The Rise of Buddhism in Politics and War

By Justin Rowan

Buddhism’s journey through East Asia featured countless reinventions.  By the time it reached Japan, Buddhism underwent multiple evolutions and had splintered into several distinct schools.  Like other countries in the region, the adoption and inculcation of the Buddhist religion played a dramatic role in the history of Japan.  Many scholars have focused on the history of Japanese Buddhism through exploration of religious paradigms, cognitive frameworks, or cultural history.  However, for the first few centuries, the ideology of religious thought was not the main driving force of Buddhism’s ascendancy and Buddhism was anything but a religion for the masses.  It wasn’t until great political upheaval and expansive civil war that Buddhism evolved into a religion, in the traditional sense.   

In its earliest phases in Japan’s history, Buddhism established itself as a political entity which grew to rival the aristocracy and landowners as a unilateral force to be reckoned with, influencing politics and leadership at the highest level.  Economically, politically, and eventually on the battlefield, Buddhist entities developed into a potent political body, influencing the culture of the court as well as the execution of governance.  A religion of peace and self-fulfillment, Buddhist temples and sects evolved with the times and shifted from a political machine to a capable military force.  This phase of ecclesiastical militancy developed in response to and along with the shift in class structure, defending Buddhist status and assets on the battlefield.  This martial capability would further evolve with a particular sect waging a holy war based on beliefs.  Lastly, as an emerging power, the phenomenon of the warrior class’ embrace of a particular sect of Buddhism marked an incredibly unique synthesis of religion and war which would eventually permeate throughout the entire culture of the time. 

Political Buddhism

Buddhism’s migration to Japan from the Asian mainland and establishment as a religion began at the political level.  From the outset, Buddhism was enjoyed by only an elite few in the upper echelons of the Nara court.  Although it would eventually gain widespread popularity, the early seeds that were sown created more of a political movement rather than a belief system for the populous.  With Buddhism, came a palpable array of cultural artifacts and the impact of Buddhist art, architecture, and iconography made tremendous impressions on much of the court.  Some scholars also argue that in a grander scheme, Buddhism provided a scientific framework and existential foundation heretofore not found in the organic Shinto belief system.  The synthesis of Buddhism and Shinto was an evolution unto itself, but the initial impact of Buddhism as a religion was rooted in the politics of the time.

By fate or happenstance, when the pro-Buddhist Soga family ensured primacy in the court by securing victory over their rivals, Buddhism was adopted as an official religion. [1]   This concept of official religion however, set Buddhism on a course inexorably linked to political intrigue and power struggles for centuries to come.  On many levels, as exposure to Buddhism by the general population grew, so did Buddhism’s position as a political machine, gaining tremendous influence in the court and on the main effort of government. 

The Soga clan’s authority was eventually usurped and the ensuing restructuring further entrenched Buddhism’s ties to the court.

In the sixth month of 645, a coup d’etat occurred to eliminate the Soga family by Prince Naka-no-Oe and Nakatomi Katamari.  This is commonly called the Taika Reform.  From this incident, Buddhism became emperor-centered.  In the eighth month of 701, the Taiho Statute was enacted and a Chinese-style centralized state was established…Under this state, Japanese Buddhism was developed as state Buddhism. [2]

This creation of state Buddhism, was followed by the implementation of ‘official’ monks, which were essentially government appointed and regulated positions both at the court and within the established temples around Nara. 

            In addition to these appointments, Buddhism was still very much restricted to the aristocracy.  Preaching or educating the public was rarely allowed without permission and in this way, Buddhism was kept from the grasp of the masses for some time.  There were individual monks who attempted to increase the public’s exposure to Buddhism, but the temples were more intent on strengthening their economic and political status.  Remaining actively engaged in the upper echelons of politics, the powerful influence the Nara temples developed and exercised in the court was arguably one of the reasons for the subsequent movement of the capital away from Nara. 

The imperial capital was moved to Heian-Kyo (Kyoto) by Emperor Kammu at the close of the 8th century, ushering in the Heian period.  Although he provided exceedingly generous patronage to Buddhism, Kammu divorced himself from the Nara temples by founding new temple complexes in the vicinity of his new capital and supporting novel schools of Buddhist thought. [3]   Two monks on the receiving end of Kammu’s benevolence were Saicho and Kukai.  Saicho became the founder of the Tendai sect, and Kukai the Shingon sect.  Both men were allowed to establish these sects and subsequent temples through petitioning the court’s permission.  Perhaps by design, or by luck, these two Buddhist sects would go on to displace much of the political influence enjoyed by the Nara temples, and later evolve into even more popular schools of thought.

