Wednesday, February 27, 2008

U.S. Religious Landscape Survey

The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life has recently published a survey on Americans' religious affiliations. This survey also included Buddhists. One of its findings, widely reported in the mainstream media this week, is that Americans are more frequently leaving their families' faith affiliations for other denominations or faiths, and are actively exploring becoming members of other religious traditions, or secularized or unaffiliated. I have noticed that this also seems to be true of our American military population.

To read the full report, click on this link:

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Chaps' Dharma Talk: "Advance Towards the Pure Land, Retreat Into Hell!" - The Ikko Ikki

Hello all!
This third post in my series on warrior Buddhists will draw from the history of the school I belong to, the Jodo Shinshu, or literally in English the "True Pure Land School." Our head temple, the Nishi-Hongwanji ("Western Temple of the Original Vow"), is located in Kyoto, Japan, and the North American district or kyodan is known as the Buddhist Churches of America, or BCA.

First, let's think about even the name of this school. What does it imply, the word "true"? Jodo Shinshu is an "exclusivist" teaching, in the sense that it explicitly rejects Shinto practices (and is now interpreted to include things like fortune-telling, belief in ghosts and spirits and other "superstitions"), but also rejects what can be considered very traditional Buddhist practices, like meditation. This may come as a surprise to those who assume Buddhism is inclusive, which it generally is as a whole (for example there are Buddhists who also practice elements of Shinto, Taoism, and Buddhists who also consider themselves Christian, Jewish, etc.), but Japanese Buddhism developed strict divisions over what was considered "true" practice versus everything else, or heterodox practice. This doctrinal development is too long and complex to discuss in depth in this particular post, so the major point to remember here is that the many schools of Japanese Buddhism developed distinct sectarian differences from each other, which means that today you will typically not see Zen-style zazen practice in Jodo Shinshu temples (although now some temples do offer a basic type of meditation practice), or vice versa, and there are also different types of practices within Zen (Rinzai, Soto, Obaku), Jodo Shinshu, Nichirenshu, and so on. Jodo Shinshu tends to be strictly confined to recitation of the nembutsu, which is the recitation of Namo Amida Butsu or "I take refuge in the Amida Buddha." Similarly, the adherents of the Nichirenshu (the school of Nichiren), and Soka Gakkai focus exclusively on the teachings of Lotus Sutra, and they are the ones who recite Namo Myoho Renge Kyo. Depending on the individual of whatever school you may ask, they may not even recognize a person from the Jodo Shinshu, Zen, or Nichiren tradition, as even being a properly practicing Buddhist (whatever that means)!

Ikki in Japanese means a violent rebellion or uprising; these occurred sporadically throughout Japanese history up until the 19th-century, and were often associated with the peasant class. The type of ikki we are concerned with here are the ones associated with the Jodo Shinshu tradition belonging to the Hongwanji school. Ikko means "single-minded" and may have been the name of another Pure Land sect distinct from Jodo Shinshu, but which later merged into the latter, due to the immense missionary activities of Rennyo Shonin (1415-1499), considered as the "Second Founder" of the Jodo Shinshu tradition because of such activities, and also because under his leadership, Hongwanji became not only a major Buddhist school, distinct from other sects (until then it was considered part of the Tendai school), but also a political and a military power. "Single-minded" referred to the single or only practice of that school, which in this case was singular devotion to the Amida Buddha. Ikko Ikki, or "Leagues of the Single Minded" fought at various times against various daimyo (samurai warlords) and most spectacularly against one of the greatest daimyo of Japan's Warring States period, Oda Nobunaga (1534-1582), who openly detested Buddhism, in particular the Buddhist temples' independence from government (i.e. warlord) control.

Ikko-ikki emerged at the beginning of the Warring States or Sengoku Period (and differed very much from later ikki of the Tokugawa period); in the case of Ikko-ikki they were not solely composed of peasants, but may have included more well-to-do townspeople, priests (like today, Jodo Shinshu priests were not monks) and also samurai, or people familiar with military tactics and strategy; Ikko-ikki were comprised of both foot soldiers and cavalry. They were temporary groups, appearing in different provinces, coming together for a specific grievance or issue and dissolving once that issue was settled or disappeared. ca Shonin did not create the Ikko-ikki, and even wrote against certain Ikko-ikki activities at various times, but made no effort to prevent them, and almost certainly used some of them for protection and certain advantages. Ikko-ikki were really uncontrollable, even to warlords, and of course, it was often the depredations, or perceived injustices, of the warlords that the Ikko-ikki fought against. The daimyo of Kaga Province was killed by Ikko-ikki in 1488 and the province ruled by the Ikko-ikki for nearly 100 years the only time prior to the modern Japanese era a province was not ruled by aristocrats or the samurai class.

