Ep. 099: The Temple of the Warring Monks

Mii-dera, on the shores of Lake Biwa and at the foot of Mount Hiei

Let's look at a place that was once headquarters for an army of warring monks, Mii-dera on the shores of Lake Biwa and--more significantly--at the base of Mount Hiei, in this episode of--


The Kannon-do was built in 1689.

The common image of a Buddhist monk is one of a peaceful person in ochre or maroon robes, seated quietly in meditation or, perhaps, hugging a tiger or otherwise demonstrating his transcendence of anger (or hatred) which, along with greed (or desire) and ignorance (or delusion) is one of the "Three Poisons."

And so it is distressing to hear of, say, the "hardline" Buddhist monks of Myanmar supporting the government crackdown on that country's Muslim Rohingya minority.

But this is nothing new. Powerful institutions in most religions from time to time fall into "playing politics"--sometimes internally, as in conflicts between sects, and sometimes in the broader culture. A fine example is the warring monks of Mii-dera in Shiga, Japan, on the outskirts of the longtime ancient capital of Kyoto.

Monk v Monk

It's true that the temple lies on the visibly peaceful shores of Lake Biwa, Japan's largest freshwater lake. But it also lies at the foot of Mt. Hiei, bastion of the Tendai sect of Buddhism.

I have said little about Tendai, though there have been plenty of opportunities. For example, Tendai is one of two esoteric Buddhist sects in Japan, the other being Shingon. Both are headquartered on mountains not too far from Kyoto (though Shingon's was far enough to keep it away from the hurly-burly of the capital). Tendai, as just mentioned, is on Hiei-zan; Shingon is on Koya-san, about which I wrote in Episode 032 (and elsewhere). And Tendai's founder, Saicho, was literally on the same mission that took Kukai, Shingon's founder, to China, as I wrote about in Episode 047 (where I did mention Saicho, briefly). Their ships were separated on their way across the sea, but they returned at the same time, and cooperated with each other (!) in establishing rival sects, Saicho having brought back teachings from China's Mount Tiantai, where we will visit by and by.

To my knowledge, Shingon monks were not in the habit of going to war, fighting only when their monasteries were being attacked. But the sohei or "priest soldiers" of Tendai are another story altogether.

From the 10th through the 17th centuries, the Tendai sect became increasingly powerful, a phenomenon that did not go unnoticed by the ruling powers. The monks sparred with each other not only to dispute territory, but also to promote one brand of Buddhist doctrine over that of rival schools. The country's four largest temples--Todai-ji and Kofuku-ji in Nara, and Enryaku-ji and Mii-dera on Hiei-zan--were particularly noted for their scrappiness.

A misty garden at Enryaku-ji on Hiei-zan

It was Enryaku-ji which, in 970, established the first-ever standing army of warrior monks. A decade or so later, there was increased friction between Enryaku-ji and the focus of this episode, Mii-dera, which had originally been one temple, but split into two branches of Tendai, called the Sanmon ("Mountain Gate," located at Enryaku-ji on the summit of the mountain) and Jimon ("Temple Gate," at the mountain's base). The rivalry was geographic and administrative (that is, they fought over who should be abbot) and not doctrinal.

Nevertheless, they eventually ended up on opposite sides of one of Japan's greatest conflicts, the Genpei War (1180-1185), a civil war between the Taira (supported by the Sanmon monks of Enryaku-ji) and Minamoto (Jimon/Mii-dera) clans. (You may remember this war from Episode 054, "Two Deaths in the Tale of the Heike.") At other times, the two sides joined together against the monks of other temples.

And we're not just talking about insults, or even shouting matches between monks. In the mid-twelfth century Mii-dera was burned to the ground by monks from Enryaku-ji--so many times, in fact, that it came to be called "The Phoenix Temple" for its frequent rebuilding.

There's more to say, about how these monks would extort money and support by shows of force in the city, and other unmonkly behavior. But it all came to a halt around 1571. The warlord Oda Nobunaga undertook the "Siege of Mount Hiei," when his 30,000 men destroyed towns and temples on and around the mountain, burning about 300 buildings to the ground. This ended the sohei monks' power. Today, they're better known for running, and are famous as "The Marathon Monks of Mt. Hiei."


Let's get back to Mii-dera, which is actually a nickname for Onjo-ji ("Garden City," or maybe "Farm Castle" Temple). The sobriquet references the "three wells" that were once located here, just as Kimii-dera did for the Temple of Three Wells in the Ki Peninsula in Episode 075. The wells here were once used, evocatively, for the ritual bathing of newborns, including those destined to become emperors. This name was granted almost two centuries after the temple's original founding in 672, the gift of Emperor Tenmu (reigned 673-686) in memory of his brother, Emperor Tenji.

In the absence of qualified heirs, Tenji had named his younger brother Tenmu as Crown Prince. At one point, sensing trouble, Tenmu gave up his status and retired to the mountains, along with one of his wives and some of his many sons. When Tenji died, his son Prince Otomo seized the throne as Emperor Kobun. Tenmu marched on the capital (which, at the time, was in Otsu, where Mii-dera is located) and, when Tenmu won, Otomo/Kobun committed suicide.

In thanksgiving for his success, Emperor Tenmu and his wife Empress Jito (who had accompanied him to the mountains) founded Mii-dera. (A real Buddhist, in 675 Tenmu banned consumption of domesticated animal meat--cattle, poultry, horse, dogs, monkeys... wait: monkeys?!--from April 1 to September 30 every year, though eating wild game meat was permitted.)

