In the realm of advanced Mahāyāna practice, skill in means represents a fundamental aspect that defies prevalent cultural and philosophical assumptions surrounding Buddhist praxis. The lack of attention in mainstream discourse obstructs the apt comprehension of the doctrine and its ramifications, despite the significance that the concept bears. This dissertation investigates its critical role in real-life armed conflicts.

It establishes through a literature review that Buddhist monastics notably adopt this notion to justify their wartime engagements in lethal violence and with doctrinal attestation. The study additionally contributes to the discourse by laying the groundwork for future comparative research, providing a comprehensive analysis of the relationship between Buddhism and violence, and illuminating the geographical and cultural transposition of the doctrine.

[In] danger we become generals;
once the matter is resolved,
we become monks once more!
(Wanngan monks, 1275)


Buddhism was once revered as a religion of peace; nevertheless, recent scholarship has cast light upon its nuanced relationship with violence. Originating as an Indic tradition, it has since transposed into new geopolitical settings, compelling its adherents to navigate complex political landscapes and respond to acts of violence. As a result of this dynamic, Buddhist monks and nuns are documented to have engaged in warfare1. The phenomenon has sparked scholarly inquiry into canonical texts to unravel the doctrinal foundations underlying such acts. The present dissertation contributes to this growing body of research by delving into the tactical responses of Buddhist monastics to wartime violence particularly emphasising the concept of skilful or expedient means (upāyakauśalya).

Upāyakauśalya is a theoretical construct that is exclusive to Buddhism and fundamental to Mahāyāna tradition with limited practical applications. Nevertheless, the present investigation examines the understanding and application of this concept in a concrete, real-life armed conflict. The hypothesis is that Buddhist monastics historically adopted the notion to justify their wartime deeds, as it allows for departures from traditional pre-Mahāyāna teachings on nonviolence. The study inspects such upāyakauśalya-driven justifications to assess their conformity to or deviation from Buddhist Canons. The aim is to provide a comprehensive analysis of the role of upāyakauśalya in justifying monastic military involvement and contribute to a broader understanding of the complex relationship between Buddhism and violence.

The study is relevant in two ways. Firstly, it contributes to the discourse on a controversial but understudied2 Buddhist practice that scholars have expressed concerns about3. The distinct perspective examines premodern Chinese Buddhism and thus diverges from the existing literature predominantly centred on the Indian context4. This approach sheds new light on the geographical and cultural transposition of the doctrine and offers a framework for future comparative research.

Secondly, the study extends beyond academia as a resource for diverse audiences seeking to understand the intricate nature of Buddhist thought and practice in the modern world. Its examination of upāyakauśalya’s application in warfare emphasises the importance of careful consideration when adapting religious practices to new settings. The findings benefit future scholarship and aid policymakers in engaging with Buddhist communities.

The employed methodology encompasses three themes. The research comprises (1) examining doctrinal foundations of upāyakauśalya and monastic conduct, (2) mapping upāyakauśalya-driven cases of justified violence adopted by monastics during one military conflict, and (3) evaluating the principles underlying these applications against the doctrinal foundations to assess the extent of parallels and innovations.

The opening theme traces the evolution of upāyakauśalya in Indian Buddhism and explores monastic precepts to discern misconduct. Through a sequential analysis of Nikāya and Mahāyāna texts, with the latter elaborating on and challenging the former, a theoretical foundation is established for the subsequent examination of upāyakauśalya practical applications. The theme culminates in examining one Chinese Mahāyāna precepts text reconciling two schools by addressing potentially real-case transgressions.

The second theme examines a case study of the upāyakauśalya application, providing supporting evidence for the thesis. The investigation delves deeper into the Chinese context, specifically the Buddhist clergy’s involvement in the Chinese Civil War (1927-1949). Drawing upon historical records, it exposes monks’ and nuns’ participation in violent and deceitful acts and the narrative that justified their involvement. The sources studied reveal upāyakauśalya as the primary justification in their bodhisattva conduct, empowering their participation, thus highlighting practical observances over theoretical. The first two themes, therefore, allow for a comparison of upāyakauśalya in Buddhist warfare, examining its ancient theory and premodern practical application.

Lastly, the analysis examines how upāyakauśalya was conceptualised and utilised as a justification for military activities, as observed in the Chinese context. It then evaluates the principles that govern monastic conduct and reasoning against the depiction of upāyakauśalya in the scriptures. Through this comparative analysis, the study seeks to determine whether the two perspectives align or conflict, thereby establishing whether the circumstances encountered in the Republic of China find scriptural attestation.

The study acknowledges the boundaries of its scope and the relevance of upāyakauśalya beyond the Chinese context5. The chosen case study characterises timeliness, quality material, and accessible translations. It solely examines actively participating monks and nuns who retained their monastic status, excluding those who returned to the lay state, advocated violence without referencing the doctrine, escaped enmeshment with worldly affairs, or committed suicide (Yu 2005:51,58,100,106,150). Compelling evidence points to their military involvement—despite unknown numbers, due to their indistinguishability from other soldiers, deliberate concealment, lacking documentation, and general unrest (Yu 2005:119,137). Additionally, the only known stances are those expressed by publishing monks, in contrast to the perspective, and spiritual status, of those who found themselves on the battlefield. Finally, regarding doctrinal foundations, while distinctions exist between how Buddhism is practised and taught, the study focuses exclusively on the discourse found in early texts.

The dissertation draws on a wide range of sources, evaluated for their reliability and relevance to the research questions, to provide a nuanced study surpassing a mere literature survey. Primary sources such as Pāli Tripiṭaka and Mahāyāna Sūtras6, through established English translations and Indic originals, consulted for syntax verification, form the foundation of the research on Buddhist doctrines. The work prioritises the use of the Sanskrit language to highlight shared concepts and simplify the presentation7. Furthermore, the study employs 20th-century Chinese materials rendered into English, such as autobiographical and war records, including memoirs, journals, pamphlets, and correspondence. Thus, the research is primarily built upon primary sources, and substantiates and contextualises them by incorporating insights and perspectives of modern scholars from a range of secondary sources.

The Doctrinal Foundations

This chapter’s objective is to establish a theoretical framework. The content delves into the meaning and components of upāyakauśalya, and its interplay with other Buddhist teachings.

The chapter is divided into two sections. The first one examines the presence of upāyakauśalya in early Buddhist schools. As such, the section provides a foundation for the concept’s examination in the subsequent Mahāyāna tradition. This approach also emphasises the importance of evaluating the application of upāyakauśalya within the context of both traditions, context-dependent. The chapter additionally explores key interconnected concepts, the diversity of Buddhist guidance on war, and precepts. The acquisition of this background knowledge is essential for the war-oriented case study discussion presented in Chapter Two. The case study examines the transposition of the Indic notion of upāyakauśalya to a premodern context beyond the Indian subcontinent, specifically in China. Thus, the doctrinal recapitulation in Chapter One starts with Indian sources of Nikāya and Mahāyāna Buddhism and arrives at selected Chinese textual additions.

1.1 Early Buddhist Teachings

Literature refers to the earliest Buddhist traditions as Nikāya, Theravāda, conservative, or mainstream Buddhism, with “Hīnayāna” being a synonymous but derogatory and discouraged term coined by the Mahāyānists. Nonetheless, in the context of upāyakauśalya, the early definition of the modes of practice remains significantly underdeveloped.

1.1.1 Upāyakauśalya in Nikāya Buddhism

The following summarises the concept of upāyakauśalya as it appears in the texts of Nikāya Buddhism. The tradition references the concept infrequently; thus, the exposition is short. The sources can be arranged into two categories.

The first collection constitutes texts mentioning upāyakauśalya verbatim8: the Suttapiṭaka’s Dīghanikāya, Aṅguttaranikāya and Khuddakanikāya. The first two list the term once each—as a recommendation for a spiritual attitude (Pye 2005[1978]:118). For instance, “āyakosallaṁ, apāyakosallaṁ, upāyakosallaṁ” (Dīghanikāya, emphasis mine). The Khuddakanikāya is different, referencing upāyakauśalya in a manner consistent with Mahāyāna Buddhism. Both relay the raft metaphor and speak of a “skilful knower of the means” (“tātrūpayannūkusalomutīmā” in Khuddakanikāya VI.II.8, emphasis mine; Pye 2005[1978]:118), who intentionally leads people onto nirvāṇa. 

