Under the Rule of Amida Buddha

Patrick Vierthaler/Pure Land Buddhist festival, Japan

The world of medieval Japan was one of division. The Emperor was, in practice, a distant memory; the shoguns had lost all control over their vassals. Even shrines and temples, once united in strengthening the state through prayer and ritual, now competed for believers and alms. Japan was divided against itself and circumstances forced its inhabitants to form new bonds to survive.

Among the new alliances which this age produced were the Ikkō-ikki, a network of autonomous religious collectives that led major uprisings and controlled significant parts of Japanese society for nearly a century. Their final defeat at the hands of Japan’s warrior class set the stage both for a centralized Japanese state and the social hierarchy behind it. While the Japanese state has undergone many transformations since then, the country has never since been politically divided. Likewise, memories of the Ikkō-ikki echoed through the generations: Suspicion toward autonomous sects and ideologies remained entrenched in Japan’s political culture. From the Tokugawa suppression of Christianity to the Meiji promotion of the imperial cult of State Shinto, the Japanese state tightly controlled the ideologies and religious sects that existed among its people until after the Second World War.

The Ikkō-ikki could only exist in a landscape where centralized power was absent and in which existing hierarchies were in a state of confusion. When a renewed Japanese elite re-established both, loose networks like the Ikkō-ikki were unable to withstand their enemies’ coordinated exercise of power. However, they also demonstrate the role of ideology in coordinating power of any kind: built on religious conviction, these networks could mobilize local nobles alongside monks and peasants, uniting them in willingness to die for a transcendent cause. Reunifying Japan was not just a matter of military power; its early-modern founders had to displace these hostile modes of coordination and establish new ones as well. The resulting Japanese state was not only a political accomplishment, but an ideological and religious one as well.

The Rise of the Ikkō-ikki

The Ikkō-ikki were born in the political and religious environment of Sengoku Japan (1467-1615). The preceding Heian period (794-1185) was a time of a strong centralized government led by the imperial court. Buddhism was introduced from China in waves. A series of orthodox Buddhist sects began to initiate Japanese elites into the many paths to enlightenment and won political favor by performing massive rituals for the health of the state. After a civil war ended the Heian period, the borders of power began a slow process of erosion. Maverick Buddhist priests began to spread new doctrines aimed at the common people and challenged the traditional position that many paths to enlightenment were possible. The warrior class seized increasing political power and expanded the role of the shoguns, marginalizing the court. The embattled state’s complicated system of tax exemptions—granted to temples, courtiers, warriors, and friendly clients—allowed for a concentration of local power in landed estates. Power was no longer defined by a hierarchical relationship to the imperial court; instead, local and competing clan loyalties became the defining social fabric. Bonds were increasingly defined by a rigid warrior ethic—though one which was often betrayed for the sake of small advantages. By the mid-15th century, the shogun had lost real central power and the country slipped into a continuous hundred-year civil war, the Sengoku.

In this tumultuous landscape, new forces filled the vacuums of coordination and power. With shoguns and warlords reliant on fragile bonds of loyalty with their warriors, the advantage fell to those who were able to raise up mass mobilizations instead. The best-placed of these authorities were the monks of Japan’s newest and rapidly-growing Buddhist sect.

True Pure Land Buddhism began as a minor Buddhist offshoot. It was founded in the early-13th century by a radical Japanese monk named Shinran who believed that the Earth had recently entered an age known as Mappō, a 10,000 year period so corrupt and evil that traditional modes of salvation were now impossible. He taught that priestly learning, esoteric practices, and ethical principles were no longer sufficient for enlightenment. Only faith in the celestial teacher known as the Amida Buddha, expressed through chanting, could open the path to spiritual liberation. Amida Buddha would save the faithful, bringing them after death to the paradisical Pure Land, a world he himself had created in which his followers could be assured of eventual Buddhahood.

Shinran’s followers were distinguished from early on by their disregard of traditional civility and the extremity of their belief. In times defined by increasing war and famine, the doctrine of Mappō appeared an obvious truth. Many who had been rejected by the clergy for their involvement in the evils of the world could now follow the Buddhist path. Warriors and those involved in animal-killing had been unable to practice due to the karma of their sins, but now joined the chanting. Merchants and artisans had been unable to practice due to the time-consuming and esoteric nature of orthodox Buddhist rituals, but now joined the chanting. Peasants, who previous priests had never cared to preach to, now joined the chanting. And these multitudes, coming from classes with competing loyalties that would never normally speak to each other, all chanted together.

