You are on page 1of 20

WS 500 Esoteric Buddhism and the Japanese Warrior Chad KOHALYK 22 Feb 2006 1

Religion on the battlefield

Esoteric Buddhism and the Japanese Warrior

In a world where religious violence and militancy has bubbled over in the wake of the ideo-

logical combat of the Cold War, factoring religion into the calculus of warfare is strategically ex-

pedient. Tactical decisions undoubtedly vary considerably if one believes god is on his side. Re-

ligious rites in warfare are found in all the cultures of humankind, thus I have selected one par-

ticularly fierce warrior culture, that of the samurai of ancient Japan, to explore the effects of re-

ligious belief on the battlefield. The question of whether religion was a factor leading to war will

not be discussed here. The relationship of religion and the decision to go to war is beyond the

scope of this paper. Rather, I would like to examine how religion was used while prosecuting war

in early and medieval Japan; what kind of rituals were used to gain advantage on the battlefield;

and how did these techniques come about.

The popular wisdom is that Zen Buddhism holds the greatest religious influence over the

samurai warriors of ancient Japan. This modern view is probably due to Zen’s influence over the

cultural arts of Japan (including the martial arts) and the relationship between Takuan Sôhô and

the founders of the Yagyû Shinkage Ryû 1, one of Japan’s most famous sword schools. But an

even older – and possibly more profound – impact was made by esoteric Buddhism.

1Takuan Sôhô (1573 -1645) was an influential Zen Buddhist monk of the Rinzai sect and had personal relations
with Yagyû Munenori (1571 -1646), founder of the Yagyû Shinkage Ryû. See The Unfettered Mind: Writings
of the Zen Master to the Sword Master which includes a letter from Takuan to Munenori instructing him in
how to become a better human being through swordsmanship.
WS 500 Esoteric Buddhism and the Japanese Warrior Chad KOHALYK 22 Feb 2006 2

Historians as well, tend to concentrate on Zen and the popular religious movements of New

Buddhism during the Kamakura period. Reasons for the disregard of esoteric Buddhism’s impact

on the warrior may have to do with both the warrior class (bushi) only being defined clearly dur-

ing the Kamakura, and the lack of battlefield research. Zen may have had an impact on the home

lives of the warrior, which in turn affected art and culture especially during the later Muromachi

and Edo periods. But the warrior needed divine assistance in the here and now when he entered

on to the battlefield.

The amount of information compiled regarding religious practices, especially those pertaining

to warfare, is pitifully small in comparison to the literature on biographies, religious beliefs and

art. In Japanese esoteric Buddhism (“mikkyô” or “secret teachings”) the rituals themselves are by

definition secret, thus reliable documentation of such practices is even more scant. Another diffi-

culty encountered when investigating esoteric Buddhism in pre-modern Japan is the combinatory

nature of Japanese religion which “consisted of intermeshed forms of Esoteric Buddhism, Exo-

teric Buddhism, Taoism (though not in the institutionalized form such as was then found in

China), and various practices taking place in [so-called Shintô] shrines.”2

Still another obstacle in investigating esoterica and the warrior during the pre-modern era is

the nebulous definition of the warrior3, as delineated from the aristocracy and the common peo-

ple. Later periods have stark class differences, yet prior to the late Heian Period (794~1185) the

warrior was not a distinguishable class. Obviously there were always fighters in the provinces

battling the indigenous emishi, pirates, or defending the country from continental Asia.

2 Grapard, 1999, pp. 523.
3To be entirely representative I have chosen to use the general term “warrior” in this paper, which does not carry the
various military and status related connotations of such terms as tsuwamono, musha, mononofo, bushi, hei-
shi, etc.
WS 500 Esoteric Buddhism and the Japanese Warrior Chad KOHALYK 22 Feb 2006 3

As for the lack of records regarding specific ritual practices, ancient texts alluding to esoteric

practices, and weapons and armour with religious engravings and inscriptions have been dated,

giving researchers clues as to the period of the use of esoteric rituals. The inception of such ritu-

als on the other hand, can thereupon only be estimated.

Not only is there evidence of these “secret teachings” in the form of historical artifacts as well

as incidents in chronicles such as the Taiheiki, a number religious practices are codified and pre-

served in the teachings of martial traditions originating from the mid-Muromachi period. Many

of these martial traditions (bujutsu ryû “martial tradition/school”) are still extant, and have been

passed down from teacher to student through scrolls and oral teachings. These teachings not only

contain information on the usage of weapons, grappling, combative horsemanship, swimming,

fortification construction, strategy and signaling, but also esoteric rituals to increase one’s chance

of survival on the battlefield.

