Married Monks: Japan’s Non-Monastic Buddhist Priesthood

The root of all suffering, according to Buddhism, is craving—longing for objects of the senses and wanting things to be one way and not wanting them to be another. Freedom from suffering, on the other hand, is to be found in the extinction, or “nirvāṇa”, of this very craving. Naturally, the path of practice that leads to this goal has renunciation—letting go of the things we crave and desire—at its core.

While the vast majority of Buddhist followers practise their creed in the midst of worldly life, there have always been some who aspire to commit more fully to the path of renunciation than what such a lifestyle can afford. It was in order to honour and encourage such aspirations that the Buddha, himself a monk and renunciant, created the Buddhist monastic order, or Sangha, almost two and a half millennia ago. In the centuries that followed, the Buddhist movement grew and spread throughout the Indian subcontinent and beyond. As it did so, the Sangha grew and spread along with it. Today the Sangha, if taken as a whole, is the world’s largest and oldest monastic order. The monk or nun in monastic garb and with a shaven head is also, besides images of the Buddha, the most recognizable physical representation of Buddhism.

Part of what sets members of the Sangha, or any monastic community for that matter, apart from the rest of society, are the various renunciatory rules and precepts governing the lives of its members. Of these, perhaps the most central are those concerning celibacy. According to the Vinaya-piṭaka, the section of the Buddhist canon concerned with the monastic code, or Vinaya, the first rule the Buddha ever laid down was a prohibition on sexual intercourse. Not only does lust constitute an exceedingly strong and persistent form of sensual desire, acting upon the sexual impulse also leads to strong attachments and entanglements with the world. Sexual activity is therefore particularly problematic in the context of a renunciatory spiritual practice and strikes at the very heart of the monastic concept. This helps explain why sexual intercourse by a monk or nun was deemed one of the heaviest offences against the Vinaya code, on a par with theft and intentional homicide. Any fully ordained monk or nun committing the offence is expelled for life—automatically and with immediate effect.

With the passage of time, and as Buddhism became integrated into societies and cultures very different from that of its original Indian homeland, many of the lesser monastic rules were subtly altered or ignored altogether. As monks and nuns began growing their own food (itself constituting multiple minor violations), many communities scrapped the practice of mendicancy, or relying for their sustenance on offerings from the lay community; the injunction against handling money became overlooked by most; and in the colder climates to the north of India, monks and nuns grew accustomed to taking food in the evening, in defiance of the rule against eating after midday. Still, the basic, fundamental precepts appear to have been maintained by most. To this day, Buddhist monks and nuns in almost every traditional Buddhist country are still expected to adhere to a monastic lifestyle and are enjoined from getting married and starting families.

As far as appearances go, the Buddhist clergy of Japan does not differ substantially from its counterparts elsewhere. Its members live in temples or monasteries, wear monastic robes, and shave their heads. Appearances, however, can be deceptive, for Japanese male Buddhist clerics do not generally observe monastic precepts, nor are they expected to. In fact, the great majority are married—at a whopping 90 per cent, the share is significantly higher than for the population in general. It is common practice in the Zen tradition for new clerics to spend time in training monasteries, where they temporarily live according to monastic rules and regulations. In some sects, such as those of the Rinzai school, holders of high clerical office are supposedly expected to remain celibate for life. There are also, to be sure, some clerics who on their own initiative choose to live according to the monastic precepts. But for most, getting married is not just tolerated, it has become almost a requirement. Producing a son who can take over as temple custodian is often the only way for an abbot to ensure continuity from one generation to the next.