            The chaos that marked the end of the Heian era and the rise of the warrior class had an indelible effect on Buddhist politics and exposure. 

The Buddhist concept of the decline of the law and the end of the world (mappo) seemed to be becoming a reality.  People turned to religion for consolation and security…The monks who lived in worldly splendor and stressed the mechanical and ritualistic aspects of the religion had removed themselves from the common people.  Thus, to meet the spiritual needs of the people, several new sects came in to existence. [4]

Against this backdrop of political turbulence three distinct sects of Buddhism, True Pure Land, Nichiren, and Zen, gained tremendous popularity across existing societal class structures.  While the powerful monasteries focused on economic gain and political interests, these newer schools of thought and their teachings evolved towards a more understandable ideology, resulting in a brisk increase in exposure to Buddhism throughout the land. 

For several centuries, Buddhism’s place in Japanese history was more akin to a political machine than a fomenting belief system.  The systems of government both under court and warrior rule affected the way in which Buddhism was experienced at all levels of society.  Buddhism as a religion or school of thought didn’t really spread to the masses in a graspable form until the political structure was thrust towards a drastic change and the country spiraled in to civil war.  With this change, not only did Buddhism evolve in its connection with those seeking religious refuge, but the existing sects were driven towards a new chapter, war.     

Militant Buddhism

Buddhism is arguably the most peaceful of the world’s religions however its rise to prominence in Japan did not escape the assumption of a militaristic role.  As Buddhist temple complexes, wealth, and influence expanded under the patronage of the court, many established special guards comprised of clergy and laity, in order to protect the holy artifacts and temple grounds.  This presence of armed and trained individuals could not escape the politics of territorial ownership. [5]   Greatly influenced by the intrigues of the court, burgeoning rivalries with other sects, and growing political fragmentation, the politically appointed abbots were faced with an unavoidable need to expand their security posture and manning. 

This expansion of forces resulted in the inclusion of dispossessed peasants and mercenary soldiers, and the first documented temple feuds arose in the 10th century.

…by the middle of the 10th century bitter disputes over the imperial control of senior appointments led to brawling between rival monks and eventually to the use of weapons…The first major incident involving violence by monks against monks occurred in 949 when 56 monks from Nara’s Todaiji gathered at the residence of an official in Kyoto to protest against an appointment that displeased them.  In 969 a dispute over conflicting claims to temple lands resulted in the death of several Kofukuji monks at the hands of monks from Todaiji. [6]

The origin of the actual warrior monk (sohei) is somewhat debatable.  Through the late 10th century, most of the major temples retained doctrines with respect to monk’s conduct and the forsaking of violence and weaponry.  It is possible that the early armies associated with the various temples and sects were wholly comprised of mercenaries and laity.  However, a direct connection between the rise in government sponsored, ordained monks and ‘immoral’ monks, who functioned as soldiers was prevalent throughout medieval Japan and proved a harbinger of trouble to come. [7]

Incidents of violence involving Buddhist entities occurred throughout the 10th and 11th century and historical chronicles, such as the Heike Monogotari, document Buddhist sects and their monks in battle.  These events mark the inception of a broad turning point in the endorsement and justification of violence on behalf of a Buddhist sect or temple.

Although they had heretofore developed into influential political bodies, Buddhist temples also served as places of solace and retirement for samurai and courtesans.  Temples also provided refuge for the impoverished and those on the run from criminal prosecution.  This mélange of divergent backgrounds and experiences doubtlessly bolstered the capabilities and tenacity of these monk armies.  From the devout believer to the ordained samurai to the hardened criminal, the evolution and action of these Buddhist armies bears comparison to the other private armies which were conducting unilateral military action on behalf of the court or their respective leaders.

The employment of militant monks by the court to serve its needs took place in the early 12th century, when the head abbot of the Kumano shrine was commissioned for anti-piracy endeavors on the Kii coastline.  With the established political connections and an increasing military capability, the warrior monks soon became embroiled in the Gempei War. 

The Taira attack on the Kumano sohei was a very minor operation compared to an event during the same year of 1181, when Taira Shigehira led a punitive expedition against Nara in retaliation for its support of Prince Mochihito…The warrior monks put up a stiff resistance, which Shigehira overcame by using the indiscriminate weapon of fire. [8]

This event resulted in the destruction of the entire Todaiji complex and with it, countless Buddhist artifacts.  This event was chronicled in the Heike Monogatari as an extremely ominous occurrence which also was tied in to the concept of mappo, a descent into chaos itself.

