Buddhist morality is Medieval

Traditional Buddhist morality developed in feudal theocratic cultures. Mostly, it is typical for such societies: similar to what you’d find in Medieval Europe or the nastier parts of the contemporary Islamic world. It is crude, arbitrary, patriarchal, and often cruel.

In Europe, Enlightenment rationalism enabled smart people to say “wait, that’s nasty and stupid.” Christian morality gradually became less barbarous, and evolved into secular ethics.

Buddhist modernizers replaced traditional morality with Victorian Christian morality in the late 1800s, and with leftish secular morality in the the 1980s. (The two pages after this one discuss that.) The result is that modern “Buddhist ethics” has no similarity to traditional Buddhist morality, much of which would horrify Western Buddhists.

You’d find, for most current hot-button Western moral conflicts, that traditional Buddhism has nothing to say, or comes down on the side of Western conservatives, or advocates positions so regressive that even no conservative would agree. Damien Keown, in “Buddhist ethics: a critique,”1 writes:

Buddhism is depicted as holding ‘enlightened’ views on any number of contemporary issues, when these have hardly been mentioned in traditional sources, or the evidence is ambiguous or even points in the opposite direction. Thus Buddhism is depicted as eco-friendly, a defender of individual rights, strongly anti-war, ‘pro-choice’ and tolerant of same-sex relationships, in a manner that coincides neatly with modern and liberal agendas. This anachronistic construction of Buddhism seems to owe as much to the rejection of certain traditional Western values as it does to the views of Buddhism itself. If Buddhism is the ‘good guy,’ it is not hard to image who the ‘bad guy’ is. The blame for many of today’s problems is often laid at the door of Christianity, which is charged with being destructive of the environment, conservative, authoritarian, repressive, sexist, and stained in the blood of countless wars. However, the Buddhist position is much less clear and coherent on many issues than is commonly supposed. I will illustrate the nature of the problem with three examples: ecology, human rights, and war. These are all issues on which Buddhism is widely perceived as being on the side of the angels, but the justification for this view in Buddhist teachings is weaker than might be thought.

I’ll go through two of Keown’s examples briefly, plus three others: sex, gender, and slavery.2

Sex

Buddhism is extraordinarily anti-sexual. Rejection of sex is the first and most important aspect of its central principle, renunciation. Buddhism recommends complete celibacy for lay people as well as monastics. Actual Buddhist practice is completely incompatible with any sexual activity, and even with the slightest twinge of desire.3

For lay people who insist on having sex anyway, Buddhism has long lists of rules prohibiting most sexual acts. If you follow the rules, you’ll probably be reborn as a pig, but at least you’ll avoid hell. Details depend on the tradition, but commonly verboten are solo and partner masturbation, oral and anal sex, sex between men, sex during daytime, and sex with a woman who is pregnant or nursing. Abortion is murder, and sends you straight to hell. On the other hand, polygamy is taken for granted, and married men having sex with prostitutes is explicitly OK according to some (not all) major traditions.4 Overall, and in other respects too, Buddhist morality is patriarchal, sexist, and cis-sexist.5

José Cabezón’s “Rethinking Buddhism and Sex” was one of my inspirations for writing this blog series about Buddhist ethics. He notes that these facts come as an unwelcome surprise to many Western Buddhists. A typical first reaction is denial: “That isn’t what Buddhism says—it wouldn’t be compassionate—Buddhist ethics says that all sexual acts are fine between adults in a loving relationship.” When confronted with authoritative texts, they may switch to “That is a later overlay from a conservative culture, not the radical true original Buddhism”; then eventually “well, I guess Buddha got that minor point wrong, so we’ve fixed it.” This reflects a total failure to understand the essential role of renunciation in Buddhist practice.

I have often asked myself why my co-religionists are so willing, and indeed keen, to adopt the minute meditation instructions of the classical masters, and so quick to slough off the advice of these same masters when it comes to matters of sex.

