our physical
world. The third and the Fourth Form Dharma Body “worlds” correspond to the physical
world of Muslim cosmology.
The all-comprehensive presence is the human being who has become a perfect human and
brings together all the worlds. The perfect human is the true nature of all people. Both al-
Ghazal! and Ibn ‘Arab! stress this inherent perfection by interpreting the Koranic story
of the creation of Adam, in which the divine spirit is put into Adam. The Koran says that
God blew into Adam His spirit (15:28-29), so all humans have the divine spirit (rê! ilah!)
within them. For al-Ghazal! spirit and divine light are synonymous terms. The goal of
being human is to actualize the inherent divine light and being of the spirit. The true
vicegerent of God (khal!fa Allah) is one who has actualized this spirit having attained
divine knowledge directly in his heart.
Using the hierarchical cosmological scheme, al-Ghazal! said that to become vicegerents
humans should gain knowledge by turning inward into their unseen microcosmic reality.
At the same time, it is if these humans gaining knowledge are “traveling” (salik) into
higher and greater unseen heavenly macrocosmic realms – al-Qênaw!’s Divine
Presences—that are “closer” to God’s knowledge and being than the lower and lesser,
visible macrocosmic worlds. Hence, al-Ghazal! characterizes the actualization of the
microcosmic divine spirit as a journey to the greatest divine presence through the
macrocosmic unseen worlds mentioned above. Actualization of this spirit is spoken of as
“arrival” (wu!êl) at the supreme divine presence after having ascended through the worlds
of existence. Such travel can only come about through sincere practice of the religion,
which entails following both the outward statues of the shar!a‘ and the practices that
accompany becoming a disciple of a Sufi master. (al-Ghazal ! 1998:52 )
Using the metaphor of God as light, al-Ghazali and other Sufi teachers likes the journey
to God to a movement from the darknesses of the world – the ignorance and irreality
within and around oneself – toward the light of God, the divine knowledge and true being
of the Real (al-!aqq). In other words, it is a movement from outward darkness of the
macrocosmic physical world corresponding to the microcosmic physical body toward the
macrocosmic heavens that correspond to the microcosmic inward light of the divine spirit
For Kukai the “light” of Dainichi Nyorai is the enlightened substance of all beings-similar
to the Islamic divine spirit – which humans can actualize through following the dharma,
also conceived of as a form of “light” of Dainichi Nyorai. The Buddha’s teachings are
“lights” for individuals. Just as the prophet’s and messenger’s books are “lights” for
Muslims to actualize the divine light inherent in their hearts as vicegerents of God, so
also, by practicing these teachings of the dharma, Shingon Buddhists discover their true
enlightened reality inherent within them. According to al-Ghazal!, all people have the
divine spirit or light within them, which only become actualized through journeying to
God through sincerely carrying out the teachings of God’s messengers. Similarly,
according to Kukai, all people have in their “very bodies” their inherent enlightened
reality, which is only actualized through carrying out the teachings of the Buddha’s
whose source of knowledge is the light of Dainichi Nyorai.
In Kukai’s scheme the Alternation Body would be an enlightened being of the physical
realm who had attained nirvana with this very body. This person would consist of all the
bodies, being a perfect mirror of Dainichi Nyorai’s essence at every level of samsara.
Kukai alludes to the unique nature of this enlightened being the following quote, in which
the enlightened being is both identical to all things, yet distinctly itself at the same time.
