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Reviewed by:
  • The Teeth and Claws of the Buddha: Monastic Warriors and Sōhei in Japanese History
  • Michel Mohr (bio)
The Teeth and Claws of the Buddha: Monastic Warriors and Sōhei in Japanese History. By Mikael S. Adolphson. University of Hawai'i Press, Honolulu, 2007. xviii, 212 pages. $36.00.

This publication investigates the intriguing issue of violence displayed by Buddhist "clerics" since the Heian period. Mikael Adolphson challenges received ideas about what a "good monk" should or should not be, which have oriented most studies on this topic. He goes beyond the judgmental assertions that have dominated scholarship and meticulously reveals who these people were. He convincingly demonstrates that although later sources identify these fighters as sōhei (monk-warriors), this term was not used before the 1600s. Previous discussion of these fighting figures, as they were repeatedly depicted in classical literature and in diaries of the nobility, have left readers wondering whether they were monks, warriors, both, or neither. Adolphson elegantly allows us to resolve this puzzling question of identification.

Obviously, asking the question in this form amounts to positing a dichotomy between laypersons and clerics, who are ordained monks supposedly following the Vinaya, or the Bodhisattva precepts in the case of the Tendai school. As Adolphson argues, the situation on the ground was much more complex. His research not only highlights the fact that human beings and social statuses often do not fit nicely into conceptual drawers but also invites us to discover the existence of many borderline figures, such as monastic workers (dōshu), who were affiliated with monasteries without being subjected to monastic discipline and who often constituted the bulk of the armed groups. In chapter 3, Adolphson proposes a preliminary conclusion to the quandary of the origins of the so-called sōhei: "it is not possible to pinpoint a sole progenitor, so we must instead direct our attention to the [End Page 138] range of relevant groups and the terms applied to them, depending on the monastery and the age" (pp. 58–59; emphasis added). Thus, the question of armed bands affiliated with monasteries appears to have been largely formulated in a simplistic way that prevented scholars from perceiving the diversity of the "monastic population" because it assumed members of those groups belonged to the post-seventeenth-century category of sōhei. This point is best summarized by emphasizing "the monastic population's lack of homogeneity" (p. 62).

Doing away with the question of monastic violence by identifying the fighters as only menial workers and other figures of seemingly secondary status would, however, amount to another pitfall, which Adolphson is careful to avoid. He examines several cases of high-ranking priests, such as the Enryakuji head abbot Myōun (1115–83) who, as he was about to be taken into exile, "is said to have put on armor and used a naginata with a threefoot long blade" (p. 63). About such high-profile figures, whom he identifies as "monk-commanders," Adolphson astutely concludes that "they were not monks who became warriors, but aristocratic warriors who applied their skills within the context of monastic and political factionalism" (p. 115).

Except for the short-lived attempt by the Tendai reformer Ryōgen (912–85) to ban weapons from Mount Hiei (pp. 30–31), the history of temples in Nara, Kyoto, and at Mount Kōya was marked by constant strife; factionalism appears to have been the leitmotif in the activities of most religious congregations. No wonder belief in the "end of the Dharma" became so popular during the same period. As someone engaged in the study of religions, I say this without malice: one of the achievements of this study is describing monastic communities without touching the content of the religion around which they revolved.

Adolphson devotes a whole chapter to the state of the field (chapter 1). He describes in great detail scholarly and less scholarly studies, conducted for the most part in Japan. These 20 pages highlight the existence of an "implicit modern bias of the scholarship, according to which religion and politics must not be mixed" (p. 19). Such enumeration of past studies may appear tedious to some, but it constitutes...


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