The history leading up to the present situation is a complex one. The male clergy of the Jōdo Shinshū, or True Pure Land School, have been openly non-celibate since the time of its founder, eight centuries ago. For the other denominations, however, this only became the case beginning in the late nineteenth century. Under the Tokugawa shogunate government, which ruled the country from 1603 to 1868, precept violations by non-Shinshū monks and nuns were serious criminal offences. Although prosecutions were few, the penalties could be severe: monks caught being too friendly with the ladies, for instance, might find themselves banished to some far-away island or, in some cases, even subjected to public execution. Still, non-celibate monks outside Jōdo Shinshū may have been far more prevalent than the limited number of prosecutions would seem to indicate. Accounts of non-celibate clergy go far back in time. From as early as the Nara period in the eighth century, there are reports of large numbers of self-ordained monks. These were men who took on the monastic role without going through government-approved procedures. While some were genuine renunciants, many are thought to have been laymen who only pretended to be monks in order to escape onerous taxes. It is also well-established that many so-called monseki, aristocratic abbots of the medieval period, had families and passed on their abbacies in father-to-son lineages.

Around the end of the eighth century, Saichō, the founder of the Tendai school, one of the main schools of Japanese Buddhism, instituted a reform of the ordination procedures. Perhaps his intention was simply to remedy a situation where many monks and nuns had disposed with ordination procedures all together; perhaps he wanted to bring the procedures more in line with Mahayana tradition by de-emphasising the Vinaya aspect. Whatever the case may be, as a result of his reform the traditional Vinaya-based ordination procedures became gradually replaced with ones based on the Bodhisattva precepts of the Mahayana Brahmajāla Sūtra. These eventually became the standard method of ordaining new clergy, not just for members of the Tendai school itself but for virtually all monks and nuns in Japan. The rules of the Vinaya are specifically, and exclusively, directed at monks and nuns who have been fully accepted into the Sangha according to the Vinaya's own procedures. This means that, at least technically speaking, Japanese monks and nuns were from then on no longer bound by its rules. This is of some significance as the Bodhisattva precepts of the Brahmajāla Sūtra are not specifically monastic. They may equally well be given to committed lay practitioners, as they often were. For while the Vinaya contains injunctions against all forms of sexual activity, the Bodhisattva precepts merely proscribe “sexual misconduct”. In the case of monastics, it is true, this was usually understood to mandate total sexual abstinence. However, since that is not explicitly spelled out, there always existed a certain amount of wriggle-room absent from the Vinaya’s blanket prohibition.

An even more definite and far-reaching departure from the monastic model came four centuries later. Shinran, a follower of the Pure Land doctrine, had been a monk from a young age but was at one point defrocked and forced into exile, perhaps because of an ambivalent attitude to the monastic precepts. This, however, did not stop him from carrying on his religious vocation. A tireless preacher, he was highly revered by his mostly peasant followers. He married a nun and famously pronounced himself to be “neither monk nor layman”. Arguing that the monastic form, along with meditation and other nan-gyō, or “difficult practices”, was no longer suitable for the current age, he encouraged his followers instead to place all their faith in the saving powers of the celestial Buddha Amitābha (Jp.: Amida). This ‘populist’ approach to the Dharma proved hugely popular, and the school which grew out of Shinran’s ministry, the Jōdo Shinshū, eventually became—and continues to be—the largest of all the Japanese Buddhist schools. Unlike the hidden non-celibacy which may or may not have been rampant in the other schools, the clergy of Shinshū, who had their own non-monastic ordination procedures, were openly non-celibate. During the period of the Tokugawa shogunate, they were specifically exempted from the criminalisation of non-celibacy and other precept violations enacted against the clergy of the other Buddhist schools. A peculiar feature of the period was the uses to which the Buddhist clergy was put by the government. Entrusted with registering and keeping a tab on the entire populace, they came to function somewhat like de-facto government agents. To facilitate this, the great majority lived spread out in small village temples where there was little or no opportunity for contact with other clerics. This made it more difficult to maintain strict monastic standards; motivation to do so may have been low; and they were also more exposed to members of the opposite sex than their predecessors had been in the large monastic complexes of the medieval era. Under such circumstances, it is not unlikely that some members of the ‘monastic’ Buddhist schools decided to discreetly emulate their Shinshū colleagues.