By the time of the later Warring States period, the Ikko-ikki confronted Oda Nobunaga, who wanted the strategic area that was then occupied by the Ishiyama Hongwanji (now the present-day site of Osaka Castle), and was also intent on smashing the independence of the Buddhist institutions. Nobunaga and the Ikko-Ikki waged an 11-year conflict which left tens of thousands dead on both sides (the destruction of the Nagashima Hongwanji was especially destructive, with approximately 40,000 killed), and was only ended when the Imperial Court in Kyoto intervened, and Hongwanji gave up the Ishiyama location. It was lated relocated to its present site in Kyoto, and then split into Nishi ("Western") and Higashi ("Eastern") Hongwanji to curb its power. The split remains to this day. Oda Nobunaga, of course, has a bad reputation in the Jodo Shinshu histories! More on him later.

Why did the Ikko-Ikki fight? Historians have debated this there does not seem to be a conclusive answer. Most likely, there is no single "answer" but a multitude of reasons, religion being only one of them. But because a religious element was involved, we cannot discount the power of religion, Buddhism in this case, to inspire people to fight, whether for their way of life, freedom of practice, safety of their families, economic benefits, political power, and so on. One of the "battle flags" of the Ikko-ikki was inscribed "Advance into the Pure Land, Retreat into Hell!" (the image above) thereby suggesting, if not a literal interpretation of what would happen in battle, at least the concept of singular devotion to Amida Buddha on behalf of the fighter. Belonging to an ikki reinforced or contributed to a certain religious identity whether it was Ikko or its counterpart, the Hokke or the "Lotus Leagues" (which deserves its own discussion so I haven't gone into that here). We also cannot discount the possibility of belief in an exclusvist or rigid doctrine (the only "true" doctrine!), as Jodo Shinshu was in those times, to inspire people to incredible acts. We can also see examples of this during and after the West's Protestant Reformation with its millennarian Christian sects, and of course, today.

Buddhists on this occassion did fight on behalf of school allegiances and to preserve their temples, the physical construct and the community to which it belonged, and maybe something like independence, although after the Tokugawa period began, this history became rather problematic for later Hongwanji scholars, for obvious reasons; it still seems within the Jodo Shinshu tradition itself, that the Ikko-ikki is still something of a "taboo" topic; in a 1960s(early 70s?)-era BCA book entited Young Peoples' Introduction to Buddhism, meant for BCA Boy Scouts, there is only an extremely vague reference to "soldier-clerics," whose power "was not exercised on behalf of religious convictions," or in other words they had nothing to do with Jodo Shinshu or Buddhism. Now, however, the history of the Ikko-ikki is more accessible, and should also be discussed, just as the topic of Buddhists in the armed forces, Buddhist concepts of "just war," Buddhism and violence, should be seriously addressed and not forgotten or glossed over as aberrations, a glitch in time.

There is also a gatha, or hymn, that is sung in many Jodo Shinshu temples, both in Japan and here in America, called Ondukusan, inspired by one of Shinran Shonin's verses (Shozomatsu Wasan). It is unlikely that it had anything to do with the Ikko-ikki, but its lyrics may echo some idea of the determination these Buddhists possessed to defend their way of life. Plus its a very nice melody. The English lyrics are:

“Such is the benevolence of Amida’s great compassion,
That we must strive to return it, even to the breaking of our bodies;
Such is the benevolence of the masters and true teachers,
That we must endeavor to repay it, even to our bones becoming dust.”

Namo Amida Butsu

War and Faith: Ikko Ikki in Late Muromachi Japan by Carol Richmond Tsang (2007, Harvard University Press)
Japanese Warrior Monks AD 949-1603 by Stephen Turnbull (Osprey)
Japanese Fortified Temples and Monasteries AD 710-1602 by Stephen Turnbull (Osprey)
(These texts specifically discuss aspects of Ikko-Ikki, and also information can be found in most history books about medieval Japan. The Osprey titles tend to conflate different kinds of ikki and the Tendaishu sohei all together as "warrior monks", which does not seem to be completely accurate, I think, but is still worth reading and has great illustrations)

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Dharma at USAF Academy

The Spring 2008 issue of Tricycle has a nice article on the new Great Refuge Dharma Hall at the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, and the meditation practice it offers there by volunteers from the local Rinzai Zen sangha. You can find the story here but you need to be a subscriber to read the full story online.

Update: The Sangha that does services at the USAF has a Web site:

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Happy (Lunar) New Year!!!

Wishing you all a happy and prosperous new Year of the Rat! And Happy Losar for our Tibetan friends.
May all beings be happy and at peace!
Namo Amida Butsu

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

Welcome New Contributor to Buddhist Military Sangha!

