Shingon Buddhism and Islam: Similar Notions of Existence and the Goal of Being Human[1]

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 replied,

Because the Buddha left the world to achicve closeness to God. The Buddha was truly sincere (ikhlàs) 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 hadith in Islam number to be 124,000. For Amin the Buddha is a Sufi ascetic (zàhid), 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 dins; 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 (insàn kàmil). 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 9th 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 enlightened.

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 knowledge

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 ‘Arabí (d. 1240) and Abu Hamid al-Ghazàli (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 hadith 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”, mà siwà Allah, and the sender of messengers and prophets to all people to inform them of their happy ends (bashàra) and warn them (nadhàra) 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-Ghazàli’s commentary (al-Ghazàli 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-Ghazàli’s Mishkàt al-anwàr (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 (khalàfa) 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 ‘Arabi’s metaphysical understanding of the relationship between God and the world. For Ibn al ‘Arabi, 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 (darajàt) 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 ‘Arabi 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 ‘Arabi claimed – similar to Kukai – that the universe is the self-disclosure (tajalli) of God’s names and attributes (asmà’ wa qifàt), and all creatures then are the “acts” (af ‘àl) 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 ‘Arabí 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)[2]

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-hadrat al-ilàhiyyah al-khams) with Kukai’s Four Form Dharma-Bodies

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 (Corresponding-body).

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 tawhid, to bring everything back to God. Just as tawhid 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 ‘Arabi’s foremost disciple al-Qunawi. Al-Qunawi summarizes the levels as divine (ilàhi), spiritual (ruhàni), imaginal (mithàli), sensory (hissi), and all-comprehensive (jàmi‘) (Chittick 1982: 115). He also discusses God’s essence (dhàt), 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 DN                                             

-- 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-ruh: 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 (‘àlam al-mithàl) 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-Ghazàli and Ibn ‘Arabi 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 (ruh ilàhi) within them. For al-Ghazàli 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 (khalifà Allah) is one who has actualized this spirit having attained divine knowledge directly in his heart.

Using the hierarchical cosmological scheme, al-Ghazàlí 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” (sàlik) into higher and greater unseen heavenly macrocosmic realms – al-Qênawi’s Divine Presences—that are “closer” to God’s knowledge and being than the lower and lesser, visible macrocosmic worlds. Hence, al-Ghazàli 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” (wusul )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 sharia‘ and the practices that accompany becoming a disciple of a Sufi master. (al-Ghazàli1998:52)

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-Haqq). 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 within.

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-Ghazàli, 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 ‘Arabi, the divine names and attributes make the conceptual and actual “connection” between God and the world. As mentioned above, for Ibn al ‘Arabi 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 ‘Arabí is the creature that displays the names in unity, making them one, tawhid, 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 muwahhid – one who has actualized tawhid. 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-Ghazàlí and Ibn al ‘Arabi, 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,” “mà siwà 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- ‘Arabi emphasize perspective of immanence over that of transcendence. 

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-Gazàli, Ibn al- ‘Arabi, 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- ‘Arabi, 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-Ghazàli, Ibn al-‘Arabi, 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- ‘Arabi’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- ‘Arabi (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- ‘Arabi’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- ‘Arabi’s Futuhàt al-makkiyya.


– 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-Qunawi to al-Qayqari, “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-Ghazàli Mohammed, 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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