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Militant Buddhists: A look at the Ikko-Ikki 

(From a lecture by Mike Maikeru Baker)

 

Throughout history, religious fanaticism could be found in varying degrees and for various causes. Many fanatical groups often used religion and politics to build up sects of loyal followers in order to fulfill their aims. One such group was the Ikko-Ikki rebels of mediaeval Japan.

The Ikko-Ikki was a massive group of Buddhist fanatics, whose main goal was to topple the feudalist government that controlled Japan and spread the teachings of Jodo Shinshu Buddhism. Being united by religion allowed the Ikko-Ikki to be more organized than other rebel groups at that time.

The origins of the Ikko-Ikki can be found in the 1400’s, where small groups who followed the Jodo-Shinshu or “Pure Land” sect of Buddhism had united as one. They followed the belief that only wholehearted devotion to Amida Buddha would bring salvation. This single union permeated throughout their ranks, even in their name, which means “single minded league”

Their role as a military force reached its peak when they gained control of the entire province of Kaga in 1488, a territory they managed to hold for 100 years. In 1528, the Ikko-Ikki so sure of their might decided to attack the capitol of Japan, Kyoto. The sight of their advancing army of fanatical Buddhist monks was so terrifying that to quote Dr. Turnbull “even the presence of the Hokke-Shu the townsmen army could not stop the Shogun from running away”. Now the rebel monks had an edge in their belief that death in a battle brings you to heaven and cowardice brings you to hell. Unfortunately it was not enough and the Ikko-Ikki had been driven off to their temple fortress of Hongan-Ji, by the townsmen army. Soon afterwards the townsmen armies launched a counter attack on the massive fortress of the Ikko-Ikki, and were only mildly successful. In a stunning display, Sohei warrior monks , with approval from the Ikko-Ikki lead a surprise attack on Kyoto. Burning down all the temples of the Hokke-Shu, crippling Kyoto’s social organization and internal security defense.

For the next 50 years the Ikko-Ikki grew in strength and numbers, recruiting many peasants who shared the groups views.  The rebels had soon become troubling to the various samurai warlords. One such warlord who found these Buddhist fanatics to be a nuisance was Oda Nobunaga, the first of the three unifiers of Japan. Nobunaga would commit a good portion of his military career to destroying the Buddhist fanatics. Now the Ikko-Ikki had been very troubling to Nobunaga. Through force they restricted his movements, not allowing him to gain control of Japan, as he wanted. The rebels also used economical warfare to battle Nobunaga, such as withholding tax and rent. They had also turned their temples into self-sufficient towns, concentrating them in all the places Nobunaga needed to control. Nobunaga so infuriated by the Ikko-Ikki vowed to eradicate them. Or as Nobunaga wrote he would fight Yama yama, tani tani “on every mountain and in every valley”.

In 1570 after 11 years of battling with the Ikko-Ikki, Oda Nobunga took the fight straight to their temple fortresses. Although his first few attempts at crushing the rebels were disastrous, Nobunaga managed to first isolate the Ikko-Ikki and destroy their allies. Soon Nobunaga would resort to harsh brutality to cripple the rebel monks, in 1574 after restricting the inhabitants of Nagashima fortress to the inner buildings. He had a giant wooden wall built to surround the complex. Nobunaga then ordered the whole thing to be set on fire. Any person who made it out of the fire was to be shot and killed. By the end of the day 20,000 men, women and children laid dead.

In 1580 the Ikko-Ikki faced Nobunaga for the last time. With a majority of their allies and supporters dead or gone, the Ikko-Ikki had only support from within. With the support of pirates Nobunaga managed to push the Ikko-Ikki back into the innermost part of their fortress. The samurai army waited, letting the rebels run out of ammunition and food. Eventually the abbot of Hongan-Ji surrendered. Dr. Turnbull writes that “the terms of the surrender were bloodless, and soon 11 years of fighting came to an end”. After 100 years of violence the Buddhist fanaticism that lead the Ikko-Ikki was no more.

There can be a few lessons learned from the Ikko-Ikki. Fanatical militant groups can be found in almost every culture and religion. And a group with a wholehearted devotion to their religion and cause can be just as powerful as any army with a general, which makes this type of religious and political fanaticism a frightening phenomena.

Bibliography:

Turnbull, Stephen. The Samurai Sourcebook, London, 1998

Turnbull, Stephen. Samurai Warfare, London, 1996

Turnbull, Stephen. Samurai Warriors, London, 1987

C.E. West and F.W. Seal, www.Samurai-Archives.com, 2005