As for the combinatory nature of Japanese religion, though we may be focusing on Buddhist

or Buddhism-related practices within the belief system of the Japanese warrior, it is important to

remember that these practices were only a part of a whole, and cannot necessarily be compart-

mentalized for inspection separate from all other practices.

“Ritual magic for practical benefits”
Esoteric Buddhism, or mikkyô, can be traced back to the second century and is traditionally

considered to be founded by the Indian monk-philosopher Nâgârjuna (J: Ryûmyô). Dainichi Ny-

orai4 (Skt: Mahâvairocana) is considered the most fundamental Buddha in mikkyô, and is repre-

sentative of the entire universe: all things within the phenomenological world stem from him.

4Dainichi Nyorai is also known as Rushana, of which an important statue is housed in Tôdaiji, completed in 752
WS 500 Esoteric Buddhism and the Japanese Warrior Chad KOHALYK 22 Feb 2006 4

Although evidence shows that the warrior sometimes invoked the protective power of Dainichi

directly, most evidence indicates that requests were channeled through other deities or manifesta-

tions. For commoners and warriors alike Dainichi was too distant, or superior, to approach. Thus

the manifestations of Fudô-myôô and Marishiten were used to indirectly access the power of

Dainichi Nyorai.

Fudô-myôô (pictured at left) is one of a class of deities known as

Guardian (or Wisdom) Kings.5 He is a scowling, muscular, blue-

skinned deity with a halo of fire behind him; he carries a sword

and a tying cord for binding. Fudô-myôô is a slave to humanity,

and although he is armed, he uses his weapons in a good way. He

serves as a symbol to remind the warrior to be wary of laxity

while training. The fierce image of Fudô-myôô scares the warrior, reminding him to stay on the

self-chosen path. In case the warrior strays, Fudô-myôô is armed, although he does not use his

weapons against man. Instead he uses his sword to destroy the evil surrounding the warrior, evil

that would draw the warrior from the path. (e.g. carnal desire etc.) The rope is for binding evil

that cannot be cut, immobilizing it so that it may not reach the warrior.6 Fudô-myôô is a very

central deity in Shingon Buddhism, an important sect of mikkyô that was founded by Kûkai in

the beginning of the 9th century. He is most likely a manifestation of the Indian deity Shiva.

5The Five Great (J: Godai) Myôô are Fudô- (Skt: Acala), Gôsanze- (Skt: Trailokyavijaya), Gundari- (Skt: Kun-
dalin), Daiitoku- (Skt: Yamântaka), and Kongôyasha- (Vajrayaksa).
6 Armstrong, 1998, pp.18.
WS 500 Esoteric Buddhism and the Japanese Warrior Chad KOHALYK 22 Feb 2006 5

Marishiten (pictured at left) has been depicted as a beautiful woman

sitting on an open lotus; a ferocious demon perched on the back of a

boar or riding a fiery chariot pulled by seven savage boars or sows; or

a multi-armed woman with a different weapon in each hand standing

on the back of a boar.

Marishiten (Chi: Mo-li-chih-t’ien, Skt: Mârîcî) has obscure origins

and appears to be an amalgamation of Brâhmanical, Iranian, and non-

Aryan antecedents. 7 She has filled many roles throughout Asia in her

1500 year history of being a Buddhist “goddess” and throughout the centuries has been referred

to as:

...a mote of light, Goddess of the North Star or the constellation of the Great Bear, the
Queen of Heaven (residing in the constellation of Sagittarius), the Goddess of the
Dawn, a healer, a protectress of travelers, a bodhisattva who has vowed to bring all sen-
tient beings to enlightenment, and a warrior goddess.8

Annen’s ninth century Marishi hihô9 or “Secret Rituals of Marishiten,” as quoted in Shôchô’s

Asabashô states:

Marishiten-bosatsu is Dainichi-nyorai’s fourth dharma-body. (The bosatsu) is mani-
fested as this “homogeneous transformation body” 10 in order to benefit all sentient

Marishiten most likely developed within Buddhism as a “warrior protectress” for the purpose

of attracting non-Buddhist warriors who worshipped the like of Durgâ, Candî, and Kâlî.11

7 Hall, pp. 45.
8 Ibid., pp. 2.

9The Marishi hihô seems to be no longer extant, and is only known of through citation in other works. Ibid.,

10 A “homogeneous transformation body” (J: tôrushin or tôruhosshin) is the form of a human, heavenly being, ani-
mal etc. which the Buddha takes to save sentient beings.
11 Ibid. pp. 194.
WS 500 Esoteric Buddhism and the Japanese Warrior Chad KOHALYK 22 Feb 2006 6