The second category of texts, located in the Suttapiṭaka’s Majjhimanikāya and Khuddakanikāya, as well as the Vinayapiṭaka’s Mahāvagga, do not explicitly mention the term but convey the concept (Pye 2005[1978]:119). They express the provisional nature of Buddhist teachings (Majjhimanikāya I.22.13-14) and two challenges of addressing diverse audiences and expressing the inexpressible (Khuddakanikāya I.I.5; Majjhimanikāya I.26.19), for instance: 

This Dhamma that I have attained is profound, hard to see and hard to understand, (...) to be experienced by the wise. But this generation delights in attachment (...). It is hard for such a generation to see this truth

(Majjhimanikāya I.26.19)

In conjunction with the two other referenced aspects, the citation clearly adopts upāyakauśalya9.

As evidenced, the literary corpus of Nikāya Buddhism does not present upāyakauśalya as vital. While occasionally mentioned or alluded to in passing, it is not extensively developed. Later material is imperative for grasping the connections to upāyakauśalya within Nikāya. Otherwise, the unity of the early intentions is obscured10. The comprehensive development of upāyakauśalya began with Mahāyāna Buddhism, as it is discussed in this chapter’s second part.

1.1.2 Developments From Nikāya to Mahāyāna

This section outlines the interdependencies of underdeveloped pre-Mahāyāna ideas, such as paths of liberation (yāna), compassion (karuṇā), emptiness (anātman/śūnyatā), and thus Buddhahood aspiration (bodhisattvayāna), in relation to upāyakauśalya. Later Buddhist tradition elaborates and redefines their relationship with other aspects of Dharma, especially the cycle of rebirth (saṃsāra), culmination of the path (nirvāṇa), discipline (prātimokṣa), and thus vehicle of Dharma hearers (śrāvakayāna). Therefore, the section also delivers a brief survey of developments from Nikāya to Mahāyāna.

At the outset, the Buddha imparts only the teachings he deems essential for śrāvakas, who are concerned with personal nirvāṇa. He states, “the things I have directly known but have not taught you are numerous, while the things I have taught are few” (Saṃyuttanikāya V.XII.31). Correspondingly, the Buddha’s later teachings expound upon alternative perspectives and aim at more diverse audiences. For instance, in Mahāyāna, bodhisattvayāna emerges from a novel comprehension of śūnyatā, and surpasses śrāvakayāna. Unlike ‘hearers’, bodhisattvas delay their attainment of nirvāṇa and re-enter saṃsāra to engage with the world through upāyakauśalya while excelling in the practice of (mahā)karuṇā. Although the Khuddakanikāya’s Jātaka stories recognise the quality of the latter as a virtue of self-sacrifice, it is not yet viewed as a prescriptive guideline in early Buddhism (Delhey 2006:46). Instead, Nikāya regards prātimokṣa as behavioural norms assisting clergy on the path to nirvāṇa. This code of conduct, as outlined in the Vinayapiṭaka, prohibits deliberately killing, intending to kill, and encouraging the death of living beings (Pārājika III.1-4). Other texts reinforce this principle: “He is called noble because he is harmless towards all living beings” (Dhammapada XIX). Human violations are serious offences leading to expulsion from the monastic community, while violations against other beings may result in milder sanctions (Pācittiya X-XI, XX), similarly to acts of falsehood:

I have seen what I have not seen, heard what I have not heard, sensed what I have not sensed, cognised what I have not cognised. (...) There is an offence of expiation for telling the conscious lie (Pācittiya I)

The Suttapiṭaka further defines this guideline as the “[a]bstinence from false, (...) divisive, (...) harsh speech” (Saṃyuttanikāya V.I.I.45.8). It encourages clergy to refrain from lying, dishonesty, and hypocrisy. Along with non-harm, it constitutes the Eightfold Path—as right speech (PLI sammāvācā) and right action (PLI sammākammanta). The later tradition refers to them as satya and ahiṃsā; however, karuṇā is given precedence over them (Schmithausen 1999:59).

The presented notions vary in prominence across the Nikāyas and Mahāyāna Canons. Bodhisattvas, propelled by karuṇā, śūnyatā, and upāyakauśalya, challenge the ultimate Nikāyan objective and ethos. Nevertheless, ​​śrāvakas’ rules remain relevant, with regional variations, as both approaches have persisted into present times—including modern Chinese Buddhism, which adheres to prātimokṣa ethics. Therefore, a thorough analysis of modern applications of later concepts to war contexts necessitates understanding both traditions, which also differ in their guidance on managing warfare.

1.1.3 Guidance for War in Nikāya

The Nikāya corpus exhibits three clear attitudes towards war and violence: (a) disregard, (b) partial rejection, and (c) complete rejection11.


First, the texts show reluctance in addressing issues pertaining to war, as exemplified in the Gāmaṇisamyutta’s sūtras of Saṃyuktanikāya. The Buddha dismisses recurrent questions about a soldier’s fate with “Don’t ask me that!” (Saṃyuttanikāya IV.VIII.3). The Dīghanikāya’s Mahāparinibbānasutta (Dīghanikāya II.3.1.1-5) and Sāmaññaphalasutta (Dīghanikāya I.2) also demonstrate this attitude through the lack of the Buddha’s commentary. He does not classify war as either morally justifiable or unjustifiable, leaving it open to interpretation. Scholars have differing views on this, with Bareau seeing him as “remarkably reserved” and McFarlane as “effectively averting” war (Schmithausen 1999:49-50). However, the Buddha makes no definitive statements and treats the listeners as monks, regardless of their king status. This avoidance might be deliberate due to potential interference with politics or sole focus on spiritual matters (Schmithausen 1999:51). Additionally, some texts emphasise the ineffectiveness of war, with statements such as: 

Victory breeds enmity,
The defeated one sleeps badly.
The peaceful one sleeps soundly,
Having abandoned victory and defeat.

(Saṃyuttanikāya III.II.4) 

This claim, in conjunction with parallel assertions such as Saṃyuttanikāya III.II.5, contributes to the argument that war ultimately fails to yield a lasting solution.

Complete Rejection

The Vinayapiṭaka presents an alternative, more prominent position. Its prātimokṣa lists three offences requiring atonement, prohibiting monks (and nuns) from engaging with the military. These prohibitions include (a) watching army fighting without sufficient reason (Pācittiya XLVIII), (b) staying with the army for more than three nights (Pācittiya XLIX), (c) and going to places where conflict is taking place (Pācittiya L). For Schmithausen, the guidelines also serve to prevent suspicion of involvement or spying (1999:47).

Such stances render clergy and the general population mutually exclusive (Majjhimanikāya II:89) on a basis similar to the principle of Dharma versus evil, which posits that “The sage (...) by rejecting evil, is truly a sage” (Dhammapada XIX). Horner reinforces this ‘either/or’ approach in her translation of the Suttavibhaṅga (Volume II), in which she notes that “fighting by monks was condemned, and Buddhist monks could not become soldiers” (2012[1940]:xxxii-xxxiii). However, texts also outline negative consequences for soldiers. In the Gāmaṇisamyutta, the Buddha explains that killing, or even intending to kill, in a war, brings about bad karma with only two possible outcomes: “either hell or the animal realm” (Saṃyuttanikāya IV.VIII.3-5, Kent 2010:157-158). Schmithausen asserts that no canonical evidence contradicts this statement (1999:48).

Partial Rejection

Strikingly, in other instances, Nikāya texts show support for armed conflicts but only for those in power. In the actions of kings and warriors, practical and political considerations take precedence over religious principles, resulting in a “difficult and almost schizoid” situation (Schmithausen 1999:53). General Sīha’s conduct exemplifies this, as he refrains from taking life for food (Aṅguttaranikāya VIII.12.8) but presumably not in the context of his military duties. This illustrates the partition of values serving to navigate the conflicting moral codes.

The historical figure of King Aśoka presents a similarly complex relationship with violence and ahiṃsā. The king initially amplified his power through violence; however, after converting to Buddhism sought to rule with minimal harm (Demiéville 2010:21). This raises questions about the role of violence in spreading Dharma. The textual antidote is somewhat troublesome. The concept of secular cakravartin—the great nonviolent conqueror, triumphant through the power of Dharma (Dīghanikāya III.3.1-2)—is utopian (Schmithausen 1999:55). Aśoka’s case may be viewed as a realistic manifestation of this ideal. 

