One of the most interesting points that Adolphson makes in the introductory chapter is to reveal the nature of the debate over the use of the term sōhei. He quotes the work of many Japanese scholars on the subject, and notes that the use of the word sōhei emerged during the Tokugawa era (around 1715), and that before such times the armed members of temple complexes were known by a variety of names but never as sōhei. Despite this, Adolphson also shows that the term sōhei is so deeply ingrained in popular consciousness that it is unwittingly used by specialists in medieval studies without question, despite the fact that such usage is anachronistic (according to Adolphson, the term sōhei came by way of Korea where it was first used to describe temple monks fighting against invasions by the Jurchen).
Another point that Adolphson illuminates has to do with the actual construction of the idea of monastic warriors. Debate on what constituted a monastic warrior has carried on for over a century, yet there have been few close studies related to searching sources for clear illustrations of armed monks. Some authors have stated that monastic warriors were retainers of aristocrats who entered the temples after taking the tonsure, others have stated that they were drawn from the lower ranks of the temple hierarchy (from the myriad of lay workers that performed various tasks around the temples), to more Marxist interpretations of conflict between the lower and upper ranks of the temple. While all of these theories might have merit, if someone is to be defined as a monk, it implies that they practiced religion. If they didn`t, they should merely be called armed retainers of major temples. Adolphson also outlines what must be something of a problem in passive reading of sources – the acceptance of terms verbatim despite their absence from primary sources, a problem evident in the work of many Japanese scholars.
The cowls worn by monks during the period in question (900 to 1400) were primarily used as a means to preserve anonymity. If a person wished to listen in on a sermon in secret, they would don a cowl. The same would go for those persons wishing to participate in ceremonies from outside the temple organization. Hence they were not, at first, overwhelmingly associated with armed monks. Moreover, it was Ryōgen who proscribed the carrying of armaments within the confines of Mt Hiei, despite the fact that he was instrumental in creation the schism between the Ennin and Enshin branches of Tendai, and expanding the authority of Enryakuji over surrounding regions.
The essential premise of Claws of the Buddha is to illustrate that there is no exclusive image of sōhei and their motives. He brings up the subject of dōshu, or commoners employed by temples for the purposes of maintenance and administration. Often these people were from a military background and certainly had familiarity with weapons (as evident in the growing militarization of society during the Kamakura era). As the records of the time speak of `evil monks` (as these records were by and large kept by imperial authorities or else by military families affiliated with the imperial system) in regard to any or all temple affiliates, Adolphson believes that many of such commoners may have acted out their frustrations with the government system at the time by using the protection of a powerful institution like the temples of Enryakuji and Kōfukuji. In this sense they would have been no different from commoners who allied themselves to military families. Therefore the figure of the sōhei may not have been one confined to the priesthood, but may rather have been a lay person acting on behalf of the temple. This idea extends to the image of sōhei in cowls with naginata at their sides – Adolphson believes that this picture is misleading as most dōshu would probably have been indistinguishable from secular warriors.
Adolphson also devotes some time to the figure of jinnin, or shrine servants. These were people who devoted themselves to the affairs of great shrines. By and large they were artisans and craftsman who made their livelihood selling items for the shrine. As they worked for a religious institution, they were exempt from taxation and could remain outside the law, which made jinnin status particularly attractive for those with a grudge against the imperial government. He provides a number of examples of jinnin inspired protests and vandalism to prove his point. Adolphson then concludes by saying that jinnin were not passive traders yet could be ambitious with some standing in society. Affiliation with a shrine could give them prestige which they could use in disputes against their foes. As Adolphson says, the jinnin were a `crucial element in the larger shrines throughout the Kamakura period`. He goes on to say that…”If the jinnin comprised a diverse group ranging from workers and administrators to local warriors, their special privileges and status made them a group with common interests primarily outside the precincts and purposes of the monastery. They not only performed their trades under a shrine`s protection, they also might and did act aggressively, and often violently, on the pretext of patron sanctions”.(from p.78)