Marishiten’s two foremost characteristics include her strong association with light or fire, and

her role as a martial character. Marishiten is frequently associated with the sun or Sun God, and

even modern Shingon priests who are undergoing certain austerities will petition her while facing

the sunrise, praying for success in training. It has been noted that the Lamas of Tibet would in-

voke her every morning as the sun rose. 12 Japanese warriors would chant to Marishiten during

sunrise in order to achieve victory on the battlefield. Warriors would also invoke Marishiten in

other ways to attain magical powers that would assist them in battle. Invoking Marishiten could

cause confusion in the enemy or prevent them from “seeing,” effectively turning the invoker “in-


Generally, the invocation practices of esoteric Buddhism include such rituals as sacred incan-

tations (mantra) and hand gestures (mudra). These practices are considered to be a way to attain

the religious ultimate, to “become a Buddha in this body” (J: sokushin jôbutsu). Mandalas are

also important within mikkyô, especially the paired mandalas of the Thunderbolt (or Diamond)

and Matrix (or Womb) Realms. Other practices included goma fire rituals and the kanjô rite in

which water, representing the Buddha’s wisdom, is poured over the head of a monk symbolizing

the transmission of Truth and of Buddhahood. The primary rituals used by the Japanese warrior

were mudra and mantra, as well as invocation through inscription.

Inscriptions could be of a multitude of things and are found on various implements related to

war and combat. One prevalent type of inscription was bonji, modified Sanskrit characters.

These characters were used as a representation of syllables used in Buddhist mantra to invoke the

supernatural power of the deities. Bonji were found on items such as on the maku – which was a

12 Ibid., pp. 46.
WS 500 Esoteric Buddhism and the Japanese Warrior Chad KOHALYK 22 Feb 2006 7

curtain used to enclose the command post on a battlefield – on fans, helmets and carved on the

inside of armour.

Many examples of bonji are found on that most emblematic weapon of the the Japanese war-

rior: the sword. Ôtake Risuke, the Head Instructor of the Tenshin Shôden Katori Shintô Ryû,


Whenever warriors entered battle they risked their precious lives and nothing was
more reassuring to them than to come under the protection of the particular Buddhist
or Shinto deities whom they believed in most. Therefore, it is quite natural that these
warriors should have their sword blades engraved with images or representations of
powerful deities.13

Forging a sword is a very religious matter in Japan. The smith dresses like a priest, and must

purify himself and the smithy before setting down to craft a

blade. The swordsmith himself would share the same religious

beliefs as the swordsman, and would pray to the deities repre-

sented on a blade for success in combat and the safety of the

bearer of the sword.

The sword tang pictured to the left 14 is of Koryû Kagemitsu, the

sword said to have been worn by the legendary Kusunoki Masa-

shige (1294~1336).On the back is bonji which is read Kan-man.

Kan represents Fudô-myôô as Kan-man are the last two sylla-

bles of Fudô-myôô’s mantra.15 The front depicts an engraving

of a dragon, entwined around a sword. The sword is a suken, or

13 Ôtake, vol. 2, pp. 21.
14 Ibid.

15 No-maku-san-man-da-ba-sa-ra-da-sen-da-ma-ka-ro-sha-da-so-wa-ta-ya-un-ta-ra-ta-kan-man. Ibid., pp.22.
WS 500 Esoteric Buddhism and the Japanese Warrior Chad KOHALYK 22 Feb 2006 8

Chinese straight sword with two cutting edges, and is one of the attributes of esoteric practice.

The suken is symbolic of Fudô-myôô, a manifestation of Dainichi Nyorai, who wields such a

sword. These types of engravings are found on many different swords. The suken on Kusunoki’s

blade has a three-pronged vajra for a hilt. The Buddhist vajra (J: kongôsho) is a symbol of the

Thunderbolt or Diamond Realm, and embodies the incisive power of wisdom, which destroys

hindrances to enlightenment. The prongs of a three-pronged vajra are linked to karma and its

manifestations in speech, body, and mind. The dragon entwined around the suken is a kurikara.