Furthermore, the literature depicts a ‘just’ king who enforces penalties to facilitate the fruition of criminals’ own karma, as seen in the Milindapañha12 (Chiu 2020:2). However, Schmithausen argues that this approach attempts to dodge a conflict with Buddhist ethics (1999:54). Moreover, Nikāya texts extol the virtues of a king administering punishments but remaining kind and peaceful: “He conquers wrath by mildness, the bad with goodness sways” (Jātaka 151), seemingly harmonising the conflict.

Lastly, Buddhist ethics emphasises individual responsibility, evaluating each situation on a case-by-case basis. Views and consequences vary depending on the person, circumstances, texts, and interpretations (Delhey 2006:32-36). Suicide, a violent act observed among monastics and lay people, is a prime example.

The Nikāya literature offers a nuanced perspective on war, spanning from disregard to partial or complete rejection. Beyond considerations of avoidance, pointlessness, and prohibition, the texts propose various tactics to reconcile violence with ethics, including the compartmentalisation of values, harmonisation of utopia with reality, and acting on behalf of karma, among other context-dependent compromises13. The teachings allow deliberate violence for kṣatriyas but prohibit it for monks and nuns. The second half of the chapter details the textual overwriting of this state of affairs.

1.2 Mahāyāna Buddhism

Mahāyāna Buddhism emerged ‘mystically’ centuries after the Buddha’s death as a superior understanding originating from direct engagement with the Buddha by virtue of upāyakauśalya. This approach to spiritual advancement diverges significantly from Nikāya beliefs. The following subsections expound upon its definition and impact on a large array of traditional teachings, such as modes of practice, precepts, and guidance on war.

1.2.1 Upāyakauśalya in Indic Mahāyāna

Upāyakauśalya is central to Mahāyāna Buddhism, but tracing its chronological development through the Mahāyāna Canon poses difficulties. Keown’s approach divides its development into four conceptual phases: (1) the Buddha as a skilful teacher, (2) Dharma as skilful means, (3) skilful means as practice, and (4) transgressions as skilful means (1998:201-202,205-206). The following paragraphs elaborate on these phases as a foundation for the upcoming case study analysis.


Mahāyāna marks a shift in the Buddha’s approach to spiritual transformation. In Pāli literature, he relies on narratives, parables, and symbolism to mediate between the “articulated form and the inexpressible goal” of Dharma (Pye 2005[1978]:121; Keown 1998:201). However, recognising that people are “difficult to save”, he resolves to “set forth expedients for them (...) to suffering’s end” (Saddharmapuṇḍarīkasūtra 2:7). He employs upāyakauśalya, or “clever devices”, to initiate individuals on the liberation path, setting them towards perfect Buddhahood (Gethin 1998:228). For instance, the Jātaka collection of his previous lives becomes incorporated into Mahāyāna and gains a renewed significance as upāyakauśalya, mapping a successive bodhisattva path (Delhey 2006:42,46). Innovations reflect his aim to reach individuals of various capacities and entanglement with saṃsāra. He proposes advanced concepts for the capable and simplified messages for others, recognising the significance of “inculturation” in the pedagogical process (Brassard 2006:18-19). However, these ‘devices’ lead to a spectrum of teachings, some contradictory but all directed towards the same goal, without necessarily representing the ultimate truth. Their implementation is prone to internal tensions that may be exploited politically (Chiu 2020:8).


The initial phase implies the provisional nature of Buddha Dharma as it references truth but employs conventional constructs. Such a transmission method ultimately must be discarded. The Burning House parable exemplifies false teachings promising non-existent gratification used to guide individuals towards a salvatic path (Saddharmapuṇḍarīkasūtra 3). Early texts included in the Majjhimanikāya caution against clinging to such Dharma, comparing it to a temporary raft “for the purpose of crossing over, not (...) grasping” (Majjhimanikāya I.22.13). The Mahāyāna’s Vajracchedikāprajñāpāramitāsūtra extends this principle to non-Dharma, recognising teachings’ non-existent nature and their initial indispensability due to ineffable ultimate reality (Pye 2005[1978]:132-133; Williams 2008[1989]:151; Mūlamadhyamakakārikā 24.10). A skilful progression in the use of Dharma, including adherence, recognition, and abandonment, is thus necessary for complete liberation14.


The dissemination of Dharma through upāyakauśalya is also central to bodhisattvayāna. The Burning House parable depicts this yāna as one of three tools, alongside śrāvakayāna (Saddharmapuṇḍarīkasūtra 3:9). It is a demanding form of Buddhist practice characterised by additional four perfections (pāramitā). Upāyakauśalya manifests late on this progression path as the seventh perfection15. While the two yānas converge, inward-looking śrāvakayāna is regarded as restricted by “residual selfishness”, whereas bodhisattvayāna is an outward-focused path dedicated to the liberation of all sentient beings (Gethin 1998:228). The Prajñāpāramitāsūtra states that bodhisattvas “lead to Nirvana the whole immeasurable world of beings” (Prajñāpāramitāsūtra XI.2.235). Practising generosity through upāyakauśalya, they emulate the Buddha by adaptively modifying Dharma to suit the unique faculties of individuals, including adopting different appearances to aid their journeys. Taking as a premise that “multitudes delight in lesser dharmas”, they “[b]ecome Hearers” so that “[e]ven those of little zeal and who are remiss [a]re gradually caused to become Buddhas” (Saddharmapuṇḍarīkasūtra 8:2). Bodhisattva Vimalakīrti is a notable example of this practice, as he appears to conform to worldly norms by frequenting public establishments and feigning illness in his propagation of Dharma (Vimalakīrtinirdeśasūtra 2). His active participation stems from the Mahāyāna’s distinctive stance on ‘pacifism’, contrasting prātimokṣa-driven avoidance of harmful actions and potentially leading to “ethically grey areas” (Keown 1998:203). The next section delves into the contentious aspect of this development.


The last phase of upāyakauśalya allows for a violation of the most stringent prātimokṣa, rendering the practice of helping others versatile, while the perspective on morality relativistic (Chiu 2020:4; Yu 2005:50). This varies across different levels of the yāna hierarchy.


Mahāyāna’s moral relativism devalues, if not invalidates, the traditional ‘hīnayānistic’ monastic code (Kleine 2006:78): “One who upholds sravaka sila does not (...) see the Buddha-Nature” (Āryamahāparinirvāṇanāmamahāyānasūtra 34:383)16. This attitude is ascribed to the śrāvakas’ lack of compassion as they place dogmatic prātimokṣa above sentient beings (Kleine 2006:77,84). Their pārājika offences lead to permanent expulsion from the sangha, contrary to bodhisattvas:

[B]odhisattva does not immediately lose the acceptance of the discipline of bodhisattva morality as soon as he or she has engaged in an act that represents an extreme form of defeat, as, for example, a bhikṣu or bhikṣuṇī does with the discipline of individual liberation by committing (...) acts that constitute an extreme form of defeat.

(Bodhisattvabhūmi I.10.2.9)

Thus, acting in conformity with superior conduct poses śrāvakas serious breach, leading to seemingly contradictory attitudes in Buddhism, simultaneously upholding and violating vows. The latter is justified by upāyakauśalya, prompting reflections on the conditions for initiation.


While śrāvakas follow behavioural rules, advanced bodhisattvas, alongside the Buddha, prioritise intention, mindset, and consequences in moral decision-making. Both lay and monastic practitioners can attain the rank by successively observing Nikāya prātimokṣa and Mahāyāna bodhisattvaśīla and praṇidhāna17. The latter vows require a higher level of discipline and dedication to the sentient beings’ welfare (Chen-hua 1992:13,60-61n5-7). On their behalf, bodhisattvas may engage in controversial worldly activities on the outside while remaining detached within. “[T]hey are said not to break the precepts (...) as long as they do not give up their bodhicitta”, states the Definitive Vinaya (Mahāratnakūṭasūtra 24:269). Additionally, they must have the aptitude for skilful methods and act in disguise, guided by “deep” ethics and ultimate compassion “developed on the path for many aeons” (Bodhisattvabhūmi 70a-70b:214; Demiéville 2010:44; Ferguson 1977:57). They are recognisable by several signs:

[Bodhisattva] takes pleasure in being generous (...) feels shame while carrying out [misdeeds] (...) avoids displaying a hostile state of mind (...) does not undertake to do harm [in return] (...) is able to develop a state of loving-kindness very quickly even toward (...) enemies (...) possesses the strength [of intellect] to reflect carefully

(Bodhisattvabhūmi I.1.4.1-6)

Ordained bodhisattvas exhibit the right compassion-driven intention, right self-sacrificial mindset, and willingness to accept karmic consequences (Kleine 2006:81; Schlieter 2006:145-146; Williams-Tribe 2000:170). Their use of force—a “light offense” compared to śrāvakas—is rectifiable through repentance and re-ordination (Upāsakaśīlasūtra XXII:150; Kleine 2006:79,86). The examples of forceful practices, adopting upāyakauśalya and appearing to contravene prātimokṣa, are falsehood and murder, among others not applicable to the case study.

