Doing martial arts is about mastering your body and mind, and pushing yourself to the limits of your abilities. It’s like the confidence training that the modern military puts its new soldiers through, yes, it can be a useful skill in certain circumstances, but it’s also a method of teaching the recruits that they can do and be more than they thought they could.
It’s also a dandy way to instill the habit of obedience into smartass kids.
I have studied Kung Fu for many years, and my wife is a long-time Zen Buddhist, so I can confidently state–I dunno.
First of all, as others have noted, it is by no means ALL Buddhist monks that are associated with martial arts, just a few subgroups–specifically the Shaolin monks and Kung Fu, and the Zen monks and swordsmanship.
The thing about the origin of both martial arts and Buddhism in China is that we have very little documentation that an historian would regard as reliable, but we have lots of oral tradition that sounds more or less goofy. Buddhism obviously migrated from India to China, but nobody knows exactly when or how. Buddhist tradition refers to a single person, Bodhidharma or Damo, but I think that is regarded as an unlikely legend by the historians.
In any case, the most of the stories in the martial arts world that I have heard link Kung Fu with this Bodhidharma --that he arrived in China and taught Buddhism to an already existing group of monks, and also taught some form of martial arts based on Indian martial arts and/or dance. The reason he did this was variously given as the monks were out of shape, or needed to defend themselves, or China was too cold to sit in yoga meditation and so he invented a moving meditation.
In the case of Zen and swordsmanship, most of the stories that I have heard are about swordsmen seeking out Zen training, in order to learn meditation and mental strength, or to find peace of mind.
Eastern philosophies tend to be more potpourris than is the case in the West, and both martial arts and Buddhism include heavy emphasis on concentration, meditation, and mental focus, so the real answer is probably that the pursuits have a natural affinity for each other.
A few centuries back, the monks became easy targets of for violent criminals. In an effort to protect themselves, Kung Fu was created and taught only to the monks so they could whoop ass on anyone that messed with them.
Others have touched on this, but I think the problem the OP is running into is a misunderstanding because of Hollywood, but not for the reasons he thinks. That is, there definitely are monks that practice martial arts, but the idea that the purpose of martial arts is for violence, at least in the way that most of them will practice it, is the Hollywood creation. That is, we see a Bruce Lee or Chuck Norris and we immediately associate martial arts with some guy going around beating people up, but that’s not the purpose of them training it.
At least for me when I trained in martial arts as a kid, the very first lesson we were given is that we were learning the martial arts with the intention to never having to use it. A lot of what we learned was about discipline. Even where we were learning technique, it was reinforced heavily with practice, routine, and discipline. That is, martial arts are as much a way of training the mind as they are of training the body. Further, you have, as mentioned upthread, moving meditations. I’m sure most people are familiar with how Tai Chi is used, at least in western popularity, as more or less a slow moving martial art focused entirely on the discipline and meditative side.
So, sure, martial arts can be used for violence and probably was used defensively from time to time, but in terms of the daily life of a monk, it can help fulfill the same sorts of purpose that prayer, meditation, or other forms of training do.
While he was mostly an pan-occultist, Baron Ungern-Sternberg arguably worked for the Bogd Khan, and he (and his Buddhist Mongolian cavalry) committed some pretty horrific atrocities in fighting to return the Khan to power.
I never got very far in my martial arts training, but this was also my first lesson, that it was better to avoid a fight if at all possible. And I believe that my daughter also had this as either her first lesson, or one of her first lessons. She has earned a brown belt in taekwondoe. I know that at least one of her classmates had his belt taken away because he was fooling around with his skills and hurt another classmate. The teacher was most displeased.
What is the First Precept? Many Buddhists interpret that precept so far as to be vegetarian, what makes you think it’s OK with beating people up?
Having said that, nobody’s perfect, and people are always willing to make the self-defence excuse. Buddhist monks like those at Shaolin practice martial arts because they’re Chinese, and the Chinese have been practising martial arts of exactly that sort since before they knew anything of Buddha. The monks used the local martial arts forms at hand when they had to defend themselves, in the same way Western monks learned the fighting artsof their own culture.
And they’re free to do so, but that is far different from either “Buddhism is a pacifist philosophy” or “One must be a vegetarian in order to practice Buddhism.” Do I need to point out that there are plenty of Buddhists who are not vegetarian?
Is there no difference between “it’s okay to beat people up” and pacifism?