Kurikara are engraved dragons which come in various types. This one is a male, because its tail

ends in a point, not a brush; he is an “ascending dragon” of the “belly visible” variety. The triple

combination of the suken, vajra, and kurikara is the strongest possible way to invoke Dainichi


Engravings on swords became widespread during the early Kamakura period and depicted

Buddhist images, bonji, kurikara dragons, images of Fudô-myôô and Aizen-myôô (Ragaraja),

lotus flowers and leaves, and vajra. Over ninety-five percent of engravings on Japanese swords

concern Esoteric Buddhism, with the remaining portion depicting neutral themes of flowers,

animals, or scenery.17

Kusunoki also carried a banner into war depicting the sansenjin, or “Three War Deities”: Fudô-myôô, Aizen-

myôô, and Marishiten.
17 Warner, pp.57.
WS 500 Esoteric Buddhism and the Japanese Warrior Chad KOHALYK 22 Feb 2006 9

Short sword inscribed with kurikara wrapped around a suken on one side, and Fudô-myôô appearing on the
other. (Suzuki, pp. 181)

Some classical martial traditions have within their curriculum “Marishiten spells.” These

spells vary in function and ritual from tradition to tradition. Some examples include Teki to ta-

takau tomo kizu wo fuju no hô (Ritual for Preventing Injury when Facing Enemies), which in-

cludes the spell known as Teki no me wo karamasu hô (Ritual for Blinding Enemies), Tatakau

toki makenai hô (Ritual for not Being Defeated During Battle), and Teki to kyû ni tatakau toki

([Ritual for] Suddenly Battling an Enemy).18 Several of these spells presume the daily chanting

of the Marishiten goharai19 towards the sunrise. The rituals generally consist of a series of mudra

with the accompaniment of mantra to invoke the powers of Marishiten or Dainichi Nyorai.

Another spell, more common throughout martial traditions, is the kuji-hô, or Ritual of

Nine Letters. This is a protection spell consisting of nine mudra accompanied by a mantra: rin

pyô tô sha kai jin retsu zai zen. It is important to note that the actual Chinese characters, and

what deities the mudra represent, differ depending on the tradition.20 Normally the spell would be

performed before battle, but when surprised by enemies the warrior could utilize a shorter ver-

sion. In this version only the mudra names are intoned while using the right index (and some-

18 These rituals are contained within the oral tradition of the Tenshin Shôden Katori Shintô Ryû. Hall, pp.283.
19 “Marishiten who Sweeps Away [All Difficulties].” Ibid.
20 Ôtake, vol. 3, pp. 18-9.
WS 500 Esoteric Buddhism and the Japanese Warrior Chad KOHALYK 22 Feb 2006 10

times middle) finger to trace a grid of five horizontal and four vertical lines either in the air or on

the palm of the left hand, depending on the tradition. Some traditions even add a Chinese charac-

ter, requesting protection during travel, crossing over water, driving away disease, or prevention

from getting lost at night in unfamiliar areas.

Thus the warrior armed himself with charmed weapons and armour, and chanted spells to di-

vine the proper day for battle and to protect himself from bodily harm. The ritual magic of eso-

teric Buddhism, with its ability to bestow practical benefits in the here and now, was appealing to

the Japanese warrior.

The roots of warrior religiosity
By the Kamakura period (1192-1333) the warrior was already an established class and archeo-

logical evidence of his religiosity, in the form of inscribed swords and armour, is plentiful. Trac-

ing the historical roots of these religious practices is problematic, and determining a specific time

period when the warrior “got religion” can only be estimated in the most general of terms.

Although Japan absorbed Buddhism from the continent in the mid- to late sixth century, the

deepest and most widespread religious practice was that of kami worship. Buddha worship was

limited mostly to wealthy immigrant clan groups in and around the capital, thereby dividing Ja-

pan into two fundamentally different socio-religious groups whose leaders spiritual authority

rose from the rites of the imported Buddhist faith, or from the worship of the indigenous kami.

Already this early Buddhism was associated with rites that were believed to provide mysteri-

ous physical benefits in the here and now. The primary benefit the ruling class was concerned

with was the ability of Buddhism to protect the state. As Japan adopted the Chinese-style penal

and administrative structure, known as the ritsuryô system, Buddhism became the state religion,
WS 500 Esoteric Buddhism and the Japanese Warrior Chad KOHALYK 22 Feb 2006 11

and temples were organized under an administrative bureau.21 Buddhist history became closely

intertwined with kami worship as leaders fighting for control of the state realized that their pri-

mary source of spiritual authority would reside in their hereditary roles as high priests of kami

worship. Clan chieftains, in order to validate their power, orchestrated connections between kami

and Buddha and how they supported one another allowing Buddhism to spread into the indige-

nous socio-religious sector. One manifestation of this was the establishment of jingûji, (“shrine

temples”) Buddhist temples within the precincts of the nation’s most important shrines. The

jingûji were indicative of early trends in non-exclusivity towards native and imported religions.

