Buddhism, both the Means and the End of the Ganden Phodrang Army. A State-of-the Field Review on Buddhism vis-à-vis the Military in Tibet

To quote this article:

Travers, Alice and Venturi, Federica, 2017. “Buddhism, both the Means and the End of the Ganden Phodrang Army. A State-of-the Field Review on Buddhism vis-à-vis the Military in Tibet” in https://tibarmy.hypotheses.org.

Detail, tangkha on the life of Gesar (Zhang Changhong (ed.), Sichuan Museum 2012. From the Treasury of Tibetan Pictorial Art: Painted Scrolls of the Life of Gesar/ Gesaer tang ka yan jiu/ Ge sar rgyal po’i sgrung thang skor gyi zhib ’jug. Sichuan Museum, Sichuan University Museum and Musée Guimet, Paris: Ke yan gui hua yu yan fa chuang xin zhong xin bian zhu.  Beijing: Zhonghua shu ju.)

The history of Tibet is full of warfare, and the period of the Ganden Phodrang (dga’ ldan pho brang)  is no exception. The aim of the TibArmy project’s first conference in Paris, held on 11 July 2017, was to explore the multi-faceted relationship between Buddhism and military affairs during this period. As an explicitly Buddhist state,  the protection of Buddhism was the avowed and ultimate aim of all military action undertaken on behalf  of the Ganden Phodrang– whether by its own army, by ad hoc militias or imperial forces. Buddhist monks often played prominent roles in Tibetan military affairs during this period. Also Buddhist doctrine and especially ritual liturgies of protection and destruction were used to support military action, and in Tibetan sources such methods were often portrayed as determining factors in the outcomes of armed conflict.

This blog-post offers some background to the subject by presenting an overview of prior scholarship on the relationship between Buddhism and the military in Tibet, which is adapted from the introduction presented at the conference by Alice Travers and Federica Venturi, and will appear in due course, in an extended version, as part of the introduction of our forthcoming volume, along with the collected papers of the conference (see the list of papers).

1. Violence and warfare in Buddhist societies, including Tibet

Violence and warfare in Buddhist societies, including Tibet
Though Buddhism is not a religion normally associated with violence, Buddhist societies are of course no strangers to violence, nor indeed to state violence and warfare, and Tibet is no exception. The first scholarly article dedicated to an analysis of the apparent oxymoron of ‘Buddhist warfare’ appeared sixty years ago, in the form of the article “Le Bouddhisme et la guerre” by the eminent sinologist Paul Demiéville which appeared in 1957 as a postscript to General Gaston Renondeau’s Histoire des moines guerriers du Japon. The issue addressed by this pioneering article was whether the phenomenon of monk-soldiers was restricted to Japanese Buddhism, or whether Buddhist militarisation in various forms was also found in other Buddhist traditions. Demiéville used the article to explore the ideological bases used to justify warfare in Buddhist contexts, and also to assess the possible reasons for the historic occurrence of Buddhist militarism as a historical phenomenon.

In particular, Demiéville elucidated some aspects of Buddhist ethical theory and ritual practice in light of their relationships to warfare. For example, he observed that throughout East Asia tantric Buddhist ritual liturgies were regularly employed in support of military goals. He further pointed out that the propagation of Buddhism rendered neither China nor Japan more pacifist. He did however concede that the Buddhist doctrine of nonviolence appears to have contributed to the historical weakening, militarily speaking, of the “lamaist” Tibeto-Mongol world. In this Demiéville was echoing an idea that remains pervasive in the fields of Tibetan, Chinese and Mongolian studies, as well as in general public opinion.1 It is easy to see however that such a presentation, in light of the many example of Buddhist militarism furnished by Tibetan and Mongolian history, might merit further analysis.

In looking for Buddhist ethical justifications for the recourse to violence, Demiéville particularly highlighted what he called the “statistical justification”, namely that murder may be justified if killing one person can save the lives of many – a utilitarian ethic that is illustrated for example in the story of the bodhisattva ship’s captain in the Upāyakauśalya Sutra. Interestingly, the main historical example that Demiéville draws upon to illustrate this principle pertains to Tibetan history, with the story of the murder of King Langdarma (Glang dar ma) by the monk Lhalung Pelkyidorje (Lha lung Dpal gyi rdo rje). According to Tibetan tradition, this murder was provoked by the king’s oppression of Buddhism, and his monk assassin is celebrated in Tibet as a saint. It is said that when embarking on his enterprise, Lhalung Pelkyidorje had only “thoughts of commiseration” toward his intended victim.

