Buddhist monks are not supposed to harm anyone, but “soldier monks” were a long-lasting profession in middle age Japan – why did these people arm themselves and why were they even allowed to exist?

Podcast host Kyota Ko explains the historical controversy in this insightful and hilarious podcast episode.

Hello world! You are listening to the Metro-classic Japanese. My name is Kyota Ko. 

If you’ve ever played Japan-themed games or watched historical films of Japan, you may or may not have seen an image of a man with his face covered in white cloth like how some Muslim women wear burkas; he’s holding a spear in one hand and a rosary in the other. So it’s an armed Buddhist monk. They’re soldier monks who actually existed in middle-age Japan in quite sizable numbers. 

If you know anything about the 5 Buddhist precepts, the basic of code of conduct of Buddhism, a monk holding a spear should sound very contradictory because precept number one is “you shall not kill humans or any other animals.”

In Buddhism, you’re not supposed to harm others in any way, so what are these monks doing with a spear? Did they have a problem in comprehending basic take-aways? 

So today, I’d like to talk about who these soldier monks were and why they even existed.

Soldier monks = sinful monks

Soldier monks are remembered in history as terrible, terrible people. There are no soldier monks in Japan anymore, but the term “soldier monk” ended up carrying a meaning that was equivalent to a department store of sins by the time they seized to exist. 

In Buddhist practice you are supposed to refrain from hurting other lives, stealing, having sensual pleasure, lying and drinking. Buddhist lay people follow as many of these 5 precepts as they can manage to, and of course monks are supposed to follow alll of them. But soldier monks violated most if not all of these despite calling themselves Buddhist monks. 

And because they were exempt from taxes despite not behaving any differently from ordinary people who were taxed heavily, people hated soldier monks. To the eyes of ordinary people in the middle ages, soldier monks were the epitome of hypocrites. 

First of all, soldier monks – they killed people. That’s a basic, basic no-no for anyone in the world. You don’t have to be a Buddhist or a saint to understand that. 

And they drank sake, they had prostitutes come over secretly; I’ll explain later why all this was even allowed. But first, let’s look at how Buddhism came to be in Japan because it’ll help us decide whether these soldier monks were big hypocrites or in fact, heroes, by the end of this podcast.

A little background: Buddhism in Japan 

Ever since Buddhism was imported into Japan in the 6th century, it has been a major religion in Japan along with Shintoism. In fact, Buddhism and Shintoism blended together, I think partly because they didn’t really contradict each other. 

In Japan, Buddha is seen as a deity, which was not a problem at all for Shinto-minded Japanese people because in Shintoism, there is an infinite number of gods. Gods and spirits of fire, gods and spirits of the wind, gods and spirits of particular mountains. Buddha was welcomed into the minds of Japanese people as yet another god. But to be precise, there’s no god in Buddhism. Buddha is not a deity, but an enlightened person – someone you look up to and aspire to be like. 

So Buddhism is more about how you should live life and how you should think about life than whom or what to worship. It gives you a code of conduct. Meanwhile, Shintoism doesn’t really have a code of conduct. You can pick and choose which god to worship, and nobody tries to label you as a Shintoist and nobody tries to impose any rules on you. You were free to believe in whichever god you happen to like.

Now everyone who believes in an afterlife prefers to go to heaven than to hell. And Buddhism brought in a code of conduct that seemed to guarantee a ticket to heaven. Again, to be precise, there is no heaven in Buddhism. Nirvana is an enlightened state of mind, but ancient Japanese people didn’t really get the concept accurately, so they conveniently thought that following Buddhist practices would take them to some kind of heaven. 

The lives of peasants were cruel back in the days. They worked hard in their fields, and half or more of the crops they made were taken away as tax, there were droughts, there were floods, there were famine, there were diseases and war, and one in two children died before puberty. Peasants were helpless and therefore they wished for themselves and their loved ones to at least have a good life after death. So a religion with a code of conduct that takes you somewhere like heaven was a good fit. 

So some Buddhist temples gained immense popularity by for example saying that all you’ve got to do is pray, or dance, and your soul shall be saved. 

Buddhism was the spiritual escape for ordinary people from their harsh realities. 

The birth of soldier monks

So far, there are no signs of soldier monks, but things change in the mid 8th century.

For the longest time in Japan, tax was taken in the form of rice. But from the eyes of the ruling class of Japan, it was an unstable source of tax revenue because the yield greatly depends on the weather every year. 

So the ruling class tried to encourage people to cultivate more land. They tried to make sure there was enough tax income sources during bad times. And to encourage people to do the job, in the 8th century, they allowed private ownership of the land people newly cultivated. 

Now some Buddhist groups built temples in the mountains and made farmland there because it was important to distance themselves from the secular world, away from all sorts of temptations you would find in the city. They made themselves outcasts in order to live spiritual lives.

But they soon realized they were living nearby other outcasts A.K.A bandits who were making a living off of robbing people. I talked about this in another podcast which was about how the first samurai came about, but down in the secular countryside, peasants started arming themselves and practicing self-defense because of these bandits who came down from the mountains to take away their things and their lives. 

Half their rice yield was taken away as tax, and they couldn’t afford to give away anymore. That was the start of samurai. They were peasants who needed to protect themselves and the private land they owned because the ruling class didn’t do anything. They were like: “Well, it’s your private land.” They eventually get overthrown by samurai, just so you know. Justice!

So back in the mountains, it was the same deal. Buddhist groups had to defend themselves from bandits. The 5 precepts of Buddhism include not hurting others let alone killing others, but they probably no choice. 

