Due to the confusion of the term “monk” in English, which has become overloaded with multiple, conflicting meanings, I wanted to take a moment and explore how to build a character in Dungeons and Dragons that mirrors a Buddhist monk. I have posted this in my Traveler’s Guide to the Hamato Islands adventure guide on DMS Guild, but wanted to explore the rationale here in more detail. This is similar to posts I did in the past for samurai, ninja and sohei (paladin).
Historical Origins for a Monk
Setting aside Hollywood and fantasy, a Buddhist monk or bhikkhu in the old Pali language of India, is a mendicant: someone who has renounced worldly life in full-time pursuit of the Buddhist path. This is in contrast to the lay follower who may have one foot in the worldly life and one foot on the Buddhist path. Medieval Christianity had a similar tradition: some followers wished to (or were compelled to) pursue a life devoted to God full time and thus give up worldly life.1
In both examples, the Buddhist bhikkhu or Christian monk would be involved in community affairs: leading religious services, providing aid to the poor, and guiding rulers on ecclesiastical (or diplomatic) matters if called upon.
In this regard, a Buddhist bhikkhu is clearly fulfilling the role of a cleric: a religious intermediary.
But, then why does 5th Edition have a separate class for “monk“, a martial arts expert, as opposed to “cleric“? This is where things get kind of confusing.
The notion of a “monk” as a martial-arts expert originates from China specifically. No such tradition existed in India where Buddhism originated. Buddhist bhikkhus in China suffered attacks from bandits or local warlords and needed a way to defend themselves, but without violating precepts on taking life. So, hand-to-hand combat was developed to strike a balance between the two. This is how temples like the famous Shaolin Temple came to be.
Further, confusion arises when you compare Buddhism as a religion to more familiar traditions in the West such as Christianity or pagan, polytheistic religion. Buddhism doesn’t neatly fit into either one and I don’t have time to explain in full detail why, but suffice to say that deities (devas in Indian culture) as we know them are not a prominent aspect of Buddhism. They exist more like background-dancers in a band. On the other hand, Buddhism does have a strong devotional element to the Buddha (i.e. the historical teacher), as well as other celestial Buddhas and Bodhisattvas,2 so it is not quite correct to say that Buddhism is atheistic either.
First and foremost, Buddhism is a religion of the mind, the rest is there to support that. Thus, despite the same social role as a Christian monk, the religious underpinnings are different. That, coupled with the proficiency in hand to hand combat unique to Chinese Buddhist bhikkhus, is probably how the “monk” ideal began in Dungeons and Dragons.
However, in writing the Hamato Islands series, and taking into account local Japanese-Buddhist history, I decided to keep the Buddhist monks firmly in the category of clerics, both for their social role, their lack of hand to hand combat training,3 and for the continued importance of religious devotion in Buddhism. A great literary example in Asian culture is that of the character Tan San-Zang from the classic novel Journey to the West. He journeys to distant lands with the monkey warrior Sun Wu-Zong and uses both powers and diplomacy to help his comrades. This is an excellent foundation for a D&D adventuring party, by the way (hint hint). 😉
Making a D&D Buddhist Monk Character
That’s all well and good, but with this in mind, how does one make a viable Buddhist cleric? I’ve had to play around with this a bit, but here is an example character named Genjo (玄奘. “Genjo” happens to be the Japanese pronunciation of Xuan-Zang the famous 7th-century Chinese monk. I even made an example character sheet in D&D Beyond:
For simplicity, I made this character pretty generic: 4th level, human cleric, but I used the Peace Domain from Tasha’s Cauldron of Everything. As with any cleric character, there’s quite a bit of variation on how you want to build it.
As for the deity, in the Hamato Islands series of adventures, I created a deity called the Great Sage, modeled after the Buddha. The Great Sage’s domains (written before Tasha’s was published) are Light, Life, Knowledge, and Grave. If your DM permits, you can also build a Buddhist monk using the Peace Domain instead.
Mechanically, since the Great Sage is an enlightened being, and not a magical deity, the spells and powers a cleric of the Great Sage receives are fueled not by divine power, but rather through the vast accumulated amounts of good karma that that Sage shares with others.4 But for the purposes of the game, the end-result would be the same: the cleric is entrusted with extraordinary powers to aid others, and to spread their deities teachings.
Adding Flavor to Character
Finally, let’s talk flavor. A generic cleric is OK, but let’s lean into the Buddhist archtype more. First, Buddhist monks in China, Japan and beyond frequently carried a special ringed quarterstaff. This is called a shakujō in Japanese or xīzhàng (pronounced shee-jong) in Chinese. Ostensibly, it was used to make noise and warn animals so that they would avoid being trampled on by a monk, but also came to have a sense of authority or power as well. One could even make a magical version of a shakujo staff:
Staff of the Sage
Staff, uncommon (requires attunement by a Cleric, or Druid)
This staff has 6 charges. While holding it, you can use an action to expend 1 or more of its charges to cast one of the following spells from it, using your spell save DC and spellcasting ability modifier: cure wounds (1 charge per spell level, up to 4th), lesser restoration (2 charges), or hold person (2 charges) or use the Destroy Undead cleric feature (4 charges).
The staff regains 1d4 + 2 expended charges daily at dawn. If you expend the last charge, roll a d20. On a 1, the staff vanishes in a flash of light, lost forever.
This is just one example where Buddhist iconography can be incorporated into Dungeons and Dragons. Another is the Necklace of Prayer Beads which can be modified more into a wrist-style Buddhist rosary (o-juzu in Japanese). The Traveler’s Guide that I published on DMS Guild has other such examples.
What about holy water? The western medieval notion of water blessed by a priest doesn’t really exist Buddhist cultures as much, but oftentimes salt does, as does sand blessed by a specific mantra. So, one can simply substitute holy water as a character item with blessed salt or sand.
These are just some examples of ways that one can adapt a Buddhist monk in a more traditional, clerical sense, rather than relying on the more martial-arts archetype, while drawing from traditional Asian-Buddhist culture. It’s a great way to learn more about the culture, and make a viable character for Dungeons and Dragons too.
Enjoy and happy adventuring!
1 Ideally, at least. In both Buddhism and Christianity, there are plenty of examples of monks and renunciants who still meddled in politics. People are people, afterall.
2 This presents a thorny issue for Westerners who are attracted to Buddhism for its non-theistic approach to things, but again it’s important not to conflate the two. The nature of Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, and veneration of them, has different underpinnings than the typical god or deity of worship. Again, it’s too long to explain but TL;DR it’s different.
3 Put another way: Japan and China are two different countries, two different (albeit neighboring) cultures with two different histories. The tendency to lump them together, along with other cultures such as Korea or Vietnam, is like lumping France, Spain and Germany together as “Europeans” without taking local cultural differences into account.
4 The precedent for this in Buddhism itself comes from such examples as Amitabha Buddha, the Buddha of Infinite Light, whose accumulated merit is so great that when one recites his name, Amitabha shares his good karma with others helping them to expunge their own negative karma from the past, and be reborn in his Pure Land someday.