Japan’s transition from aristocratic to warrior rule brought a turmoil and uncertainty that pervaded the times.  This further reinforced a sense of degeneracy and contributed to resurgence in the solace of religion amongst a great deal of the people. [9]   As the Warring States Period raged on, the popularity, and subsequent power of both the True Pure Land Sect and the Nichiren Sect grew, and not just among the warrior class.  An offshoot of the True Pure Land Sect, the Ikko would eventually establish one of the most powerful and effective Buddhist armies.  Unlike the older sects, this Ikko drew much of their support from the peasantry.  Replacing military experience with religious zeal, the Ikko warriors embraced a ritualistic lifestyle and applied themselves deftly to military training, devoting themselves as true holy warriors.

…the military campaigns they launched against the warlords were called Ikko uprisings.  In the last quarter of the fifteenth century, the Ikko adherents staged six uprisings and eventually gained control of the province of Kaga.  By the sixteenth century the Ikko forces had become a major power in the Kyoto-Osaka area as well as in the north-central and central provinces, constituting a formidable obstacle to the ambitious daimyo. [10]

The uprisings of the Ikko sect were referred to by the samurai of the time as Ikko-ikki, or Ikko riots.  The efficacy of these mob riots only further solidified the capability and notoriety of Buddhist warriors, as well as identified a veritable challenge to power for anyone attempting to unify the land.

Oda Nobunaga’s pending victory in this unification was inexorably challenged by not just rival daimyo, but these powerful Buddhist armies and their loyal following.  Nobunaga exhorted extreme violence against any and all Buddhist temples that would not pledge allegiance to his rule.  Nobunaga’s successor, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, continued this fight with the addition of leveraged economic pressure on these entities.  Lastly, Tokugawa Ieyasu was able to completely subjugate and excise any threat or potency possessed by the Buddhist temples.

Buddhism, whether of the older schools and sects or of the sects founded in the Kamakura period, fell victim to the ambition of the feudal lords, was used by them, was attacked by them, was defeated and regulated by them, and finally domesticated by them.  Thought the Edo period offered much of value in cultural and intellectual achievement, from a religious standpoint it was an age of decline.  Buddhism became increasingly secularized and, despite occasional outbursts of vigor, lost its vitality and settled quickly into the grave it had dug for itself. [11]

The strict regulation of Buddhism under the Tokugawa regime successfully prevented any resurgence of Buddhist militarization.

             The shift of government paradigms from aristocratic to warrior rule entangled the region into great turmoil.  The Nara and Heian eras featured political and civil authority which was subsequently replaced by military authority, which carried Japan into the modern era.  The rise of the warrior class was not an overnight phenomenon and the transition of the major Buddhist entities from their established position in court politics to influential militarized factions was inescapably linked to this transition and perhaps thought to be critical to their very survival.  These Buddhist military monks and armed, warring sects have been compared to the Knights Templar or Hospitaller Order of the Christian Crusades.  Serving both political and religious ends, the monks and laymen that comprised these armies greatly influenced both politics and warfare from the late Heian era through the close of the Warring States period and the unification of Japan.  

Zen and the Warrior

A third arena in which Buddhism carved a unique niche in Japan’s history was through the adoption of Zen by the warrior class.  In the annals of history, the samurai of feudal Japan stand out as one of the archetypal warriors.  Much like the European knights of the Middle Ages, the romance and lore that surround these men of war have in some ways exalted their historical existence into an ideal rather than that of factual people.  The samurai were warriors who comprised a caste which reigned in Japan for almost half a millennium. 

The rise to power of the warrior class is often associated with the establishment of the Minamoto shogunate, marking the inception of the Kamakura period.  At this time, Zen was one of several sects, and the popularity that followed its reintroduction from China can be directly connected to patronage by the shogun.  The Zen monk Eisai founded the Jufuku temple in Kamakura under the benefaction of (Hojo) Masako, Minamoto’s widow.  A few years later, the second Kamakura shogun endowed Eisai with land in Kyoto for the construction of the Kennin temple. [12]   This second temple in Kyoto was not exclusively dedicated to Zen practices, but the newfound patronage of Zen by the warrior leadership was now well-established and would continue for generations.