The Practice of Hypocrisy

False thought and speech to protect sentient beings and prevent violence transgress prātimokṣa’s satya, except for a bodhisattvas’ upāyakauśalya, such as the Burning House parable’s use of lies to save children. Kent cites another example – a Southeast Asian performative “speech act” that aims to boost soldiers’ morale, pacify their minds, and protect moral conduct (2010:166). Delivery over content determines its effectiveness:

When I go to preach to (...) soldiers, I preach in the necessary way to them (...) about (...) the lord (...) [who] fought a great war (...) killed people (...) and received comfort from that in the end [of saṃsāra]

(Vimaladhajja in Kent 2010:166,169)

Nonetheless, Faure considers this a “blatant deception” that raises ethical concerns (2010:214-215).

The Practice of Killing

Various perspectives collectively permit bodhisattvas to engage in killing. The reasons may include (a) saving many by killing a few, (b) defending Dharma, (c) bestowing compassion, and (d) acting on the ultimate truth.

To Save Many

One view that permits killing is “statistical justification”, reflected in the Chinese proverb yisha duosheng (Demiéville 2010:41; Chiu 2020:4). Diverse Mahāyāna texts exemplify its aspiration to “kill one to allow many to live” (Lai 2013:241). According to the Yogācāra’s Bodhisattvabhūmi, a bodhisattva can kill a robber who intends to kill others or harm Mahāyānists (Kleine 2006:80-81): 

[B]odhisattva sees (...) a robber who is intent upon killing many hundreds of living beings (...) [such as] listeners (...) or bodhisattvas (...) then deprives [this living being] of (...) life.

(Bodhisattvabhūmi I.

Kleine notes that the text is a practical guide, not a symbolic representation (2006:82). Thus, it explicitly permits breaking major precepts under upāyakauśalya to benefit numerous people of higher moral standing. However, relying solely on this justification for the act of killing is insufficient. Additional considerations apply.

To Save Dharma

Killing by means of upāyakauśalya also serves to defend Buddhism. This may encompass engaging in defence or ‘just’ conflicts against non-Buddhists (icchantikas) or different Buddhist schools (Jerryson 2010:8-9,213; Schmithausen 1999:49). For instance, the Mahāparinirvāṇasūtra states:

One who upholds Wonderful Dharma (...) protects [bhiksus] with the sword, bow, arrow, and halberd (...), may well kill an ant and gain the sin of harming, but the killing of an icchantika does not [constitute a sin].

(Āryamahāparinirvāṇanāmamahāyānasūtra 5:44,40:473)

The sūtra maintains that weaponising against and killing those who threaten Dharma is sinless, despite contravening the prātimokṣa’s prohibition on killing (Ferguson 1977:55; Schmithausen 1999:57-58; Kleine 2006:92). The act serves to prevent wrongdoers’ evil deeds and benefit them with reincarnation in a Buddhist-rich country. Critics argue the sūtra “borders on heresy” and legitimises war (Demiéville 2010:41; Jerryson 2010:8,213), but evidence of Buddhism being spread this way is scarce (Schmithausen 1999:63). The Bodhisattvabhūmi explicitly rejects offensive war, prohibiting a bodhisattva ruler to “forcefully and without warning invade a foreign country” (Bodhisattvabhūmi III.2.2), but defensive war may be tolerated (Schmithausen 1999:54). Accordingly, the Āryabodhisattvagocaropāyaviṣayavikurvaṇanirdeśasūtra permits war as a last resort, with pre-conditions of befriending and intimidating the enemy (Jenkins 2010:66).

Out of Compassion

Targeted violence can spiritually advance wrongdoers in a way that is both “horrific with regard to sin, and yet merciful with regard to the sinner” (Demiéville 2010:42). Although the procedure may involve unkind language, beating and death (Bodhisattvabhūmi I., I., I.; Zimmermann 229-230), it liberates wrongdoers from karmic consequences (Schlieter 2006:132-133; Jenkins 2010:69). In the Bodhisattvabhūmi’s robber story, a bodhisattva kills a would-be killer (and saves hundreds of others) to prevent him from sinning and grant him better rebirths18 (Schlieter 2006:152). A failure to provide this benefit would be an offence. Additionally, bodhisattvas cultivate a “virtuous or indeterminate” mind, “developing a single-minded attitude of sympathy about the future”, and wait for the wrongdoer’s momentary state of freedom from evil intent before acting (Bodhisattvabhūmi I.; Ferguson 1977:56). Their charitable willingness to endure hell on behalf of a wrongdoer renders the act meritorious, as evidenced by the passage:

Even though I shall have to be reborn in the hells for depriving this living being of (...) life, it is better that I should be reborn in a hell than that this sentient should (...) because of having committed an immediate misdeed. (...) [Having done this, I] will not only remain free of any offense but will also generate a great amount of merit.

(Bodhisattvabhūmi I.

In such contexts, violence stems from compassionate intentions beyond mere concern for victims and encompasses would-be mass killers too. While it may motivate participation in wars, texts under consideration do not address this aspect (Chiu 2020:4).

Out of Emptiness

Bodhisattvas also justify using violence through the lens of śūnyatā and dissolution of duality, lending a new perspective on precepts breaking as non-existent (Kleine 2006:89-90). The Buddha guarantees that “no being ever breaks any precepts” because “[p]recept-breaking is empty by nature, [a]nd so is precept-keeping” (Mahāratnakūṭasūtra 24:274)19. In the same treatise, the Buddha explains that all phenomena, including himself and emptiness20, are illusory (Mahāratnakūṭasūtra 34:66). Thus, the duality collapse extends to the concepts of killing, killer, and killed as void. Phenomenology provides an explanation for this:

[F]ive aggregates [skandhas] (...) [are] empty, like something seen in a dream (...). If one kills something seen in a dream (...) there is no killing offense committed. One kills the empty marks

(Upāliparipṛcchā in Mahāprajñāpāramitopadeśa:512)

Consequently, violence is acceptable since “[o]ne cannot kill emptiness” (Faure 2010:213). Nevertheless, Schmithausen cautions that this relativisation could weaken inhibitions against killing and potentially be exploited as a rationale for engaging in armed conflicts (1999:60).

In essence, Mahāyāna Buddhism permits the most extreme form of violence – the practice of taking life, but careful consideration is mandatory. First, legitimate contexts, such as yisha duosheng and Dharma protection, require a compassionate or detached underlying cause (Schlieter 2006:145; Jenkins 2010:71; Faure 2010:214). Adopted upāyakauśalyas must be beneficial for sentient beings, regardless of the alleviation or aggravation of suffering for the higher purpose of forceful liberation. Second, the ‘transgressive’ outreach is unacceptable for “unenlightened commoners” (Kleine 2006:90):

It is not permissible for just anyone of the Greater Vehicle. If it is not permissible for someone who only trains skilfully in the bodhisattva vow, it is never suitable for those who claim to be greater vehicle without keeping the vow at all, who possess only a semblance of compassion

(Bodhisattvabhūmi 70a-70b:214)

Thus, the teaching and lifestyle must be protected and its dissemination restricted to bodhisattvas:

[T]he teaching of skill in means is to be kept secret. Do not speak of it, teach it, explain it or recite it in the presence of inferior sentient beings whose store of merit is small. (...) No one but a Bodhisattva great hero is a fit vessel for this teaching of skill in means; no one else is to be trained

(Upāyakauśalyasūtra 174:87)

If the conditions are met, the act of violence is acceptable. Otherwise, the concept of upāyakauśalya is misused. Some scholars reserve transgressive upāyakauśalya for bodhisattvas of a high or mythical stage (Tatz 1994:16; Keown 1998:207n23; Kleine 2006:82). Others argue it is not widely accepted in the Mahāyāna tradition as it deviates from the original concept (Keown 1998:206).

