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The Teeth and Claws of the Buddha

Mikael Adolphson

Publication Year: 2007

Japan’s monastic warriors have fared poorly in comparison to the samurai, both in terms of historical reputation and representations in popular culture. Often maligned and criticized for their involvement in politics and other secular matters, they have been seen as figures separate from the larger military class. However, as Mikael Adolphson reveals in his comprehensive and authoritative examination of the social origins of the monastic forces, political conditions, and warfare practices of the Heian (794–1185) and Kamakura (1185–1333) eras, these "monk-warriors"(sôhei) were in reality inseparable from the warrior class. Their negative image, Adolphson argues, is a construct that grew out of artistic sources critical of the established temples from the fourteenth century on. In deconstructing the sôhei image and looking for clues as to the characteristics, role, and meaning of the monastic forces, The Teeth and Claws of the Buddha highlights the importance of historical circumstances; it also points to the fallacies of allowing later, especially modern, notions of religion to exert undue influence on interpretations of the past. It further suggests that, rather than constituting a separate category of violence, religious violence needs to be understood in its political, social, military, and ideological contexts.

Published by: University of Hawai'i Press


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p. vii

List of Maps and Figures

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pp. ix-x

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pp. xi-xiii

This study is an extension of and complement to my first book, The Gates of Power, which dealt primarily with the political, judicial, and ideological powers of religious institutions. I therefore remain indebted to the same colleagues and friends who encouraged me during my years at Stanford as a graduate student and the early years of my life as a teacher. I would be remiss, however, if I did not again express...

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Terminology and Translation

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pp. xv-xviii

Owing to the character of previous scholarship on “monk-warriors” (sōhei), nomenclature is one important aspect of this work. I have attempted to be consistent in my translations of the many terms associated with the monastic complexes, but it is ultimately impossible to find exact equivalents in English for the many variations that are used in historical sources. One reason is that such terms referred...

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One: Discourses on Religious Violence and Armed Clerics

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pp. 1-20

To most modern scholars and observers, violence involving religious centers and ideologies is deeply disturbing. Such sentiments only increased following the events of 9/11, when religious beliefs became inexorably associated with terror acts. In fact, one scholar concluded, in conjunction with a conference on religion and violence in 2004, that “the modern period [is] particularly prone to religious violence...

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Two: The Contexts of Monastic Violence and Warfare

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pp. 21-56

History has repeatedly shown that religious precepts and actual practices do not always correspond. One might even argue that religious beliefs have as often been used to condone violence as to condemn it. In that light, Buddhism in Japan seems no different from Christianity in Europe or South America or Islam in Minor Asia, neither do Japanese monastic warriors appear any different from European Crusaders or Spanish Moors. Although most Buddhist centers in premodern...

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Three: The Fighting Servants of the Buddha

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pp. 57-86

The development of Japan’s monastic forces has frequently been viewed as inversely related to a perceived decline in the socio-spiritual power of temples and, by extension, of Buddhism in general. There was and continues to be tacit agreement among scholars that religious institutions were not to engage in politics, much less warfare, hence their involvement in both has been promptly imputed to moral deterioration. But even if we were to accept the notion that monks and priests...

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Four: The Teeth and Claws of the Buddha: Noble Monks and Monk-Commanders

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pp. 87-115

In his 1974 opus on the rise of the warrior class, Jeffrey P. Mass asserted that it was the noble commanders, whom he described as “bridging figures,” who played the most crucial role in linking the provincial warriors to the capital elites. In short, whereas warriors had been prominent members of local society for much of the Heian age, it was only through the leadership of nobles, who became commanders over groups...

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Five: Constructed Traditions: Sōhei and Benkei

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pp. 116-156

Despite the prominence of monk-warriors in popular culture and the ubiquity of sōhei in Japanese academic works, no searches will yield any occurrences of this term in pre-1600 sources, literary or historical. It is no surprise therefore that none of the historical figures among the monastic forces match the “monk-warrior” image. Rather, as the preceding chapters have demonstrated, temple warriors were...

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Six Sōhei, Benkei, and Monastic Warriors—Historical Perspectives

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pp. 157-162

The sōhei, monastic warriors, and Benkei images can be described as three strands that, even though they came out of the same historical context, should be treated and understood separately. First and oldest are the monastic warriors, who emerged and developed as part of the social, political, and military milieu of the late Heian and Kamakura ages, not because of the deterioration of conditions within...


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pp. 163-185


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pp. 187-200

Index / About the Author

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pp. 201-213

E-ISBN-13: 9780824865085
Print-ISBN-13: 9780824830649

Publication Year: 2007

OCLC Number: 256725510
MUSE Marc Record: Download for The Teeth and Claws of the Buddha

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Buddhism -- Japan -- History -- To 1185.
  • Buddhism -- Japan -- History -- 1185-1600.
  • Japan -- History, Military -- Religious aspects.
  • Buddhist monks as soldiers -- Japan -- History.
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