War and combat have a unique effect on the psyche of those individuals who are directly involved.  We have seen where an eroding government system and civil war inspired a great deal of the civilian population to seek solace in the Buddhist religion, but what about the men who waged the wars?  The unique fear experienced by soldiers in combat is as old as war itself.  The effects of constant battles on the warriors and generals in feudal Japan cannot be underestimated and the warrior class turned to Zen more than any other school of Buddhism in order to explore ways to harden themselves against the terrors of their vocation. [13]

Zen as a religion espoused will-power, intuition, and an indifference to life and death.  These traits were paramount to the warrior livelihood.

Zen demanded discipline and emphasized self-understanding rather than hours spent studying texts.  It also stressed intuition and action, and through its promise of enlightenment within this life rather than a world to come, a samurai was helped to face the prospect of death in battle with an attitude of detachment. [14]

This detachment and indifference to dying was by no means an endorsement of dying.  For the daimyo and generals, a living, breathing samurai retainer was clearly more valuable than one that was dead.  But if a retainer could mentally engage this philosophy to the point where he could control or overcome his fear of dying, his fearlessness would serve the lords of battle immeasurably.

             Zen’s popularity with the warrior class continued through ensuing regimes and the relationship between the samurai and the clergy grew in the creation of a new ethos for the warrior class.

Shoguns of the Ashikaga regime were also great advocates of Zen Buddhism, and most generals under then naturally followed suit.  In those dates we can say the Japanese genius went either to priesthood or to soldiery.  The spiritual co-operation of the two professions could not help but contribute to the creation of what is now generally know as Bushido, “the way of the warrior.” [15]

Bushido has come to be understood as a code of ethics, but this code had to have gone through several evolutions following its inception.  While the influence of Zen is prevalent in the warrior code; Shinto, Confucianism, and other sects of Buddhism also contributed to this way of life.  A 17th century treatise on Bushido details how the samurai should have death before his mind day and night, identifying the Zen concept of mastering death through accepting its inevitability.  The Hagakure, another work on the subject, identifies a slew of similar concepts and guidelines including death, honor, and right action. [16]

Lastly, Nitobe’s Bushido: The Warrior Code, which was written shortly after the Meiji restoration, attempts to compile all the factors of this code of ethics in to what could be perceived as its final evolution.  Nitobe was one of the first people to reference the comparison bushido to chivalry, and samurai to knights and this may have been done as a vehicle for western understanding of the samurai tradition. [17]   After Japan was unified and the Tokugawa shogunate established its supremacy, the warrior class faced an interesting challenge.  In times of peace, what does a warrior do?  The peace of the Tokugawa era led to a resurgence in cultural refinement.  Buddhism as a religion, despite strict government controls, was reborn as a vibrant cultural force. [18]   Art, poetry, the tea ceremony, with their tremendous Zen influence, all came to be esteemed extracurricular activities among the warrior class.

It was during this time that concepts like bushido became codified and the practice of military techniques became refined as arts.  Being a samurai meant seeking out mastery of Zen.  Service to one’s lord, and the search for enlightenment remained hand in hand and this unique relationship between war and religion graduated in to a wholly unique level of existentialism.  Archery, sword fighting, strategy games, all the skills that made the samurai a legendary warrior were now being polished and developed into art forms, demanding practice, diligence, and discipline.  With respect to swordsmanship, Suzuki writes:

When the Japanese say that the sword is the soul of the samurai, we must remember all that goes with it: loyalty, self-sacrifice, reverence, benevolence,  and the cultivation of higher feelings.  Here is the true samurai…He could never be separated from the weapon that was the supreme symbol of his dignity and honor.  Training in its use was, besides it practical purpose, conducive to his moral and spiritual enhancement.  It was here that the swordsman joined hands with Zen. [19]

I think this passage captures the essence of the consumate samurai, the pinnacle of the disciplined warrior which inspired the legends that made the samurai such a dynamic figure in world history. 

Every religious ideology is subject to interpretation, how the warrior class that ruled Japan adapted Zen Buddhism did not escape this truism.  What is unique about Zen and the warrior is the indelible imprint this synthesis made on the national conscious.   From the Kamakura period through the Tokugawa era, the relationship between the warrior and Zen Buddhism became infused with the entire feudal culture of Japan.