1.2.2 Upāyakauśalya in Chinese Buddhism

Up to this point, the chapter investigated the concept of upāyakauśalya in two early Buddhist traditions, serving as a lens for navigating acts of violence. However, two issues arise. Firstly, traditional vinaya strictly regulates the actions permissible for monks and nuns in both schools. Secondly, Mahāyāna proposes broader, possibly idealistic, interpretations that govern the lives of bodhisattvas through the interplay of the two sets of vows. This poses a conflict between the bodhisattvas’ aspiration and capacity to liberate sentient beings by any means necessary and constraints imposed by prātimokṣa, which could result in expulsion from the sangha. The Brahmajālasūtra, a Chinese text on bodhisattva precepts, presents a unique perspective that reconciles the two viewpoints and presents themes pertinent to warfare. These are (a) upāyakauśalya in killing, (b) war scenarios management, and (c) stances on falsehood.

The Brahmajālasūtra’s first major precept addresses upāyakauśalya, immediately followed by parājikas, thereby seemingly integrating the two conducts.

A Bodhisattva should always invoke the mind of lovingkindness, compassion, and filial dutifulness for all sentient beings, and save and protect them by skillful means. If he instead kills any sentient being with self-will or for gratification, it is a parājika sin.

(Brahmajālasūtra, the first major precept)

The passage highlights the challenge upāyakauśalya presents for bodhisattvas. However, its meaning is subject to conflicting interpretations. On the one hand, it suggests safeguarding beings with upāyakauśalya without killing. On the other hand, it allows safeguarding through killing, providing that bodhisattvas act without “self-will” or “for gratification”. The sūtra does not explicitly instruct whether Chinese bodhisattvas can or cannot kill, leaving room for divergent interpretations. In any case, violating the Brahmajālasūtra’s bodhisattvaprātimoksa would not result in their loss of monastic status, unlike transgressions of the Vinayapiṭaka regulations.

Furthermore, the Brahmajālasūtra endorses anti-war sentiments by sanctioning warfare activities with minor offences. These are amassing “weapons for fighting”, such as “knives, clubs, bows and arrows, spears, or axes, or other means for killing sentient beings, such as traps or nets”, which otherwise could have been used as tools of upāyakauśalya (Brahmajālasūtra, the tenth minor precept; Demiéville 2010:21). Another minor precept, entitled “Serving as an Enemy Country’s Agent”, runs as follows:

[O]ne should not even serve as an enemy country’s agent to help deploy troops for war, which results in the killing of innumerable sentient beings, much less commit treason against one’s own country. A Bodhisattva should not even circulate among troops.

(Brahmajālasūtra, the eleventh minor precept)

This precept mandates that bodhisattvas refrain from acts of treason and espionage that lead to killing and associating with military forces—whether actively or passively. It does not grant any exceptions for upāyakauśalya; therefore, even great bodhisattvas cannot engage in these acts. Moreover, the sūtra advises restraint and non-hostility in situations where opposing armies are in proximity (Demiéville 2010:21). The text states that bodhisattvas cannot:

take (...) part of any kind in war (...) [deal] with lethal weapons (...) participate in revolts, rebellions or uprisings (...) watch a battle (...) kill either directly or indirectly (...) give their assent or approval to killing (...) be a party to killing in any way

(Ferguson 1977:50)

Additionally, contrary to Indian Buddhism, breaches of true speech carry more severe consequences. “If he (...) induces sentient beings to hold the wrong views and use false speech, (...) it is a parājika sin” (Brahmajālasūtra, the fourth major precept), with the exception for “[i]ncorrectly [e]xplaining the Dharma for [b]enefits” in such a manner that one “misrepresents the words in the sūtras or vinayas”, which constitutes a minor sin (Brahmajālasūtra, the sixth minor precept).

Overall, the Brahmajālasūtra lacks detailed guidance on bodhisattvas’ attributes, mentioning upāyakauśalya only once. Moreover, the precepts and sanctions are noticeably more pacifist and restrictive compared to Indian Mahāyāna (Ferguson 1977:50). Therefore, the examination of how Chinese clergy addressed these issues in a war scenario is now imperative.

Chinese Monks in Armed Conflict

This chapter analyses the interpretation and application of upāyakauśalya during the Chinese Civil War (1927-1949). The period witnessed significant (voluntary) contributions from the Chinese sangha, exemplifying the interplay between Buddhist principles, examined in Chapter One, and the realities of war. The conflict is an exemplary case study for analysis due to the breadth of historical records.

The following sections map instances of the clergy’s active involvement with the military, ranging in magnitude. The scope centres on the activities the monks and nuns undertook in seeming violation of the prātimokṣa vows. To identify patterns and commonalities in their arguments, the examination focuses on the underlying principles they relied on to justify their involvement. Seeking to uncover the ethical framework at work, the chapter demonstrates that the clergy drew upon the advanced bodhisattva ideal, with its capacity for transgressive upāyakauśalya, as a primary justification for wartime activism. To further explore the significance of these developments, the final section offers a comparative analysis with the Canons recapitulated in Chapter One.

The study is set against the historical backdrop of military conflict between the Chinese Communists and Nationalists, marked by the implementation of nationwide reforms, which affected the Buddhist community. The period witnessed two major conflicts. The Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945) involved resistance against the Japanese which began with the invasion of Manchuria (1931) and contributed to the escalation of World War II. The second conflict was the Communist Revolution, culminating in the Great Retreat to Taiwan (1949). 

The chapter draws on three categories of sources to provide a comprehensive account of these events: autobiographical records, Chinese circulars, and works of modern authors. Monk Chen-hua’s ​​memoir, published in the 1960s, provides a unique and critical personal perspective of his service in the army. The translated publications by Chinese monks during the war offer insight into how the clergy embraced conflict and shaped their outlook. Finally, modern scholars, including Demiéville and Welch, draw upon additional primary sources to provide further details and perspectives on the monks who took on wartime responsibilities. Collectively, the evidence demonstrates the clergy’s theoretical and practical approaches to addressing the war.

2.1 Applications of Upāyakauśalya

The section investigates the roles Buddhist clergy assumed during the wars that necessitated forceful actions. The responsibilities included spying, setting traps, combat, using weapons, and killing, and involved military training and participation in propaganda campaigns. Notably, killing constitutes a pārājika sin, while participation in military training suggests less severe pācittiya transgressions. The clergy’s instances of killing represent a cardinal monastic error that leads to expulsion from the sangha, except for advanced bodhisattvas who adopt conditional upāyakauśalya. The analysis provides an in-depth examination of their duties, outcomes, and the broader sangha’s response, revealing doctrinal perspectives. 

2.1.1 Warfront Training

In 1936, constitutional reform mandated Chinese clergy to join programs, turning them into “clergy-soldiers” against their precepts (Yu 2005:43-44). Monk Taixu21 advocated for this approach since 1933 to counter the perceived unproductiveness of monastic seclusion during the invasion: “physically strong monks should join the army and resist the evil invaders” (Yu 2005:44-46,59,80,105,140,180; Welch 1968). To render those who “eat without farming” useful, he promoted Mahāyāna and upāyakauśalya as the means of reconciling killing with monastic duties (Xudan in Yu 2005:60). The Chinese Buddhist Society and government drafted regulations and curriculum, and dispatched Nationalist and military leaders to temples nationwide (Yu 2005:105). The topics covered politics, ideology, martial arts, weapons, and medical care, and mandated military uniforms or reformed robes (Yu 2005:44-45,58,106-109; Chen-hua 1992:207-212). The practice persisted for over a decade, recruiting clergy members as late as 1949 (Chen-hua 1992:207).

The call for the militarisation of monastics was extensive: “[t]he seven hundred thirty thousand clergy should be militarized”22 (Juexian in Yu 2005:65). Buddhist journals provide evidence of participation. The 1940 Mt. Wutai’s monks and lamas had “taken part in the war (...) have organized self-defense teams, and some (...) have even taken up guns in fighting against the Japanese devils” (Liu in Yu 2005:140). However, the total number of those trained during over a decade-long mobilisation effort remains unknown.