People came to the True Pure Land temples for differing reasons. Some were attracted to their doctrine and belief, while others pursued the tax exemptions and independence from the government enjoyed by religious settlements. Empowered by their growing numbers, Buddhist priests founded branch temples in distant provinces, simultaneously growing the faith and increasing its economic base. Motives, both pure and impure, were indistinguishable in the dark age of Mappō. The intermingling of honest zealots with opportunistic salesmen was merely a feature of the times.

What mattered for the Ikkō-ikki was that Shinran’s doctrine could now bring together people who shared common local interests but were not linked by any sort of clan or feudal tie. In a West colored in the legacy of Protestantism, we risk focusing entirely on the sincerity of the believers in a movement. When opportunists or corruption exist within a movement, it is easy to dismiss the ideological element as a cynical vehicle that is in some sense inauthentic. But Japanese Buddhism may provide a more helpful example for understanding how ideologies operate. Sincerity and personal profit can be fully compatible. What mattered for the strength of the Ikkō-ikki was the ever-larger number of people who found themselves connected to each other by belief, religious practice, and social identity. The True Pure Land doctrine and the monks who preached it had created a powerful new coordination mechanism in a society riven with disunity and chaos.

True Pure Land temples were divided among a variety of sub-sects emphasizing different nuances in Shinran’s teaching. The balance of doctrinal power changed in the 15th century, when Patriarch Rennyo of the Honganji temple succeeded in centralizing his authority. Shinran’s descendants had become the priests of Honganji, which was built on the founder’s grave. They distinguished themselves from other True Pure Land groups with the idea that Shinran’s blood made them uniquely qualified to interpret his doctrine during the time of Mappō. From that point on, the title of Patriarch was passed on through heredity. Thanks to his incredible organizational skills, as well as his preaching and writing in a simple vernacular language, Rennyo was able to rapidly expand the sect’s numbers. He also organized the existing True Pure Land temples under a hierarchical branch system with Honganji at the top. The local priests were still centers of their community, but now they owed loyalty and rents to the Honganji patriarchs. The True Pure Land sect centered around Honganji became preeminent within True Pure Land Buddhism as a whole, a school which was itself still considered heterodox by more traditional rivals.

Common sectarians enthusiastically believed Honganji’s claims to the preeminence of its patriarch, imputing to him the power to ensure rebirth in the Pure Land and equating expulsion from the sect with damnation to the lowest of the Buddhist hell-realms. Rennyo himself discouraged this belief, which was technically heretical. He emphasized his own family’s relatively abstract belief that faith in Amida was not something that anyone had control of—rather, Amida alone granted salvation. He worked hard to spread Buddhist doctrine and ensure the survival of the sect in difficult times and seems to have been sincere in his pursuit of religious goals by secular means.

However, the disparity between Rennyo’s personal claims and those of his devoted following came to reflect a constant tension within the Ikkō-ikki: Leading religious figures might have had great authority, but they also had limited power. Rennyo could not always control them through doctrinal corrections or even expulsion. Their enthusiasm for the sect sometimes jeopardized his careful building of institutional power. Despite these tensions, the growing communities of believers, drawn from all classes of Japanese society, were now linked to each other across the country. They had a common faith and holy patriarch to defend.

When the more orthodox Buddhist temples of the Tendai school on Mount Hiei demanded rents and subservience from Honganji with threats of violence, groups of believers at other temples banded together in defense of their patriarch. In doing so, they drew on a well-established organizational custom in medieval Japan: the ikki.

The concept of ikki was already used throughout medieval Japan at the time of Honganji ascendancy. It defined a temporary social bond used by the lower classes to address collective problems. When confronted by an oppressive landlord or a troublesome group of bandits, groups of villagers, merchants, and warriors would gather together, write their grievances down, burn the resulting paper, ritually drink the ash mixed with water, and agree to act as a collective until the problem had been fixed. The ikki differed from other sorts of military units in that it was fundamentally collective, without an explicit chain of command or a single leader.

Undisciplined and temporary by nature, the ikki could never have the same power as a regular army. But their flexible and quick formation often allowed them to accomplish their goals and win military engagements. In the case of the True Pure Land devotees, the social grievance was now combined with religious faith, leading people to identify them as the Ikkō-shu—the Single-Minded School—and to name their collective the Ikkō-ikki.