Chinese helmet and detail, mid to late 17th century. Collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Purchase, Bashford Dean Memorial Collection, Funds from various donors, by exchange, 1997. Published in LaRocca, Donald J. 2006. Warriors of the Himalayas. Rediscovering the Arms and Armor of Tibet. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Yale University Press.

For whatever reason—perhaps due to a decline in interest in military history in general, or to an increased focus within Buddhist studies on other aspects of doctrine and practice—for almost fifty years after the appearance of Demiéville’s article, the topic of Buddhism and violence was almost entirely neglected by scholars. The sole exception to this was Lambert Schmithausen’s “Buddhismus und Glaubenskriege” which appeared in 1996 in the proceedings of a seminar dedicated to the theme of religious wars. This article systematically tackled four distinct but related questions concerning war and violence in Buddhism, namely 1) the “explicitness of the sources” on the ethical norm of not engaging in war; 2) examples of violations of this norm; 3) “attempts to harmonize politics and ethics”; and 4) “attempts to relativize the norm” (see Schmithausen 1999: 46 and passim).

With the beginning of the 21st century, we find a sudden profusion of publications devoted to the subject of the relationship between Buddhism and violence, which appeared in quick succession.2 The first was a collection of articles entitled Buddhism and Violence, edited by Michael Zimmermann and published in 2006. Comprising the results of a conference panel dedicated to this theme, Zimmerman’s volume aimed to illustrate that, like other religious systems, “the traditions of Buddhism have actively or passively promoted violent modes of behaviour” (Zimmermann 2006: 6). The volume includes eight articles ranging geographically from India to Japan, and passing through Tibet. Chronologically, they range from treatments of classical Pali and Mahāyāna sources to the 20th century. Thematically, the range is also very wide, including for example an analysis of suicide and the practice of self-immolation by fire (a feature of Tibetan protests for independence in recent years); a discussion of soldier monks in Japan; and an analysis of the ethical tension experienced by a model Buddhist sovereign or cakravartin when punishing evildoers.

Significantly for our own purposes, this collection includes two articles on Tibet, both of which focus on the above-mentioned story of the assassination of king Langdarma. The first, by Carmen Meinert, looks at how the celebrated episode has been assimilated in Tibetan literary sources with the tantric rite of “liberation through killing”, and illustrates how an act of murder such as that of Langdarma when religiously framed, can be transformed through ritual into a sacred act. Dissenting from this reading, Jens Schlieter argues that rather than illustrating  a “liberation killing”, the story provides a justification for tyrannicide under the right circumstances, and thus becomes “a model for political conflict resolution” (Zimmermann 2006: 8).

Two years after the appearance of the Zimmermann collection, Bernard Faure, a specialist in Japanese Chan Buddhism, published his seminal work Buddhisme et violence (2008). This work carefully scrutinizes the contradictions and ambiguities inherent to the relationship between Buddhism and violence. Faure starts from the observation that there is a certain disjunct between the normative ethical ideals of Buddhism on the one hand, and its pragmatic approach to conflict and violence on the other. Drawing examples from the histories of Sri Lanka, China, Vietnam, Tibet and Japan, his analyses encompass not only warfare—which is after all only one form of violence albeit on a mass scale—but also examples of symbolic violence as expressed through mythology, iconography,3 ritual and the language of sermons. Within the various Buddhist cultures under scrutiny, he reviews the ways in which the recourse to violence has been legitimated on both doctrinal and practical levels, and the reasons that were so readily available to Buddhist leaders for compromising on the principle of non-violence. Particularly stimulating for our own research on warfare under the Ganden Phodrang are those sections of his work that synthesize the various sociological debates on the proper relationship between Buddhism and the state. Indeed, Faure underlines the fact that any state, whether Buddhist or not,  since it by definition holds the monopoly on the legitimate use of violence, cannot relinquish this monopoly without at the same time losing its right to govern and its capacity to maintain order (Faure 2008: 48). In this context, he highlights the humanism of the Buddhist religion—it is a religion constructed by humans in order to serve humans—and humans do not always manage to live up to the ideals they create for themselves. Therefore, he argues, given that Buddhist societies have in practice been constrained by the force of circumstance to tolerate state violence, the very fact that the idea of non-violence has been sustained at the level of an ideal, remains a significant achievement and a point to its credit (ibid.:16).

