Holy Buddhist Warrior Monk and Japanese Art: Benkei (1155-1189)
Lee Jay Walker
Modern Tokyo Times
The legendary Saito no Musashibo Benkei (1155-1189) is a sublime Japanese warrior monk who remained loyal to the very end. He served the historically famous Minamoto no Yoshitsune during a period of changing dynamics in the land of the rising sun. Therefore, despite his relatively short life, the warrior monk Benkei leaves behind an intriguing and noble legacy.
In the realm of Japanese ukiyo-e, then Benkei provides ample opportunities to depict given his strength, wisdom, virtue, and amazing loyalty. Not only is Benkei esteemed within Japanese art but equally glorified in the literature and folklore of this nation.
Buddhism also enlightened Benkei and gave him a firm footing in fighting the good fight based on the wishes of Yoshitsune. Indeed, the warrior monks of Buddhism were ardent individuals that beseeched loyalty on different Buddhist sects – and being loyal to respective daimyo leaders.
According to Japanese folklore, Benkei was extremely tall, even by the standards of today. This is based on information that he had reached 2 meters in height by the time he was 17 years of age. On top of this, Benkei had enormous physical and mental strength. Not surprisingly, this appealed greatly to Yoshitsune based on political and military intrigues.
I state in a past article “… within Japanese folklore, the mysteries of history, and Shintoism, then many intriguing stories evolve around Benkei. He firmly belongs to the power and prestige of Buddhism and the warrior class that emerged during this period of Japanese history. However, just like Judaism, Christianity, and Islam have all been influenced by the Pagan culture where these faiths developed; this similarly happened to Benkei in relation to aspects of indigenous Buddhism. In other words, the power of Shintoism and indigenous folklore became fused within many elements of Japanese Buddhism. Therefore, these intriguing stories about Benkei have clearly survived the test of time because he remains a potent figure today in modern Japan.”
In time, it is claimed that Benkei became a potent yamabushi (mountain warrior monk) according to handed down history and folklore. This isn’t surprising because the yamabushi were blessed with fine qualities. Therefore, these mountain warriors utilized religious knowledge, strength, nature, hardship, and other areas, that became honed within respective supernatural powers. Asceticism was equally important in developing each yamabushi based on the Shugendo doctrine.
I state in another article about Benkei and the concepts of Shugendo that “The Shugendo doctrine evolved around the fusions and integration of many powerful thought patterns. This applies to the school of Shingon Buddhism, the esoteric nature of this faith, rich heritage of Shintoism, the Tendai Buddhist faith and the great philosophy of Taoism that emanates from China. Therefore, the yamabushi were not just mysterious holy men who had mighty powers in the area of military strength – but, equally important, was the knowledge that each individual obtained in this world and how they utilized this inside the mystery of nature.”
Benkei is a very intriguing warrior monk who remains potent in modern Japan. Equally important, by studying about Benkei then many amazing aspects of old Japan becomes illuminated.
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