As was the case in post-medieval Europe, criticism of the clergy became commonplace among Japanese intellectuals from the late sixteenth century onward. Several texts from the Tokugawa period castigate the clergy for being decadent and sexually promiscuous. Nikujiki saitai ben, a Shinshū text from the seventeenth century lists numerous temples from the supposedly monastic schools, both contemporary and of the past, where, it alleged, monks kept wives and had families. Reliable evidence for such claims, however, is difficult to come by. Because of the criminal nature of precept violations perpetrators naturally sought to hide their infractions, leaving very little in terms of first-hand documentation. A perhaps better place to look is the clerical marriage registrations submitted during the period following the overthrow of the shogunate in 1868.

In 1872, five years after seizing power, the new government, known as the Meiji government after the Emperor’s era name, promulgated a law that put an end to the criminalisation of precept violations. “From now on”, the law stated, “it is up to monks [to decide whether they want to] eat meat, get married, or grow their hair”. A similar law for nuns followed soon thereafter. What this meant in practice was that the government would no longer police nor act as a guardian for the Buddhist clergy. Critics have also suggested it might have been a roundabout way of undermining and disempowering the Sangha. Whatever the case, the new law was staunchly opposed by clergy leaders but welcomed by many rank-and-file clerics. Soon large numbers opted to get married. The speed at which this happened, as well as the extent, suggest that many were simply coming out publicly about already-existing relationships, now that it was safe to do so. By the 1930s, when the first surveys of clerical marriage were undertaken, it appears the majority of male clerics in the non-Shinshū denominations were married. As the new government policies had in large part been modelled on those of predominantly Protestant Western countries, the system of non-celibate clergy found in the Protestant denominations had obviously been influential. But so had the example of the Shinshū school, which is thought to have provided the main blueprint for the non-monastic form which had now come to prevail.

Today, Japan still has tens of thousands of Buddhist temples managed by almost sixty thousand mostly male clerics. Exquisitely beautiful and deeply atmospheric, Japanese temples are great monuments to the superb traditions of the country’s artisanship and testimony to an ancient spiritual culture. But indications of present-day religious fervour they are not. For, whether there is a connection or not, faith in Buddhism appears to have lessened in tandem with the disappearance of the monastic tradition. According to the Agency for Cultural Affairs, approximately 85 million, or almost seventy per cent of the population, belong to one Buddhist sect or another. However, in recent surveys about individual faith, only about 27 per cent of respondents considered themselves religious. Thus, the Zen devotee visiting from abroad will be disappointed to find that the enthusiasm for Zen found in certain Western circles is strikingly lacking in its country of origin. During my own sojourn in Japan during the 1990s, I had the opportunity to attend lectures on Buddhism at a Zen-affiliated university. There, almost all my fellow students were young men from “temple families”; that is, young men whose fathers were temple priests and who were studying in order to take over the “family business”. Students from “non-temple” backgrounds were few and far between. The same goes for the clergy itself: it has become a mostly in-house affair, with very few outsiders seeking to join its ranks.

On a final note, it should be mentioned that there is one group of Buddhist monastics who have mostly maintained the monastic form to this day—namely the nuns. That, however, would have been more significant if there weren’t so few of them. Unlike in neighbouring South Korea, where nuns make up half of the Sangha, and Taiwan, where nuns vastly outnumber monks, the nuns’ community in Japan is but a tiny fraction of the male clergy—a mere one thousand individuals to the latter’s sixty thousand. Their number has been rather stable for most of the previous century. At present, however, it appears to be decreasing due to a lack of new recruits. The author of one Japanese-language blog post considered the situation so dismal that he or she worried there might not be a single nun left within the next couple of decades. It is revealing that this is lamented as a cultural loss, not as a spiritual or religious one. But who, in a modern, affluent society, would want to make the sacrifices required by the monastic life for cultural reasons alone?

By Bjarne Jakhelln-Semb
Published May 11, 2021 2:15 PM - Last modified May 11, 2021 2:33 PM