The Ikkō-ikki first showed their strength in power struggles in Kaga (present-day Ishikawa), an area of particular strength for the Honganji sect. In 1473, the governor of Kaga supported a rival True Pure Land sect and put harsh taxation on villages associated with Honganji. Ikkō-ikki organized by local priests backed his rival, named Masachika, and brought him to power instead. When Masachika failed to reward them, they rebelled once again. This time, they were quickly defeated.

As the power of the Ikkō-ikki grew, so did their tension with the very religious authority they invoked. Honganji’s authorities viewed the situation with growing concern. Rennyo himself never endorsed any of these actions and even condemned the second Ikkō-ikki rebellion, which he saw as local opportunism that would hurt the movement. But the Ikkō-ikki had begun to develop a will of their own. After Masachika pursued a particularly brutal policy of taxation, they struck again and overthrew him in 1487. From that point on, the governors of Kaga ruled only with the Ikkō-ikki’s support. By the early 1500s, the Ikkō-ikki were the de facto government of the province. The patriarch at Honganji granted them his tacit support, but had effectively lost all direct control.

It is difficult to say exactly what Kaga under the ikki looked like, with relatively few contemporary sources surviving to the modern-day. It was known from outside as a sort of “Peasants’ Kingdom.” Unlike Japan’s other provinces, which were gradually falling under the control of regional warlords, Kaga had no single figure controlling it. Speculatively, we should not expect that social class was abolished or that there was any sort of utopian social project. Peasants made up a large proportion of Ikkō-ikki ranks, but warriors and merchants appear to have controlled their informal leadership.

Despite the lack of any central executive, the Ikkō-ikki seem to have collected rents from the various estates, set taxes, and more or less governed the province as a whole. Their informal and somewhat fluctuating hierarchies, combined with the coordinating power of the True Pure Land doctrine, created a regime stable enough to assume the functions of government. But while they had achieved a degree of internal stability, their structure made them especially vulnerable to external threats—and that same structure made those threats inevitable. Kaga horrified Japan’s rising warlords, who were actively pursuing the return to the direct, top-down rule which they believed necessary both for their clans and for the country as a whole. But they had seen the power of the True Pure Land faith. As a result, local lords increasingly saw any concentration of Honganji believers as a potential ally or enemy in their struggles. Given their religious and ideological strength, mere toleration was no longer possible.

Moreover, the reigns of religious power were changing hands. Rennyo retired in favor of his son Jitsunyo in 1489. The patriarchs were reluctant to use their authority, but their familial and political ties with the elites made this difficult. In 1506, the shogunal deputy Masamoto called on Jitsunyo to summon the Ikkō-ikki to assist him in a succession dispute. Jitsunyo at first refused, but ultimately submitted to the influential Masamoto. For the first time in the sect’s history, the Honganji patriarch directly sent the Ikkō-ikki into battle.

Despite this momentary alignment of the Honganji leadership with their mobilized faithful, the structure of the ikki made it impossible to permanently cement control. The Ikkō-ikki sometimes refused orders, especially when their local interests aligned more with the patriarch’s enemies than his allies. The continuing tension showed that the constant mingling of motives did not always favor the religious side. Collectives often know when they are being weaponized; it is their own interests that ensure whether or not they cooperate.

The next patriarch, Shonyo, inherited the title at the age of 10 and proved to be the most willing claimant yet to use his religious power for secular ends. After a brief civil war between the patriarch and powerful local temples in 1532, which saw the Ikkō-ikki mobilized again, Honganji became the de facto governor of Kaga under the shogun. Shonyo then sent the Ikkō-ikki into battle in another shogunal power dispute in 1534. He also went the closest of any patriarch towards the line of religious heresy in his cause. In his teaching, Shonyo began to heavily imply that fighters for the cause would be assured of rebirth in the Pure Land, contradicting the central role of the Amida Buddha in this process.

In the aftermath of this conflict, overzealous adherents in Nara mounted a brutal sacking of the Kofukuji complex, the oldest center of Buddhist orthodoxy. Their motives were probably mixed, embodying both a response to the oppression of the True Pure Land sects by the traditional Buddhist authorities and, perhaps, a zeal to fight their shogunal ally’s enemies.

