Monks, Monks and Monks: yes, there is a difference

While writing A Traveler’s Guide to the Hamato Islands, a reference guide for my Dungeons and Dragons campaign setting, set in early-medieval Japan (roughly analogous to the Muromachi Period for history nerds), it became painfully obvious that they way that D&D uses the term “monk” is confusing and overloaded.

When most Westerners, including people who play Dungeons and Dragons think of a “monk”, they think of something like this:

Photo by Shi Deru (a.k.a. Shawn Xiangyang Liu), CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The monk class in Dungeons and Dragons is entirely built from this image of a martial-arts master, with some vague philosophical underpinnings.

The catch is that the vast majority of monks in Asian culture are more like this:


Such monks are more like clerics in Dungeons and Dragons, than martial-arts experts: they are devoted to a religious path, recite prayers, sometimes provide medicinal or scholarly services, and are usually not trained in combat due to their vows.

Further confusing the matter is that in medieval Japan, there were also soldier-monks or sohei (僧兵):


All of these people are called “monks” in English, isn’t necessarily wrong, but what Westerners imagine a monk to be is somewhat off the mark and based on confusing cultural assumptions. What follows is a long, long explanation of what monks are and are not, and why the game-designers of Dungeons and Dragons kind of missed the mark (though in fairness, these misunderstandings are common in Western culture).

If you want the TL;DR version: monks are first and foremost Buddhist priests (e.g. clerics), not kung-fu masters. They have renounced worldly life in order to pursue the Buddhist teachings (e.g. the Dharma) full-time unlike the laity. A few monastic communities in China, and pretty much only China, adopted hand-to-hand combat as well, which is where the Shaolin / kung-fu image comes from. But while all Shaolin are monks (e.g. Buddhist priests), most Buddhist monks never take any martial arts training. In countries like Japan, such a tradition never even existed. Westerners conflate Chinese and Japanese traditions into a single hollywood-style image, and D&D then adopted this image into its “monk” class even though most monks would be more analogous to the “cleric” class. The sohei above probably are closer to paladins instead.

Warning: long, long explanation post from here on. Feel free to skip.

Bhikkhus and Bhikkunis

The original, archetypal “monk” is Asian culture is a Buddhist ascetic. The native term in Pali one of the earliest liturgical languages of Buddhism is bhikkhu, or bhikkhuni for women. A bhikkhu or bhikkhuni is someone who has “left home” and renounced the worldly life in order to devote him or herself to the Dharma, the teachings of the Buddha, full-time.

This is an important contrast in Buddhism because lay-followers can’t practice or apply the Dharma full-time due to the other commitments: work, family, etc. In order for a bhikkhu or bhikkhuni to successfully apply the Dharma to fruition, they need to let go of worldly obligations. It’s not that one is better than the other, it’s just that it’s a tradeoff: you either get to keep your stuff, or you get to apply the Dharma to fruition, it’s difficult to do both.

In order to maintain discipline among the monastic community (e.g. the Vinaya), the bhikkhu or bhikkhuni has to undertake a series of vows, called the Pratimoksa, including such things as:

  • Not handling any money
  • Harm no living beings (hence they’re usually vegetarian, though interpretations vary)
  • Not engaging in politics, romantic relationships, etc. In other words, worldly entanglements.
  • Not accumulating stuff, or asking for stuff.

In this respect, bhikkhu and bhikkhuni are a lot like Christian monks in that they renounce worldly life, devote themselves to religion full-time, and maintain a series of vows. This is probably how and why the terms “monks” and “nuns” are used when describing Buddhist bhikkhu and bhikkhuni. So far, we’re good.

Buddhism in China and East Asia

In time, Buddhism reached China over the Silk Road, but the task of importing Buddhism was not trivial: the cultures were vastly different, as well as underlying religion assumptions. And then there’s the language.