Buddhist clergy would administer rites in front of kami for the purpose of guiding the kami to

enlightenment. This was probably a strategy used to gain Buddhist converts in remote areas, in-

cluding official representatives provincial governments.22

By the end of the Nara period (710~794) Buddhism and kami worship developed into a rela-

tively syncretic, henotheistic system where the kami were considered above humans but still vul-

nerable to desire, and thus in need of salvation. The kami were also depicted as protectors of

Buddhist law. The “exotic rites linked with impressive pagodas, bells and statues” were generally

agreed upon as pleasing to any diety, kami or Buddha.23 Most Buddhist rites were essentially

similar to kami rites in that they were meant for good health, rich crops, and protection from

natural disaster.

Marishiten makes her first appearance in Japan during the mid-Nara period around the year

737, in the form of a sutra invoking her power. Prior to that, the Nihongi, the second oldest book

21 Sonoda, pp.373.
22 Grapard, pp. 525.
23 Sonoda, pp. 411.
WS 500 Esoteric Buddhism and the Japanese Warrior Chad KOHALYK 22 Feb 2006 12

of Japanese history completed in 720, references an event during Empress Suiko’s reign around


A Paekche priest named Kwalluk arrived and presented by way of tribute books of
calendar making, of astronomy and of geomancy, and also books on the art of invisi-
bility and magic.

Although the actual contents of these books remains a mystery, it is tempting to draw a con-

nection between the above-mentioned “art of invisibility and magic” and the Marishiten cult.24

Sonoda identifies two Buddhist movements during the Nara period which spread among the

commoners and local gentry, flourishing outside the state temple system and the “protect the

state” doctrine.25 The first is humanistic religious practitioners such as Gyôki (668~749), a priest

of the Hossô Sect who carried out evangelical work among the people and completed many acts

of public service such as building bridges, roads and reservoirs. The second movement, one

much more significant in regards to the warrior is that of sanrin Bukkyô, or “ascetic mountain

Buddhism.” This is the historical root of the indigenous Japanese religion of Shugendô, which by

the seventh century already mixed Buddhist and Taoist practices, and later became heavily influ-

enced by the esoteric sects of Tendai and Shingon. Practitioners of this kind of Buddhism did not

concentrate on public service, but were reputed to have mystical powers gained through esoteric

practices. En no Ozunu, an immigrant magician and famous mountain ascetic, was said to have

enslaved gods and demons, forcing them to gather his firewood and draw his water or be bound

with spells.

24It is also important to note that the mentioning of Taoist practices such as “calendar making,” “astronomy,” and
“geomancy” may indicate that the “art of invisibility and magic” (tonkô hôjutsu) referred to in this text may actually
have been a Taoist esoteric practice.
25 Sonoda, pp. 408.
WS 500 Esoteric Buddhism and the Japanese Warrior Chad KOHALYK 22 Feb 2006 13

The esoteric principles of Shugendô are sometimes classified as zômitsu, or “miscellaneous

esoterism,” indicating the lack of a comprehensive and integrated curriculum of belief that the

later schools of Tendai and Shingon had, which have been designated as manmitsu, or “fully de-

veloped esoterism.” One of the “miscellaneous” practices of the ascetic was the kuji, which was

used for protection from bodily harm when entering the mountains.

The teachings of the two movements of Buddhism and their popularity, being outside the do-

main of the state temple system, were considered as leading the people astray and the activities

of Gyôki were legislated against in 717. Gyôki ignored the ban, and during the 720’s the gov-

ernment softened its position and actually used Gyôki and his followers to carry out certain pub-

lic service projects.

The early warrior, around the time of the popular movements Buddhism led by Gyôki, was a

conscripted soldier required by the ritsuryô government to furnish his own weapons, clothing

and whetstone, as well as cooking equipment, food, water, salt, and the respective containers.