An illustrative example of the reality of training is monk Chen-hua’s conscription by the Nationalist army. At 28, he was taken from Hsing-shan Temple to Taichung in Taiwan in 1949 (Chen-hua 1992:7,16,24,198). He faced verbal abuse, threats, and weapon-wielding officers as a coercive measure to ensure his subordination: “From this day you are a member of the revolutionary army — not a monk living in a temple” (1992:205,207). While initially responding with anger and despair: “there was nowhere for us [“peaceloving monks”] to vent our sadness and outrage. All we could do was weep together”, Chen-hua maintained a positive outlook long-term, reassembling the mindset of self-sacrificial bodhisattvas:

If our country needs us, we should do what we are asked to do, (...) entering hell so that others need not (...). As long as we don’t lose our faith (...) killing one man in order to save one hundred is, in Mahāyāna Buddhism, an act of expedient mercy. If we kill a small number of evil men to save a large number of good men, we are not acting contrary to compassion

(Chen-hua 1992:198-199,205,210)

In Taiwan, Chen-hua wore a uniform, underwent “training on the drill ground”, and was “made to stand motionless with a rifle”, as well as experienced bullying as the only monk in his company (1992:208-210). He served for three years, developing an obligation to the army, before being discharged due to injury caused by throwing a hand grenade: “I hoped to keep my injury from making me a useless person and a dead-weight to my country” (1992:7,212-213,221)

The conscription of monastics into the military marked a departure from pre-war Chinese customs. It elicited two distinct sangha responses. Previously exempt from military service, clergy faced challenges reconciling prātimokṣa precepts with training demands. Conservative members, typically the elders, opposed the decree. In extreme cases, they fled temples or committed suicide to avoid precepts violation (Yu 2005:58). Fo hai deng cited one of such monks:

Having lived for several dozen years (...) I have never seen such abnormal and undisciplined action. (...) I will never follow it. I’m scared to death that I will violate the precepts if I’m sent to the warfront.

(Unknown in Yu 2005:58)

Other critics regarded the training absurd and doubted their involvement in war, while others recognised it as a sign of Dharma’s degeneration (Yu 2005:110). Many petitioned for exemption, citing the incompatibility of monks and nuns with killing and aggression (Yu 2005:106). But despite reservations, a considerable number accepted the training—much like Chen-hua, who found himself unable to defy it (Yu 2005:44,105,110).

On the other hand, the second group, comprising liberal and younger clergy, supported monastic training and resistance against the Japanese. Some temporarily disregarded prātimokṣa; others left the monastic order to fight on the warfront (Yu 2005:46,99,147). They considered Buddhist conduct obsolete but believed their participation would “bring a double blessing for the nation and for Buddhism” (Taixu in Yu 2005:80). Officer Zhou Enlai inspired many by suggesting that one should “kill the enemy while on horseback and practise Buddhism after dismounting” (Yu 2005:143-144). Meanwhile, lay Buddhist Dai Jitao, ordained as bodhisattva in Vajra Vinaya, argued in 1937 that military training is compatible with Buddhism, as both monks and soldiers need to discipline their minds and bodies (Yu 2005:110,235n15). Monk Longyao also attempted to address mass hesitancy in reconciling Buddhism with training. In his 1937 work of fiction, he asserted that “[t]here are a variety of ways to serve the nation”, but in the face of invasion “participation in the military training is the most appropriate”, disregarding the precepts (Yu 2005:45-47,72).

Some monks believed that engaging in war was doctrinally justifiable despite precepts, for instance, if it was a last resort to achieve global peace: “We save the nation in order to save the lives of people, and this is the way to save the world (...), we seek unity and peace” (Zhikai in Yu 2005:60,100-101). Additionally, sangha members debated whether karuṇā and upāyakauśalya could supersede ahiṃsā, and concluded that using force to eliminate evil could be justifiable for the greater good (Yu 2005:48). Abbot Zhenhua referenced historical and legendary monks who previously justified upāyakauśalya or violence, including Gunavarman (4-5th century): “If cruel bandits attack you, you must defend yourself. But you should develop compassion in your mind and have no thoughts of hatred” (Yu 2005:49; Kao Seng Chuan I.9 in Stache-Rosen 1973:10,27). Haocheng argued that military training demonstrates “the Buddhist spirit of compassion to save human beings from suffering” and inspires to “solve conflict through skillful means” (Yu 2005:109). Other monks, who focused on the effective realisation of karuṇā through upāyakauśalya, summarised their understanding of Buddhism as “compassion as the basis and skillful means as the door” (CHI cibei weiben, fangbian weimen) to justify the unprecedented involvement (Yu 2005:47,146). In 1939, the Young Buddhist Service Team delivered an open letter speech act that compared all Chinese soldiers to bodhisattvas to boost their morale:

The Buddha tells us that soldiers like you (...) are the saviors of human beings. You are bodhisattvas in the state of practice (…) and will surely win the blessings of the Buddha

(Yu 2005:146)

In addition, young monks became more vocal about their activism, as a 1940 example by the Chinese Buddhist International Propaganda Walking Team demonstrates:

We are young monks (...) tempered by the enemy’s warplanes and cannons. We have witnessed (...) the savage nature and inhuman actions of the Japanese (...). We do not want to remain within a chamber of meditation (…) we are determined to take revenge on behalf of Buddhism

(Yu 2005:95)

A 1945 letter from the Huaxi Buddhist College reveals a similar commitment:

We are Chinese youths, student-monks (...) extremely excited (...) to serve in military (...). Based on Buddha’s teachings, [we will] struggle for national salvation, offer our lives to the nation and entrust our faith in the Buddha. (...) Empowered with the heroic spirit of self-sacrifice and with the Bodhisattva’s determination of saving the world, we will eliminate evil ones who have disturbed the peace of the world.

(Yu 2005:137)

These Buddhist circulars aimed to (a) justify military engagements and (b) encourage nationalistic duty (Yu 2005:64). Thus, they served as propaganda to shape monastic attitudes, convincing that warfare was not against Buddhism. They criticised those who were hesitant to embrace the service for being ‘hīnayānistic’ and too frail to follow Mahāyāna teachings. In response, they were accused of betraying Buddhism (Yu 2005:59,75). Ultimately, Taixu achieved a compromise by providing post-training choices to (a) serve on the warfront, (b) participate in humanitarian relief23, or (c) engage in labour24 (Yu 2005:106,136).

2.1.2 Killing

The clergy’s militaristic training, combined with nationalistic efforts to modernise Buddhism, led to the emergence of socially-engaged monastics eager for combat (Yu 2005:41,147). They employed upāyakauśalya in service to the nation and (a) safeguarded temples, (b) spied, and (c) assassinated enemies (Yu 2005:142). Protecting temples involved wielding weapons, conducting security checks, and setting lethal traps (Yu 2005:141-142). As spies, they aided bombings and sabotage from their temples’ intelligence centres or served as double agents in occupied areas (Yu 2005:141-142,146-147). In their capacity as guerrilla fighters, they carried out high-casualty ambushes and inflicted severe losses on the enemy (Yu 2005:144). Thus, the involvement in killing ranged from (a) assisting through disclosure to (b) targeted killing as guerrillas. While the exact number of combatants is unknown, they established resistance bases in temples such as Tongshan Si and Yingjiang Si and formed guerrilla groups with hundreds of members in regions such as Jinxi, Yixing, Wukang, and Wutai (Yu 2005:137-141,240n128).

Two prominent cases of monks acting as agents during the war illustrate the concept of indirect killing. In 1940, Konglun and Limiao infiltrated the Japanese-occupied Hunan. According to the letters published in Shi zi hao as “Tears of Practitioners”, Konglun assumed the role of Director of Intelligence Operations in the Japanese government and passed on top secret information to the Chinese army, leading to several strategic victories against the Japanese, causing casualties (Yu 2005:141-142). Nonetheless, monks unaware of his role considered him a traitor, providing evidence of his deceit in June 1940:

Your words pierced my heart; I felt suddenly a sharp pain and almost fainted. If I had had a pistol I would have aimed it at you (...) you had become so different I could not recognize you

(Huiming in Yu 2005:142) 

The outcome could have been tragic, as simultaneously, in the same province, the Chinese Southwest Guerrilla Cadre carried out assassinations of traitors. According to Shi zi hao, monk Limiao supported the cadre by destroying Japanese transportation corridors (Yu 2005:146-147). Upon being exposed and captured by the Japanese in Yueyang in October 1940, he was tortured and mutilated as he refused to disclose information. The Buddhist journal compared his sacrifice to that of bodhisattvas:

Is this different from the action that Śakyamuni took to cut off his flesh for the sake of feeding a rabbit25 before he attained enlightenment? He (Limiao) practiced the Buddha’s teaching of saving the world, and thus laid the foundation for attaining Buddhahood.

(Juzan in Yu 2005:147)

The cases of Konglun and Limiao, who supported those taking the lives of the Japanese forces and Chinese traitors, exemplify the wartime spirit that many monastics aspired to embody.