Be that as it may, I have come to see a fundamental disconnect between what the classical Buddhist tradition has to say about sexuality and what Western Buddhists believe about the subject. I realized that much of the background and many of the ideas I was taking for granted were either unknown to my audience or were summarily rejected as “un-Buddhist.”

Cabezón argues that we should

  1. know, understand, and reflect on what Buddhism actually says about sex
  2. analyze it using Western ethical principles of rationality, justice, and equality—all concepts which are unknown in traditional Buddhist morality
  3. reject Buddhist sexual morality on that basis.

Gender equality

Peter Harvey’s Introduction to Buddhist Ethics devotes an entire chapter, 56 pages long, to “Sexual Equality.” This simply does not exist in Buddhism.

Harvey really, really wants it to exist, but in the end he doesn’t say it does, because it doesn’t. Most of the chapter shows instead that women are inferior according to virtually all Buddhist texts and cultural traditions. On the positive side, he points out that:

  1. Women were better off under Buddhism than some other religions [true, but that does not make them equal to men]
  2. Women could become nuns, so they were not excluded from religious practice [but nuns are explicitly inferior to monks, according to vinaya and in cultural practice]
  3. Some scriptures say the best female Buddhists are better than some male Buddhists [not a statement of equality of the sexes]
  4. Various women attained enlightenment, according to scriptures [but in each case this is described as peculiar, and in most cases as incomplete]
  5. It’s partly the fault of other, patriarchal religions being mixed in [irrelevant because the “original, pure” Buddhism did not teach equality]

The best case for gender equality in Buddhism may be in some “mother lineage” tantras, which say that women have greater potential for certain religious practices. As far as we know, this never translated into social equality. However, women were closer to equality in Tibet than perhaps any other pre-modern civilization, and this may have been due to tantric influence.

Human rights

Buddhist societies had codes of laws in which particular categories of people had particular rights. However, there was no idea of human rights—ones all humans have, simply for being human.

Human rights is a Western concept that was unknown in Asia until modern times, and to make this relevant to Buddhism it appears that some intellectual bridgework needs to be put into place. However, it is far from clear how this is to be done. (Keown, p. 222.)

In other words, can we invent some theory of human rights that connects with Buddhism in some way? Western theories of human rights claim to ground them in “human dignity” (although no one has a coherent explanation of what that means). However, as Keown notes (p. 223), “the very words ‘human dignity’ sound as alien in a Buddhist context as talk of rights.”

A popular contemporary “Buddhist ethics” approach is to try to ground human rights in compassion. Keown analyzes this at some length, pointing out that this fails for the same reasons compassion fails as a basis for any ethics. (I’ve explained some of those earlier, and will go into further detail in later posts.)

Keown suggests that it may be possible to argue that a notion of human dignity appears in embryonic form in the tathagatagarbha doctrine, which might be brought to term as an infant Buddhist justification for justice, rights, and equality. He admits that this is handwavey. I find it unlikely, and in any case I think the tathagatagarbha theory is itself incoherent and absurd.

He concludes (p. 225):

Leading Buddhists, meanwhile, continue to use human rights language on a daily basis, although I think many would find it a challenge to provide a convincing justification in terms of Buddhist doctrine.

Slavery

The most fundamental human right is to not be enslaved.6

  • Slavery is explicitly approved in many Buddhist scriptures.
  • “There is almost no indication in any premodern Buddhist source, scriptural or documentary, of opposition to, or reluctance to participate in, institutions of slavery.”7
  • According to scripture, the Buddha himself (after enlightenment) accepted slaves as gifts to the sangha, and he did not free them.
  • Slavery was normal in most or all Buddhist cultures, throughout pre-modern history.
  • In most or all Buddhist cultures, monasteries routinely owned slaves.
  • In some Buddhist cultures, individual monks routinely owned slaves.8
  • In some Buddhist cultures, most so-called “monks” were actually slaves themselves.

Really, that’s all you need to know. If you want more, there are good short summaries in the Encyclopedia of Buddhism; the articles “Buddhism” and “Asian/Buddhist monastic slavery” in the Historical Encyclopedia of World Slavery; and Michael Jerryson’s “Buddhism and Antislavery.” There is a longer discussion in the chapter “The Monastic Ownership of Servants or Slaves” in Gregory Schopen’s Buddhist Monks and Business Matters. Beyond that, you can find details with Google.