The Taihô Yôrô codes (718), which divided the entire country into kuni (provinces), formed the

Hyôbushô, or “Ministry of War,” whose job it was to “oversee the mustering, arming, logistical

support, and stationing of imperial troops.”26

As part of their tax service to the government, these draftees were deployed at defensive posi-

tions on the western coast of Kyûshû, or in the frontier provinces of northern Honshû to battle

the emishi. Setsudoshi (martial training instructors) were appointed to oversee the ten-day train-

ing period of the soldiers which consisted of bowmanship, combative horsemanship, spear and

sword techniques, grappling, combative swimming, field fortifications, martial strategy, and

26 Takeuchi, pp.645.
WS 500 Esoteric Buddhism and the Japanese Warrior Chad KOHALYK 22 Feb 2006 14

weapon construction. Martial instruction harkens back to at least the time of an imperial directive

in 668, appointing instructors and ordering extensive martial training to be conducted in modern

day Shiga prefecture as a precaution against T’ang forces.27

Warriors were conscripted from the peasant population and trained with government ap-

pointed officials. As peasants they may have been exposed to the teachings of humanistic and

ascetic priests proselytizing among the people, learning rituals for rich crops, healing, the ward-

ing off of evil and possibly bodily protection. As the peasants were trained as soldiers, they could

have been exposed to the “state Buddhism” and any of its rituals through not only their proximity

to religious centers, by also through the setsudoshi during basic training. It may be hypothesized

that the ancient Japanese warrior could have been exposed to two entirely different kinds of

Buddhism prior to heading to the battlefield. Unfortunately reliable documentation is sparse, and

the exact ritualistic teachings of the ancient priests and setsudoshi is impossible to determine.

The Heian Period (794 -1190) witnesses the introduction of the fully developed

manmitsu esoteric Buddhism which was brought over from China by the famous monks Saichô

(767~822) and Kûkai (774~835). Saichô had studied the Chinese Buddhist schools of Tientai (J:

Tendai), Zhenyan (J: Shingon), and Chan (J: Zen). He brought the Tendai sect back to Japan and

founded a small monastery which became the Enryakuji complex found on Mount Hiei. Kûkai,

an esoteric master, brought back the Shingon sect a year after Saichô and was welcomed by the

aristocracy who were concerned with “magic, manipulation of symbols, and medicine.”28

In 810 Kûkai performed his first ritual for the protection of the state and the emperor. The

onmyôryô, or Bureau of Yin and Yang, was disbanded in 820 as the government became depend-

27 Warner, pp. 7.
28 Grapard, pp. 534.
WS 500 Esoteric Buddhism and the Japanese Warrior Chad KOHALYK 22 Feb 2006 15

ent on the Tendai and Shingon Sects. Examples of rituals performed for the government are the

Daigen(sui)hô, which was performed to “protect from armed upheavals” and was used in 939

during the rebellion of Taira no Masakado; and the Daiitokuhô and Fudôhô, which were per-

formed in 941 on Mount Hiei and in Hosshôji respectively when it was learned Korean pirates

were sighted off the coast of Kyûshû. Documents show that such rites could be used for a multi-

tude of purposes: to cause two persons to fall in love; safe childbirth; curing disease; to remove

fear of death; and in the case of the Daiitokuhô, success in military endeavors. 29

Also during this period the Tendai priest Annen (? ~ 889) wrote several texts concerning

Marishiten including the Futsûji bodaikai kôshaku. Most of the Chinese esoteric texts regarding

Marishiten were brought to Japan during the ninth century, and by the latter part of the Heian Pe-

riod the Japanese had all Chinese information on Marishiten. Commentators from later ages refer

to a cult of Marishiten that existed during the late Heian, but these statements are


During the ninth and tenth centuries the syncretic combination of kami worship and Buddhism

known as ryôbu Shintô was greatly accelerated by the henotheistic characteristics of esoteric

Buddhism, which can be traced back to the early Buddhism of India. This was exemplified by

the construction of more jingûji from the mid-ninth century under the Twenty-two Shrines sys-

tem. Additionally, hybrid religious practices such as Shugendô were encouraged. The hijiri, or

traveling holy men, from places such as Mount Kôya, the seat of the Shingon sect, were particu-

29 Ibid., pp. 542-3.
30 Hall, pp. 258-9.
WS 500 Esoteric Buddhism and the Japanese Warrior Chad KOHALYK 22 Feb 2006 16

larly active during the ninth and tenth centuries. The hijiri were organized groups but worked as

individuals to make direct personal contact with the people in the countryside.31

By the tenth century, as the ritsuryô system declined and the government came under the con-

trol of the Fujiwara, rituals originally performed for the sake of the emperor were being re-

quested by individual aristocrats.32

Due to the banning of the conscript system in 794, military forces were replaced by the konde-

isei, a system of enlisting particular young men from the families of district chiefs. These “stal-

wart youths” were first appointed to military districts responsible for controlling emishi, the in-

digenous peoples of the Japanese archipelago, but since there were not enough of them to replace

all the previously conscripted troops they formed merely a constabulary force for the purpose of

protecting government facilities and operations.33 Landholders, who lacked protection once pro-

vided for by the government conscripts, took it upon themselves to protect their estates from the

rampant lawlessness in the provinces. They lobbied for an order allowing certain governors to

employ armed men in the ninth century. The issuing of police and military titles of a governor or

his deputies came into practice in the tenth century and lead to the creation of a new warrior