Early monks and translators had the monumental task of translating Indian-Buddhist religion terms (with all the cultural baggage that comes with them) into Chinese terms. Early on, Chinese-Taoist terms were often used, but eventually Chinese-Buddhist vocabulary matured and the less confusing between Buddhism and Taoism.1 An example of this are the terms bhikkhu and bhikkhuni. These were changed to natively Chinese terms like 和尚 (hé shàng) or 僧侶 (sēng lǚ) or “monks”, and 比丘尼 (bǐ qiū ní) for “nuns”.

Additionally, the monastic community, and its rules also evolved over time both in India, and further in China where the culture differed significantly (begging for alms was strongly frowned upon in Confucian culture). The basic principles remained the same, but cultural pressures forced some changes. A major source for Buddhist monastic conduct in east Asia is a Buddhist sutra called the Brahma Net Sutra2 which has among other things:

At its heart though, Chinese monks and nuns were still carrying on the same tradition as Indian bhikkhu and bhikkhuni including a life of simplicity, non-violence, and religious devotion.

Warfare and Monks in China

After the heyday of the Tang Dynasty, when Buddhism was the de facto state religion for China, the Buddhist monastic community found itself in a more hostile environment. Confucian backlash meant that some monasteries were closed, and at various times, monks were attacked, robbed, defrocked forcefully, etc.

Buddhist monks had to maintain their vows, but also had to reasonably defend themselves, and some monastic communities chose to adopt and develop Chinese hand-to-hand combat into their training. Such kung-fu has origins in Taoism, not Buddhism, not all Buddhist monastic communities used it, and those that did have become somewhat “hybrid” communities, blending elements of Taoism and Buddhism. There are many, many monks (i.e. bhikkhu and bhikkhuni) in China who do not practice martial arts at all, and have no more experience than the general lay community. While the Shaolin have become the face of “asian monks” in Western culture, this is the exception, not the rule.

Monks in Japan

Another culture in east Asia, Japan, took an entirely different route. Hand-to-hand combat as we know it was never a major feature in Japanese military history (karate was developed in Okinawa which was a separate kingdom and culture until the 17th century). To repeat (and I literally had to explain this to a “martial arts fan” recently online) there is little or no tradition of hand-to-hand combat comparable to kung-fu in medieval Japan.

Buddhism was imported to Japan from China (and Korea), and with it, the same monastic community, with its rules based on the Brahma Net Sutra, but this was long before monks in China adopted any self-defense measures. Monks in Japan, as with monks in the rest of east Asia, were expected to focus on religious duties, chanting sutras, praying for the well-being of others, studying, teaching, officiating ceremonies, etc. In other words, clerical stuff.

Starting with the late Heian Period, major Buddhist temples became embroiled in political squabbles due to how head monks were appointed (usually from noble families who were entangled in said squabbles) causing temple-on-temple animosity. These large, urban temples then started to employ bodyguards, who were given provisional ordination. These guards, became sohei or “monk-soldiers”. Their monastic training was minimal, and they were not always good at self-regulating their conduct. The sohei were soldiers first and foremost, and their job was to defend and further political interests of the temple they were devoted to. Again, to reiterate, sohei usually did not undertake the full monastic code of the Brahma Net Sutra; they were more like lay-followers or “deacons”. In Dungeons and Dragons, these are probably the closest thing in Japan to a paladin class warrior due to their religious vows and martial training. In any case, the sohei as a fighting force was totally decimated by Oda Nobunaga and ceased to exist after that.