Monks and their adherents also resorted to acts of first-hand murder. Monk Liangshan in the northeast and abbot Henghai of Chenguan Si in the east illustrate this point. Both led units of guerrilla clergy-soldiers in Japan-occupied areas. In 1933, Liangshan recruited over three hundred disciples, consisting of clergy and lay Buddhists. He led them to assault Japanese military encampments by Mt. Hongliu in Jinxi, causing injuries and fatalities—as documented in Shenbao (Yu 2005:137). Similarly, in 1937, Henghai assembled an anti-Japanese guerrilla community of a thousand monks and lay practitioners. Sengjie huguo shi reports, they successfully resisted the Japanese army advancing from Shanghai and Suzhou (Yu 2005:137-138). The use of violence by Buddhist clergy resonated with the general public26. However, many of their acts required doctrinal support.

1936 marked the beginning of the wider sangha’s textual endorsement of killing. The Nanputuo Si in Xiamen urged Buddhist journals to “awaken the monks and nuns from their deep sleep so that all may unite to protect the nation” (Yueyao in Yu 2005:45-46). Buddhist colleges responded by submitting several dozens of articles reconciling the duty of killing with ahiṃsā (Yueyao in Yu 2005:46). Their primary goal was self-defence and saving “millions of [Chinese] people” by ensuring the survival of the Republic and its religion (Fafang in Yu 2005:90). The submitted Buddhist justifications for killing included: (a) last resort, (b) peace, (c) killing evil, (d) saving many, (e) saving Dharma, (f) acquiring merit, and (g) following past precedents.

One, the monks emphasised that while Buddhism condemns launching invasions, it permits the waging of wars to restore order in the absence of alternatives. For instance, monk Yingshun insisted that “we need fight the war” as “[i]t will end only when Japanese military power collapses” (Yu 2005:100). Two, they advocated the war to “achieve the victory of freedom and happiness for all people”. Thus, they aspired to resolve Chinese-Japanese conflicts and achieve peace (Yingshun in Yu 2005:100). Three, they referred to their resistance as the “force of righteousness” and the Japanese assailants as “the evil ones” (māra) (Yu 2005:83,90,99). Another analogy from a 1941 issue of Shi zi hao depicted the invaders as a tumour, while Chinese bodhisattvas as skilled doctors removing it (Yu 2005:66,99,233n100). Based on these deindividualisations, the monks did not view their acts of killing as killing. Four, the passage yisha duosheng was common across Buddhist articles and sermons advocating for non-precept breaking (Yu 2005:48,83). While monk Zongyue from Beiping further propagated this ‘utilitarian calculation’ among soldiers: “Killing one in order to warn a hundred (...) is not a violation of the precept of non-killing”, Yicheng referred in Buddhist journals to the Yogācārabhūmiśāstra: “If sixty or seventy million [Japanese] pirates were about to attack 450 million innocent [Chinese] people, all genuine bodhisattvas will certainly kill these pirates” (Chiu 2020:4; Yu 2005:50,89). Five, during Chinese conflicts, monks endeavoured to defend Buddhism and frequently cited passages such as:

For the sake of protecting institutional Buddhism, for the sake of continuing the cause of the Buddha, and for the sake of our survival, we should march (...) toward achieving (...) ‘safety of the Dharma’

(Leguan in  Yu 2005:194)

Six, the monks propagated the belief that killing Japanese invaders was a meritorious act: “Let us use our red blood to wash away the evil of our enemies. (...) Insofar one more enemy is killed, one more merit will be produced” (Juexian in Yu 2005:48,66). However, their statements lacked necessary elaboration, for instance: “[By killing], one commits bad karma yet simultaneously produces the good so that demerit and merit cancel out one another” (Zhenhua in Yu 2005:49). Lastly, the monks conducted research to identify historical and hagiographical examples of Buddhist clergy engaging in killing. They used instances such as those of Fahe (6th century), Daoyan (15th century), and Tianzheng with Tianchi (16th century) as precedents of monastic acts of killing to justify their own actions during the conflict (Yu 2005:54-55).

Additionally, monks devoted numerous articles to ensuring the correct bodhisattva conduct when taking lives. Taixu asserted that those who kill for personal gain lose their bodhicitta, violate precepts, and will face the consequences (Yu 2005:40). Therefore, the articles underscored the importance of (a) intention (samyaksaṃkalpa), (b) compassion (mahākaruṇā, yajña), and (c) emptiness (sūnyatā), as skilful means (upāyakauśalya). The intention ought to be self-sacrificial, as illustrated by the phrase: “Who else will go to hell if not me” (Yu 2005:50). Meanwhile, compassion must supersede prātimokṣa:

It is contradictory to the spirit of great compassion if one is a stickler for the formalities of worldly humanity and righteousness when one sees enemies blandish their swords to kill our compatriots.

(Zhenhua in Yu 2005:49)

Certain instances of compassion also highlighted the importance of saving the Japanese from their karmic retribution (Yu 2005:50). Lastly, monks embraced the concept of emptiness by preaching non-duality of hiṃsā and ahiṃsā, as seen in passages quoted from Mahāyāna, Mādhyamaka, and the early modern era: “killing is not different from non-killing. Yet Dharma cannot be meaningless” (Lianchi in Yu 2005:50). In encouraging others, Taixu consistently emphasised the underlying role of upāyakauśalya: “Compassion does not necessarily mean non-killing and skillful means can always find a solution” (Taxiu in Yu 2005:83).

However, the lack of integrity in works by certain monks is noteworthy. For instance, in a 1937 issue of Fo hai deng, Juexian states that:

[C]lergy should be militarized. Monks and nuns may not actually be able to participate in fighting, the most suitable work for them is to take care of the wounded. The members of the sangha are endowed with great heroism, energy and compassion. They can be armed and having marched into the battlefield, kill enemies.

(Juexian in Yu 2005:65)

The statement reveals a paradox – while the author argues that clergy is not fit for combat, he also advocates for their militarisation and armed capacity to kill. This contradiction suggests ambivalence and a challenge of reconciling the demands of the conservative and liberal groups within the monastic community.

2.2 Evaluation of Applications

The armed conflicts of the Republic from 1927 to 1949 provide accounts of the adoption of upāyakauśalya as a mobilisation tool for monks’ active participation in warfare. The following evaluative investigation examines the presented cases in relation to doctrinal foundations. The analysis assesses the observations made in regard to the Chinese real-life scenarios and compares them to the theoretical concepts introduced in Chapter One. This investigation’s overarching goal is to assess how upāyakauśalya was interpreted and applied as justification for monastic military involvement.

The monks participated in war and justified this engagement through a multitude of bodhisattva-inspired discourses. Their upāyakauśalyas, as justifications, referred to (a) self-defence as a last resort, (b) re-establishment of global peace, (c) elimination of evil, (d) killing one/few to save many, (e) protection of Dharma, (f) production of great merit (for Buddhism and the Republic), (g) self-sacrifice of saving others before saving oneself, (h) compassion (for the Chinese, and for the Japanese), and (i) doctrine of emptiness. Despite the comprehensiveness of their approaches and their undertaken effort of re-examining Mahāyāna doctrines to address new problems, none of the works published by liberal monks, in the source materials at hand, encompasses all of the approaches at once. Instead, monks dealt with them individually or in small clusters. Therefore, the justifications they published in journals and letters were selective, disjointed, and lacked depth, clearly driven by the agenda of finding new solutions. Thus, the aim of liberal monks was not to focus on the doctrine or practice proper but rather to fill the void created by the absence of explicit guidance from the Buddha for such situations (Yu 2005:51). Noteworthy, the examined sources fail to state what is bodhisattva, the instance which would help the monastic readers validate their suitability for the endeavour.

Addressing the difference, and tension, between prātimokṣa-abiding śrāvakas and bodhisattvaśīla- and praṇidhāna-abiding bodhisattvas, is also significant because upāyakauśalya is a concept available only in bodhisattvayāna. In accordance with the Chinese ordination process, the monks and nuns were fully ordained śrāvakas, and many took the subsequent vows to become bodhisattvas. However, these are two separate, partially overlapping moral systems. On the one hand, the earlier ordination stage unambiguously prohibits participation in any form of violence, for instance, intentional killing. On the other hand, the final ordination opens a more flexible system that allows for participation in violence, providing that set criteria are met. Apart from situational circumstances, such as cultivating the mind free of hatred during a violent act, bodhisattva criteria apply: (a) they must be ordained as bodhisattvas, (b) be masters of all six pāramitās, as the obtainment of awakening warrants the mind suitable for the correct use of the seventh pāramitā of upāyakauśalya, and (c) have world-ages-long practice. Thus, in comparison, bodhisattvas’ situation is much more ambiguous, requiring careful scrutiny. In theory, monastics are not allowed to violate prātimokṣa without leaving the sangha, and cannot intentionally kill, unless they are very advanced bodhisattvas of the seventh stage, where violation of the previous code is justifiable. 

