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Elective: Buddhism and Violence


Admission requirements

This course is only available for students in the BA International Studies who have successfully completed the second year elective course.
The number of participants is limited to 25.


Western fascination with Buddhism tends to idealize Asian religions as peaceful and spiritual, and information connecting Buddhism to violence tends to be perceived as inauthentic and is believed to represent a corrupted tradition. For Buddhists themselves, they also claim Buddhism as a perfect embodiment of compassion and benevolence. However, history witnesses warfare or conflicts between Buddhist monks, and data from Buddhist scriptures betray as well that Buddhists do not always play a compassionate role, not only with each other but also to the outside society. Then, how can we understand violence in Buddhism, a religion representing itself as fundamentally “compassionate”? How does violence take root in both philosophical dimensions and in the historical development of Buddhism? Does violence contradict Buddhist ethics, or can it provide another path for followers to achieve the ultimate goal?
The starting point of our survey is Buddhist violence in early modern or modern society. The self-immolation of modern monks in Vietnam and Tibet is widely known due to the popular media, but they did not invent this terrifying practice. Who were their predecessors in burning and mutilating their own human bodies? Should we perceive this practice as self-sacrifice or as suicide? Today women desire dignity and freedom to participate in religion but there are many Buddhist precepts placing nuns in an inferior position to monks within Buddhist communities. Has misogyny existed in Buddhism from the very beginning? Tibetan Buddhism, as one of the most popular traditions of Buddhism in Western society, is famous for its demonolatry and sexual ritual in the form of tantrism. How can we understand the role of violence and sex in leading people to ultimate peace in Tibetan tantric Buddhism? Several women made accusations of rape and sexual violence by Tibetan monks in the West, the most famous case of which concerns June Campbell. Campbell used to be a sexual consort of one of the most holy monks in Tibet, but recently she claimed that she was actually a Tantric sex slave. How do we understand women’s role in tantric practice? Shaolin monks have been portrayed in action movies as those who possess unbelievable and awe-inspiring strength, and have aroused Western people’s fascination with Kungfu (martial arts). Why did a group of compassionate Buddhists decide to undertake training and become fighting monks? How did they merge violent physical combat and peaceful doctrine in their daily lives? The involvement of Buddhist monks in wars is not unknown but is unclear: what kind of role did Japanese monks play in the Second World War, and were they really monks? What about the ordained soldiers in modern Sri Lanka and Thailand? The bloodshedding clashes between Buddhists and Muslims in modern Burma resulted in an unknown number of deaths and the destruction of mosques. How do they justify their violence that apparently deviates from the compassionate spirit of the Buddha? To merely survey modern forms of violence is not the end of our project, however. We will continue to investigate the origins of violence in history and the controversy it has provoked in our modern society, as well as its place in mainstream Buddhist ideology.
This course offers a systematic survey of Buddhist violence in different parts of Asia (India, Sri Lanka, Southeast Asia, China, Japan and Tibet), with some consideration of Buddhist communities in the West, each lecture centering on one topic. We will explore the issues of Buddhist views on suicide and self-mutilation, the practice of Buddhist immolation, misogyny, the interpretation of violent Tantra and Tibetan Buddhism, the history of Buddhist martial arts and Buddhist warfare, the past of slaves in Buddhist communities and hell in Buddhism. We will try to explore the historical and philosophical echoes of modern forms of Buddhist violence to further understand what Buddhism is more broadly. We will listen to diverse voices within different Buddhist traditions to try to grasp the diversity of Buddhism in different areas. We will try to see how Buddhist traditions deal with the tension between the religious ideal of nonviolence and the social-political reality of violence. We will think about the logic and underlying ideology of the guilty parties to justify their deviation from what they themselves believe to be the Buddha’s teaching of nonviolence. And lastly, we will contemplate where the Western image of Buddhism as a peaceful religion came from, and how this image has evolved over time. In seeking answers to these questions, we will place Buddhism within larger historical and social contexts, and will reflect, in a nuanced manner, on the relationship between Buddhism in theory and in practice. Students are expected to participate in in-class discussions, and to read assigned literature including both primary sources in translation and secondary scholarship.