Buddhist Religious Terms for Monks

As we’ve seen, Indian-Buddhism has terms for Buddhist monks and nuns, but as monasteries grew in size and complexity, people had to assume different roles, and various terms were created in China and Japan as a result:

  • 僧侶 – this is the general term for a Buddhist monk, a bhikkhu. In Chinese, this is read as sēng lǚ, and in Japanese sōryo.
  • 和尚 – this is a term for a high-ranking monk, preceptor, or a head-monk (often in a smaller monastery). In Chinese, this is read as hé shàng, or oshō in Japan.
  • 法師 – this is an special title for exemplary and/or famous monks, and means “master of the Dharma [the Buddha’s teachings]” In Chinese this is read as fǎ shī and hōshi in Japan.
  • 律師 – this is a special title for a Buddhist monk who specializes in understanding and applying the monastic code, the Vinaya. In Chinese this is read as lǜ shī or risshi in Japanese.
  • 禅師 – this is another special title for a Buddhist monk, given to someone who specializes in the practice of meditation. In Chinese, this is read as chán shī or zenji in Japanese.
  • 阿闍梨 – this is yet another title for a Buddhist monk, one who specializes in esoteric (Vajrayana) practices. In Chinese this is read as ā shé lí, and as ajari in Japan, and derives from the Indian-Buddhist term Āchārya.

And then there’s specific terms for hierarchy and such with a monastery:

  • 僧正 – this is a title that’s roughly analogous to a “bishop” in Western-Christian culture. As far as I know, it was only used in Japanese monastic communities, and is read as sōjō.
  • 堂僧 – this is a term used for “hall monks” or mundane monks who perform day-to-day maintenance tasks. As far as I know, this is a Japanese-only term and is read as dōsō.

The term “abbot” has many terms, both generic and specific to a sect:

  • 方丈 – this is the most generic term for an abbot of a Buddhist monastery. It is read as fāng zhàng in Chinese and in Japanese hōjō.
  • 座主 – this is the term for the abbot (e.g. head of the order) in the powerful Tendai sect of Buddhism. It is read as zasu in Japanese.
  • 門主 – this is the term for the head of the Jodo Shinshu sect of Japanese Buddhism and means something like the “keeper of the [temple] gate”. It is read as monshu.

…and we haven’t even gotten to pop-culture terms. For example in Japan, Buddhist monks are frequently called obōsan (お坊さん) in Japanese contemporary culture, or in less polite terms bōzu (坊主) which is often a joke applied to boys who shave their heads. For young boys, especially naughty ones, the term bōya (坊や) is often used since many young boys were raised in monasteries in the past.

Conclusion: What’s a Monk Then?

In the end, monks and nuns, from the beginning, were priests, not kung-fu masters. Buddhism as a religion differs significantly than the more familiar Abrahamic traditions of Judaism, Christianity and Islam, in that there is no all-powerful deity that requires devotion,3 but as a large supra-national tradition with its own holistic teachings and sophisticated theology it is definitely a religion.

Thus, the “monk” class in Dungeons and Dragons really missed the mark on a vast, venerable tradition and kind of reduces it all to just a bunch of “chop-sockey“.

1 Even Buddhism and Taoism and Zen (as something separate from the rest of Buddhism) get conflated in Western culture. TL;DR: Buddhism and Taoism are entirely separate (later cross-pollenation notwithstanding) and Zen is just one set of many within Mahayana Buddhism with a common religious foundation that it builds upon.

2 Technically there are two Buddhists texts called the Brahma Net Sutra, but only one of them appears in the Mahayana tradition and is pretty influential due to its “bodhisattva precepts” which greatly shaped Buddhist-monastic communities in Asia.

3 The explanation of why people venerate and pray to the Buddha is too long to go into here. The super-quick explanation is that the Buddha, like all buddhas, begins as a mundane being and transcends the nature of all things, but also as part of their compassionate vows, resolves to help other beings (not just themselves), hence they offer refuge for the life to come (e.g. Amitabha, the Buddha of Infinite Light) or help keep one on the Buddhist path here and now (e.g. the Medicine Buddha) and many other needs. Bodhisattvas are almost buddhas in that they fulfill a similar role, but are still “work in progress”.

Published by Doug

🎵Toss a coin to your Buddhist-Philhellenic-D&D-playing-Japanese-studying-dad-joke-telling-Trekker, O Valley of Plentyyy!🎵He/him

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