Whatever their cause, the results were dire for both Honganji as an institution and for the True Pure Land communities. Shonyo’s ally turned on the sect to firm up his relationships with the old elite, summoning a new ikki of Nichiren Buddhists to destroy the Honganji temple itself. Local and dedicated branches of fighters had proved a powerful tool, but their lack of discipline and communication now threatened the existence of the sect as a whole. After this, the patriarch moved his base of authority to the newer Ishiyama-Honganji in Osaka. There, the Honganji leadership experienced a few relatively peaceful decades while local Ikkō-ikki continued their own fights.

The Daimyo and the New Regime

Japan’s warlords had found a use for the ikki. But as the prospect of reunifying the country beckoned, they were increasingly unnerved by the ikki’s unpredictability. Moreover, they perceived accurately that the ability of the ikki to coordinate mass uprisings lay in their religious authority among huge numbers of the population. All three of Japan’s eventual three unifiers—Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and Tokugawa Ieyasu—were extremely suspicious of any sort of Buddhist power whatsoever in the new social order they hoped to create. As warriors, they believed that the basis for society should be the ties of loyalty between lord and vassal. These daimyo, or regional lords, controlled their domains absolutely and eliminated traditional tax exemptions and other local power bases. The nature of the daimyo’s authority could not permit rivals.

The greatest contrasts to this vision were the Honganji sect and the Ikkō-ikki: Undisciplined collective mobs scattered in pockets of every province, controlled by priests instead of warriors, undermined the very foundation of daimyo rule. Moreover, generations of control over the trading network of tax-exempt temple towns had given the Honganji patriarch incredible power over the country’s economy. From the perspective of the increasingly ambitious warlords, they threatened the unification of Japan itself.

The sect’s power was stably decentralized; despite its religious and economic power, Honganji did not actively seek control over the provinces. The ties that bound the ikki themselves together were weaker than the warrior bonds that bound the daimyo. Moreover, their participants were generally untrained and unpredictable. These weaker bonds were both a feature of their success and a flaw that warlords could exploit; they had allowed both the True Pure Land sect and the ikki to spread into every part of medieval Japan and amass enough collective power to be a serious threat to the daimyo, while simultaneously preventing them from consolidating and formalizing that power. The Honganji patriarchs might have envied a daimyo’s direct relationship with their vassals at times, but accepted their political weakness as a necessary part of that connection.

The patriarch could issue rules of conduct and direct orders but could only punish insubordinates or rebels with expulsion from the sect. Instead, he exercised a softer form of power. Since he did not require a lord-vassal relationship, he could exert influence over those who were supposed to be exclusively loyal to their immediate superiors. The religious nature of the movement divided the loyalties of the daimyo’s subjects and threatened any central control. When Tokugawa Ieyasu tried to collect rents from his own domains, his own lower warriors who followed the sect joined with the merchants and peasants in a rebellion against him. The unifiers fought all their opponents with brutality, but the threat of the alternate order embedded in the Ikkō-ikki made their absolute defeat and suppression necessary for their political project.

The Ikkō-ikki do not appear to have ever really contemplated replacing the shogun with their own theocratic order. The Pure Land was a reality far away from the corrupted world they saw around them and Hongangji’s only goal was to keep the paths to escape open. The long instability of medieval Japan and its endemic violence made for a harsh existence and threatened the Buddhist sect at times, but also created the only environment where both its authorities and its militant followers could remain largely independent of a jealous and powerful daimyo state. Any compromise with a power strong enough to unify Japan—and therefore, strong enough to destroy the sect—would involve an existential risk to the patriarch’s authority. The Ikkō-ikki and the daimyo both knew this. Although each tried to find paths to reconciliation, an ultimate conflict became inevitable.

Nobunaga, head of the powerful Oda clan, conquered the capital city of Kyoto in 1568. In the years that followed, he made clear his intention to destroy the Honganji sect. The Patriarch Kennyo took him at his word and summoned all Ikkō-ikki from across the country to defend the faith with their lives. Despite graver circumstances than those faced by his predecessor Shonyo, Kennyo did not go as far as implying that those who fought for the Amida Buddha would be guaranteed rebirth in the Pure Land. Nevertheless, he threatened expulsion from the sect for those who failed to respond to the call and he did not crack down on those who raised the Ikkō-ikki’s now-famous banner of war: “Advance and be reborn in Paradise, retreat and fall immediately into Hell.”

