Religion and Politics Don’t Mix: A Cautionary Tale

A scene from the Genpei War, courtesy of Wikipedia

While reading my new book on the Ojoyoshu and its author Genshin, a highly influential Japanese Buddhist monk in the 12th century, I came across the story of two men who were very powerful at the time, and colluded to build the temple of Enryakuji, home of the Tendai sect, to become the most powerful religious institution at the time. This had some very negative unintended side-effects as we shall see, but first let’s see who these two men were.

Enryakuji temple as seen today, rebuilt in the 17th century. 663highland / CC BY-SA, courtesy of Wikipedia.

The first was an ambitious monk named Ryōgen (良源, 912 – 985) who quickly embroiled himself in a generations-long simmering dispute between two rival factions of the Tendai sect: one based on the lineage of the Ennin: the sanmon-ha (山門派), and the other based on the lineage of Enchin: the jimon-ha (寺門派). Both Ennin and Enchin had been direct disciples of founder Saichō (最澄, 767 – 822). Interestingly, neither faction had major doctrinal differences between them, the dispute was entirely over who should run Enryakuji Temple. Ryōgen, who was from the Ennin / sanmon-ha lineage, overtly sought to push out and exclude rivals from the Enchin line from positions of power, until he eventually attained supremacy as the 18th head abbot (zasu, 座主) of Enryakuji Temple in 966.

The other man in this story was a nobleman named Fujiwara no Morosuke, who belonged to one of several competing branches of the Fujiwara clan for control of the Imperial throne. This most common strategy for controlling the throne at the time was through intermarriage with the Imperial family, and controlling the strings as regents for child emperors. In this case, Morosuke wanted to ensure that his pregnant daughter, Anshi (安子, 927-964), the consort of Emperor Murakami, would give birth to a son. He enlisted Ryōgen who had known his father in social circles, and Ryōgen agreed to undertake a lengthy 300-day Buddhist esoteric ritual to ensure safe birth of a son. Sure enough, Anshi gave birth to a son (later Emperor Reizei), and Ryōgen was greatly rewarded by Morosuke with prestigious positions and patronage against rivals at Enryakuji.

This relationship between the two profited both. From Ryōgen, Morosuke got spiritual protection, and influence over the powerful Enryakuji temple, while Ryõgen could further his plans to consolidate power at the temple with blessings from the powerful Fujiwara clan.

Ryōgen paid back Morosuke by appointing one of Morosuke’s junior family relations, Jinzen, to the prominent position of “bishop” within Enryakuji and then archbishop (sōjō 僧正) two years later. Jinzen was far too young to be an archbishop, and lacked past qualifications, but his connection to the Fujiwaran clan and Ryōgen were enough to make the promotion happen. Ryōgen appointed others similarly to his “inner circle” based more on loyalty to the Ennin faction than on qualifications, while pushing out more qualified rivals who belonged to the Enchin faction. This struggle came to a head later in 981 when a member of the rival Enchin line was appointed to an important position by the government. Protests, threats and rumors by monks spread quickly, and monks of the Enchin lineage felt increasingly unsafe and moved further down the mountain. By 991, armed monks (sōhei 僧兵)1 from the Ennin line (Ryōgen’s lineage) openly attacked the Enchin monks’ residences and they fled to a rival Tendai Buddhist temple named Miidera:

The Golden Hall of Miidera temple, rebuilt in the 16th century. 663highland / CC BY-SA courtesy of Wikipedia.

The political/factional rivalry didn’t end there though. Both temple complexes, along with several other major temples in and around the capitol, fielded armies of warrior-monks, and allied themselves with power noble families. Between Enryakuji and Miidera, the violence escalated until Miidera was burned down by warrior monks from Enryakuji 4 times in the 11th century, while Miidera warrior-monks attacked and destroyed places associated with the Ennin lineage.

By the time of the Genpei War in the last 12th century (more on that here), the temples were caught up in the larger struggle between the Taira and Minamoto clans with the Miidera Temple being burned down (yet again) and its monks fleeing with the retreating Minamoto clan.

All of this started with a lineage dispute between two disciples of the founder, Saichō, but gradually escalated as one side sabotaged the other politically and then, starting with Ryōgen, tapped into patronage from power noble families in order to drive out the other faction. This back and forth happened for decades and centuries, until both temples were repeatedly destroyed by warfare. The temporary political gains that Ryōgen received through Morosuke did little to actually solve the issue long-term and worsened things through factionalism. Monks, increasingly drawn into political battles, forgot their monastic training and engaged armed conflicts with other monks (or opposing samurai warriors in some cases) in total contradiction of the Buddha’s firm teachings against taking life, especially in the capacity as a monk.

As the book shows, not all monks at Enryakuji bought into this conflict. Genshin, for example, setup a retreat at the more isolated Yokawa region of Mt. Hiei for monks to focus on the Pure Land teachings and practices. In a sense, he just clocked out. Some monks just openly left to start new Buddhist sects (Honen, Shinran, Dogen, etc) or join them. Others just turned a blind eye to what was happening.

Nevertheless, the monastic system in Japan by the 11th and 12th centuries hadn’t just been plagued by “monks gone wild”; the entire system had totally gone off the rails.

Not surprisingly, although these sects survived the conflict and continued on into the later Kamakura and Muromachi Periods, their reputations were permanently tarnished, and even today enjoy far less prestige that newer, fresher sects that had less political muscle,2 and more mass-appeal. As researchers argue, the political sects at the time hitched their wagons with powerful noble families and profited from this, but when those families declined political, so did the temples.

A cautionary tale for future generations….

P.S. the book also alludes to an “acrimonious debate” in China between two factions of the parent Tiantai sect: the shanjia (山家, “mountain family”) and the shanwai (山外, “outside the mountain”). Unlike Japan, the struggle in China never led to open warfare, but the Tiantai sect suffered paralysis until the debate was resolved.

1 Warrior-monk armies were not exclusive to the Tendai sect, by the way. Other major sects around the capitol got tangled up in a weird kind of religious-political “arms race” with each other. Kōfukuji, the head of the still-powerful Hossō sect, fielded a powerful army and frequently threw their weight around, intimidating followers of the new Pure Land sect, while getting into armed clashes with Enryaku-ji, their rival Miidera, and later with newer Zen temples. The army from Enryakuji was also known for robbing the grave of Pure Land Buddhism founder, Hōnen (ironically a former Tendai monk) later. Centuries later, these warrior-monks were still harassing rival Buddhist sects (for example Rennyo’s community of the Jodo Shinshu sect, and Dōgen’s community of the Sōtō Zen sect) until they were finally wiped out (literally) by the infamous warlord Oda Nobunaga. For more on sohei warrior-monks and how they might look in Dungeons and Dragons role-playing, check out my other blog post.

2 The one prominent exception to this would the Jodo Shinshu sect, which did openly challenge Oda Nobunaga with a peasant army (ikko-ikki) of its own whose relationship to Rennyo was … complicated. Outside of war, Jodo Shinshu has also had a somewhat sketchy history of attacking critics such as the Zen monk Tetsugen through mob-violence.

Published by Doug

🎵Toss a coin to your Buddhist-Philhellenic-D&D-playing-Japanese-studying-dad-joke-telling-Trekker, O Valley of Plentyyy!🎵He/him

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