Monastic Militias

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Monastic militias (Chinese, sengping; Korean, sŭngbyŏng; Japanese, sōhei) is a generic term for armed members of the saṄgha or the private armed forces employed by Buddhist monasteries. The term monastic militia is not a Buddhist one, but was coined by Confucian historians and its use cannot be attested earlier than circa 1451 in Korea, 1682 in China, or 1715 in Japan. Although the term is relatively late, it can be used to retrospectively designate earlier phenomena. Buddhist scriptures prohibit the use of force and the taking of life. Nonetheless, East Asian history records many instances during times of political conflict, regional unrest, dynastic change, or foreign invasion when Buddhist institutions relied on armed forces to defend their interests. During the years from 1553 to 1555, for example, Chinese monastic forces fought alongside government troops to repel coastal raiders. Likewise, in 1592 Korean Buddhist monks formed armed bands to help fight invading Japanese armies.

Neither Chinese nor Korean examples, however, have been as historically prominent or as well studied as those of early and medieval Japan. Throughout most of that period the institutions of secular government in Japan derived legitimation from the divine protection of buddhas (enshrined in temples) and local gods (placated at shrines), while the temples and shrines engaged in the secular activities of controlling large tracts of land and the people who worked thereon. Beginning in the tenth century, major shrines (such as Ise) developed the tactic of protesting unfavorable government actions by sending armed bands of men to the capital, where they would parade the divine body of the gods in front of the residences of terrified government officials. Major Buddhist centers (Mount Hiei, Onjōji, Kōfukuji, Tōdaiji, etc.) soon adopted this tactic. By the end of the eleventh century, they were directing their armed forces not just to protest government authorities but also to attack one another.

Mount Hiei, the main center of the Japanese Tendai school, became infamous for its men of arms. During the twelfth century they repeatedly attacked and burned Onjōji, a rival Tendai center. English-language accounts of these conflicts frequently render the term sōhei as "warrior monks," although membership in those armed bands was not limited to the clergy, but consisted primarily of laborers (shuto, jinin, etc.) in various degrees of servitude to the temples and shrines. The warlord Oda Nobunaga (1534–1582) campaigned to eliminate the military power of Japanese Buddhist institutions beginning with Mount Hiei, which he torched in 1571. His successor Toyotomi Hideyoshi (1537–1598) successfully concluded this campaign in 1585 when he defeated the Shingon school's stronghold of Negoroji and eradicated monastic militias from Japan.

See also:Hyujŏng; Martial Arts; War; Yujŏng


Adolphson, Mikael S. The Gates of Power: Monks, Courtiers, and Warriors in Premodern Japan. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2000.

Hirata Toshiharu. "Akusō ni tsuite." In Shūkyō shakaishi kenkyū, ed. Risshō Daigaku Shigakkai. Tokyo: Yūzankaku. 1977.

Kuroda Toshio. Jisha seiryoku: mō hitotsu no chusei shakai. Tokyo: Iwanami Shoten, 1980.

McMullin, Neil. Buddhism and the State in Sixteenth Century Japan. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1984.

Nishigaki Harutsugu. "Ritsuryō taisei no kaitai to Ise jingū." Chichō 56 (1955): 37–51.

William M. Bodiford

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Monastic Militias

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