To discuss some of the problems in the relationship between the teaching of nonviolence and Japanese Buddhism, we have to distinguish some levels of nonviolence. At an individual level, some people such as monks and nuns can live without using violence and abide by a precept that one should not kill any sentient beings.
At a social and national level, however, police officers may use violence to maintain public order. Moreover, at an international level, military officers may do so to defend against foreign attacks.
Some extreme pacifists urge absolute nonviolence and disapprove of any use of violence at any level. However, I think many pacifists are conditioned and approve of using violence at some levels.
First, I examine the historical relationship between the teaching of nonviolence and Japanese Buddhism. Second, I point out some problems that Japanese Buddhists have to solve in order to promote nonviolence.
Prince Shotoku (574-622) was the first person in Japan who understood the profound and universal ideas expounded in Mahayana Buddhism, though many Japanese in those days accepted it to get benefits magically. He established the Constitution of Seventeen Clauses in which he emphasized peace and harmony within a state.
He approved of the Buddhist view that human beings are mediocre and apt to make mistakes. Buddhism teaches that one should restrain oneself and obey the law not to fight with each other. He thought that Buddhism could improve human beings and help them make a peaceful and harmonious society.
At an individual level, he promoted nonviolence and obedience. However, at a social and religious level, he approved of using violence to maintain public order and Buddhism.
In his youth, he prayed to the four heavenly Buddhist guardians so that his coalition army could defeat an anti-Buddhist army. He thought Buddhist soldiers could kill the enemies of Buddhism.
After the Reformation of the Taika Era in the 7th century, the imperial court succeeded in building a centralized state. It supported and regulated Buddhism in order to strengthen imperial authority. To become a Buddhist monk, one had to seek permission from the court.
The court established the Regulations on Monks and Nuns. Some clan temples had been used as military strongholds for their clans, rebelling against the court. So the regulations banned Buddhist priests from reading military books and killing. They also banned people from donating weapons to temples.
Imitating the Chinese Buddhist system, Japanese Buddhist priests took it for granted that the court could regulate the Buddhist order. They were ordered to pray by reading and reciting Buddhist scriptures for Buddhist gods to protect the court.
In this State Buddhism, priests could obey the non-killing precept. However, they approved that Buddhist soldiers could kill enemy to protect the court on the grounds that some Mahayana scriptures such as the Golden Light Sutra and the Benevolent King Wisdom Sutra allow killing of the enemy.
In the 10th century the Fujiwara family abused their power and began to privatize farmland and gain possession of the land as a manor. The state was on a tight budget.
The Buddhist temples could not get sufficient financial support from it. So they also began to privatize and build manors. They had to govern their manors by themselves, so their servants and lower-ranking monks began to arm themselves to defend against state officials and other feudal lords. Using monk soldiers’ military power, they demanded more manors from the court, insisting that the more it supported Buddhism, the better Buddhist gods protected it in return.
They taught believers that in the Latter Day of the Law (mappo) when the court could not keep public order well, Buddhists had to use both preaching through sutras and military power to defend Buddhism. On the plea of defending Buddhism, monks began to violate the non-killing precept.
Another form of Buddhist armament was a religious riot. In the late 12th century, Honen (1133-1212), the founder of the Pureland Sect, insisted that in the Latter Day all the other traditional Buddhist sects could not save people and that simply chanting the holy name of the Amitabha Buddha is the only way for people to be saved.
Traditional Chinese and Japanese Buddhists had approved various ways of practice. Honen’s insistence was heretical and was suppressed by the court, but because of its simplicity it was supported by many people.
Shinran (1173-1262), a disciple of Honen, founded the True Pureland Sect. Nichiren (1222-82) also founded the Lotus Sect. These two sects were extremely simple-minded.
The former was supported by many lower-ranking warriors and peasants in rural areas, and the latter by merchants and artisans in urban areas. In the 15th century the believers of the former revolted extensively against feudal lords again and again. The believers of the latter also defended Kyoto against greedy lords and True Pureland Sect’s riots. These two sects’ believers used violence to build their religious utopia.
In the 19th century, Meiji government established Shintoism as the state religion instead of Buddhism. Buddhist priests were deprived of their clergy privilege. The government imposed military service on priests. The traditional Buddhist sects allowed it, for fear that they might be oppressed.
Moreover, they insisted that military service was a Buddhist duty and approved that the non-killing precept allowed one to kill the enemy to defend one’s country. So priests did't keep the precept.
Almost all the Buddhist sects supported Japanese imperialistic invasions into the Korean peninsula and mainland China. Although they gave funeral services for the enemy fallen as well as Japanese ones, they didn’t blame war.
Japan was devastated during World War II, and established a new constitution which declares that Japan abandons military force and doesn’t fight other countries, following US demands. Disastrous experiences during and after the war made the Japanese Buddhist sects advocate peace and nonviolence. Many new Buddhist organizations also campaigned for peace.
Among these movements, we can mention Nipponzan Myohoji for their anti-military-base demonstrations, Rissho Koseikai for World Conference on Religion and Peace, and Soka Gakkai for the publication of people’s wartime experiences.
However, the US changed its policy toward Japan and demanded Japan’s remilitarization and dispatching of troops abroad. Although mainstream Japanese politics wanted to keep national pacifism and economic prosperity without any military burden, Japan consented to US demands to some extent.
Many Buddhist organizations still advocate peace and object to dispatching troops abroad. In this situation, Soka Gakkai encounters some difficulties. The New Komei Party supported by Soka Gakkai now forms a ruling coalition and approves of dispatching troops abroad. Many members of Soka Gakkai are more or less pacifists and find themselves ambivalent.
Some Buddhist pacifists urge for absolute pacifism and nonviolence, citing an episode that the Shakya clan was destroyed because they thought being killed is better than killing from a karmic viewpoint. However, this episode is included in a primary Buddhist scripture which has been criticized as Hinayana and rejected by Chinese and Japanese Buddhists.
As mentioned above, Japanese Buddhists accepted Mahayana Buddhism. Some Mahayana Buddhist scriptures allow people to abandon the non-killing precept in order to keep public order and Buddhism. Historically Japanese Buddhists have ignored the precept. If Buddhist pacifists urge for absolute nonviolence, I think they have to abandon some teachings of Mahayana Buddhism.
Some urge for conditional pacifism. They approve of using some violence to keep peace and security, and for self-defense. In another case, some may think people’s violence for self-emancipation is more tolerable than tyrannical violent oppression. They think less violence is better than more violence.
However, in these cases, there is no Buddhist doctrinal justification to use violence for peace and security without conditions of defending Buddhism. It means ironically that to defend Buddhism more violence is justified.
This logic was used in the cases of monk soldiers and religious riots. I doubt if conditional Buddhist pacifists can give doctrinal justification for their use of violence.
Moreover, there is some extreme justification for murder in Treatise on Great Liberating Wisdom pseudepigraphically attributed to Nagarjuna (ca. the 1st -2nd century). It teaches that as everything is empty, there is no sentient being as substance. Even if you kill a sentient being, you actually kill nothing; therefore you don’t commit a murder. I wonder if someone can blame killing when he or she believes the idea of emptiness as one of the essential Buddhist doctrines.
If some Buddhists want to promote peace and nonviolence, they have to solve these problems. It means that they have to deny explicitly some parts of Buddhist teachings that are incompatible with pacifism.