Interesting fact in relation to the introduction of Buddhism to Japan was the fact that the Soga family, who were the principal advocates of Buddhist beliefs in Japan in the sixth century, became embroiled in conflict with other families who wanted to continue adherence to the Shintoist gods. Adolphson goes on to state that the Buddhism brought to Japan had been influenced by both Chinese and Korean traditions. As such, it inherited from those nations (particularly the Tang) a set of codes and stipulations, in essence twenty seven articles detailing the behaviour expected of clerics and codified in the Sōni ryō of 718. It forbade monks and nuns from killing, stealing, keeping and reading military manuscripts, forming criminal gangs, or receiving donations of serfs, oxen, horses, or weapons. Adolphson also makes the good point that Buddhism in Japan, like elsewhere, was never separate from the social and political reality that surrounded it. Some references can be drawn from the Nihon shoki of monks using violence against others, however as this is a didactic work its purpose was merely to give examples of persons behaving out of order. However, given the upheavals wrought by reforms during the seventh and eighth centuries, then there probably were monks prepared to act in their own interests. During the eighth century, mandatory military service was expected of all prosperous farming families, which left them in dire straits as all of their able-bodied men would be sequestered. Yet as religions were exempt from this service, many individuals took the tonsure for no other reason that to escape serving their time, which meant that monasteries did have many acolytes within them who weren`t particularly motivated by a desire for religious instruction. Yet scholars mostly admit that the use of arms by monasteries to resolve conflicts did not appear in great numbers until the Heian period. This is not helped by the fact that the evidence is scant – it is hard to say what violence was institutional and what was merely a result of circumstance. Those incidents of violence from the early Heian era are `highly localized, rarely involving more than a few clerics`.(24-25)
Another poignant note made by Adolphson is to show that Mid-Heian Japan was a society that was undergoing a transition to recognition of military forms of power both locally and centrally. Local violence made it harder for the central authorities to control the provinces, which led them to issue a continuous series of edicts and promulgations to try to co-opt the warriors of the countryside in their service, and thus keep the warriors within the system rather than casting them outside it. A relaxation of central rule came about through necessity – the court could not risk aggravating provincial strongmen lest they come to challenge the rule of the elites in Kyoto. In the centre, factionalism began to play a greater part in both the political and social spectrum, particularly seeing that the bureaucratic framework was ceasing to be as effective. Thus adjustments were made for direct and effective ties between local powers and noble houses, however this led to an upsurge in violence.
In this way, nobles and temples began to rely more on their own networks of resources and supporters among a much more diversified political and social landscape in central Japan. No real opposition was made to having armed monasteries, indeed some may have indeed favoured it. A main ideological concept of the court from the tenth century held that Imperial Law and Buddhism were intertwined, that they were mutually dependent – the idea of ōbō buppō sōi. It justified the usage of violence by religion on the grounds that Buddhism was the defender of the imperial state. By the end of the tenth and eleventh centuries, the `idea of Buddhism`s decline (mappō, the end of the law) had spread among the noble elites, thus leading to the upsurge in monastic violence`. The common feeling was that it was something that could not be helped, or was the last line of defence against a more complete collapse.(29)
Establishment of the Ashikaga Bakufu – signaled the rise of the warrior class, and the most important event of the entire fourteenth century. Continued war between the Southern and Northern Courts meant that the bakufu could not ensure stability until near the end of the century. However, it was clear by the 1350s that the warriors and not the imperial court were in control of government. This new shift in power seen in Ashikaga Takauji`s removal of Prince Moriyoshi as shōgun, and the emperor`s visit to the villa of Ashikaga Yoshimitsu (1358-1408) for the coming-of-age ceremony of Yoshimitsu`s son in 1394. Bakufu took control of economic jurisdiction that allowed Kyoto elites to collect considerable income, although estate revenues were in decline.
In the late fourteen century, the Ashikaga start taxing guilds, which had been off-limits until then under protection of temples and shrines, and severely cut back the number of toll gates in the capital (these were mostly under the control of various temples).
In religion, the Ashikaga moved away from traditional religions and turned towards newer faiths like Zen, whilst populist ideas spread, challenging the authority of the traditional faiths. Temples such as Enryakuji, Onjōji, and Kōfukuji find themselves on the defensive in the second half of the fourteenth century, still staging demonstrations as they always had, but they found these had virtually no effect on the warriors. When Kōfukuji clergy carried their mikoshi and other artifacts to the capital in the twelfth month of 1371 in relation to a land dispute, no one expected that these artifacts would remain in Kyoto for three years before a resolution was reached.(52)
The fourteenth century signifies the era of gekokujō – an era in which military might came to replace social status as a means to power. Use of arms becomes more widespread from the fourteenth century onwards as people of various classes, farmers, merchants, and `evil bands` (akutō) made up of rogue warriors took to violence as a means to resolve their disputes and expand influence. Established monasteries still had armies, but these were not tied to monasteries as tightly as before, and leaders became known as daimyo, who had no religious training or administrative responsibilities in monasteries. Number of figures took part in military conflict on behalf of Enryakuji in the early fourteenth century, from customary burning of Onjōji to wars of the 1330s. Names of some of these monks were those of Jōrinbō Sagami Gōyō (1310s), Dōjōbō no suke Yūkaku and Myōkan`in Inaba Zenson (1330s), all identified as `members of the warrior class for generations` (daidai buke gokenin no yoshi).(52-53)
As shown by Thomas Conlan, domestic wars of the Nambokuchō era (1336-1392) had a significant impact on society in general, where social status now dependent on military proficiency rather than title or pedigree.(53)