Japanese art depicting a famous holy Buddhist warrior
Lee Jay Walker
Modern Tokyo Times
Saito no Musashibo Benkei (1155-1189) is a famous and highly esteemed Japanese warrior of the twelfth century. Not only is Benkei revered for his loyalty, prowess, and knowledge but also he is deeply admired for his Buddhist faith. Hence, Benkei’s loyalty to Minamoto no Yoshitsune during a time of intrigues and new dynamics remains alive today in modern Japan through the prism of art, culture, folklore, history, kabuki, literature, and new mediums.
Of course, in the realm of Japanese art then Benkei appealed greatly during the Edo Period through the prism of ukiyo-e. After all, the Tokugawa elites admired loyalty and reverence based on power concentration. At the same time, the Buddhist faith was utilized to the maximum in order to quell the ambitions of distant Christian powers, emanating from Europe, during the early part of the Edo Period.
Indeed, in modern Japan, the qualities of Benkei appeal because modern convulsions are altering all international nations that embrace modernity, high technology, work-pressured societies, and other areas of change. Yet, in Benkei, the past path of cultural and religious traits is a reminder for future generations that looking internally is more than enough. In other words, the richness of Buddhism, Shintoism, and a fusion of local folklore, is all that is needed to quench the soul and free the mind from trivial pursuits based on materialism. After all, Benkei’s life in this world was short-lived because he refused to shy away from the bigger picture, in the knowledge that life is like a butterfly. Therefore, faith and loyalty guided Benkei through times of light and darkness because his Buddhist faith crushed doubt, fear, weakness, and focusing on worldly things.
In a past article, I state, “… 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.”
It is widely claimed that in time Benkei turned to the mysteries of the yamabushi (the mountain warrior monks) according to Japanese folklore. This isn’t surprising given his military prowess and the impact of Buddhism on his inner-soul. Equally important, the yamabushi were famous for amazing qualities based on religious knowledge, living with nature, enduring severe hardship, and other noble areas.
Also, the asceticism of the Shugendo doctrine of esoteric Buddhism based on the richness of Shingon Buddhism fused many ideas, faiths, and philosophies together. For Benkei, and other warrior monks, the Buddhist sects of Shingon and Tendai – along with aspects of Shintoism and Taoism – enabled these warriors to reach a different plain outside of traditional warriors. Therefore, the natural physical strength of Benkei, who was believed to be at least 2 meters tall, was matched by his religious conviction and Benkei’s abiding loyalty to Yoshitsune until the very end.
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Some Japanese art and cultural articles by Modern Tokyo Times are republished based on the unique traits of Japan.