Reflected in a dot are all things in the universe. Existence is my existence, the existences
of the Buddhas, and the existences of all sentient beings… All of these existence are
interrelated horizontally and vertically without end, like images in mirrors, or like the rays
of lamps. This existence is in that one, and that one is in this. The existence of Dainichi
Nyorai is the existences of the sentient beings and vice versa. They are not identical but
are nevertheless identical; they are not different but are nevertheless different. (Hakeda
1972: 92-93)
Finally, Kukai’s doctrine of the Six Great Elements can be compared to the Divine Names
and Attributes. Kukai says that the substance of samsara is the same substance of Dainichi
Nyorai’s body. He calls this substance the Six Great Elements: earth water, fire, wind,
space, and consciousness. Both Dainichi Nyorai and samsara have the Six Great
Elements, which act as a “bridge” between nirvana and samsara. However, within
Dainichi Nyorai himself, the Six Great Elements are undifferentiated or “interfused”
(Hakeda 1972: 88-89) while in samsara the SGE are dispersed and mostly configured in a
disharmonious manner, which prevents sentient beings from realizing their inherent
enlightenment. As mentioned, the goal of the Shingon practitioner is to mirror the “body”
of Dainichi Nyorai. This mirroring is accomplished through the Shingon version of the
Eightfold Path, which includes ritual movements, hand gestures (mudra), sacred sounds
(mantra), and visualization of sacred images (mandala). When all these practices are
carried out correctly and sincerely, the six elements within the practitioner come into
harmony, and so better reflect he Six Great Elements inherent in the body of Dainichi
Nyorai. When the reflection is perfect, the “body” of the practitioner becomes
enlightened. The microcosm of the practitioner reflects the macrocosm of Dainichi
Nyorai. As Kukai argued, “To attain enlightenment is to know one’s own mind as it really
is”. (Hakeda 1972: 68) Here mind refers to the Six Great Elements inherent in the
practitioner and “as it really is” refers to the SGE in their origional harmonious form.
The perfect human is to the divine names and attributes as the enlightened being is to the
Six Great Elements. Just as the Six Great Elements are the “connecting” concept and
reality between Dainichi Nyorai and samsara, so also, for Ibn al ‘Arab!, the divine names
and attributes make the conceptual and actual “connection” between God and the world.
As mentioned above, for Ibn al ‘Arab! the divine names belong to God, but they manifest
their traces within the universe as God’s “acts”. God is the possessor of them, and at the
level of His essence these names are undifferentiated. At the level of the universe the
names and attributes are differentiated in a dispersed and incomplete manner. The only
“act” of God in which the names are perfectly and completely manifest, is in the perfect
human. (see Chittick 1989: 33-45)
Put another way, the Perfect Human for Ibn al ‘Arab! is the creature that displays the
names in unity, making them one, taw!"d, better than any other creature in the cosmos,
thereby completely mirroring the real possessor of the divine names. The other creatures
mirror God’s attributes in an incomplete manner. The perfect human is a muwa!"id – one
who has actualized taw!"d. Similarly, for Kukai, the enlightened being harmoniously
configures the Six Great Elements perfectly. Unenlightened beings also have the SGE,
but in an imperfect, disharmonious configuration, which prevents them achieving nirvana.
Correspondences in blessing
It is important to point out that for Shingon, while all are potentially enlightened in their
bodies, not everyone achieves the actual bodily enlightenment. First the formal rituals
must be carried out meticulously and with sincerity of intention to actualize the inherent
enlightenment. Second, and more importantly, the kaji or “blessing” of Dainichi Nyorai is
necessary to bring about enlightenment with this “very body”, no matter how perfectly
the individual performs or how pure the intention. Similarly for al-Ghazal! and Ibn al
‘Arab!, while a human being has the potential to become the vicegerent of God by virtue
of being born human with the divine spirit, it is God that grants his servant (‘abd) final
vicegerency, no matter how strong and pure the servant’s efforts.
