Enryaku-Ji

Enryaku-Ji

And Tendai Buddhism

Mount Hiei is a very ancient center of Japanese Buddhism, home to the Enryaku-ji temple complex. Enryaku-ji was once the headquarters for the “sohei” or warrior monks of Tendai Buddhism, who fought on behalf of the Tendai sect during Japan's many centuries of civil wars. Even though the sohei were warrior monks, they weren't usually fighting for religious reasons. It was just that the Enryaku-ji temples had significant political and even financial interests, and they used their armies of fighting monks to back up their interests with armed force.

The warlord Oda Nobunaga eventually got tired of the competition, surrounded Mount Hiei with an army of samurai, and set fire to every temple on his way up the mountain, killing every monk who escaped the flames. Enryaku-ji was allowed to rebuild, but it was no longer allowed to maintain its own armies.

 

The involvement of the Tendai sect in warfare and power politics might seem odd or even hypocritical for a Buddhist denomination, but in a certain way it fits with the Tendai doctrine that true Buddha-hood is achieved in the midst of the world, not apart from it. This doctrine may well have been misused, but it has also led to Tendai sponsorship of poetry, visual art and other aspects of high culture, all of which still play a significant role in Tendai practice. As for the sohei, they no longer exist, and their techniques of fighting with the “naginata” or halberd and the “yari” or spear are all but forgotten.