The Ikkō-ikki, held in contempt by warriors for their ragtag nature, were able to hold out for a full 10 years against Nobunaga, finally facing defeat in 1580. In the meantime, Nobunaga had sought to eliminate his other opponents, sacking the temples on Mount Hiei with relative ease in 1571 and subjugating the Shingon base of Koyasan in 1582. The Ikkō-ikki had made the religious power of Buddhism as a whole intolerable, not only that of the True Pure Land sect. After Ishiyama-Honganji fell, Kennyo was able to use his family ties with the imperial court to arrange a peace treaty and spare the sect from total destruction, even if he had to sacrifice its independence. Despite all the power that Honganji had gained in the prior century, it was ultimately careful politicking that ensured the doctrine’s survival.

Ultimately, it fell to Tokugawa Ieyasu to build the new shogunal regime. He revamped the state’s religious policy with a very deliberate eye towards preventing anything like the Ikkō-ikki from happening again. Christianity, once entertained as a potential centralizing ideology by Nobunaga, was now banned as a potential threat. The religious bonds of its communities and their loyalty to a far-off religious patriarch in Rome posed too great a threat to the new order. Small rebellions already hinted at a repetition of the Ikkō-ikki. If a European country had decided to invade, it might be that Christians throughout the country would side with the invaders over their rulers.

Buddhism, however, was not completely suppressed in the new order. As Tokugawa cemented his rule, he cleverly appropriated Buddhist temples as arms of the growing police state. They were divided into strict sectarian groups and monitored by the government. All Japanese subjects were required to register with a temple, providing a form of census that also served to root out Christians and other sects. Honganji itself was divided into two rival sects controlled by separate patriarchs, both of which survive to the modern day. These reforms also gave Buddhism a new social role: providing funeral rituals. Japan’s shoguns allowed Buddhist institutions no separate power base apart from the state. Neo-Confucianism imported from Ming China, which viewed Buddhist devotion with great skepticism, became the official government ideology. Weapons were confiscated from all classes except the warriors and formerly fluid class divisions were made strict and hereditary.

The social order instituted by Japan’s three unifiers, culminating in the Tokugawa shogunate and the Edo period that lasted until the late-19th century, has defined the country ever since. Rebellions and upheavals have threatened the Japanese state and changed society substantially, but independent religious and ideological organizations have never been allowed to reclaim substantial power.

The caste system of the Edo Period successfully kept people divided from each other and their feudal roles continued to be the preeminent social relationship. The Meiji restoration abolished the strict rules of this caste system as imperial authority once again usurped that of the shoguns, but maintained the same trend of centralization. As Japan entered the 20th century, the cult of the emperors became a defining feature of Japanese ideology. Centering that cult around the wider, carefully controlled system of State Shinto, the imperial government even carried out a fresh purge of the Buddhist temples to ensure their subservience. While Japanese citizens were technically allowed private familial and religious sentiments, loyalty to Japan and its emperor demanded political preeminence. Only the introduction of Western philosophies of human rights under American occupation would ultimately abolish the political sanctions against autonomous and insufficiently patriotic religious sects.

The Ikkō-ikki demonstrate the efficacy of religious and ideological authority to organize people on a large scale, particularly in the absence of centralized power. Their ideology did not make sense to the scholarly elites, but that did not matter for its appeal. Their mix of sincere religious belief with local and economic opportunism enhanced their strength rather than hindering it. Their leader commanded absolute respect and unified many distant coalitions, but could not control them. The relations which allowed the Ikkō-ikki to spread like wildfire ultimately contributed to their downfall.

We continue to see similar dynamics in religious, social, and ideological mass movements. The Taliban was able to continue an ongoing military campaign even in the face of American military might thanks to a weak central government, while ISIS spread under similar circumstances. But the real test of such movements is whether power and authority align. Those who can develop centralized institutions capable of directing a movement and translating immediate victories into institutional endurance are extremely difficult to overcome. Conversely, those who never do so—like the Honganji patriarchs—are often overcome by better-coordinated rivals in the long run. The power of the Ikkō-ikki was enough to grant them temporary hegemony over a region, but only the strong bonds of daimyo loyalty proved able to unify Japan.

Ethan Edwards is a technology researcher at Bell Labs. You can follow him on Twitter @winterblooms and at his website.