Not surprisingly, many modern Buddhists want to deny the facts. When that fails, they want to find excuses. This prevarication deserves contempt.

Discussion of slavery in Buddhism is made complicated by arguments about definitions. Various words in the languages of Buddhism correspond to “slave,” but are also sometimes translated “servant” or “serf.” The precise legal status of these people varied, is often unclear from the texts, and was usually not exactly the same as that of any category in Europe. There is also no clear modern legal definition of slavery. There are gray areas, and it is surprisingly difficult to draw a line between slavery and employment. The term is also contested because some people want to expand “slavery” to include other things they don’t like (e.g. voluntary prostitution, or even most employment, as “wage slavery“). Some other people want to exclude from the definition things they do themselves (e.g. forcing people into unpaid labor, but without de jure sale rights for the de facto slave-owner).

Each of the contested Buddhist categories involves lifetime involuntary labor, for the economic benefit of, and under the command of, another person. This would be illegal in all modern countries. “Servant” implies voluntary employment for a limited term, so I believe “slave” is the correct translation.

There are passages in the Pali Canon in which the Buddha forbids individual monks from accepting gifts of slaves or other livestock. In discussions of right livelihood, the Buddha forbids the buying and selling of slaves among other livestock. These are cited by people who want to believe that Buddhism prohibits slavery.

There are, however, also scriptural passages in which the Buddha says monasteries (as institutions) must accept gifts of slaves (among other livestock).9 And, there are no prohibitions on laypeople owning slaves, only on trading them. (Giving them as gifts is explicitly OK, too.) And finally, any limit on trade in humans that treats them identically with cattle is hardly a stirring endorsement of human dignity.

Slavery in Tibet has received special attention due to a propaganda war between the Chinese government (and its Western sympathizers) and the Tibetan government-in-exile (and its Western sympathizers).

Most Tibetans were slaves according to any reasonable definition. Chinese government propaganda uses that to try to legitimize their invasion of Tibet as a “liberation.”10 From the other side, we behold the bizarre spectacle of liberal American Buddhist intellectuals defending Tibetan slavery:

  • They weren’t really slaves, because their legal status wasn’t exactly the same as black slaves in America; most of them had some rights.
  • If they didn’t like being slaves, they surely could have just run away, so either they weren’t really slaves, or else they liked it, so it was OK.
  • It wouldn’t have been in the slave owners’ economic interest to mistreat their slaves, therefore they didn’t, so slavery was OK.
  • Some Tibetan slaves were much better off than others, almost as rich as free people, which proves it wasn’t slavery.
  • Slavery in other countries was worse, so Buddhism is a highly ethical religion.
  • They were all happy and singing as they worked the fields because they had Buddhism.

In Tibet, the majority were serfs, which means agricultural slaves.11 The argument that they were “not really slaves” is that they could not be sold individually, but only along with a plot of land. (Apparently that’s much more moral.)

In addition, there were many non-resellable house-slaves,12 and some freely-sellable slaves. Most so-called “monks” were also slaves who did no religious practice, but were forced into unpaid agricultural, menial, and manufacturing work for the benefit of the owners of the monastery. (Lay people could own monasteries and run them for personal profit.)

War

Early Buddhist texts condemn all violence. However, nearly everyone nowadays would agree that it is right to use violence to stop a political extremist in the act of shooting dozens of children in a school. It would be ethically wrong to stand around saying “violence is bad, so unfortunately we can’t do anything.” Mahayana Buddhism came to recognize this principle. (I wrote about this in detail in “Buddhists who kill.”)

By extension, most people now agree that fighting a defensive war to protect civilians from slaughter is ethically justifiable; and may consider it ethically necessary. (The Rwanda and Bosnia massacres changed many minds about this.) Some Buddhist texts agree.

