Buddhism and the State in Sixteenth-Century Japan

Buddhism and the State in Sixteenth-Century Japan

by N. McMullin

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The author reassesses the reasons for Nobunaga's attacks on the Buddhist temples and explores the long-term effects of his activities on the temples and on the relation between Buddhism and the state.

Originally published in 1985.

The Princeton Legacy Library uses the latest print-on-demand technology to again make available previously out-of-print books

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The author reassesses the reasons for Nobunaga's attacks on the Buddhist temples and explores the long-term effects of his activities on the temples and on the relation between Buddhism and the state.

Originally published in 1985.

The Princeton Legacy Library uses the latest print-on-demand technology to again make available previously out-of-print books from the distinguished backlist of Princeton University Press. These paperback editions preserve the original texts of these important books while presenting them in durable paperback editions. The goal of the Princeton Legacy Library is to vastly increase access to the rich scholarly heritage found in the thousands of books published by Princeton University Press since its founding in 1905.

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Buddhism and the State in Sixteenth-Century Japan

By Neil McMullin


Copyright © 1984 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-07291-3


The Buddhist Temples

Before proceeding to the main topics of this work, the eradication of the military power and the suppression of the economic power of the Buddhist temples and the redefinition of the relation between Buddhism and the state in sixteenth-century Japan, it is necessary to appreciate both the nature and scope of that power and the development of Buddhism–state relations since the sixth century. Buddhism was officially received in Japan in the year 538, and as John W. Hall points out, its introduction immediately had profound "political as well as religious repercussions." At first, certain powerful families, notably the Nakatomi and the Imbe who were in charge of the indigenous religious cult, looked upon Buddhism as a threat to their positions and to the political authority of the other ruling families who justified their possession of authority on the basis of the claim that they were the descendants of ancestral "deities" (Kami). Therefore they wanted to reject Buddhism. There were other powerful families, however, especially the Soga, who saw in Buddhism a tool that they could use to realize their ambitions to gain more power, and therefore they supported it. For several decades there was a struggle between the pro-Buddhist and anti-Buddhist factions that was settled by a military victory by the former in 587. That victory assured the official acceptance of Buddhism in Japan. Official advocacy of Buddhism is first found in the famous "Seventeen Article Constitution" (Jushichijo Kenpo) that Prince Regent Shotoku is claimed to have promulgated in the year 604, of which the first part of Article 2 reads: "Fervently revere the Three Treasures. The Three Treasures are the Buddha, the Dharma, and the Sangha. They are the ultimate refuge of all beings and the absolute norm for all countries."

Buddhism was attractive to the Japanese ruling elite in the early seventh century because of its sophisticated teachings and magnificent rituals, but especially because of the great powers that it was believed to have, powers that could be used to protect both individuals and the state from sickness and other evils. Buddhism came to be recognized as a powerful force that could be used to "protect the country" (gokoku), to justify and support the authority of the ruling regime, and to bring about a degree of social unity theretofore unknown in Japan. It could reinforce political authority in a manner that was parallel to that of the native Shinto ideology but beyond the particularisms of the "families" (uji) that formed the basis of the older society.

From the seventh century onward the state began to take over the sponsorship of Buddhism from the families that were originally hospitable to it. By the Taika Reform (Taika no Kaishin), which began in 645, the influence of the Soga family was permanently eliminated, and power was concentrated more firmly in the hands of the imperial family. In order to harness Buddhism's power for the good of the new order, the state encouraged the recitation of various sutras, especially the "Sutra of Golden Light" (Konkomyokyo), which promised guidance and protection to any state in which it was read. The state furthered its intimate relations with Buddhism by appointing the priests as government officials with state salaries, by decreeing that Buddhist rituals be performed at official court functions, and by contributing — together with the court nobility and the provincial gentry — laborers, lands, and materials for the building of temples. Evidence of the institutional support that Buddhism received is indicated by the fact that the number of temples multiplied dramatically from sixty-four in the 620s to 545 by the year 690.