Military power became localized in the provinces, where training would take place far from

the setsudoshi once employed near the capital. The Twenty Two Shrine system allowed more

Buddhist penetration into the provinces, and:

[A]lthough Shingon preachers and hijiri directed their religious lessons increasingly
to the common people and thus developed a new base in addition to that of the aristo-

31 Tanabe, pp.46-7.
32 Grapard, pp. 541.
33 Takeuchi, pp. 646-8.
WS 500 Esoteric Buddhism and the Japanese Warrior Chad KOHALYK 22 Feb 2006 17

crats, the basic nature of its religious offering remained what it had always been: ritual
magic for practical benefits. 34

There were also simple, inexpensive rituals that would appeal to commoners. Suggesting that

aristocrats were the only people interested ritual performances makes sense only by limiting all

esoteric practices to only the expensive ones. Superstition cut across all classes and thus so did

rituals that “offered good crops for the farmer, safe delivery for an expectant mother, and protec-

tion from one’s enemies for the warrior.”35

The Genke Kinneshû, although appearing in written form in the late 1500’s, actually dates

back to the reign of Emperor Daigo (r. 897~930). Oe Koretoki returned from T’ang China bear-

ing books, several of which were concerned with the military arts. These books were translated

into Japanese in the tenth century and included both Buddhist and Taoist esoterica. Later, the

teachings became a part of the martial tradition of the Minamoto, and were well-guarded secrets

until they were put to paper by the Ogasawara (a descendant family of the Minamoto) in the late

sixteenth century.36 Included in the Genke Kinneshû is the “Most Secret Method of Marishiten,” a

ritual for divining the best day for battle, which also includes the kuji. There are also references

to Dainichi Nyorai, and references to Marishiten as “Hokuto Daishin,” the Deity of the Dipper


Miyazaki notes one way pre-Kamakura warriors such as Kumagai Naozane (1141~1208)

could have come into contact with Buddhist teachings was the ôbanyaku system.37 The ôbanyaku

developed during the Heian and continued into the Kamakura Period. Heian officials and noble

34 Tanabe, pp. 52.
35 Ibid.
36 See Hall, pp.249-250, regarding the various legends of how these teachings were transferred to the Minamoto.
37 Miyazaki, pp. 458.
WS 500 Esoteric Buddhism and the Japanese Warrior Chad KOHALYK 22 Feb 2006 18

landholders would summon their warriors to Kyoto for guard service. Service periods were nor-

mally three or six months long. Although Miyazaki goes on to describe the various Amida

preachers Naozane visited, it is also possible that warriors could have been exposed to esoteric

practices while visiting Kyoto, taking them back and teaching them in their home provinces.

In the early Kamakura the famous Buddhist priest Nichiren (1222~1282) wrote a letter to the

commander Shijô Kingo in the mid-thirteenth century stating the following:

Marishiten precedes Sûrya [the Sun God] and, since Sûrya is a protector of practitio-
ners of the Rengekyô [Lotus Sutra], does it not follow that Marishiten is also [such a
protector]? ... Marishiten also takes up the Lotus Sutra in order to assist all sentient
beings. The characters - rin pyô tô sha kai jin retsu zai zen - are also derived from the
Lotus sutra.38

By the early Kamakura Period the use of esoteric Buddhist inscription on blades became

widespread,39 and the ritual of the kuji was well known by the mid 12th century as illustrated by

Nichiren’s letter. The Taiheiki, a chronicle concerned mostly with war during the early fourteenth

century, describes the Prince of the Pagoda who hides in a temple from a band of warriors. The

prince “silently recited incantations to hide his person from the eyes of men,” and when the war-

riors moved on in their search he thinks to himself, “That I have been saved is due solely to the

divine assistance of Marishiten...”40

Once the warrior class became entrenched during the Kamakura period the codification of

martial skills developed giving rise to political units known as ryû, which are generally referred