In practice, Buddhist authorities have enthusiastically supported many wars, including purely aggressive land-grabs, throughout history. They have used specifically Buddhist moral arguments to justify these. Large monasteries maintained standing armies, and sometimes went to war with each other, secular powers, or foreigners. Monks have routinely exerted political pressure on secular authorities to go to war.13 This continues to the present. Notable recent examples include support by Buddhist religious leaders for twentieth-century Japanese aggression against China and America, the near-genocidal Sri Lankan war against its Hindu minority, and the current violent, escalating Burmese repression of its Muslim minority.

It is easy to say that Buddhist arguments in favor of offensive wars twist the Dharma; and that is probably true. However, Keown points out, the problem is that there is no coherent explanation in Buddhism for which sorts of wars are moral and which are immoral. Western ethics developed “just war theory,” which explains what sorts of wars are OK, and why. Nothing like that exists in Buddhism.14

“No ethical value” is relative

As Medieval morality goes, traditional Buddhism is surprisingly good. Many of its moral positions are correct. It is definitely less bad than the Aztec religion, and perhaps less bad than any other traditional religion. Despite failings, it was a clear improvement on what went before it, and probably overall superior to any alternative available in Asia before modernity. There are still many places in the world that would be better off with traditional Buddhist morality than what they have now.

But the Aztecs and Saudi Arabia aren’t the standard of comparison. The relevant question is whether Buddhism has anything to offer the contemporary West. I can’t find anything.

We are plainly far better off with our contemporary secular ethics than with traditional Buddhist morality. And, I will argue in later posts, we can also do much better than modern “Buddhist ethics.”


  1. pp. 215-231 in Buddhism in the Modern World. Lightly edited for concision. 
  2. I had planned to do torture as well, but decided, due to my bodhisattvic compassion for my readers, to spare you the “yay torture!” arguments. I’ll skip Keown’s discussion of eco-correctness, which I find less striking than his other examples. Traditional Buddhism is not pro-environment (despite what Western Buddhists would like to believe), but it’s not particularly anti-environment either. 
  3. Tantric Buddhism is the exception, obviously. 
  4. Since owning slaves is also explicitly OK, it would seem logical that owning slaves for sexual use is also OK. So far, the only discussions of this I have found are in Chinese anti-Tibetan propaganda, which may not be factual. 
  5. Some categories of sexual non-conformists are explicitly discriminated against. It’s not entirely clear what the ancient words mean, but they seem to cover intersex and trans people, and probably also gay men. 
  6. Freedom from slavery is the first specific right discussed in the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The right not to be tortured is the second. I am not going to discuss Buddhism’s position on torture; it’s too depressing. 
  7. Encyclopedia of Buddhism
  8. “There is copious inscriptional and documentary evidence for the institutional monastic ownership of slaves from Sri Lanka, Cambodia, Burma, Thailand, Korea, China, and Japan; Central Asian documents frequently refer to slaves privately owned by individual monks.” Encyclopedia of Buddhism. Although many scriptures say that individual monks cannot own personal property, others explicitly endorse and ennumerate monks’ individual property rights. In many Buddhist cultures, throughout history, some monks became rich as individuals. 
  9. “In Buddhist literature of all varieties, stock descriptions of wealth, even that gifted to the Buddha, regularly include both male and female slaves along with silver, gold, fields, livestock, and so on. Some texts, emphasizing the moral obligation to receive whatever is given in reverence, declare that it is an offense not to accept such offerings, the lists of which regularly include slaves.” Encyclopedia of Buddhism
  10. This is codswallop. The Chinese invasion of Tibet was not motivated by concern for the plight of the peasants. The subsequent Chinese administration of Tibet has not been primarily for the benefit of Tibetans. The average Tibetan is better off now than in 1959, but that’s not the correct standard of comparison. Is the average Tibetan be better off now than if a sovereign Tibet had modernized with benevolent assistance from China and other countries? This is an unknowable hypthetical, but in my opinion, probably not. Meanwhile the so-called “Tibetan Government in Exile” produces its own deceitful propaganda, whitewashing pre-1959 feudal Tibetan society, which many Western Buddhists accept uncritically. A plague on both their houses! 
  11. The Tibetan word is mi ser. Apologists for Tibetan slavery argue that “serf” is an inaccurate translation because there were minor technical differences between the legal status of the mi ser and European serfs. Some also argue that serfdom is “not as bad” as slavery, implying it was OK. Serfdom is illegal under international law concerning slavery, however, and “not as bad” does not mean “morally acceptable.” 
  12. Apologists say these were “hereditary servants,” which apparently makes it OK. 
  13. Buddhist Warfare is an extensive history; see also the chapter on war in An Introduction to Buddhist Ethics
  14. “Compassion” is sometimes trotted out as the criterion, but Keown points out that (as always) it is useless: exactly that is always employed as the justification for plainly immoral wars. Whose compassion, for whom, counts? 
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Author: David Chapman