The place of Buddhism in Japanese society was defined and given official authorization by the Taiho Code (Taiho Ritsuryo), the corpus of penal (ritsu) and civil (ryo) laws that was promulgated in 701 and revised in the Yoro Code (Yoro Ritsuryo) of 718. These codes officially incorporated Buddhism into the state structure and laid down specific rules for the Buddhist community in the section titled "Rules for Priests and Nuns" (soniryo).

An important development in state sponsorship of Buddhism took place in the Nara period (710-784) when, in the year 737, Emperor Shomu decreed that in each of the sixty-six provinces there was to be built a state-sponsored "provincial temple" (kokubunji) and a "provincial convent" (kokubun-niji) at which sutras would be read for the "prosperity and protection" (chingo) of the "state" (kokka). The state's utilization of Buddhism for its own ends was symbolized by the Daibutsu, a hugh statue of Roshana (Vairochana) Buddha, the supreme Buddha in Kegon Buddhism, that Shomu commissioned to be built in 747. By that undertaking Shomu drew a parallel between Vairochana Buddha and the emperor: just as Vairochana was the symbol and guarantor of unity and harmony in the universe, so the emperor was the symbol and guarantor of unity and harmony in the state.

In the Nara period there developed an understanding of the relation between Buddhism and the state according to which those two phenomena mutually supported and reinforced each other. This idea is brought out in the following: "Emperor Shomu in 749 declared that the laws of the Buddhas and the Imperial edicts and legislation were to be regarded as identical, so that any one guilty of infringing either would surely, irrespective of rank or station, be visited by dire calamities. We have here therefore ... a very thorough-going amalgamation of Church and State." Buddhism and the state were wedded in such a way that acts of Buddhist piety and the proper performance of Buddhist rituals were believed to benefit the state by assuring its unity and prosperity; reciprocally, the proper running of the state and acts of service to the state were thought to bring Buddhist spiritual reward. Japanese scholars speak of this development in a variety of ways: Hirata Toshiharu speaks of the development of a "Buddhist State" or "Buddhocracy" (Bukkyo kokka) in the Nara period; Kuroda Toshia speaks of the unification of politics and religion and of the doctrinalization of state authority in Buddhist terms; and Joseph Kitagawa speaks of the "ecclesiastification" of Japanese society and culture. To express the Buddhism–state relation in other terms, terms that were used throughout the early and medieval periods of Japanese history, there was a relation of mutual support between the "Buddhist Law" (buppo) and the "Imperial Law" (obo). It is important to note that the term buppo in this context did not designate exclusively a Buddhist as opposed to a Shinto "Law," for Shinto too provided justification and support for the state. Buddhism and Shinto were so intimately related from the earliest period of recorded Japanese history that the term buppo must be understood to have designated a Buddhist-Shinto composite in which, at least on the level of articulation, Buddhist language tended to predominate. Also, the term obo, translated here as "Imperial Law," must not be understood as "secular law" in the context of Japanese history: the obo was not secular in any modern sense of that term because it always had religious sanction, the sanction of the Shinto Kami. In the earlier centuries the relation between the buppo and the obo was one in which the former was subordinate to the latter: the buppo was used by and served the obo. Evidence for this is found in the fact that the members of the jingikan, the bureau of religious affairs that was established in the seventh century, had significantly lower ranks than the members of the dajokan, the bureau of state affairs, even though the jingikan was, at least on paper, superior to the dajokan.

In most respects Buddhism's close relation with the state was very beneficial to the Buddhist community. In the second half of the seventh century over 110 temples were built with state support, and in the Nara period another 361 were built, forty-eight of which were located in the capital city, and at least 25,000 people were ordained. In the Nara period Buddhist temples received both public and private patronage in return for protection and prestige, with the result that they came to amass great wealth, especially in the form of "temple estates" (jiryo). The state supported the temples by assigning them tax revenues and, together with the court nobles and the provincial gentry, by making them grants of land and sometimes servants. The state also assigned to the temples quotas of undeveloped lands that they were encouraged to develop and household groups of cultivators to provide labor.

