Not only are Buddhist monks in Japan allowed to get married and have children, they are also allowed to eat meat and consume alcohol. However, these only apply to some of them. Monks who have vowed to be celibate are not allowed to do the aforementioned things, whereas monks who have not vowed to be celibate are allowed to do so. The same thing also applies to Buddhist nuns and monks in other countries. Who are these individuals that usually take a vow of celibacy? Why is it more common in Japan compared to other countries? Read more to find out!
Monks in Japan got married as early as the Heian period (平安; 794 to 1185), and this continued to the Kamakura (鎌倉; 1185 to 1333), Muromachi (室町; 1336 to 1570), and Edo (江戸; 1600 to 1867) periods, all the way to the present.
In Japan and in other Asian countries, there are many different Buddhist schools, which branched out into different sects, and later into different branches. These different Buddhist schools and sects carry different approaches and views on the same teaching, Buddhism. Some Buddhist sects founded in Japan include Zen (禅), Risshu (律宗), Shingon (真言), and many more. Recent ones include the likes of Soka Gakkai (創価学会), Rissho Kosei Kai (立正佼成会), Nipponzan-Myohoji-Daisanga (日本山妙法寺大僧伽), and others.
Basically, monks ordinated from the Mahayana school of teaching (マハヤナ学園), like Zen, Tendai (天台), Jodo-shu (浄土宗), etc., are not required to be celibate. However, there are monks from these sects who choose to be celibate. Monks who disrobe, or in layman’s terms those who choose to quit, can forgo their celibacy.
The year 1868 officially marked the end of the Bakufu after 800 years of rule and the restoration of the Emperor’s power. It was also a turning point for Japan where its doors were open to the world and modernization was being carried out. It also meant that anything related to the Bakufu will be destroyed or abolished, and that, unfortunately, included the religion of Buddhism.
Before the Meiji Restoration (明治維新), both Shinto and Buddhism were united in what was called Shinbutsu-shugo (神仏習合). However, when the Emperor came into power, Shinto was separated from Buddhism. Why is that so? The Emperor of Japan has been recognized as a descendant of the kami (神), or god, based on the Shinto religion, and while the Shogun favored Buddhism, the Emperor did not. This eventually led to the purging of Buddhism, also known as “Haibutsu kishaku (廃仏毀釈),” where temples were destroyed and Buddhist monks were forced to become Shinto monks.
In 1872, the Meiji Government further decreed that Buddhist monks should be free to eat meat and marry by issuing the Nikujiku Saitai Law. It was viewed as a way for the government to weaken Buddhist institutions. However, there were some monks who chose to stay celibate. This law eventually led to the practice of “temple families” where the administration of temples and monasteries is handed down from fathers to sons. This practice eventually influenced countries like Korea and Taiwan.
Hopefully, the explanations above managed to answer the question that has been lingering in the mind of most people in regards to the celibacy of monks in Japan. Here, I would like to end with a quote from Honen (法然), the founder of Jodo-shu: “If it is easier for him or her to express faith by reciting the Buddha’s name alone, he or she should be celibate. If it is easier to do that with a spouse, it is better to marry. What is important is only how one expresses one’s faith in reciting the Buddha’s name.”