Hello all!
Please welcome another new contributor, Ms. Theresa Fayne. She is a Midshipman at the United States Naval Academy and one of its Buddhist Study Group coordinators. I hope she will have many good insights to share about her experiences as she graduates and joins the Fleet!
Namo Amida Butsu!

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Chaps' Dharma Talk: Sungbyong - The Warrior Buddhists of Korea

Hello all!
Here is the second of my posts concerning warrior Buddhists (by the way I am not going in any historical order).
This post's topic concerns the sungbyong of medieval Korea. The origins of the sungbyong date back possibly to the later Unified Silla Period of Korean history, in which warrior monks participated in driving back northern invaders from Central Asia. But the period of time when they were most critically active was the Imjin War (1592-98), a conflict that is little-known in the West but which has had devastating consequences for Korean and Japanese history and relations.

The Imjin War was in fact two separate invasions of the Korean peninsula by the Japanese warlord Hideyoshi, the first unifier of Japan after prolonged civil wars (the Warring States period), who intended in fact to use Korea as passage for his invasion of China and India, and possibly Europe (he was also probably a little crazy by this time). The Koreans, by now used to coastal raids by Japanese wako (pirates), thought this might be more of the same, and were, initially, unable to mount any meaningful resistance, as the yangban (aristocrats) did not take defense seriously, and considered the military ethos to be low-class and undesirable. As King Sonjo and his court fled the capital, and many army commanders deserted rather than face the Japanese onslaught, some surviving Korean military units attempted to form a resistance to the invading samurai armies: one such unit was formed from monks called sungbyong, or "monk-soldiers."

Some background is now needed here about where Buddhism stood in relation to Korean society in this time, the mid-Joseon Dynasty period. While Buddhism had first penetrated Korea around the 4th-century CE and flourished in the form of diverse schools and teachers, by the time of the Imjin War, Buddhism had been proscribed by the government for decades in favor of Neo-Confucianism as a guiding ideology (Neo-Confucianism would also later be influential in Tokugawa Japan). Temples were closed and monks forbidden to live in urban areas, and in reality were not even considered "monks" as the government refused to officially recognize them. The reasons for such an abrupt change were given as the abuse of the power and wealth of the monastic order, and the alleged immorality and laziness of the monks themselves (monks could evade corvee labor, taxes, and military service). Whether or not such abuses did in fact occur, Buddhist monks were a disenfranchised group, and in the extremely hierarchical Korean social order, were considered lower than serfs or slaves.

The great leader and instigator of the sungbyong was the Dharma Master Hyujong, who was appointed as the national leader of the monk-soldiers by King Sonjo. Hyujong composed a manifesto calling upon the monks to mobilize, and the text survives:

Alas, the way of heaven is no more. The destiny of the land is on the decline. In defiance of heaven and reason, the cruel foe had the termerity to cross the sea aboard a thousand ships. The miasma is filling the air. The innocents are falling dead at their sword by the thousands. With the three capitals taken, a thousand years of our forebears' achivements are brought to nought in one fell swoop. The ruthless enemy as the devil and sea monster laid the land to waste, slaughtering the people. The ancestral land is taken. Can this be the way humans behave? These poisonous devils are as virulant as snakes or fierce animals. Hold your banners high, and arise, all you monk-soldiers of the eight provinces! Who among you have not been given birth in this land? Who among you are not related by blood to the forefathers? Who among you are not subjects of the king? Confucius taught us to lay down our lives to achive Benevolence. Sacrificing oneself for a just cause and suffering in the place of the myriad souls is the spirit of Bodhisattvas. Master Wongwang enjoined us not to retreat from battle. To defend the country and save the people is the tradition of ancestors and Buddha's teachings. You monk-soldiers of all the monasteries! Abandoning a just cause and swerving from the right path in order merely to survive in hiding - how can this be the proper way? The cunning enemy, the monster, will never take pity on you. Once the land perishes how then do you propose to stay alive? Put on the armor of the mercy of the Bodhisattvas, hold in hand the treasured sword to fell the devil, wield the lightning bolt of the Eight Deities, and come forward. Only then can you do your duty. Only then can you find the way to life. Let the aged and the weak pray in the monastery. Let the able-bodied come out with their weapons to destroy the enemy and save the land. Whether or not the people will survive, whether or not the land will remain, depends on this battle. It behooves everyone with the blood of Tan'gun flowing in their veins to defend the country with their lives. When even the trees and grass rise as warriors, how much more should red-blooded people? The people are indignent. Lose no time but arise, beat back the sworn enemy. Buddhist law is just this - to save the world. People fall victim to the foe's weapon, their blood staining the land. How can you just sit back in the mountains and watch? When the land is no more and the people are in distress, your survival would be betrayal of the people. I regret to hear that famed ministers are locked in partisan feud and that commanders flee before the battle. They seek survival by asking for aid from abroad. Deplorable, indeed. Only our monk-soldiers are able to save the country and deliver the people. You have been training night and day to rise above life and death. You are not burdened with families. Bodhisattvas will give you protection. Arise, onward to the battlefield to destroy the enemy. There can be no victory without fighting. No life without death. Why be afraid of the enemy's weapons? Monk-soldiers, arise. Assemble at Pophung Monastery in Sunan. I expect you to be there. Unite, and onward to the battlefield!
June 15, 1592.