From the late Nara period onward there was a huge increase in the numbers of Buddhist clergy. Although the state attempted to control the size of the Buddhist communities by means of a quota system that limited the number of ordinations, many people, especially in the lower class, began to take Buddhist orders privately in defiance of the law. In order to flee the oppressive taxes and levies imposed by the provincial landowners, many people abandoned their lands and went to reside in temples or on lands owned by them. The temples were especially attractive to people of low status because they afforded the only avenue of promotion to positions of high rank and prestige that was open to them. By the end of the Nara period Buddhism was so well established that the high-ranked Buddhist clerics, together with the hereditary nobility, formed the ruling class, and the temples had become a powerful force in the Japanese political world.

The defect of Buddhism's intimate relation with the state was that the Buddhist community had, as Joseph Kitagawa explains, "no opportunity to develop its own integrity and coherence, because from the time of Prince Shotoku onward 'the state functioned not as a patron (Schutz-patronat) but as the religious police (Religions-polizet) of Buddhism.'" In both China and Japan, unlike in India, there was no room in society for a group, religious or otherwise, that followed an "extra-ordinary" societal norm. In a word, the Buddhist clergy did not stand outside the pale of imperial authority. As John W. Hall points out, "The Buddhist priesthood did not acquire a spiritual authority, as did the papacy in Europe, which presumed to be superior to the powers of the secular ruler."

The ideal of a mutually supportive Buddhism–state partnership, with the emperor at the head of a state religion defined in Buddhist terms, was not to be realized. The Buddhist institutions that began by supporting the state became formidable counterbalances to it, and they created out of the ideal of Buddhism–state unity a de facto Buddhist institution–state tension.

In the latter half of the Nara period some efforts were made to control and limit the power of the temples, but with little success. Finally, in order to flee the power and influence of those temples, the court left Nara and, in 794, moved to the new "Capital of Peace and Tranquility" (Heian-kyo), the modern Kyoto. Although the court strictly forbade the Nara temples to move to Kyoto, it took steps to develop new Buddhist schools that would contribute to the well-being of the state. Early in the Heian period (794-1185), Saicho and Kukai founded, with imperial support, two new schools of Buddhism: Tendai and Shingon. Unlike their Nara predecessors, Saicho and Kukai built their temples somewhat away from the center of political authority: Saicho built the Enryakuji on Mt. Hiei to the northeast of Kyoto, and Kukai built the Kongobuji on Mt. Koya, considerably south of the new capital. Like their Nara predecessors, both Saicho and Kukai declared the "pacification and protection of the state" (chingo kokka) to be the primary duty of their schools, and thus the Buddhist Law, the buppo, continued to be subordinate to the Imperial Law, the obo. Ienaga Saburo points out, however, that the new schools of Heian Buddhism gained a degree of independence from the state: although they espoused the chingo kokka ideology, "psychologically" (seishinmen ni) they were less de- pendent on the state than were the Nara temples. Moreover, with the weakening of the ritsuryo system, the system that had been established by the Taiho and Yoro Codes, the temples no longer received adequate stipends from the state; therefore they came to depend increasingly on private parties for support.

From the middle of the Heian period the sons of court nobles and provincial gentry began to swell the ranks of the clergy — largely, according to Tamamuro Taijo, because many members of the upper class had become impoverished by that time and therefore they sought wealth and power in the temples — and by the late Heian period even imperial princes took Buddhist orders and became "prince-priests" (monzeki). As a result of this so-called "temple aristocratization" (jiin kizokuka), by the late Heian period all high posts in the major temples had been taken over by court nobles.