Jacob Dalton’s The Taming of the Demons, which was published in 2011, specifically addresses the discourse of violence in Tibetan Buddhism and in particular the tantric ritual of ‘liberation’ or killing. By analysing textual evidence from various literary genres and historical periods, Dalton reconstructs what he calls a ‘history of violence’ in Tibetan Buddhism. The focus of the work however is firmly on ritual violence and sorcery, rather than literal violence or warfare.

Dalton’s work offers a significant supplement to Tibetan military history however, since very often in Tibetan history, ritual means were employed in support of military campaigns and political goals, and the reputation for efficacy in such rituals was an important asset for religious leaders. The examples are too numerous to be quoted here, and the topic of “war magic” is at the centre of one of our conference papers (see the contribution by FitzHerbert). To date however, most scholarly attention have pertained to such practices during the pre-Ganden Phodrang periods of Tibetan history, for instance with the twelfth-century religious figure, Lama Zhang (1122-1193) (Yamamoto 2012), or the ritual specialist Sogdogpa (Sog bzlog pa Blo gros rgyal mtshan, 1552-1624) (Gentry 2009 and 2017). Or they have looked at such practices in Tibetan territories not directly controlled by the Ganden Phodrang government or its army, such as the well-known use of war magic during the Qing campaigns in the Tibetan borderlands of Rgyal rong (Ch. Jinchuan) as described by Dan Martin (1990) and later by Joanna Waley-Cohen (2006).

In Michael Jerryson and Mark Juergensmeyer’s anthology of articles entitled Buddhist Warfare, which appeared in 2010, the focus was not on violence in general but war in particular. The avowed aim of this volume, which among other things includes an English translation of the  Demiéville article discussed above, was “disrupting the social imaginary that holds Buddhist traditions to be exclusively pacifistic” (Jerryson and Juergensmeyer 2010: introduction, 3). In keeping with this provocative goal, the cover of the book shows a young Buddhist novice holding what looks like a pistol (an image that was not well received among certain Buddhist circles in the west).4 Like the collection edited by Zimmermann, this publication also has a wide range both geographically and temporally, illustrating that warfare in a Buddhist context was not confined to any specific period or place. One emphasis of the volume is on illustrating how Buddhist scriptures can be interpreted to justify warfare (ibid.: 5). For example, Stephen Jenkins’ exploration of the Ārya-Satyakaparivarta sutra ultimately concludes that certain canonical discourses of the Buddha suggest not only that warfare can be justified, but that also in some circumstances it is actually possible to accumulate merit through warfare. In the scriptures, he argues, dharma not only gives a cakravartin (ideal Buddhist ruler) the right to rule, it also allows him to enforce his rule through violence.

2. Buddhism and warfare in the Ganden Phodrang period and territory

The Zimmerman collection also includes an article on Tibet that is especially relevant to the theme of our project, since it deals with the period of the formation of the Ganden Phodrang state during the time of the Fifth Dalai Lama. In this piece, “Sacralised Warfare: The Fifth Dalai Lama and the Discourse of Religious Violence”, Derek Maher looks at the ways in which the wars of the 1630s and 1640s – ­which led to the formal establishment of the Ganden Phodrang state in 1642 – were justified in different ways by the Fifth Dalai Lama himself in his various writings. Maher looks at both the Fifth Dalai Lama’s  history of Tibet, the Song of the Queen of Spring, composed very soon after the events described (1643), and at the first three volumes of his autobiography, the Good Silk Cloth, authored some twenty-five years later.5 In particular, Maher observes that in his history, the violence of the warfare that brought him to power was neither concealed nor obscured, and he was clearly concerned with justifying it. The enemy is portrayed as being under the sway of demonic influences, while Gushri Khan – the Mongol chief who conducted these wars on behalf of the Dalai Lama and his school of Buddhism – is praised for his bodhisattva-like selflessness in protecting and promoting the Buddhist cause. Gushri Khan is identified as an emanation of Vajrapāni and is described as a “second Srong btsan sgam po” (the celebrated 7th century Tibetan emperor). He is also honoured with the title dharmarāja or religious king. In this way, the Dalai Lama unequivocally and bombastically celebrates the violence done in the name of Buddhism by identifying Gushri Khan as a bodhisattva and his opponents as demons (Maher 2010: 81). By contrast, in the autobiography, which was composed much later when the Great Fifth’s position of power was much more secure, these same conflicts are depicted somewhat differently. Here he suggests his own reluctance or even opposition to these wars, and depicts them as as the outcome of a series of reactions to unwelcome circumstances: namely the repeated obstructions, intimidations, and harassments that the Bonpo and the Kagyupa (schools of Tibetan religion) had inflicted on the Gelukpa (the school of the Dalai Lamas) in the previous decades. In this way The Fift Dalai Lama is validating the use of military force in a more subtle way: as an unfortunate but necessary response to his opponents’ immoral behaviour (ibid.: 81).6