So like the peasants, some monks started practicing self-defense, and became soldier monks. And what’s interesting was how these monks dressed. Like I said earlier, they typically covered their whole head with a white cloth like a burka, with just their eyes sticking out. 

Now, nobody knows for sure why they dressed like that, but it could be assumed that it was because they were ashamed of themselves being the biggest controversy of their religion. They preached not to take lives while they did themselves.

So at first, I don’t think anyone hated soldier monks for what they did. People probably understood that the biggest pricks were the bandits who destroyed people’s hard work and the ruling class who didn’t do a thing about it. 

The corruption starts

So how did they come to be so despised? The reason was because there was a steady inflow of people who became monks without high aspirations. In other words, there were many people who became monks to evade tax. 

I happily pay tax here in Tokyo because they take away the trash, keep the city clean, and most of all, the city is kept safe with tax money. But imagine living several centuries ago and you see bandits running around taking your stuff, raping women in your family and your children getting killed, and you pay half of what you make to the government for doing an excellent job of doing nothing. So a logical choice was to become a Buddhist monk and not be counted as a taxpayer. 

But the 5 precepts of Buddhism is not for everyone. No lying and no stealing sound very manageable given that you’re not desperate for food, but having no alcohol or sex ever can be very challenging for not a few people, especially after they had been living a secular life for a long time. So although they called themselves monks, many of these people were enjoying everything they were not supposed to and everything they preached others not to, without having to pay taxes or working in the fields. They basically became privileged hypocrites. Of course no one liked them.

Soldier monks and hypocritical monks merge

Eventually, these hypocritical monks merge in identity with soldier monks. Of course not all soldier monks must have been the type despised by ordinary people, but it seems like in people’s minds, hypocrisy and being a soldier monk went hand in hand.

This happened namely in a mountain called Hieizan. It’s located in the east of Kyoto. It gives you a nice trekking experience if you have a chance to go to Kyoto next time. A Buddhist temple called Enryakuji Temple and the monks there ruled and protected Hieizan with thousands of soldier monks. And many of these soldier monks seemed to have been criminals and ex-samurais before they turned into monks, and while they allowed Hieizan to have solid military power to protect itself from potential invaders, these soldier monks did everything the Buddhist belief told people not to. 

They drank, they hunted animals and ate their meat, they had sex, and even bullied villagers. Nobody was able to tell them to stop because they were actually specialists in battle who had the physique of a warrior and the mind of a total jerk. 

I don’t know if you’ll feel better hearing this, but In the late 16th century, almost every single one of these soldier monks in Hieizan get massacred by an even bigger jerk of a much bigger scale called ODA Nobunaga, who was the initiator of the unity of Japan. He went around conquering the majority of Japan under his rule, and in the course, massacred everyone who got in his way, in the thousands and ten thousands. Karma eventually gets him too, just like how he did justice to the soldier monks of Hieizan. 

Soldier monk as a lifestyle

There was another large community of a Buddhist sect called Negoro in the mountains south of Osaka. It was a community with over 10,000 soldier monks, and they occupied and ruled 170 ㎢ of land. That’s 105 square miles! That’s like two San Franciscos. 

There were a few other Buddhist sects that were as big as the Negoro but what’s unique about the Negoro was that:

1. They were specialists in firearms – guns. They were specialists in shooting people dead. 

2. They proactively engaged in battle and assassination. 

We’re still talking about Buddhist monks here, just to make sure we’re still on the same page. 

I mean, it’s not even martial arts, there’s really nothing meditative about shooting people. What the hell were these monks doing with guns? 

Historical records say that one of the leaders of the Negoro sect happened to get a hold of a matchlock rifle, which was a rare and expensive import back in 16th century Japan. He decomposed the rifle, studied the mechanism, and his men succeeded in reproducing and mass producing matchlock rifles.

They actually had a good reason to do that.

In a neighboring mountain called Koyasan, there was a rival Buddhist sect that was not very nice to the Negoro. In fact, the founder of Negoro was a monk at Koyasan who brought a different interpretation onto the table and wasn’t received well by his peers. So he had to leave Koyasan, and he set up his own sect in a mountain next door. That was the start of the Negoro sect in the mid 12th century. 

And the monks at Koyasan clashed with the Negoro several times in their 400-year history of hating each other. There were real violence like beating rival monks to death and setting temples on fire. It’s apparent that enlightenment is only for a select few, because these monks were clearly out of the question.

So anyway, the Negoro needed to arm themselves to protect their property, and doing so with firearm definitely helped. 

But that was not the only reason. The mountains the Negoro were situated at were not the best place to grow crops and so they had to make money to buy food and feed the real monks who didn’t fight but instead studied Buddhism. 

So the soldier monks at Negoro decided to make a living out of becoming mercenaries, meaning they fought in battle in return for money. Some of these Negoro gunner monks were so skilled that they were handsomely paid as snipers to assassinate samurai lords. They were the bread winners of the Negoro.

Of course the real monks were aware of how extremely controversial it was for a Buddhist monk to be doing anything with a gun, but nobody could stop them because who are you to complain to the bread winner when all you do is live and study peacefully while the soldier monks risk their lives to bring back money and food to feed you? Who are you to tell a soldier monk not to eat meat or enjoy the company of women if it’s very much likely that the solider monk will die, for you, tomorrow?

Soldier monks were just as or even more necessary than real monks to sustain the Buddhist belief, at least in the Negoro community. So were soldier monks heroes or hypocrites? Like any hero or hypocrite, they were heroes from the eyes of some people, and hypocrites from the eyes of others. I think it’s an interesting part of history in Japan.

Anyway, thank you for listening. Please check out my Instagram account for daily, insightful content on Japanese culture. それでは、またお会いしましょう。