Summary and conclusion
Islam and Shingon Buddhism see reality as having two aspects: a universe of many cosmic
worlds and a source-being. There is dual relationship between these two aspects: one
relationship posits that this source-being is transcendent to the universe, and the other
relationship posits that this source-being is immanent to the universe. As transcendent, this
source is the True Reality called “God”, “nirvana”, and “Dainichi Nyorai”, having nothing
whatsoever to do which the world called the “universe,” “ma siwa Allah”, and “samsara”. As
immanent, this source is the world viewed as “bodies” of Dainichi Nyorai or as the Divine
Presences. It is the worlds views as the disclosure of God/ Dainichi Nyorai to Himself and for
Himself. Both Kukai and Ibn al- ‘Arab! emphasize perspective of immanence over that of
In the teachings of Kukai and Islam, the dual relationships between this source and the
universe is explained using the metaphor of light, which here means being and
knowledge. For al-Gazal!, Ibn al- ‘Arab!, and Kukai, the source is Sheer Light, while
the universe is an interrelated micro- and macrocosmic hierarchy of graded levels of
luminosity, deriving from Pure Light. Kukai names these levels the “bodies” of Dainichi
Nyorai, while Islamic cosmologists, such as Ibn al- ‘Arab!, call them Divine Presences.
The human being plays a special role in both the Shingon Buddhist and Islamic
conceptions of reality: a person is actually a complete universe, a microcosm consisting
of worlds both seen and unseen that directly correspond with the hierarchical worlds of
the macrocosm. Most humans however, do not actualize their full microcosmic potential.
For al-Ghazal!, Ibn al-‘Arab!, and Kukai humans must encompass their microcosmic
reality within their very being or “body” as s mirror that perfectly reflects the names and
attributes of God – to use Ibn al- ‘Arab!’s terminology – or the Six Great Elements of
Dainichi Nyorai – to use Kukai’s ideas. Perfection is an increase in light, a movement
from the darkness of this world or samsara toward the light of the heavens or nirvana.
When this perfection is attained travelers realize what they have always been: Perfect
Humans and enlightened bodies.


1. The Shingon data derive from the dissertation (Watanabe 1999) of a colleague and
recently published secondary sources in English on this school of Buddhism (Hakeda
1972; Kasulis 1995). The Sufi portion is from published secondary sources on the
Sufism of Ibn al- ‘Arab! (Chittick 1989; 1998; Murata 1992), whose school of thought
is quite popular, albeit in a simplified form, among the Sufis I studied (Buchman 1998).
I owe special thanks to Dr. William Chittick for his interpretations of Ibn al- ‘Arab!’s
complex teachings, which are utilized here, and for his valuable suggestions on how to
approach this comparison.
2. These quotes are taken from Chittick’s translations of Ibn al- ‘Arab!’s Futê àt al-
– Buchman David, 1998, Pedagogy of Perfection: Levels of Complementarity Within and
Between the Beliefs and Practices of the Shadhiliya Alawiya Sufi order of San’a,
Yemen, Unpublished Dissertation, UMI.
– Chittick William C., 1982, “The Five Divine Presences: From al-Qênaw! to al-
Qay!ar!, “The Muslim World, April, Vol. LXXII, no. 2, pp. 107-128.
– 1989, The Sufi Path of Knowledge: Ibn al- ‘Arabi’s Metaphysics of Imagination, New
York: Suny Press.
– 1998, The Self-Disclosure of God: Principles of Ibn al- ‘Arabi’s Cosmology, New York
SUNY Press.
– Al-Ghazàl! Mo!ammed, 1998, The Niche of Lights, a parallel English-Arabic text
translated, introduced, and annotated by David Buchman, Provo, Utah: Brigham
Young University Press.
– Hakeda Yoshito S., 1972, Kukai: Major Works, translated, with an account of his life
and a study of his thought, New York: Columbia University Press.
– Kuasulis Thomas P., 1995, “Reality as Embodiment: An Analysis of Kukai’s
Sokushinjibutsu and Hosshin Seppo”, in Religious Reflections on the Human Body,
edited by Jane Marie Law, Bloomington: Indiana University Press.
– Murata Sachiko, 1992, The Tao of Islam: A Source book on Gender Relationships in
Islamic Thought, New York: Suny Press.
– Watanabe Buichiro, 1999, “Attaining Enlightenment With this Body”: Primacry of Practice
in Shingon Buddhism on Mount Koya Japan, Unpublished Dissertation, UMI.

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