Tomoya Nakamura in aikido gear crosses his arms over his body with kanji beside him

On a week-long business trip to Kyoto, I had the opportunity to visit Toji Temple, a UNESCO World Heritage Site which dates to the Heian period (794-1185). In the Kodo Hall of Toji sits the Katsuma Mandala, a life-sized arrangement of statues representing Buddhist figures and the interconnectedness of the universe. Around the central Mahavairocana (a celestial Buddha) are twenty-one Buddhist statues: the five Dhyani Buddhas (wisdom Buddhas), five bodhisattvas, the five Great Wisdom Kings, the four Heavenly Kings, the Brahma-Deva, and Sakra Devanam Indra.

It was cold in Kyoto, but it wasn’t the weather that shook my body and soul. As I stood in front of the Katsuma Mandala, I felt strong energy and aspiration—ki. I also felt the urge to know more about this masterpiece. Who created the Katsuma Mandala? What were their intentions? How does their wisdom resonate today?

Esoteric Buddhism

Esoteric Buddhism is characterized by its emphasis on personal practices, whereas Exoteric Buddhism emphasizes Buddhist sutras.

Toji is the main temple of Shingon Esoteric Buddhism in Japan. It was founded by a Japanese Buddhist monk named Kukai, more commonly known as Kobo Daishi. Kobo Daishi brought Esoteric Buddhism to Japan from Tang Dynasty China in 823, at which time he received permission from Emperor Saga to build the temple and become its head priest.

It was Kobo Daishi, then, who commissioned the Katsuma Mandala.

Wanting to know more about this influential figure, I traveled to Wakayama Prefecture to visit Mt. Koya, the headquarters of Shingon Esoteric Buddhism and, like Toji, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Heading into the temple complex, I walked past the Great Gate, visited the Kongoubuji (the head temple of Shingon Buddhism), and once again encountered a Katsuma Mandala on the Great Stupa. At the most sacred site, called the Okunoin, are many five-story stupa grave stones representing the five elements that were used to create the world: earth, water, fire, wind, and sky.

In the town of Koya, the temples are adorned with colors and Sanskrit writings that create an atmosphere more akin to India than Japan. Between the Buddhist figures, temples, and many Shingon priests, the spirit of Kobo Daishi seems to thrive, even today.

Wishing for a truly authentic experience in the deep forests of Mt. Koya, I chose to stay in a temple, where I enjoyed the monks’ shojin ryori vegetarian meals and participated in the morning rituals. I chanted the Heart Sutra, which I was lucky enough to know from my previous position providing funeral services through Sun-Life Corporation. The sense of ki in this morning temple ritual was strong.

Esoteric Buddhism says that a person can attain enlightenment during one’s lifetime. As for the ascetic training of Shingon Buddhism, Dr. Yuukei Matsunaga’s book Mikkyo (“Esoteric Buddhism”) explains the process:

“The fundamental method in Esoteric Buddhism lies in yoga practices, where three mysteries (the body, speech, and the mind) unify to become one with those of the Buddha. The ascetic sits in front of the main Buddha image, recites the Shingon chants aloud, and forms the mudra (symbolic hand gesture used in Buddhism). The ascetic centers his heart and mind and meditates on the image of the Buddha, bringing the elements of the Buddha and the ascetic together to melt into one. In this way the ascetic, in the human flesh, has achieved enlightenment in this world and become a Buddha.”

The One and the Many

The success of Shingon Buddhism lies not only in the books and sutras of sacred teachings, but also in the Esoteric practices used with actual Buddhist statues and mandalas that were created and passed along from teacher to ascetic one by one. Kobo Daishi received his knowledge from the priest Huiguo in China, and then in turn passed along his knowledge to high priests that followed him in Japan.

This brings us back to the mandala.

A mandala models the interconnectedness of the cosmos, nature, and the secular world. Contained within is the Absolute One (the Mahavairocana celestial Buddha as the cosmos) and the many (the five Dhyani Wisdom Buddhas, the five bodhisattvas, and the five Great Wisdom Kings). Also contained in the mandala is a rhythm (the expression and the inspiration), the living breath of the cosmos. By meditating on universal coming and going, the interchange between the one and the many, the ascetic is able to understand the cosmos.

Or at least feel the ki as I did from the Katsuma Mandala at Toji.

Resonance of the Mandala’s Wisdom Today

Ueshiba Morihei, the founder of aikido, once said, “I am the universe.” In aikido, we position ourselves to feel the gravitation of the earth. Moving in a circle, we unite and capture our opponent in a martial form.

Aikido certainly has a little Esoteric Buddhism within.

If Kobo Daishi were to speak in front of business people today, what would he tell us? His words in the Mikkyo say the following:

“If just a little of the inside and the outside of the ki of the wind blows, it will without fail reverberate and have a name and become a voice. … A voice raised is not empty, but will invariably distinguish itself and become a name and a written character. A name without fail invites a body. This is how names are formed and brought into reality.”

There is much we can learn from these traditional teachings and historic sites of generations past. Let us, as managers, use our voices to create a bright future. Our thoughts and voices surely have the power to not only impact business and society, but form a new reality, a better world.

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