Tse Ten Tashi Photograph
Kusung (body guard) unit in Norbu Lingka courtyard with Kathags, ca. 1900-1950
Gift of Bruce Walker, 2000
Collection of the Newark Museum 2000.36.3.50.








If Demiéville may be considered the father of academic enquiry into the relationship between Buddhism and violence in general, then Donald LaRocca may be considered father of research into Buddhism and the material culture of warfare in Tibet in particular, including a part on the Ganden Phodrang period. In 2006, he published a landmark study of Tibetan weapons and armour from the 7th to the 20th centuries, as the catalogue of an exhibition held at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. This volume includes a lexicon of Tibetan terminology related to weapons and armour and documents the significant presence of armaments and armour in Tibet . Later, in 2008, he further developed this theme in  a paper entitled “Tibetan Warriors: The Challenges of Presenting the Warlike Side of a Peaceful Culture”.

However the most pioneering and comprehensive study to date on the military history of Tibet itself, which includes a part on the Ganden Phodrang period, is the work by Gyaltse Namgyal Wangdue, first published in Tibetan in 1978 and republished by LTWA in 2003, which was later translated into English by Yeshi Dhondup and published under the title Political and Military History of Tibet (2010 and 2012). Financed by the Veterans’ Association of the Tibetan Army (Bod dmag rnying pa’i skyid sdug), this book is a mine of information on the Tibetan army of the Ganden Phodrang specifically. The work has a kind of hybrid status between a secondary and a primary source: sometimes entire passages are reproduced from Shakabpa’s history (Shakabpa, 1976) for example, or from other Tibetan-language historical and biographical sources, while elsewhere the author furnishes new information but unfortunately often without citing his actual source, which limits the work’s usefulness. The book also contains a good deal of first-hand testimony by the author himself, who served as a soldier, and also the first-hand testimonies of several other former officers and military commanders. Of particular value are the accounts of the ministers Taring (’Phreng ring) and Nornang (Nor nang), who worked at the army headquarters in Lhasa and were thus particularly well placed to observe its organisational procedures.

We also have a number of other first-hand accounts published in Tibetan as part of the TAR-published series: Bod kyi lo rgyus rig gnas dpyad gzhi’i rgyu cha bdams bsgrigs (Bod ljongs chab gros rig gnas lo rgyus dpyad gzhi’i rgyu cha zhib ’jug u yon lhan khang 1982-2014).

Further significant contributions to the study of military affairs during the Ganden Phodrang period include an investigation by Heather Stoddard into the use of enemy-repelling (Tib: dmag bzlog) rituals during the 1888 Anglo-Tibetan skirmishes; an article by Elliot Sperling (2001) addressing the constructed notion of Tibet as a land of peace untouched by warfare or violence; and, finally, a few studies authored by ourselves—the organisers of this symposium. Dr. Alice Travers for example has published articles on aristocratic laymen who served as military officers at the beginning of the 20th century (Travers 2011); military law (Travers 2016); and the development of the military institution as it appears in legal documents from the 17th to the 20th century (Travers 2015). This last article is an attempt to analyse the lacunae in our understanding of the institutional development of the Ganden Phodrang’s army and to help delineate the scope and potential of her current research on the institutional and social history of the Tibetan army.

In her 2014 article, Federica Venturi brought to light the personal involvement of the XIII Dalai Lama (1876-1933) with Tibetan military affairs and also his own views on the usefulness of the army, by translating four documents which unequivocally confirm the direct involvement of the highest échelons of the monastic establishment with Tibetan military affairs. These documents show that the XIII Dalai Lama was personally fully involved in the administration of the Ganden Phodrang, and that he was acutely aware of the external pressures and realpolitik challenges facing Tibet at the time. Challenges that necessitated, in his view, pragmatic solutions such as modernising the army, which he believed must prevail over Buddhist ethical reservations.