The Temple Today

Much of what we see today was built after more depredations, these by Toyotomi Hideyoshi in the late 1500s. Many of the buildings date to 1599 or thereabouts. The temple is located about a third of a mile from Mii-dera Station and just a hair more than that from the lakeshore.

Four of the many small, bare-wood halls that I found so attractive

Around forty named buildings remain on the premises. I won't bother you with details on the nio-mon (Two Kings Gate), sanjunoto (Three-Story Pagoda), shoro (bell tower--of which there are several), and other usual temple features. But I did find the small, almost non-descript buildings somehow especially attractive: bare, weathered wood sleeping its way through the centuries, with an occasional visitor tossing a coin in the collection box and ringing the bell for good luck.

The Kondo or main hall was built in 1599.

Larger buildings include the 1599 main hall (called in this temple the Kondo, meaning "Golden Hall") which houses the temple's honzon or main image, a statue of the Maitreya Bodhisattva modeled (they say) on Emperor Tenji. This is just one of the temple's six seldom-seen "secret Buddhas."

The outhouse-sized Aka'i-ya houses the "Holy Water Well" behind the Kondo.

An outhouse-sized building behind the Kondo has inside it the only well remaining of the original three, the Aka'i or "Holy Water Well." There is a dragon on the front of the Aka'i-ya with a legend similar to those at the Tosho-gu in Ueno (see Episode 018): It was flying out to nearby Lake Biwa every night for a drink, causing damage as it passed. So the sculptor, Jingoro Hidari--the same one who made the dragons at Tosho-gu, as well as the one we saw at Nariai-ji in Episode 030--nailed its eyes to the building!


A moon-viewing stage is perched on the edge of a hill overlooking Otsu, below the Kannon-do.

Of special interest to the pilgrim, of course, is the Kannon-do, containing the 10th century image of Nyoirin Kannon (Avalokiteshvara) for this 14th temple on the Saigoku (West Country) Kannon Pilgrimage. The image is made public on the same schedule as the one at Ishiyama-dera (see Episode 097): Every 33 years, plus the year after an emperor is enthroned. In 1072, the hall was first located at the top of the mountain; in 1481, it was moved to a hill on the southern portion of the temple's current property so women--who weren't allowed on the mountain--could visit it. The current edifice dates to 1689. A moon-viewing stage stands below the hall.

The tiny Bishamon-do is one of the most exquisite little buildings I have ever seen.

On the way up the hill to the Kannon-do we pass one of the prettiest little buildings I have ever seen. The small hall dedicated to Bishamon, the martial member of the Seven Lucky Gods (see Episode 024) is ornately painted, and its presence may be a nod to the warring monks of yore.

The Issaikyo-zo has housed a collection of Buddhist scriptures in an eight-sided, rotating cabinet since 1602.

Back in the main precincts of the property is another amazing sight. Inside the Issaikyo-zo ("House of the Entire Scriptures") stands a huge eight-sided rotating cabinet said to contain a complete copy of the Buddhist canon. The building dates to the early Muromachi period (approximately 1336-1573); the sutra (and I believe the cabinet) were donated and moved from another temple in Yamaguchi City in 1602.


The "Evening Bell" (not Benkei's Bell)

Let's end with a story. I saw a well-known bell at the temple, called the "Evening Bell" (for its time of employment) and supposed to be the best-sounding bell in Japan. But right behind the Kondo I somehow missed--or at least failed to take a photo of--Benkei's Bell, star of the temple's most famous legend, and tied to one of the temple's most famous one-time denizens.

Benkei was a famous sohei (warrior monk--remember them?) and legendary strongman whom stories claim may have been the son of a shrine leader who raped Benkei's mother, a blacksmith's daughter (hence his strength?); or that he was the son of the shrine god himself; or that his father was actually a demon--well, you get the picture. His strength was literally proverbial. His shins were his only weak point, and the expression Benkei no nakidokoro, or "Benkei's crying place [place which makes Benkei cry]," is equivalent to our "Achilles heel."

The bell in the story, too, has mystical origins. It dates to the Nara period (710-794) and so is one of the oldest bells in Japan. It was manufactured, they say, in the palace of the Dragon King (the one dwelling in nearby Lake Biwa); or was donated to the temple by Fujiwara no Hidesato, a tenth-century courtier, in thanksgiving for his victory over a supernaturally giant centipede (which was in fact threatening the Dragon King's Palace), and so on.

Anyway... During the disputes between Enryaku-ji and Mii-dera in the tenth century, Benkei--apparently a proponent of Enryaku-ji--thought it would be a good idea to steal the weighty bell at Mii-dera and, in a feat of strength, carry it up the mountain to the rival temple. But on the way, the bell began to ring (odd, that, since Japanese bells have no clappers, though some say Benkei himself rang it at the top of the mountain) and its voice said in the Kansai dialect, "I want to go home! I want to go home!" Wroth--or scared?--he threw the bell all the way back down the mountain (and it bears the scars to this day!). History says it may indeed have been stolen and damaged during one of the burnings of the temple (perhaps in 1264), and later returned.


And that's about that! Until next time, may you and your loved ones and all sentient beings be well and happy.

Adios, Amigos!


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In the next episode: Xi'an's gorgeous Temple of the Sleeping Dragon--in Episode 100!