Monday, May 25, 2015



Buddhism is usually thought of as a peaceful way of life. For the most part its history has been nonviolent, unlike that of structured beliefs such as Judaism, or Christianity, or Islam. To speak of "Buddhist violence" or "Buddhist terrorism" seems a contradiction of terms, because Buddhism is identified with the Sanskrit expression ahimsa, a word meaning non-injury with words, thoughts, or acts.

Of course, there are exceptions to everything.


1. Shaolin Monks go to War

Shaolin Monastery is a Buddhist temple in Henan province, China. It is known for its rigorous training methods that include a system called Kung Fu. In the original meaning, Kung Fu referred to any skill achieved through hard work and practice.  However, thanks to Hollywood sensationalism, Kung Fu has come to represent a fierce kind of martial arts.

          Shaolin tradition forbids monks being aggressive. To ward off a belligerent attack only the minimum self-protective force should be used. Kung Fu monks are taught not to kill, even in self-defense. Nevertheless, in the seventh century the Shaolin monks joined Emperor Li Shimin in war against the tyrant Wang Shichong.

The reason: to defend their land and monastery against a military takeover. Caught in the middle of conflict, the monks debated on who was most likely to win the war. They decided Li had the best chance, so they offered him their support.

          When Wang decided to occupy Shaolin property at Cypress Valley Estate and march on the temple itself, the monks went on the offensive. They attacked Wang's army and captured his nephew.

Li rewarded the Shaolin monks, but advised them to cease further military action. Instead, he wrote, they should return to peaceful Buddhist learning.

2. Assassination of King Langdarma

Some Buddhists say compassion is incompatible with the act of killing. Other Buddhists say killing an evil human being without hatred is to liberate that person from bad karma. Some texts even teach the unusual concept of “compassionate killing."

Which leads to the assassination of the tyrannical Tibetan king Langdarma by the Buddhist monk Lhalung Palgyi Dorje in 842.

King Langdarma was believed to have been anti-Buddhist and a follower of Bon. Bon is the term for a Tibetan religion or sect that was distinct from Buddhism. It arose in the eleventh century and based its teachings mainly on the revelations of mystics and individuals who saw visions.

In the late 800s Langdarma was attributed with the assassination of his brother, and he is generally held to have persecuted Buddhists in Tibet and in China.

Because the king oppressed Buddhism, the monk Lhalung Palgyi Dorje took it upon himself to prevent the total eradication of the Buddhist tradition from Tibet.

Dorje concealed a bow and arrow under his black robe, smeared his white horse with charcoal, and rode into the capital, Lhasa. There he shot Langdarma through the heart and escaped to Dargong River. He reversed his robe so that only its white lining was visible, and washed the horse into the river to get rid of the charcoal.

Evading capture, Dorje fled to a small monastery in the northeast where he lived out the rest of his life.

Incidentally, this story is used in modern Tibet to justify Buddhist resistance to Chinese oppression.

3. Japan’s Sohei Fighters

The years from 1400 to 1600 in Japan were known as the Warring States period. Rule by the moneyed upper class was taken over by military power. The leaders decided who would domineer and who would be domineered. They decided Buddhism would be a loser.

To survive the violence, and to avoid being suppressed, Buddhist monks left their monasteries and became forceful themselves. These fighters collectively were called sohei, translated as “monk warriors.” The sohei were originally formed to defend their temples, but hey later became involved in combats between feudal aristocrats and political parties.

In time, the sohei evolved into a true warrior class who wore armor and carried similar weapons as the samurai. Monasteries and temples became less than meditation centers and more training camps for new recruits. Eventually the sohei became so powerful, they became a threat to the military leaders as well as to the imperial court at Kyoto.

The emperor Go-Shirakawa, who reigned from 1155 through 1158,   lamented that there were three things he couldn't control: the Kamo River, the roll of the dice, and "those bothersome mountain clerics."

Only in 1571 was the power of the sohei broken when Oda Nobunaga destroyed their temple of Enryakuji.

Some historians tried to whitewash the sohei by labeling them as evil rogues used by politicians. But the book The Teeth and Claws of the Buddha claims:: "Buddhism in Japan seems no different from Christianity in Europe.”

Incidentally, The Teeth and Claws of the Buddha is available through Amazon, as is another fascinating book by Makael Adolphson, The Gates of Power.


4. The Pure Land Monks

Then there were the Ikkō-ikki. They were Buddhist monks who were joined by Shinto priests, peasants, and local nobles, to rise up against samurai rule in 15th and 16th century Japan. They followed the beliefs of the Jōdo Shinshū (True Pure Land) sect of Buddhism which taught that all believers are equally saved by Amida Buddha's grace. They were described as "a collective mind" of individuals.

The Ikkō-ikki often carried a banner with a Buddhist slogan written upon it: "Hail to the Amida Buddha!" (Namu Amida Butsu).


The Ikko-ikki, the sohei, and other warrior splinter groups came to an end in 1603 with the establishment of the Edo period. It became a time characterized by economic growth, strict social order, and the popular enjoyment of arts and culture.

It was a golden age of cultural prosperity. To maintain this peace the government instituted its closed-door policy in an attempt to keep foreign powers out of Japan.

Aside from an influx of troublesome Christian missionaries, Japan was a relatively peaceful nation. Instead of monks and soldiers and farmers killing each other, the nation developed kabuki, shakuhachi, puppet theater, sumo wrestling, ukiyo-e, haiku, and sushi.