In conclusion, the history of Buddhism in Japan is an integration of a wide array of factors and events.  From the outset, many monks endeavored to spread the Buddhist religion to the masses, but from an historical standpoint, the relevancy of Buddhism during the early stages of Japanese history was seen on a different level. The emergence of Buddhism as a polity, led to several Buddhist sects holding tremendous influence on the aristocratic powerbase in Nara and Heian.  Under the rule of the warrior, the Buddhist powers still focused on retaining political influence, economic growth, but also were compelled to develop an organic military capability.  This engagement of violence grew out of the need to settle internal conflicts, defend themselves, engage in operations at the behest of the court, or support certain daimyo with whom they were allied.  The evolution from political powerhouse to military force was directly connected to the history that was unfolding throughout the land. 

With each generation and era, the evangelical monk did not cease his activities simply because the major temples were focused on politics and the court, just as the political intrigue did not evaporate with the rise in military endeavors.  The adoption of Zen by the warrior class did not lead to the extinction of the other schools.  The lens through which historian’s view Buddhism’s Japanese history is a subjective thing, however the themes discussed in this paper were, what I believe, three critical engagements between a religion and a nation’s history.    Each Buddhist school or sect featured a unique history unto itself, and through the sum of its parts, Buddhism eventually would become entrenched in the national psyche of Japan.  

End Notes

[1] Hane, Mikiso.  Premodern Japan: A Historical Survey. (Boulder: Westview Press, 1991), p. 28

[2] Matsuo, Kenji. A History of Japanese Buddhism. (Kent: Global Oriental, 2007), p. 20

[3] Tamura, Yoshiro. Japanese Buddhism: A Cultural History. (Tokyo: Kosei Publishing, 2005), pp. 61-62

[4] Hane, Mikiso.  Premodern Japan: A Historical Survey. (Boulder: Westview Press, 1991), p. 74

[5] Ratti, Oscar and Westbrook, Adele.  Secrets of the Samurai: The Martial Arts of Feudal Japan. (Japan: Tuttle, 1973), p. 134

[6] Turnbull, Stephen. Warriors of Medieval Japan. (Oxford: Osprey, 2005), p. 208

[7] Matsuo, Kenji. A History of Japanese Buddhism. (Kent: Global Oriental, 2007), p. 35

[8] Turnbull, Stephen. The Samurai and the Sacred. (Oxford: Osprey, 2006), p. 48

[9] Schirokauer, Conrad. A Brief History of Chinese and Japanese Civilizations. (Orlando: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1989), p. 270

[10] Hane, Mikiso.  Premodern Japan: A Historical Survey. (Boulder: Westview Press, 1991), p. 109

[11] Tamura, Yoshiro. Japanese Buddhism: A Cultural History. (Tokyo: Kosei Publishing, 2005), p. 128

12 Tamura, Yoshiro. Japanese Buddhism: A Cultural History. (Tokyo: Kosei Publishing, 2005), p. 97

13 Ratti, Oscar and Westbrook, Adele.  Secrets of the Samurai: The Martial Arts of Feudal Japan. (Japan: Tuttle, 1973), p. 454

14 Turnbull, Stephen. The Samurai and the Sacred. (Oxford: Osprey, 2006), pp. 137-138

15 Suzuki, Daisetz T. Zen and Japanese Culture. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993), p. 69

16 Suzuki, Daisetz T. Zen and Japanese Culture. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993), pp. 70-73

17 Nitobe, Inazo. Bushido: The Warrior’s Code. (Santa Clarita: Ohara Publications, 1979)

18Gordon, Andrew.  A Modern History of Japan.  (New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), p. 7

19 Suzuki, Daisetz T. Zen and Japanese Culture. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993), p. 93

Works Cited

Gordon, Andrew.  A Modern History of Japan. New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 2009.

Hane, Mikiso. Premodern Japan: A Historical Survey. Boulder: Westview Press, 1991.

Matsuo, Kenji. A History of Japanese Buddhism. Kent: Global Oriental, 2007

Nitobe, Inazo. Bushido: The Warrior’s Code. Santa Clarita: Ohara Publications, 1979

Ratti, Oscar and Westbrook, Adele. Secrets of the Samurai: The Martial Arts of Feudal

Japan. Japan: Tuttle Publishing, 1973

Schirokauer, Conrad. A Brief History of Chinese and Japanese Civilizations. Orlando:

Harcourt Brace & Company, 1989

Suzuki, Daisetz T. Zen and Japanese Culture. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993

Tamura, Yoshiro. Japanese Buddhism: A Cultural History. Tokyo: Kosei Publishing, 2005

Turnbull, Stephen. The Samurai and the Sacred. Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2006

Turnbull, Stephen. Warriors of Medieval Japan. Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2005