Gyōki Bodhisattva and Early Japanese Yogācāra

               Instructor: Dr. Ronald Green
               Coastal Carolina University

Gyōki image

A biography of the life and legacy of the Bodhisattva Gyōki (668-749) in light of early Japanese Yogācāra

Table of Contents


1. Background
            Gyōki’s Secular Family Ancestry
            Social Setting at the Time of Gyōki’s Birth
            Dōshō with Xuanzang in China

2. Entering the Priesthood
            Masters and Teachers
            Dōshō after returning to Japan
            Gyōki Considered in Light of the Bodhisattva-bhūmi Section of the Yogācārabhūmi-śāstra
            Chishiki and it's relationship to Gyōki's Bodhisattva Path
            Early Japanese Yogācāra.

3. Bodhisattva Activities and Suppression by the Ritsuryō Government
            Edicts Against Gyōki and Political Situations of the time
            Records, Legends and Traces of Gyōki’s Bodhisattva Projects
            Other Buddhism of the Time Period and the Significance of Gyōki’s Practice

4. Government Acceptance
            Political Conditions Involved in Change of Official Status for Gyōki
            Building the Great Buddha of Tōdaiji temple: actors, conditions and results
            Changes in the Perception of Gyōki and Continuation of Social Activities
            Developments of Japanese Yogācāra Lineages during Gyōki's time and after

5. Gyōki’s Death and Burial of His Relics

6. Gyōki’s Legacy
            Importance for Japanese History of Gyōki as depicted in the Miraculous Tales of Japan and other sources
            Later followers of Gyōki: disciples; Saichō; Gyōnen and others
            Posthumous Worship of Gyōki

Conclusion: Gyōki’s place today reevaluated in terms of scholarship and history.


            For more than a thousand years, the Japanese Buddhist priest Gyōki has been well known for his seventh-century charitable religious activities. His biographies and hagiographies tell that not long after the “official introduction” of Buddhism into Japan, Gyōki roamed the countryside propagating the teachings together with farming techniques to oppressed people hungry for both. His activities correspond to a Bodhisattva ethics that stand in defiance of both secular law and monastic codes at a time when the government was struggling to establish and maintain strict control of Buddhists by confining them to temple grounds for academic study. With supporters outside the capital swelling to thousands, an imperial edit was issued against his actions. This tactic seems to have backfired as Gyōki's hero status continued to grow among the non-aristocratic population. Perhaps as a result, the government eventually reversed its stance toward Gyōki and he was awarded the rank of High Priest (Daisōjō). Meanwhile, among the people he became known as the Bodhisattva Gyōki (Gyōki Bosatsu). Subsequently, he became the first person in Japan to be awarded the title Bodhisattva by the government as an official rank.

            Throughout Japanese history, Gyōki reappears in literature as an archetype of both a man of the people and as a shaman-priest. The most famous of Haiku poets, Matsuo Bashō, wrote of Gyōki in his seminal work Narrow Road to the Deep North.

The Chinese graph for chestnut consists of west and tree and is, therefore, linked up with the Western Paradise of Amitābha (J. Amida). This is why the Bodhisattva Gyōki all throughout his lifetime used the wood of this tree both for his walking stick and for the pillar supports of his house.

Men of the world
Fail to see its blossoms:
Chestnut of the eaves.

            Bashō’s literary conception of Gyōki follows the often-portrayed image of his predecessor. Since at least four hundred years after Gyōki’s death, when he was further immortalized in the Miraculous Tales of Japan, typical features found characterizing his persona as seen in Bashō’s words include, 1) much walking and living among the people as opposed to being confined to temple study as the government of his day would have it, 2) fervent belief in Amida’s Paradise in the West, 3) the blend of shaman-like powers and Buddhism as with his ability to perceive the true nature of things, in contrast with the vision of “men of the world.”

            These qualities may explain his popularity and even the worship of him in the Kamakura period, over five hundred years after his death when such an image would be revered. Yet, from biographical and physical evidence dated earlier, researchers now question at least the latter two components of his popular image, if stopping short of the more radical suggestion that his entire biography could have been fabricated. Nevertheless, if Gyōki’s faith in the saving powers of Amida was grossly exaggerated and if his life was not a blend of shamanism and Buddhism, the emerging portrait of him as propagator of an earlier or 'more pure' form of Buddhism is even more appealing to a modern audience. The early national histories of Japan clearly indicate the government’s position on Buddhism at the time Gyōki lived was that it offered to their disposal a magical potential that could be harnessed for economic, political and healing powers. Writings such as the Nihon Shōgi and Shoku Nihongi leave little room for doubt that this accounts for the official interest in Buddhism and controlled support of its study and practice. Nevertheless, besides being perceived as an uncontrolled spiritual power, Gyōki may have been imagined to present, his arrest was likely related to reports of huge gatherings of rural people he was organizing. This was seen as an imminent political threat to the instable power of the capital.

            Gyōki’s reported behavior centers on building hostels, opening farm lands, constructing irrigation systems and other charitable activities aimed at improving life for a large number of people. This emphasis does not tell of a tendency to rely on magic or the saving power of another (tariki [1] ) as seen after Gyōki’s time in the esoteric Buddhist movements of the Heian period and the Pure Land traditions become immensely popular afterwards. For this and other reasons, researchers have suggested the possibility that the Buddhism Gyōki propagated may instead be seen to represent a tendency toward rejection of the notion of magic Buddhism embraced by the government, as well as their scholastic studies. In addition, Gyōki’s Buddhist master was master Dōshō, who first propagated the Hossō (Sanskrit: Yogācāra) tradition in Japan. Many aspects of Gyōki’s charitable projects are easily understood in light of the content of Yogācāra texts that Dōshō is known to have imported from China and taught in Japan. Viewed in this way, Gyōki’s was a mass movement against the government's insistence on magic and scholastic study by Buddhists. Instead, like the historical Buddha Shakyamuni, Gyōki emphasized Buddhist practice, stressing charity work. Saichō, the famous Heian period founder of the Japanese Tendai Buddhist tradition, praises Gyōki for these very qualities and seeks to emulate his lifestyle.

            Gyōki’s place in the history of Japanese Buddhism has been insured for centuries by hagiographies and literary works disseminating the image Bashō upholds. If, however, recent scholars are correct in assessing the nature of his form of Buddhism, Gyōki’s role in the history of Japanese Buddhism has not only been mistakenly categorized but also likely underestimated. Regardless, a fabricated image persisting in various usages a thousand years is no less influential. It is the task of the present study to familiarize the reader with portraits of Gyōki's life. Because of the importance of legends about Gyōki for both the history of Japanese Buddhism and to Japan in general, while this study points to modern scholarship and sometimes interprets Gyōki’s actions for a Yogācāra perspective, it also introduces the most influential stories about Gyōki. In order to better explain the activities of his life these are framed within the context of Japanese history and the history of Japanese Buddhism.

[1] To contrast Buddhist traditions, the historian Gyōnen used the classifications jiriki (salvation by means of one’s own efforts) and tariki (reliance on the powers of another for salvation). According to the argument above, Gyōki’s Buddhism should be classified as jiriki in contrast to the tariki of Pure Land Buddhism.

Gyōki statue at Kikōji temple (Sukawaradera) in Nara