Buddhism Warrior Monk Traditions
Mikael Adolphson
  • LAST REVIEWED: 13 January 2014
  • LAST MODIFIED: 13 January 2014
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195393521-0180


Warrior monks in the Asian setting usually refer to members of Buddhist monastic communities who fight for their religious masters. However, beyond that very basic description, there are at least two general categories that have been treated by scholars in Western languages. First, several monasteries in East Asia, specifically in China, Korea, and Japan, employed warriors, many of them highly trained, for protection and to exercise what they considered to be their rightful political and economic rights in the premodern period, mainly before 1600. In many cases, these warriors had monastic names, though they rarely had extensive religious training. In other cases, they were merely warriors fighting for a monastery rather than a secular master. Buddhist monk warriors are similar to European Templars and crusaders only in name. Templars had their own orders and temples, and they fought against external threats, as their enemies were seen as the “other” under the banner of a different religion. East Asia’s monk warriors, on the other hand, were incorporated under the umbrella of a larger monastery, but were rarely motivated by doctrinal concerns, even if the enemy on occasion—as in the case of Japan’s invasions of Korea—was an outsider. In other words, East Asia’s monastic warriors did not fight over faith or try to convert their opponents from one religion to another, since they were mainly operating under the same religious denomination. Rather, they protected their monasteries and land from competitors, be they secular or Buddhist. The second category of scholarship centers on violence involving Buddhist monks and supporters in the modern age, which is most relevant in the regions of South and Southeast Asia. In contrast to treatments of monastic warriors of the premodern age, analyses of violent Buddhists in modern times have tended to have a stronger focus on doctrinal themes, such as the moral justification for violence in a religion that has traditionally been seen as peaceful, or at least less prone to violence than others. Accordingly, since representations of modern monastics engaged in violence differ from those of earlier times, they comprise a different set of assumptions and expectations, centering most often on how Buddhist thought can justify violence. The categories below combine a geographical focus, which is a common approach by scholars whose expertise is confined by national boundaries, with thematic approaches.

General Overviews

Owing to the country-specific focuses of most scholars, there are currently few studies that address warrior monk traditions in Asia in general, but some early works like Demiéville 1973 tended to make more sweeping generalizations, while others make brief references to them. Recent publications in this category include a number of edited volumes, such as Jerryson and Juergensmeyer 2010; Juergensmeyer 2000; Zimmermann, et al. 2006; and Tikhonov and Brekke 2013, with essays on different regions and topics.

  • Demiéville, Paul. “Le bouddhisme et la guerre: Post-scriptum à l’Histoire des moines guerriers du Japon de G. Renondeau.” In Choix d’études Bouddhiques: 1929–1970. By Paul Demiéville, 261–299. Leiden, The Netherlands: Brill, 1973.

    One of the first publications in a Western language treating monastic warriors, originally written as a postscript to Renondeau 1957 (cited under Japan). The essay is outdated and lacks sophistication in its analysis, but provides a decent introduction to events and rhetoric involving monastic violence in the premodern period. Originally published in Mélanges publiés par l’Institut des Hautes Études Chinoises (1957): 347–385.

  • Jerryson, Michael K., and Mark Juergensmeyer, eds. Buddhist Warfare. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.

    DOI: 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195394832.001.0001

    A collection of essays discussing Buddhist rhetoric and involvement in violence and war in Asia. It aims to show Western readers that Buddhism has been frequently used to condone violence despite its peaceful representations outside Asia. It is mostly concerned with modern times, and concentrates on how Buddhism affected by nationalist ideologies condoned violence. Unfortunately, the question of what exactly constitutes Buddhist warfare is left unanswered.

  • Juergensmeyer, Mark. Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000.

    A theoretically grounded analysis of religious violence and terrorism in modern times, this work contains chapters on specific incidents involving Islam, Zionism, and Sikhism as well as Buddhism. It also discusses religious violence from a more theoretical perspective, but Buddhist violence or warriors are not central to the volume. The claim of a “global rise of religious violence” mainly hinges on the conflict between America and its Muslim opponents.

  • Tikhonov, Vladimir, and Torkel Brekke. Buddhism and Violence: Militarism and Buddhism in Modern Asia. New York and London: Routledge, 2013.

    A collection of essays coming from an international conference held in 2009 in Oslo, Norway, the volume consists of eleven essays, divided into three parts. The focus is on the modern period, with a broad coverage of regions and states, giving particular attention to Sri Lanka, Thailand, Korea, and Japan. The volume provides an excellent starting point for scholars wanting to explore Buddhism and violence in Asia.

  • Zimmermann, Michael, Chiew Hui Ho, and Philip Pierce, eds. Buddhism and Violence. Kathmandu: Lumbini International Research Institute, 2006.

    Relying mainly on a textual approach, the essays in this volume cover a spectrum of areas and eras, from monastic warriors and the killing of animals in premodern Japan to killing in Tibetan Buddhism and Buddhist rhetoric about suicide. Because of its wide scope, the volume lacks a common theoretical foundation, but it does demonstrate that Buddhist practitioners, like those of other religions, have been involved in violence throughout history.

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