Meanwhile, from the perspective of śrāvakayāna, based on the doctrinal framework in Chapter One, clergy carried out nine wrongful actions prohibited by the prātimokṣa code. They consist of a mixture of minor and major offences. The below ranking starts with canonical minor offences, and coincides with the Brahmajālasūtra, with one notable exception of false speech.

The clergy

  1. taught Dharma inaccurately, e.g. Xudan, 1937, ?
  2. spent time with the army, e.g. Limiao, 1940, Hunan
  3. used weapons, e.g. Chen-hua, 1949, Taichung
  4. witnessed battles, e.g. A Chinese Buddhist International Propaganda Walking Team, 1940, ?
  5. participated in battles, e.g. Lamas, 1940, Mt. Wutai
  6. performed speech acts, e.g. The Young Buddhist Service Team, 1939, Hunan
  7. engaged in hypocrisy, e.g. Konglun, 1940, Hunan
  8. assisted in killing, e.g. Henghai, 1937, Yixing
  9. killed, e.g. Liangshan’s guerillas, 1933, Jinxi

The above instances of war participation, out of which each may represent a separate upāyakauśalya adoption, are attributable to several underlying views justifying the actions.

Clergy believed

  1. protecting Buddhism involves safeguarding nationalistic interests.
  2. by fighting evil, they work towards global peace, reflecting a shift from a passive to active understanding of pacifism.
  3. compassion serves to achieve the greater good and accumulates merit for the nation through fighting the enemies of the Republic.
  4. in abidance by military commands and discipline as a substitute for monastic code27.
  5. they were advanced bodhisattvas, skilled in the highest upāyakauśalya, which permitted cardinal transgressions.
  6. devotion to Buddhism entails enhancing its ethics and serving as role models of community service, compassion, and courage, in a manner which unites the interests of the nation and Buddhism (Taixu in Yu 2005:86).


This dissertation examined the doctrinal underpinnings of Buddhist monastic vow transgressions, focusing on grave violations such as killing. Through the textual analysis of the Chinese Civil War events, the study found that upāyakauśalya played a crucial role in a monastic justification of mass killings in the war-torn Buddhist nation. In conclusion, two findings emerge.

First, upāyakauśalya has limited applications as an elite practice within the Mahāyāna tradition. In theory, it grants advanced bodhisattvas the power to expedite the liberation of sentient beings in virtually unlimited ways. The practice encompasses the possibility of taking lives, provided the acts take place under very specific circumstances. Monks and nuns who are not bodhisattvas of the seventh pāramitā, and thus not guided by the heightened awareness enabling instinctive, dispassionate-compassionate upāyakauśalya, must be expelled from the sangha upon killing in war. However, the Chinese context does not provide records to ensure and convince that all monastics who fought on the battlefield were ordained bodhisattvas and had achieved advanced levels of practice.

Second, the pressure brought about by the war and nationalistic interests stifled a thorough and fair debate within the sangha. Initially polarised, the discourse soon favoured advocates for wartime monastic participation over adherence to prātimokṣa. Few doctrinal texts permit killing; however, in the works of publishing monks, they were widespread. Thus, the resulting narrative was not the product of a cooperative effort. Buddhist circulars promoted a single narrative, replacing a balanced discussion with a mobilisation effort. The lack of presence of the opposing side in the debate was not due to fewer representatives. Instead, they lacked a platform for expression, as indicated by their instances of suicides and fleeing efforts.

Further research is needed to understand the ongoing use of upāyakauśalya. To advance the field of research in the given context, it is imperative to address two aspects: (a) the long-term impact of the upāyakauśalya implementation during the Chinese Civil War and its consequent transformation of Chinese Buddhism, including the monastic attitudes towards ‘enemies’ in light of more recent China-Taiwan tensions, and (b) the Mahāyānian perspective of the Japanese invaders within the same conflict, revealing their interpretation and application of upāyakauśalya to justify the invasion, given the evidence of their religious motivation, including the adoption of yisha duosheng (JAP issatsu tashō).

The dissertation contributed to the understanding of the role of Mahāyāna Buddhism in justifying violence by monastics in a country beset by wars. Its focus on upāyakauśalya in the investigated case study revealed that the concept was a tactical response to war adopted by Buddhist monastics in privileged positions. The research demonstrated the need for balanced and open debate as well as careful consideration when applying advanced Buddhist concepts to modern issues—a factor that was lacking in the Chinese context. Hence, it is a starting point for future research on the continued deployment of upāyakauśalya in the Buddhist sphere.


  1. See Zimmermann (2006), or Jerryson & Juergensmeyer (2010).
  2. See Pye (2005[1978]:1).
  3. For instance, Keown (1998:204-205).
  4. Noteworthy, both require further research (Zimmermann 2006:238).
  5. Other regions, such as Sri Lanka and Burma, provide examples of Buddhist military engagements. Additionally, upāyakauśalya references are evident in Thailand regarding abortion (Buswell 2004:9-10). However, Mahāyāna Buddhism, specifically Chan, predominates in China, providing a more representative sample.
  6. Encompassing both Yogācāra and Mādhyamaka.
  7. Markings such as PLI, CHI, and JAP indicate the use of Pāli, Chinese, and Japanese vocabulary, respectively.
  8. Additionally, the Pāli Canon employs the term “upāya”, but in a general sense as a method (Pye 2005[1978]:119)
  9. The Mahāyāna’s Saddharmapuṇḍarīkasūtra provides further elaboration on this concept.
  10. It is a two-way process; the Mahāyāna Sūtras often require support from the Nikāya tradition for correct understanding. See Samuel (2011:219) and Deleanu (2000).
  11. Noteworthy, the scope contrasts the prevalent Indic religious beliefs of the time that endorsed war (see Mahābhārata).
  12. This paracanonical text is occasionally included in the Khuddakanikāya.
  13. Noteworthy, there is no correlation between killing and karuṇā in Nikāya Buddhism—the concept that emerged later (Schmithausen 1999:59).
  14. Yogācāra provides a further categorisation of the Buddha’s teachings. See Williams (2008[1989]:85-86,91).
  15. Classical six perfections applicable to both śrāvakas and bodhisattvas are generosity, morality, patience, effort, meditative absorption, and wisdom. See Daśabhūmikasūtra, Bodhisattvabhūmi, and Williams (2008[1989]:51,202,2006).
  16. In Chinese Buddhism, the Mahāparinirvāṇasūtra is held in high regard.
  17. The Chinese ordination process is similar, with longer intervals between ceremonies: “In the first ceremony (...) we took śrāmanera [novitiate] precepts (...) in the second, bhiksu [clerical] precepts (...) and in the third, bodhisattva precepts (...) the ordaining abbot congratulated us” (Chen-hua 1992:59).
  18. See Ferguson (1977:55) and Williams-Tribe (2000:170) for commentaries on a similar story in the Upāyakauśalyasūtra (132-137:73-74).
  19. Śūnyatā inspired some 7th-century Chinese monks to abandon monastic discipline (Yijng in Kleine 2006:90-91).
  20. See the Prajñāpāramitāhṛdayasūtra.
  21. Despite different approaches to romanising Chinese names among authors, this work adopts Yu’s approach given the abundance of his primary sources translations.
  22. The number corresponds to an earlier survey: “738,000 monks and nuns in 260,000 temples” (Yu 2005:65,226n75).
  23. Monks who provided first aid were “the bravest among those going back and forth during the battles” (Welch 1968:127-128). Other tasks involved sheltering army officers, wardening raids, and transferring merit.
  24. Responsibilities included industrial production, provision of supplies, donation administration, and burials (Yu 2005; Welch 1968).
  25. Likely the passage refers to the Vyāghrījātaka.
  26. The Chinese population praised ‘laicised’ clergy for their activism, patriotism, and nationalism—without criticism (Yu 2005:149-150). Concerns only arose about the loss of Dharma protectors to grave sins and the challenge of their reintegration into temples post-war (Yu 2005:66-67,86).
  27. Otherwise, those who did not leave to be re-ordained practised intermittently living double lives.

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