Author of the book Meaningness and several Buddhist sites.

32 thoughts on “Buddhist morality is Medieval”

  1. Buddhism theoretically (then and now) doesn’t need an explicit ethical system, or code of morality. Each yana has an ethos of its own (I believe you would call that principle), as well as a pragmatic expression (function), which in turn finds explicit expression in particular cultural or situational circumstances. This didn’t stop many throughout history and geography to claim their favorite ethics or moral scruples to be “Buddhist ethics”, not recognizing they are reducing some Buddhist notion to a culturally conditioned set of values, whether it’s tribalism, nationalism or, these days, modernist and postmodernist obsessions. On the other hand, the argument of “training rules” may have several dimensions. The intention behind specific injunctions is not just to train a set of behaviors that reduces in-group and social friction (as with many vinaya rules) thus creating favourable conditions for some forms of practice, or to establish basics of propriety and decency that facilitate character building (as with shila) – these, as you rightly point out, belong to fairly basic stages in moral development as proposed by contemporary researchers (to say children outgrow such levels of morality is a bit simplistic, since it’s a complex matter, parts of personality being on various levels, and the whole personal system can significantly shift with circumstances, envirnoment, and various states of mind and body). The intention is also be to spur awareness of volitional dynamics by frustrating or counteracting particular knots in the system. And this goes back to ethos. When it comes to espoused ethical formulations and moral principles of right and wrong, mainstream Buddhism was and remains fairly adaptive, its institutions mirroring the prevailing social circumstances and cultural conventions (even if only those limited to the group of those who self-identify as Buddhists). The ethics and morality of those few who practiced deep awareness and radical compassion have often been at odds with such mainstream Buddhism, as evidenced in their criticism of what was then mainstream Buddhism (same now with our contemporaries). Comparing traditional scripture (a product of manifold influences) with modern apologetics, and sifting the results with critical historiography, is a good method of delineating Buddhist identity politics. Thanks for your good work:)

  2. To what degree are the moral rules of traditional Buddhist societies actualy derived from Buddhist teachings? Coming from a culture that, in its pre-modern state, had a moral theology in which moral was a corollary of religion, we might think of religion and moral/ethics as belonging together but I think in many pre-modern societies (as in modern society as well) they are not. There is, of course, some arbitrariness in the way phenomena in a society are delimited. You will in most cases be able to find something that can be called a religion and something that may be called moral or ethics. It is then always possible to lump the two together, but I think this has to be justified. If a culture does not actually derive its moral rules from its religious belief system (and that is a problematic concept as well) I think one should not connect the two. In traditional Christianity, there definitely was a connection. In Judaism there are God-given laws plus all of the Talmudic literature that has grown around them, in Islam it is hard to separate the religion from the Sharia law system (which poses a problem for Muslims who want to adopt a less archaic kind of ethics), but in many cultures, the two areas (ethics/moral/laws on one side, religious beliefs and cult practices on the other) are more or less separate. I do not know very much about Buddhism, so let me ask the question: how is the connection in Buddhist societies: is there an intrinsic connection between those aspects of those cultures that could be called “religion” (if the term makes any sense here) and those that can be called moral, ethics or traditional law. Do the moral systems derive from the religious teachings (or, in case they are historically older, which they probably are, are they at least justified on the basis of the religious teachings, or are these separate or separable aspects of these cultures?

