On the go? Listen to the audio version of the article here:
Aside from D&D, when you envision a real-world monk, you probably imagine one of two things: a portly Friar Tuck-like fellow or a lean, bald Buddhist in a saffron one. In both cases, they appear to be deeply religious. But what about D&D monks – are they religious?
Official 5e descriptions of monks don’t mention religion; they are portrayed as scholars seeking personal perfection through meditation and training. Like D&D clerics, monks don’t need a religion – they just need to pursue physical or spiritual discipline that unlocks their ki.
Since they’re not religious, you may be wondering what sort of paths they can take to gain such perfection. I’m glad you asked!
If Monks Aren’t Spiritual, What Are They?
That discipline could take various forms; some monks might believe their ki is a gift from their deity, while others meditate to seek their inner light. Some, like the Way of the Drunken Master monk, might even find enlightenment through intoxication, using alcohol or hallucinogenic plants to unleash their spiritual power.
Rules-as-written (RAW), D&D monk abilities are based on ki, but many real-life martial arts beginnings weren’t related to spiritual practices.
It is believed that kung fu’s origin was a set of exercises based upon animal movements that were designed to improve the health of the practitioner. This eventually led to the establishment of the Shaolin Temple.
In Brazil, capoeira was invented by black slaves who developed martial arts for self-defense, which they disguised as folk dancing. In China, tai chi is also rumored to have begun this way. In France, savate was originally developed by sailors who needed their hands to hold onto something to maintain balance while fighting on the rocking decks of ships.
Basically, many martial arts were developed to hone the body and mind, but were often more focused on practical usage.
Spirituality vs. Religion
It can be difficult to distinguish between spirituality and religion. Most people assume that being religious means you must believe in a deity, but at least two major real-world religions don’t require it. In other words, you can be religious without being spiritual.
Meanwhile, many people describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious”. Most modern-day martial arts are not taught as part of religious practice. While many practitioners of Eastern martial arts choose to embrace the spirituality inherent in traditional Chinese kung fu, they may also practice a Western religion or no religion at all.
An order of monks might be dedicated to a particular deity, but they might just as well be dedicated to a principle, such as self-knowledge, justice, life, death, order, or chaos. They might be dedicated to a plane to which they hope to ascend, or to a domain they revere. They could even dedicate themselves to a historic – or even living – master of the order.
If your monk comes from a religious order, it doesn’t have to be a traditional one. A monk could just as easily be a member of an apocalyptic cult or a tribe that employs ritualistic movements to awaken the ancestor spirits that live within them.
And, finally, if you don’t like the spiritual aspect of monks RAW, there’s no reason you can’t reflavor your monk’s abilities as innate magic you’ve learned to tap into through physical discipline.
For that matter, if you’ve ever seen the Muppet Show episode featuring James Coburn trying to teach Animal to meditate, you know that sometimes a person can find inner peace through the sheer joy of hitting things.
Many Paths to Enlightenment
Some monks will have studied in a monastery or cloister, where their elders instructed them in formal physical and spiritual practices. But joining a monastery isn’t the only way for a monk to receive training!
Some may have:
- Been apprenticed to a single wise master of the art;
- Acquired knowledge more informally from a relative or other mentor;
- Forged their own spiritual path, and unlocked their inner power.
The features of the monk subclass you choose should give you some ideas for how your character came by their abilities.
A monk who practices the Way of the Open Hand may have been one of many students in a remote mountain monastery where they practiced the strictest physical and spiritual discipline. They could also be a simple brawler who honed their skill by picking fights with traveling adventurers in the village tavern and studying their combat techniques.
In the time-honored tradition of Jackie Chan, a Way of the Drunken Master monk could have learned to fight from the smelly old drunkard who spent his days napping in front of the village tavern – or they might have been raised an order of Trappist-style monks who brewed strong ale and engaged in strenuous exercise to maintain their health.
Other options may be:
- Way of the Kensei: they might have received their weapons training in an elite school for warriors, or as a gladiator in the fighting pits.
- Way of Mercy: they might have studied in a cloister of spiritual healers or been raised by a wise woman deep in an Elven forest.
- Sun Soul monk could have been a hermit who meditated alone under a tree until he achieved enlightenment.
Perhaps you want something Monk-adjacent, but a bit beefier. In which case, maybe you just…
A monk Player Character (PC) can be as religious – or as non-religious – as you like. Where and how they gained their martial prowess is up to you. Ki can be flavored as spiritual energy, innate magic, or just plain gutsiness.
This is because:
- Spirituality and religion don’t necessarily go hand in hand – you can be spiritual but not religious; religious, but not spiritual.
- Neither religion nor spirituality is a requirement for the study of martial arts – some people just love to hit things.
- Monks can train in a variety of settings, not just in monasteries. The only limits are those of your imagination and the approval of your Dungeon Master (DM).
Thank you for checking out my article, and I hope you found it insightful!