Myōe (Japanese: 明恵) (1173 – 1232), was a Japanese Buddhist monk active during the Kamakura period who also went by the name Kōben (Japanese: 高弁). He was originally ordained in the Shingon school, although in the latter half of his career he served as abbot of Kōzanji, a temple of the Kegon sect. In Medieval Japan it was not uncommon for monks to be ordained in multiple sectarian lineages, and Myōe alternately signed his treatises and correspondence as a monk of either school through much of his career. Myōe is perhaps most famous for his contributions to the practice and dissemination of the Mantra of Light, a mantra associated with Shingon Buddhism. Myōe is also famous for keeping a journal of his dreams that was held in high regard by later Japanese Buddhists.
Myōe contributed much to Buddhist thought at the time through his writings, and his efforts to restore strict monastic discipline in the face of increasing corruption during the late Heian and Kamakura Periods. During his lifetime he was a scathing critic of his contemporary, Hōnen, and his Pure Land movement. As a response to the increasing popularity of the exclusive nembutsu practice Myōe wrote two treatises, the Zaijarin (Tract for Destroying Heretical Views) and the follow-up Zaijarin Shōgonki (Elaboration of the Zaijarin). Myōe agreed with Hōnen’s criticism of the establishment, but felt that sole practice of the nembutsu was too restrictive and disregarded important Buddhist themes in Mahayana Buddhism such as the Bodhicitta and the concept of Upaya.
As a counter to the increasingly popular nembutsu practice, Myōe sought to promote the Mantra of Light as a practice that would be easily accessible to masses while avoiding what he considered “heretical” practices such as Pure Land Buddhism. He wrote a treatise called the Kanjinki which explored the usage of the Mantra of Light and its practical applications, as well as the use of the mantra in more complex rituals. Myōe’s interpretation of the Mantra of Light was somewhat unorthodox, in that he promoted the mantra as a means of being reborn in the Pure Land of Amitabha Buddha, rather than a practice for attaining Enlightenment in this life as taught by Kukai and others.
Myōe was equally critical of the lax discipline and corruption of the Buddhist establishment, and removed himself from the capital of Kyoto as much as possible. At one point, he even cut off his ear in protest. Later, during his administration of Kōzanji Myōe revived strict adherence to the moral precepts for him and his monks, and an equally strict regimen of chanting and meditation. Records for the time show that the daily regimen of practices for the monks included meditation, recitation of the Heart Sutra, the 6-syllable mantra of Kannon, and the Mantra of Light. These same records show that even details such as cleaning the bathroom regularly were regularly enforced.
At the same time, Myōe was also pragmatic and often adopted practices from other Buddhist sects, notably Zen, if it proved useful. Myōe firmly believed in the importance of upaya and sought to provide a diverse set of practices for both monastics and lay people. In addition, he developed new forms of mandalas that utilized only Japanese calligraphy and the Sanskrit script, Siddham. Similar styles were utilized by Shinran and Nichiren. The particular style of mandala he devised, and the devotional rituals surrounding it, are recorded in his treatise, the Sanji Raishaku (Thrice-daily worship) written in 1215.
- Mark Unno: Shingon Refractions: Myōe and the Mantra of Light. Somerville MA, USA: Wisdom Publications, 2004 ISBN 0-86171-390-7