  3. nannus & Malaclypse — your thoughtful comments both raise the question “is there any strong connection between religion and ethics/morality” and suggest the answer is “no.” I agree. My view is that traditional Buddhism never had much to say about ethics/morality—it didn’t consider that part of its remit—which is one reason among several that “Buddhist ethics” is a non-thing.

    However, my next post will explain that Buddhism was reinvented as being nothing other than a system of ethics during the Victorian period. And modern Consensus Buddhism is based mainly on that Victorian reinvention. So it claims that ethics is half of Buddhism (the other half being meditation).

  4. Well, there was something like “just war” in japanese buddhism before the second world war. Though you probably refer to traditional buddhism. This japanese buddhist development had all kinds of messy ties to state shinto and re-interpreted bushido, was probably borrowed from westeners, and mainly conceived to justify attacking the chinese, so I guess this just proves your point. And indeed it was framed as compassion. It’s a good example of how not to do intentionalist ethics.

    Chapter 8 of Zen at war (p.93), Brian Victoria quotes Soto Zen master Hata Esho:
    “Buddha Shakyamuni, during his religious practice in a former life, participated in a just war. Due to the merit he acquired a result, he was able to appear in this world as a Buddha. Thus, it can be said that a just war is one task of Buddhism.”

    Other than that, in many places in this article you say there’s a lot of scriptural support for x and y, it would be really handy if you could mention a few representative samples.

  5. “commonly verboten are solo and partner masturbation, oral and anal sex, sex between men, sex during daytime, and sex with a woman who is pregnant or nursing. Abortion is murder, and sends you straight to hell. On the other hand, polygamy is taken for granted, and”

    commonly? Are you talking about precepts for Buddhist monks? probably not since you say “polygamy is taken for granted.” (unless you are mixing up the two – precepts for monks and for lay Buddhist)

    Assuming that you are talking about traditional Asian Buddhism and its precepts for lay Buddhists, your claim is dubious. I’m reasonably well versed with South Korean Buddhist tradition and Buddhism in general (because I’m a South Korean, and often read Buddhist literature including modern scholarly ones), but as far as I know, traditional Korean Buddhism has not been concerned about specific code of sex for lay Buddhists. Buddhist monks may say from time to time “keeping precepts matters, so no sexual misconduct please- usually understood as No Extramarital Sex”, but that’s nearly all. Neither monks nor lay Buddhists talk about masturbation, oral, anal sex, sex between men, sex during daytime and sex with a woman who is pregnant.

    Furthermore, many of east Asian Buddhist countries (Taiwan, China, Vietnam, Japan) would not be so different from Korea, when it comes to traditional Buddhist code of Sex for lay Buddhists.

    I’m very curious where you got the idea that traditional Asian Buddhism ‘commonly’ have been concerned about details of sexual conduct of lay Buddhists.

    “married men having sex with prostitutes is explicitly OK according to some (not all) major traditions”

    Which major traditions do you mean?

  6. Are you talking about precepts for Buddhist monks?

    No, this is about rules for laypeople. I’m relying primarily on Cabezón’s article (linked in mine), which says everything I said here. While doing research for this series, I read many other sources on Buddhist sexual morality, but didn’t keep as good notes as I should have, so it would take some work to find other answers.

    Cabezón is writing primarily about Tibetan Buddhism, which is also the type I know most about. He says that all these same prohibitions are found in Indian texts, and I assume that’s right because he’s a reputable scholar, but I don’t know the specifics.

    I’m reasonably sure I’ve read that Theravada has more-or-less the same teachings, and can probably find a reference for that if it’s important.

    I know much less about East Asian Buddhism than about either Tibetan or Theravada. I know that it’s generally quite different, and I wouldn’t be surprised at all if the teachings on sexual morality were different.

    “married men having sex with prostitutes is explicitly OK according to some (not all) major traditions” — Which major traditions do you mean?

