koyasan and the daito, or great pagoda


Koyasan, Japan is a center of Buddhist study and practice, located in the Wakayama Prefecture at an elevation of approximately 900 meters [2900 feet] above sea level. The town was founded twelve centuries ago by the great Buddhist monk Kobo Daishi as a center for Shingon Buddhist training.

So the story goes, in 804 C.E. he crossed the sea to China in search of Buddhist teachings and received the full transmission of a lineage of Buddhism from the Tang Dynasty. This lineage, Shingon Buddhism, was unknown in Japan at the time. In 806 he returned to Japan and set up Koyasan, Mount Koya as a monastic complex.

His wish was to establish a monastery deep in the mountains, far from worldly distractions where Buddhist monks could practice and pray for peace. Emperor Saga granted him use of the land in 816 and from as late as the tenth century the widely held belief was that Kobo Daishi had not passed away, but rather had entered an eternal meditation at Okunion for the liberation of all beings. His mausoleum can be visited and, as he is believed to still be alive, two meals are reverently offered to him every day.

Faith in Kobo Daishi has made Koyasan a pilgrimage site for over a thousand years and in 2004 Koyasan was registered as a UNESCO World Heritage Site as part of the ” Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes in the Kii Mountain Range, and the Cultural Landscapes that Surround Them.”

Deep within the site can be found the Daito or Great Pagoda. Kobo Daishi planned the Daito as the absolute center of his monastic complex. Construction began in 816, and was completed seventy years later. The present structure was rebuilt in 1937 after fires destroyed the pagoda several times. In the center of the pagoda can be found the incredible gold statue of the Buddha Mahavairochana. It is surrounded by four other buddhas, with sixteen bodhisatvas painted on the pillars that surround them.

The site has a genuine stillness and peace to it, and it is currently possible to enter the Daito and marvel at the Buddha statues under the 49 meter [160 feet] high roof.