In the mid-Heian period some of the larger temples established "branch temples" (matsuji), either by building new temples in areas removed from the "main temple" (honji or honzan) or by absorbing other temples or Shinto shrines. In some cases smaller temples and shrines willingly became branches of larger temples in order to gain the protection of the larger ones against the depredations of provincial authorities and powerful landowners; in other cases powerful temples simply asserted control over smaller and weaker ones. Thus there developed the "main-branch system" (honmatsu seido), which continued through the medieval period and by which the major temples extended their spheres of power. Some temples developed vast networks of branch temples that extended into areas far removed from the home temples. The Enryakuji, for example, was the honji of some 370 matsuji that were spread throughout a number of provinces.

A number of temples had become immensely large institutions by the late Heian period. The Enryakuji, for example, had developed into a huge complex of more than 3,800 buildings that were scattered through the valleys of Mt. Hiei over an area of about twenty square kilometers, and the Onjoji included over 2,000 buildings. The major temples housed communities of thousands of priests: the Enryakuji, for example, had some 3,000 priests in residence by the late tenth century, and the Kofukuji had at least that number, and possibly 4,000 priests in residence.

From the middle of the Heian period some of the major temples began to maintain large forces of what are commonly called "priest-warriors" (sohei). Most of the sohei were lower class members of the temple communities who lived in or around the larger temples or on estates owned by them and their branches. In the period from 981 to 1549 there were, according to Tsuji Zennosuke, roughly 250 major "incidents" (jiko), or "actions" (katsudo), on the part of the s6hei: within the temples the sohei of one faction fought against those of other factions; sohei from one temple attacked other temples; and the sohei of the larger temples, numbering thousands of armed men, frequently marched on Kyoto to "forcefully petition" (goso) the court or the Fujiwara "Regents" (kanpaku) to grant their temples' demands. In 1176, for example, some 6,000 sohei from Mt. Hiei marched on Kyoto to forcefully petition the court to punish the governor of Kaga province for violating lands that belonged to one of the Enryakuji's branch temples in Echizen province.

The period from the tenth through the fourteenth centuries was the age of private "estates" (shoen). Under the so-called estates system (shoensei), as Nagahara Keiji points out, "proprietary interests in land had been vested for the most part either in important religious institutions or in nobles of extremely high rank. The right to manage the land, as well as to rule and tax the peasants who inhabited and tilled it, belonged entirely to these proprietors." The properties that the major temples owned in the late Heian period were large and numerous. Of the 357 shoen in Yamato province, for example, the Kofukuji owned 267, the Todaiji seventy-three, and the Toji four. Thus ninety percent of all the estates in Yamato were owned by temples. The temples owned vast tracts of land not just in the central provinces around Kyoto but throughout the entire country. As far away as Kyushu, for example, temples owned thirty-nine percent of the registered rice lands in the province of Bungo in the late thirteenth century and twenty-nine percent of the registered rice lands in the province of Buzen in the late twelfth century. Estimates of the total percentage of land that was owned by the temples in medieval Japan vary widely from twenty to sixty percent, and all estimates are rough at best. Tamamuro Taijo, for instance, says that according to the best estimates religious institutions owned or controlled somewhere in the vicinity of "several dozen percent" (suju pasento) of all lands at the beginning of the medieval period, and Kuroda Toshio estimates that temples and shrines owned sixty percent of the productive land in the early thirteenth century. It is commonly suggested that one half of the land in medieval Japan was held in the form of private estates, and one half was public land, and that the temples controlled approximately the same percentage of public land as they owned private land. Because the majority of Shinto shrines were, in fact, branches of Buddhist temples in the medieval period, it is accurate to say that roughly twenty-five percent, to use Tamamuro's rather conservative and very ambiguous estimate, of the land was owned or controlled by temples.


Excerpted from Buddhism and the State in Sixteenth-Century Japan by Neil McMullin. Copyright © 1984 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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