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The Teeth and Claws of the Buddha: Monastic…

The Teeth and Claws of the Buddha: Monastic Warriors and Sohei in Japanese…

by Mikael S. Adolphson

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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0824831233, Paperback)

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"(sōhei) 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. As the warrior class came to dominate national politics, the sōhei image gained momentum and was eventually paired with the concept of "monk-warriors," a term imported from Korea. Only one sōhei, the legendary Benkei of the late twelfth century, escaped the criticisms leveled at the monk-warriors by later observers--not because he was justified in fighting as a monk, but rather because he served the celebrated warrior Minamoto Yoshitsune, thus reinforcing the primacy of the samurai image.

In deconstructing the sōhei image and looking for clues as to the characteristics, role, and meaning of the monastic forces, The Teeth and Claws of 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. Monastic warriors acted no differently from their secular counterparts and do not appear to have been motivated by a religious rhetoric much different from other ideologies condoning violence. The absence of such a discourse is as unexpected as it is important--particularly in light of current assumptions about holy wars and crusaders--indicating that other factors played an important role for those who fought in the name of the Buddha. By tracing the use and emergence of the constructed sōhei images that displaced the historical Benkei and monastic fighters, this work also offers an explanation of how and why the invented tradition of "monk-warriors" became such a prominent feature in the modern reconstruction of medieval Japan.

The Teeth and Claws of Buddha puts East Asian religious violence in its proper milieu. Its intelligent and cogent analysis will be of great interest to scholars and students of early Japanese history and religion as well as specialists in premodern Buddhism and religion in China and Korea.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:14:31 -0400)

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