The sungbyong, together with Korean and Ming Chinese forces, managed to beat back Hideyoshi's armies on several occasions, but with tremendous loss of life. The Imjin War dragged on as long as it did due to feuds among the Korean commanders (just as Hyujong's manifesto stated), Japanese persistence, and only gradually came to a close when the great Korean Admiral Yi Sun Sin choked off Japanese supply routes by sea: the Imjin War saw the world's first use of ironclad warships, or "tortoise ships." "Seek death and you will live; seek life and you will die," was Yi Sun Sin's exhortation to his troops: he died in the final sea battle, killed on his flagship (like Admiral Nelson) by a sniper. As by this time Hideyoshi had died, there was no further will by the Japanese to fight on in Korea, and they returned to Japan, with thousands of Korean slaves, who were never to return. The monks had fought in the hopes of raising Buddhism's status in society, but once the court was restored, it was business as usual. Ironically, monks would not be permitted back in urban areas until the Japanese colonized Korea in 1910, and demanded that their own Buddhist missionaries be allowed access in the cities. Also by this time, Christianity had arrived to make a significant presence in Korean society.

The Imjin War had cost tremendous loss of life on both sides, and atrocities had been committed by both sides. It was certainly one of the worst tragedies to occur to Korea; when I visited Seoul in 1996 and did the tourist round of castles and palaces, all the signs in English stated that these buildings were all constructed after the Japanese invasions of 1592-98. Everything had been burned down, as the Japanese had pursued a scorched-earth policy in addition to the pillage. On the Japanese side, a Jodo Shinshu chaplain named Keinen recorded his experiences, and stated: "Hell could not be anywhere but here."

The sungbyong fought for several reasons, possibly out of a gut-level nationalism and patriotism, but also out of a sense that it was part of an belief (an explicitly Mahayana belief) that they were Dharma protectors of the land and people. Not every Buddhist teacher shared Hyujong's beliefs; others advocated that it would be wrong to take part in the actual fighting, especially when the monks were treated so badly by the government. However, we also must remember that Buddhism was believed, especially by its advocates, to be absolutely essential in the protection of the nation, whether through strict observation of the precepts and rituals, or by monks actively participating in its defense. Korea was believed to be a "Buddha-land" and it was considered a religious duty to preserve that land. As shown by the sacrifices of the sungbyong, this was not a lightly-taken duty. In a time when separation of church-and-state was an unknown quality, this was how Buddhism helped the people as a whole, not only on an individual basis.

When considering the sungbyong, we must take into account their conditions. Their reality was such which is extremely difficult for us to imagine, even imagining on the historical level (perhaps 2 million died during the Imjin War). It may be well for us to think, as we sit protected in a First World industrialized nation, and argue that taking up arms, even in self-defense, is "Wrong Livelihood" - could most of us truly say that, if observing directly the mutilated corpses of friends and family amid burnt ruins everywhere? Would others then listen to us in the aftermath, wondering if Dharma was worthwhile? These were questions the sungbyong confronted. The reality of these warrior Buddhists demonstrated a courage and commitment necessary to safeguard the well-being of society (even when they were despised by the rulers of that society - a lesson for us Buddhists in America?); this is grim reality and necessity - if we cannot protect ourselves, and others, we cannot hear the Dharma.
Namo Amida Butsu

Sadly there are very few English-language texts on the Imjin War and the sungbyong.
The text of Hyujong's manifesto comes from Samuel Dukhae Kim's unpublished 1978 dissertation, "The Korean Monk-Soldiers in the Imjin Wars: An Analysis of Buddhist Resistance to the Hideyoshi Invasion, 1592-1598" which is the only English-language study of the Korean monk-soldiers. The only comprehensive English-language history of the conflict is The Imjin War: Japan's Sixteenth-Century Invasion of Korea and Attempt to Conquer China by Samuel Hawley. Another good source is Stephen Turnbull's Japanese Castles in Korea 1592-98 (Osprey Publishing) and Samurai Invasion: Japan's Korean War 1592-1598, which has many great pictures and illustrations, and the story of Keinen, the Buddhist chaplain. It only really covers the Japanese perspective, in which they saw the invasions as an opportunity for more land and also for martial glory. There was virtually no remorse after the war for their invasion, and of course this has led to much bad relations between the Koreas and Japan for centuries.
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