Modern Komusō

Prohibition and revival of the Fuke-sect

On October 28, 1872, the Fuke-sect and the Komusō were forbidden by the Meiji government. In the justification of the prohibition, it was said that the Komusō, by wearing the Buddhist robe (kesa 袈裟) and the characteristic basket-shaped hat (tengai 天蓋), gave themselves the appearance of Buddhist priests. But in reality they lived in laity because they had neither taken the Buddhist priest's vows nor did they spread the doctrine of Buddhism. They also did not carry out Buddhist ceremonies like burials. Nevertheless, they regularly went through the cities and towns to receive alms (takuhatsu 托鉢) what was - and still is - one of the privilege of the Buddhist clergy.

One other point of criticism was that, although in the Edo period only Samurai were allowed to become members of the Fuke-sect (which is a slightly disturbing rule for a Buddhist sect anyway), they had given out Komusō license against payment irrespective of social status. Thereby numerous dark figures appeared to have been lured into the community. The tengai ensured anonymity and the opportunity to receive alms. The Komusō had permission to travel to other provinces for their religious pilgrimages (angya 行脚), whereas leaving one's home province was usually not allowed during the Edo period. In consequence the Fuke-sect had came to the reputation of being a pool of submerged criminals or even spies for then ancient regime. Even in present day historic Japanese dramas Komusō often appear as the bad guys.

But the religion-critical policy of the Meiji government did not only affect the Fuke-sect. In 1873 takuhatsu was initially forbidden to all other Buddhist schools, but this general prohibition only lasted until 1881. Since the Komusō, however, were were no longer recognized as Buddhist priests, the possibility of receiving alms was denied to them. On 16 December 1881 large parts of the temple Tōfuku-ji 東福寺 were destroyed. In order to finance the reconstruction of the destroyed temple, a large collection of donations was to be carried out at the Tōfuku-ji, which, according to the legal situation at the time, was only possible with the permission of the Ministry of the Interior; this permit was granted to Tōfuku-ji. Since the former temple of the Fuke.sect, Meian-ji, was to be involved in the collection of donations for the reconstruction of the temple, the Tōfuku-ji once again gave the license to the former Komusō, which allowed them to receive alms. In August 1890 the Myōan-kyōkai 明暗教会 ("Myōan Church") was founded at Myōan-ji within Tōfuku-ji and this community exists until today.

The members of the Myōan-kyōkai now went collecting alms with their Shakuhachi, just like the Komusō in the Edo period had done. They wore a wooden sign, explaining that they were collecting donations for the reconstruction of Tōfuku-ji temple. The community grew constantly, and around 1920, the reconstruction of the Tōfuku-ji was gradually completed, so that the original goal of the Myōan-kyōkai fell into the background. The community has now placed the teaching and transmission of Komusō-Shakuhachi practice at the center of its activity and with this mission it is still active today.

Members of the Koten-shakuhachi-kenkyū-kai at Myōan-ji

in September 2009.

November 2017 at Myōan-ji.

Are the Komusō Buddhist priests?

The English word Buddhist priest or monk usually refers to someone who has taken or rather "received" certain religious vows (jukai 授戒). During the respective ceremony the new monk or nun receives a Buddhist name, a "vow's name" (kaimyō 戒名). The outer sign of such a person is, that he has his head shaved. One often used Japanese term is bōzu 坊主 or - in direct encounter or politely o-bō-san お坊さん (male version).

The "Ceremoniy of Receiving the Vows" or "Ceremony of Leaving one's Home" shukke-tokudo 出家得度 marks the beginning of a longer practice-period within a Buddhist monastery, that can last from one up to several years, depending on family and academic background. Only after completing that formal education someone can be called a priest in the real sense. He would be able to become abbot of a temple and to perform the religious ceremonies that are required to do so.

The Komusō come from all walks of life. They do not receive the vows of a Buddhist monk or nun and do not shave their heads. Neither do they live in temples or wear Buddhist robes, except for some ritual appearances. Having the hair grown (u-hatsu 有髪) was always one of the typical features of the Komusō. And if you come to a Komusō meeting today no one will have their hair shaved - except of course, if someone who is already Buddhist priest by profession and decides to become a Komusō afterwards. Nevertheless, the Komusō wear the Buddhist robe (kesa 袈裟 or rakusu 絡子) over their everyday clothes when playing the Shakuhachi formally, as a sign that they are engaged in religious activities. In the Edo period a kimono was the normal clothing, therefore the kesa was worn over a kimono. (Zen priests wear a black or blue coloured Tang-Chinese-style robe over the kimono, the koromo 衣.) And that is the style still adopted today if a Komusō prepares to do takuhatsu, the traditional receiving of alms.

Nowadays the kesa is in many cases worn on top of the usual Western clothing, for playing at a temple. This practice of wearing some kind of kesa by lay people is not limited to the Komusō but can be found in other Buddhist denominations as well, e.g. when a Buddhist community makes a pilgrimage to some famous temple.

The Kamakura period Buddhist teacher Shinran 親鸞 (1173-1263) started those "blurring of the lines" between laity and clergy in Japan. He called himself "neither priest no layman" (hisō-hizoku 非僧非俗) and was the first Buddhist monk to officially get married in Japan (for what he developed a sophisticated Buddhological justification). Shinran was not a Zen-Buddhist but belonged to and reformed Japanese Pure-Land-Buddhism, but his influence on Japanese Buddhist life was enormous and many specifics of Japanese Buddhism start with him. So - maybe - it is save to say that the Komusō are as well "neither priests nor lay-people"?