Buddhism in Japan

The Violent History of Japanese Buddhism

Culture History Society

Nonviolence is one of the basic tenets of Buddhism. But in Japan, where the religion developed without the code of conduct devised by the historical Buddha to preserve order among the community of monks, violence became accepted and even encouraged in some circumstances. This led to anomalies including armies of warrior monks, armed Buddhist rebellions, and an enthusiastic endorsement of the Japanese military during World War II.

In the fifth installment in this series, I wrote that one of the things that made Japanese Buddhism unique was that it had never developed a sangha of monks living as an autonomous community in accordance with the teachings of the Buddha, and that the Vinaya Pitaka disciplinary code of conduct designed to govern and manage the community of monks had never taken root in this country either. This has been the case from the time when Buddhism entered Japan right through to the present day. It is a basic lack that has remained uncorrected for 1,300 years.

The lack of a functioning Vinaya Pitaka in Japan meant that Japanese Buddhist monks developed very different habits and lifestyles from monks in other countries. Things like forgoing the upasampada ordination ceremony, drinking alcohol, or getting married and starting a family would all be considered unacceptable acts requiring sanction and punishment under the Vinaya Pitaka. But in Japanese Buddhism, where this code of conduct is not recognized, none of these actions is regarded as especially important. If there is any criticism at all, it tends to be limited to mild disapproval. “Of course, these practices are not to be recommended as norms,” someone might say—but that’s about it.

But of all the distinctive characteristics of Japanese Buddhism, the most serious and important is its acceptance of violence. In the Vinaya Pitaka, it is out of the question for monks to use violence against others. Not only is fighting with weapons strictly forbidden, but even when a monk chastises a disciple as part of his education or training, he must never use violence to achieve this end.

Monks are even forbidden to watch military parades. Other religions take the view that although violence for evil ends is a sin, violence in a righteous cause can be permitted in certain circumstances—for example to resist a threat to the religion (the idea of a so-called “holy war”). But this type of thinking is totally alien to the original teachings of Buddhism, which does not allow violence in any circumstances. Violence of all kinds is condemned strongly. It goes against everything the Buddha taught. By acting violently, a person turns his back on Buddhist teachings.

Acceptance of Violence

The original Buddhism taught by Shakyamuni in India abhorred violence. Over the long course of the religion’s history, though, this fundamental principle became diluted, and a tendency developed of tolerating or even endorsing violence in some circumstances. Cases can be found in many Buddhist countries in which monks themselves have been guilty of violence. And even when monks are not implicated directly, it is not unusual for them to use the prestige and influence of the sangha to aid and abet acts of violence by those in power. This tendency can be seen in many Buddhist countries today.

But so long as the Vinaya Pitaka exists and continues to function, these actions are covered by the code of conduct and will be subject to disciplinary sanctions as actions that go against the tenets of the religion. In this sense, it is thanks to the existence of the Vinaya Pitaka that monks can protect themselves from the instinctive temptation toward violence.

But Japanese Buddhism has never had a functioning code of conduct. The natural result is that the religion has actively embraced violence and the concept of a holy war.

From an early stage, Buddhism in Japan adopted a position that accepted violence and even celebrated it in the right circumstances, teaching that monks could use violence to protect Buddhist teachings and even that fighting to defend the religion was a meritorious act that people should actively pursue.

One problem was that the “teachings” in this context did not refer to the fundamental truths revealed by Shakyamuni, but the doctrines of the sect to which an individual monk or group of monks happened to belong. Monks came to believe that the use of violence to protect their own position, prestige, or vested interests could be defended on religious grounds as a legitimate Buddhist act.

Because the whole of Japanese Buddhism developed in an environment that lacked the disciplinary code of the Vinaya Pitaka, this acceptance of violence spread across all sects and schools and infected Japanese Buddhism as a whole.

It is perhaps here where the distinctive characteristics of Japanese Buddhism make themselves felt most forcefully: in the idea that Japanese Buddhism accepts the idea of justifiable violence, and that the wider secular society that supports the sangha and the institutions of Buddhism does not see anything wrong or unnatural or in this situation.

Armies of Unruly Warrior Monks

Nara Buddhism and the Shingon and Tendai schools that followed all developed vested interests through their associations with the court, and used violence to defend their position and prestige. Perhaps the best example of this were the zōhei, or “warrior monks.” Many important temples, including the influential Tōdaiji in Nara and the headquarters of the Tendai sect at Enryakuji on Mount Hiei outside Kyoto, employed armies of warrior monks, who were frequently involved in unrest and lawlessness that not even the emperor could control.