38 Ibid., pp. 259.

39 The practice of inscribing blades for protection in Japan can be dated to at least the beginning of the Heian period.
Grapard (pp. 556-7) notes that during the rite of protection held the year after the first fire at the new capital of He-
ian, “pillars of various buildings were decorated with swords on which inscriptions were engraved. ... Some of the
swords had been offered by Korea: one was called ‘sword to protect from enemies,’ and another was called ‘sword
to protect the body.’” These swords were inscribed with dragons, emblems and constellations, indicating Taoist eso-
40 Craig McCullough, pp. 135-6.
WS 500 Esoteric Buddhism and the Japanese Warrior Chad KOHALYK 22 Feb 2006 19

to in English as styles, schools, or traditions. Many of the traditions from this period have since

died out. Such styles as the Nen Ryû (c. 1368) and the Kage Ryû (c. 1488) are only existent in

the form of branch traditions which developed in later eras, whereas the Chûjô Ryû (c. 1368) is

completely lost.41 Although the branch traditions do contain information on the religious prac-

tices of the warrior from earlier periods, the Tenshin Shôden Katori Shintô Ryû which has been

passed down in an unbroken lineage since 1447 is an ideal source for understanding warrior ritu-

als and beliefs. Sword engravings, banners and maku, and other archeological evidence corrobo-

rates the teachings of these ryû and what they claim the tradition of the medieval warrior was.

Once the religious practices were codified within the curriculum of the martial ryû they were

passed down through the centuries, from warrior to warrior, to modern times. During the milita-

rization of Japanese society in the early 20th century a revitalization of samurai culture captured

the imagination of soldiers in the Japanese Imperial Army, leading to such rituals as the sennin-

bari, or “thousand-stitch belts,” worn under the uniforms of Japanese Imperial Army soldiers and

kamikaze suicide attacks. Through propaganda Japan’s imperial rulers were able to widen their

tactical repertoire by harnessing the strength of religious fervor and directing it against their

enemies. This represents uncanny foreshadowing of current strategic challenges and future con-

flicts yet to be fought. Religious influence on the battlefield nullifies any sense of the “rational

actor.” The religious background of opponents on the battlefield should be studied, and the ef-

fects of religion on tactics accounted for in decision-making. This paper represents only a single

case study in a field full of potential and relevant to today’s conflicts.

41These dates are approximate. The Chûjô Ryû is said to have been a family tradition passed down from the mid-
13th century.
WS 500 Esoteric Buddhism and the Japanese Warrior Chad KOHALYK 22 Feb 2006 20

Adolphson, M.S. The Gates of Power: Monks, Courtiers, and Warriors in Premodern Japan.
University of Hawai’i Press, 2000.

Armstrong, Hunter. “The koryu bujutsu experience.” Koryu Bujutsu: Classical Warrior Tradi-
tions of Japan, ed. Diane Skoss, 18-37. New Jersey: Koryu Books, 1997.

Armstrong, Hunter (ed.). Donn F. Draeger Monograph Series No.3. Sedona: International
Hoplology Society, 1998.

Craig McCullough, H. (trans.) Taiheiki: Chronicle of Medieval Japan. New York: Columbia
University Press, 1959.

Grapard, Allan G. “Religious Practices.” The Cambridge History of Japan Volume 2: Heian Ja-
pan, ed. Donald H. Shively & William H. McCullough, 517-575. Cambridge: Cambridge Uni-
versity Press, 1999.

Hall, David A. Marishiten: Buddhism and the warrior goddess. Dissertation. University of
California at Berkeley, 1990.

Miyazaki, Fumiko. “Religious life of the Kamakura bushi: Kumagai Naozane and his descen-
dants.” Monumenta Nipponica, v47:4, pp. 435-467, Nov(1992).

Ôtake, R. The Deity and the Sword: Katori Shinto Ryu, 3 vols. Tokyo: Sugawara Martial Arts
Institute, 1977-8.

Tanabe, Jr., G.J. “Kôyasan in the countryside: The rise of Shingon in the Kamakura period.”
Revisioning “Kamakura” Buddhism, ed. Richard K. Payne, pp. 43-54. Honolulu: University of
Hawai’i, 1998.

Sasama, Y. Nippon no Gunsô [zukan]. vol.1, Tokyo: 1970.

_______. Nippon Katchu Taikan. Tokyo: Satsuki Shôbô, 1987.

Sonoda, K. with Brown, D. “Early Buddha worship.” The Cambridge History of Japan Volume
1: Ancient Japan, ed. Brown, Delmer M., 359-414. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,

Suzuki, K. Tantô. Tokyo: 1969.

Takeuchi, R. “The rise of the warriors.” The Cambridge History of Japan Volume 2: Heian Ja-
pan, ed. Donald H. Shively & William H. McCullough, 644-709. Cambridge: Cambridge Uni-
versity Press, 1999.

Warner, G. and Draeger, D.F. Japanese Swordsmanship: Technique and Practice. New York:
Weatherhill, 1982.