Politics : Of Religion

Japan Adventures (4) : The Oxymoron of Warrior Monks?

I am not the destroyer of this monastery. The destroyer of the monastery is the monastery itself. – Oda Nobunaga

1244833_plastic_toy_soldiersBeing a peace-loving religion, I used to think that no wars were ever fought in the name of Buddhism. This is not true. Nowadays, I say that no ‘major’ wars are fought in the name of Buddhism. Of course, what constitutes a ‘major war’ is subject to debate. Based on the death toll perhaps, or how impressionable it is in history? If the deaths of 3,000 is considered major, a major war occurred on Mount Hiei in 1571. Then again, it could simply be a massacre. Beyond the disturbing truth that wars were fought in the name of Buddhism, it is more disturbing that such wars have been largely forgotten. May Buddhists always remember them, lest bloody history repeats in other forms. It’s a grave reminder of the danger of mixing religion and politics – even though the avoidance of doing so is challenging – as politics often accelerate the thriving or decaying of religions. A Middle Path of mindful engagement is needed – or religion could become too worldly or negatively political, thus losing spirituality. From http://www.taots.co.uk/content/view/32/27 – ‘The [Japanese] warrior monks were adherents of Buddhism and between the 10th and 16th centuries, they were very powerful and were a match for the samurai who courted their military skills but also sought their destruction. They were also at the forefront of technological development and the monks of Negoroji in particular were renowned for their skills with firearms. The Japanese word “Sohei” is roughly translated into English as monk or priest (“So”) and soldier or warrior (“hei”.) From the 10th century the powerful monastic institutions of Nara and Mount Hiei maintained large private armies of these warriors, although whether there were mercenaries and lay-brothers amongst their number is another question. Certainly many kinds of people were attracted to these religious armies…’

‘Enryakuji [See http://wp.me/p54LT-3ta for more on this temple] expanded over the coming years, enjoying its privileged status and support among the Kyoto aristocracy who often showered gifts upon them. Saicho also founded his own sect of Buddhism called Tendai which ran independently from Nara. By the 11th century, the Enryakuji temple complex on Mount Hiei consisted of 3,000 buildings and its wealth allowed it to gain property and other assets elsewhere in Japan. Although the temple was largely independent from secular concerns the emperor could appoint its zasu or head abbot. The choice of zasu did not go down too well with some monks and feuding between rivals often occurred leading to brawls and armed conflict… Between the 10th and 14th centuries violence was common in the feuds between the temples of Nara and Mount Hiei but they were not over religious affairs, rather politics although the outcome was often what one would expect in war.’

From http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1O108-Tendai.html – ‘Tendai’s broad range of teaching (compared to the very narrow interests of its main rival at the time, the Shingon school), combined with its spiritual decay, made it the breeding grounds for the new reform movements that arose during the Kamakura period (1185–1392): Zen, Pure Land, and Nichiren Buddhism were all founded by former Tendai monks who had learnt of the teachings of the schools they founded within the Tendai school. Their activities were hampered by Tendai’s power and intolerance of competition; frequently, those who began new movements found themselves the victims of Mt. Hiei’s notorious sōhei, or warrior-monks. These were little more than bands of thugs in priestly robes who would descend with clubs and torches to destroy new temples and try to stamp out rivals. Many Kamakura-era reformers found themselves fleeing before the sōhei at various times.’

‘The wealth of Mt. Hiei, as well as the military power it exercised through its sōhei, turned it from an object of patronage by those in power to a direct military and political threat, and it was destroyed in 1571 by the warlord Oda Nobunaga. All of the temple complexes were demolished and over 3,000 priests and laymen died in this assault. Although devastated by this blow, Tendai survived. Mt. Hiei was reconstructed after Oda’s assassination, and Tendai branch temples in other places continued to thrive. Nevertheless, as time went on, Tendai was eclipsed by the massive popularity of the newer schools of Zen, Pure Land, and Nichiren, and remains today a minor part of Japanese Buddhism.’

The opening quote of this article, which expresses Oda Nobunaga’s rationalisation of killing the monks he saw to be arrogant is a serious reminder of how only Buddhists can destroy Buddhism – from inside-out. 125 temples were allowed to be rebuilt later – but Mount Hiei never restored the controversial ‘glory’ of its earlier days. Am glad this is the Mount Hiei I visited. From http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Oda_Nobunaga – ‘Oda Nobunaga was well on his way to the complete conquest and unification of Japan when Akechi Mitsuhide, one of his generals, forced Nobunaga into committing suicide in Honnō-ji in Kyoto. Akechi then proceeded to declare himself master over Nobunaga’s domains, but was quickly defeated by Nobunaga’s general Toyotomi Hideyoshi.’

True Buddhists never fight out of greed or hate.
Those who fight out of greed or hate are not true Buddhists.
However, Buddhists are not yet Buddhas [i.e. true Buddhists].
Those not yet Buddhas usually have some greed or hate [unless they are Anagamis].
The only justified ‘fight’ is against one’s own greed and hate [that arises from delusion],
that subdues others’ greed and hatred with the pure motivation and skilful means.
– Stonepeace

Related Articles:

How Buddhists Can Destroy Buddhism
Reviews of “Zen at War” (More instances of bloody Buddhist history)

Next adventure : http://wp.me/p54LT-3uo
Previous adventure : http://wp.me/p54LT-3×2

1 thought on “Politics : Of Religion

  1. The monks of Enryakuji more likely had vassals off the land they used to gain monetary revenue (shōen). Thus they more likely hired warriors rather than act as warriors themselves. The monks of Enryakuji were not above involving themselves in politics or disturbing the peace of the capital. For clarification consult: Adolphson, Mikael S. The Gates of Power: Monks, Courtiers, and Warriors in Premodern Japan. Honolulu: University of Hawaiʻi Press, 2000.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.