When new Buddhist sects developed out of the Tendai school in the Kamakura Period, they established a name for themselves by proclaiming their differences from the Tendai school from which they had sprung. These new sects often used violence to protect their position and defend their new spheres of influence. One example would be the ikkō-ikki rebellions by groups backed by the Jōdo Shinshū sect of Pure Land Buddhism. These rebellions rocked many regions of the country throughout the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The sect’s founder, Shinran, was a humble and peaceful man whose conduct and teachings contained no hint of violence. But those who inherited his position as leaders of the sect organized large armies to help them resist the older schools of Buddhism that were trying to snuff out the new Pure Land schools. They took the fight to the established sects of Buddhism and their allies in positions of political and cultural power.

Their military power grew to be quite substantial, and for around 100 years from the fifteenth to the sixteenth centuries they were able to exert almost complete control over broad swaths of central Honshū. This use of force to expand the influence of a Buddhist sect was not limited to the Jōdo Shinshū sect. It was a phenomenon that was found to a greater or lesser extent in many of the new sects, and it was basically taken for granted that Buddhist monks could be and often were engaged in acts of violence.

Japanese Buddhism and World War II

Widespread political violence by Buddhist sects faded in the Edo Period as the long years of unrest and civil war came to an end and the country was united under the Tokugawa shogunate. All Buddhist sects were placed under the authority of the shogunate and coexisted in relative peace and stability under the strict supervision of central control.

But the fundamental principle of the Vinaya Pitaka, which taught that Buddhist monks must not be involved in violence in any circumstances, was still not understood. This meant that beneath the surface, the danger still lurked that violence could return as soon as the social conditions changed.

Tokugawa rule came to an end following the Meiji Restoration of 1868. The shogunate was replaced by a new government that sought to enact radical reforms designed to modernize the country and catch up with the Western colonial powers. A new law ordered the separation of Shintō and Buddhism, forcing a violent split between two traditions that had previously been regarded as complementary parts of a syncretic whole. Shintō became the national religion of the new state, and Buddhism was relegated to subaltern status.

This was the age of state Shintō, centered on the semidivine figure of the emperor. Despite its reduced status, Japanese Buddhism chose to cooperate with the newly ascendant state Shintō. The most important reason was that Buddhist authorities were afraid of the impact of Christianity, which they felt was likely to enter Japan along with other Western influences. Fearful of the power and prestige of Christianity, Buddhism chose to form a common front with state Shintō. The Japanese religious world united to resist Christianity, and Japanese Buddhism ended up supporting and endorsing the emperor-worshiping authority of the new nationalist state.

Eventually, Japan plunged into war with China and the Western powers. Suddenly, the violence in Japanese Buddhism, which had been lying latent since the Edo Period (1603–1868), flared up again. Japanese Buddhism endorsed the idea that Japan was fighting for a noble cause: that the emperor would unite Asia and that Japan would lead the world into a new era of prosperity and peace.

This endorsement of the war by Japanese Buddhism, and the extent to which Buddhist monks themselves were involved in the fighting, remained veiled in obscurity for many years after the war. But recent research has started to make clear the full extent of Buddhist complicity in the pursuit of Japan’s war aims.

Some people were strongly critical of the idea that Buddhism should be involved in the war, but the senior leadership of most sects cooperated enthusiastically, encouraging the faithful to enlist, collecting alms and donations that went to manufacturing weapons, and preaching sermons that conflated the emperor with the supreme figure of the Buddha.

The ancient idea that violence could be permitted and even encouraged if it was used in defense of a noble cause had reared its head again.

When Japan was finally defeated, the emperor publicly renounced his supposed divinity and the sacred world that had grown up around him was no more. The structure of Japanese religion disappeared overnight, and the country was transformed with remarkable speed into a democratic nation state.

As part of this transformation, the violence inherent in Japanese Buddhism also faded again, and there is no hint of violence in it today (although some people do allow for certain kinds of violence in ascetic training settings within Zen Buddhism).

But even today, the fundamental principle of nonviolence has still not permeated deeply into Japanese Buddhism. Throughout its long history, Japanese Buddhism has lacked the disciplinary support of the Vinaya Pitaka. This is one of the problems it must seek to overcome in the future.

(Originally published in Japanese. Banner photo: The takekiri-eshiki bamboo-cutting ritual takes place at Kurama-dera in the hills north of Kyoto every June. Men dressed as warrior monks use swords to slash at thick bamboo poles representing a legendary snake. The festival is part of prayers for an abundant harvest. © Jiji.)

emperor Buddhism Shintō violence war Vinaya Pitaka