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  • Bell, Charles. [1928] 1992. The People of Tibet. New Delhi: Motilal Banarsidass Publishers.
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  • Dalton, Jacob P. 2011. The Taming of the Demons: Violence and Liberation in Tibetan Buddhism. New Haven: Yale University Press.
  • Demiéville, Paul. 1957. “Le Bouddhisme et la guerre: Post-scriptum à l’Histoire des moines guerriers du Japon de Gaston Renondeau” in Mélanges publiés par l’Institut des Hautes Etudes chinoises. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, I: 347-385.
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  • —— 2008. “Tibetan Warriors: The Challenges of Presenting the Warlike Side of a Peaceful Culture” in Challenges and Choices in a Changing World: Proceedings of the ICOMAM Conference, Vienna 2007. Vienna: Heeresgeschichtliches Museum, 39–52.
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  • —— 2015. “The Tibetan Army of the Ganden Phodrang in Various Legal Documents (17th-20th Centuries)”, in Dieter Schuh (ed.) Secular Law and Order in the Tibetan Highland. Contributions to a workshop organized by the Tibet Institute in Andiast (Switzerland) on the occasion of the 65th birthday of Christoph Cüppers from the 8th of June to the 12th of June 2014, Monumenta Tibetica Historica, Abteilung III Band 13. Andiast: IITBS GmbH, 249–266.
  • —— 2016. “The Lcags stag dmag khrims (1950): A new development in Tibetan legal and military history?” in Jeannine Bischoff and Saul Mullard (eds) Social Regulation – Case Studies from Tibetan History. Leiden: Brill, 99-125.
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Cite this blog post
Florent Resche-Rigon (2017, October 24). Buddhism, both the Means and the End of the Ganden Phodrang Army. A State-of-the Field Review on Buddhism vis-à-vis the Military in Tibet. TIBARMY. Retrieved April 20, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/urdy

  1. For example, in The People of Tibet by Charles Bell, first published in 1928, one reads “[…] for Buddhism, with its softening influence forbidding the taking of life, had weakened the martial power of the nation” (Bell 1928: 15); see also the idea of Tibet as a “disarmed society” as described by George Bataille in 1949 (quoted by Faure 2008: 44). []
  2. Here we only discuss those works that have sections specifically on Tibet. Other volumes on this theme appeared in the same period focusing on Southeast-Asian contexts (Tambiah 1992; Bartholomeusz, 2002; Hinnels and King 2007; Jerryson 2011; Tikhonov and Brekke 2013). []
  3. One thinks here, for Tibet, to Amy Heller’s study on “Armor and weapons in the iconography of Tibetan Buddhist deities” (Heller 2006). []
  4. Several filo-Buddhist blogs on the internet have criticized the theme addressed by the book and even its title, accusing the editors and authors of anti-Buddhist stance. In addition, it was questioned if the photo was staged. See for example http://mybuddhaispink.blogspot.com/2011/03/buddhist-warfare-introduction.html#comment-form, accessed July 9, 2017. []
  5. See Samten Karmay, The Illusive Play. The Autobiography of the Fifth Dalai Lama, Chicago: Serindia Publications, 2014 (pp. 2-3), where it is explained that the V Dalai Lama, although encouraged to write an autobiography since 1644, began to undertake this task only in 1667. The third volume of his autobiography, concerning the years between 1675 and 1681, was composed during the latter years of his life, so basically almost contemporaneously to the events, since it could not have been started before 1675 and was completed before the Dalai Lama’s death in the second month of 1682. []
  6. Maher asserts that in his autobiography the V Dalai Lama “was prosecuting the last battle of the war by placing the recently concluded conflict within a framework that made it meaningful and that exonerated him and justified his rule”. He later adds that the V Dalai Lama in the first three volumes and the Sde srid Sangs rgyas rgya mtsho in the latter three had in fact attempted to sugarcoat the Dalai Lama’s role in the spilling of blood that established his power: “From the comfortable vantage point of [this] fully articulated –and by then successful– mythology, they seem to have decided to distance the Dalai Lama from responsibility for the warfare of the 1630s and 1640s, denying that he had approved of the most consequential bloodshed. It may also be that, by that time, the elderly Dalai Lama had come to have second thoughts about the violence that had been unleashed in his name. It is evident, for example, that the Dalai Lama remained troubled by the human impact of the battles. A wide variety of the dreams and visions reported in the Fifth Dalai Lama’s Sealed and Secret Biography demonstrate that he was often disturbed by specters of violence and war” (Maher 2010). []