Course objectives

The elective courses for International Studies are designed to teach students how to deal with state-of-the-art literature and research questions. They are chosen to enhance the students’ learning experience by building on the interdisciplinary perspectives they have developed so far, and to introduce them to the art of academic research. They are characterised by an international or comparative approach.

Academic skills that are trained include:

Oral presentation skills:

  1. to explain clear and substantiated research results;
    1. to provide an answer to questions concerning (a subject) in the field covered by the course
      a. in the form of a clear and well-structured oral presentation;
      b. in agreement with the appropriate disciplinary criteria;
      c. using up-to-date presentation techniques;
      d. aimed at a specific audience;
    2. to actively participate in a discussion following the presentation.

Collaboration skills:
1. to be socio-communicative in collaborative situations;
2. to provide and receive constructive criticism, and incorporate justified criticism by revising one’s own position;
3. adhere to agreed schedules and priorities.

Basic research skills, including heuristic skills:
1. to collect and select academic literature using traditional and digital methods and techniques;
2. to analyze and assess this literature with regard to quality and reliability;
3. to formulate on this basis a sound research question;
4. to design under supervision a research plan of limited scope, and implement it using the methods and techniques that are appropriate within the discipline involved;
5. to formulate a substantiated conclusion.

Written presentation skills:
1. to explain clear and substantiated research results;
2. to provide an answer to questions concerning (a subject) in the field covered by the course
a. in the form of a clear and well-structured written presentation;
b. in agreement with the appropriate disciplinary criteria;
c. using relevant illustration or multimedia techniques;
d. aimed at a specific audience.


The timetable is available on the BA International Studies website

Mode of instruction

Seminar and supervised research.

Course Load

Total course load for the course = 10 EC (280 hours), broken down by:

  • Attending lectures: 24 hours

  • Reading literature, preparing for assignments and presentation: 8 hours per week x 12 weeks = 96 hours

  • Writing final paper (including time for reading and research): 160 hours•

Assessment method

assessment and weighing

  • Learning aim: Interactive engagement with course material Assessment: In-class participation, weekly assignments Percentage: 20%

  • Learning aim: Presentation skills Assessment: Presenting analysis of a case study Percentage: 10%

  • Learning aim: Analytical skills Assessment: Final paper (ca. 4,000 -5,000 words) Percentage: 70%

To complete the final mark, please take notice of the following: the final mark for the course is established by determining the weighted average.

To pass the course, the weighted average has to be 5.5 at least.


In case of resubmission of the final essay (insufficient grade only) the final grade for the essay will be lowered as a consequence of the longer process of completion. The deadline for resubmission is 10 days after receiving the grade for the final essay.


Blackboard will be used. For tutorial groups: please enroll in blackboard after your enrolment in uSis
Students are requested to register on Blackboard for this course.

Reading list

Harvey, Peter. 2000. An Introduction to Buddhist Ethics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Houben, Jan E. M., and Karel R. van Kooij (eds.). 1999. Violence Denied: Violence, Non-Violence,
and the Rationalization of Violence in South Asian Cultural History. Leiden: Brill.

Zimmermann, Michael (ed.). 2006. Buddhism and Violence. Kathmandu: Lumbini International
Research Institute.

Juergensmeyer, Mark and Michael Jerryson (eds.). 2010. Buddhist Warfare. New York: Oxford
University Press.

Dalton, Jacob. Taming of the Demons. Violence and Liberation in Tibetan Buddhism. 2011. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Shahar, Meir. The Shaolin Monastery: History, Religion, and the Chinese Martial Arts. 2008. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press.

Ohnuma, Reiko. Head, Eyes, Flesh, Blood. Giving Away the Body in Indian Buddhist Literature. 2006. New York: Columbia University Press.

Benn, James A. Burning for the Buddha: Self-Immolation in Chinese Buddhism. 2007. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press

An extended list of reading materials will be made available at the beginning of the semester

(Readings will be provided on blackboard when possible).


Enrolment through uSis is mandatory.
General information about uSis is available in English and Dutch

Registration Studeren à la carte and Contractonderwijs

Not applicable


C. Li


The deadline for submission of the final essay is 9 June 2017.