I would like to talk to you for a minute about sōhei. Specifically, I wish to impress upon you the very simple fact that they never existed. Do not believe what you read in Stephen Turnbull’s books, or anything else put out by Osprey Press. The sōhei is not and never has been anything more than a creative anachronism. It was a false construct, pasted onto the corpse of the dead feudal polity by an Edo-era scholar. The word sōhei does not predate the eighteenth century.
The full panoply of the “warrior monk” – the cowl, naginata, high wooden clogs, and corselet worn with monastic robes is illustrated by Stephen Turnbull in books like Warriors of Medieval Japan. Turnbull confidently asserts that the sōhei fought in this cumbersome garb with ease, despite the fact that there is no evidence that the image was anything other than a fabrication derived from later literary sources biased against traditional monastic sources. (See Mikael Adolphson, Teeth and Claws of the Buddha: Monastic Warriors and Sōhei in Japanese History)
Indeed, the image of the sōhei is largely a literary rather than a historic construct. It relies on tales of heroic men like Benkei, and epics like the Heike Monogatari for its heft. Behind these legends, the image of the warrior monk is easily picked apart until nothing is left but shreds of truth: that Buddhism was a powerful political force in Classical and Medieval Japan, and that Buddhist temples would often demonstrate forcefully against the secular government to gain their way.
In the early days, these demonstrations were just that: demonstrations. They amounted to little more than low-level monks and shrine servants marching into the Capital to make demands, Oftentimes, these marches would become disorderly and devolve into riots, Invariably, historian Adolphson notes, the casualties that occur when the Court sends in warriors to restore order are among the monks, not innocent bystanders or even government officials. (See The Gates of Power: Monks, Courtiers, and Warriors in Premodern Japan).
As Japan’s medieval age unfolded, society became increasingly militarized, and warriors rose to become an elite class. It is not surprising then, that we should find high-powered warriors retreating to monasteries where once gentle aristocrats had held sway. It is also not surprising that in an age of incredible political upheaval and violence, many monasteries should acquire soldiers of their own – for “warrior monks” of the medieval age were often not actually monks, but warriors in the employ of monks. It was necessary for Buddhist Temples to have their own armies – it was a matter of self-preservation.
The construction of the sōhei image has far more to do with Edo-era historiographical bias than actual fact. By the eighteenth century, the narrative of the institutional corruption and decadence of the established sects like Tendai and Shingon was already centuries old. It was this narrative that gave birth to the sōhei, who were seen as a symptom of the decay and sinfulness of the “old order.” One cannot engage the image of the sōhei without acknowledging these biases, born from the Kamakura era reform movements that spawned the Pure Land faiths and Zen. For sōhei are always from the established sects of Nara or Hiei.
And it is here that the real problem with the image of the sōhei emerges: at its core, it comes down to a concern with politics. The new Pure Land sects especially were driven to establish themselves as legitimate, and used the narrative of the sōhei and the corruption of the old schools to further their aims. And while Pure Land sects did indeed face persecution, in traditional accounts, the Nara and Hiei schools often become scapegoats for the actions of the shogunate and other civil authorities.
It is with this knowledge that we must approach the idea of the sōhei – the knowledge that it is not only an anachronistic fabrication, but also one that ultimately has a great deal of very ugly baggage.