    Certainly in Tibetan Buddhism. This was explicitly endorsed by the Dalai Lama in 1997. (To the consternation of some Western Buddhists.)

    The Pali literature is all-around anti-sexual, so it’s anti-prostitution just because that’s sex. However, in various places there are lists of categories of women you shouldn’t have sex with (if you insist on having sex with someone), and these don’t include prostitutes. The best discussion seems to be in Steven Collins’s 2007 “Remarks on the Third Precept: Adultery and Prostitution in Pali Texts,” for which I don’t have the full text. A summary from the web, however:

    if a woman is not under any specific protection, neither of the two is at fault for having “an affair”, such is the case, for example, with a prostitute, a widow, or a divorced woman.

    Several scholarly sources say that the point of third precept is that sex with unsuitable women is a transgression against the woman’s owner/protector (not against the woman). Thus, as long as you pay the fee, there is no transgression against the owner/protector of a prostitute, and so it’s fine.

  7. I would be happier if I could locate the Indian texts that Cabezón relied on, and am doing some work on that now. In the mean time, two quotes from Serinity Young’s Courtesans and Tantric Consorts:

    early Buddhism defined laymen as independent agents who do not break precepts when they have sex with their wives, prostitutes, or any woman not defined by her rela- tionship with another man or under a religious vow.

    Buddhism never defined marriage, preferring instead to accept what- ever forms of marriage it met with as it spread through various Asian societies, among them monogamy, polyandry, and polygamy. Nor did it ever condemn concubinage or prostitution, though as we shall see, it did condemn individual prostitutes—but not their clients.

  8. if a woman is not under any specific protection, neither of the two is at fault for having “an affair”, such is the case, for example, with a prostitute, a widow, or a divorced woman.

    Several scholarly sources say that the point of third precept is that sex with unsuitable women is a transgression against the woman’s owner/protector (not against the woman). Thus, as long as you pay the fee, there is no transgression against the owner/protector of a prostitute, and so it’s fine.

    ==> not against the woman? You seem to imply that Buddhist tradition was O.K with rape unless there is no protector or owner of a woman. But are you sure of it?

  9. You seem to imply that Buddhist tradition was O.K with rape unless there is no protector or owner of a woman. But are you sure of it?

    I am not sure. I’d be interested to read more about this. As far as I can remember, nothing I read involved any concept of female consent, which would suggest that there was no concept of rape as that is understood in contemporary ethics. But I don’t know.

  10. “I am not sure. I’d be interested to read more about this.”

    a Sankrit source of early Buddhist Sutra (Pali cannon is not the only source of the early Buddhism as you may know), clearly states that Rape is BAD.

    “Some who have committed sexual misconduct….. because she has been already obtained by somebody else and is thus somebody else’s woman, or having sexual intercourse with her by overwhelming her. ”

    https://suttacentral.net/en/up4.081

  11. Not specifically, no… while doing the research for this I did some casual googling, found that some Buddhist authorities have given Buddhist arguments to justify torture, but didn’t follow up beyond that. Torture was advocated specifically because killing is a Buddhist no-no.

    The torture and execution of the liberal Tibetan politicians Lungshar and Reting during the power struggle after the 13th Dalai Lama’s death are interesting cases.

    Tsepon Lungshar, an official educated in England introduced reform in the 1920s; after losing a political struggle the reformist was sentenced to be blinded by having his eye-balls pulled out. “The method involved the placement of a smooth, round yak’s knucklebone on each of the temples of the prisoner. These were then tied by leather thongs around the head and tightened by turning the thongs with a stick on top of the head until the eyeballs popped out. The mutilation was terribly bungled. Only one eyeball popped out, and eventually the ragyaba had to cut out the other eyeball with a knife. Boiling oil was then poured into the sockets to cauterize the wound.”

    The details are not necessarily representative, but judicial torture and mutilation was standard and officially condoned by religious authorities in Tibet for centuries. I believe the same was generally true elsewhere in the Buddhist world, but you’d need to do some googling to check.

  12. “The ascetic Gotama is a refrainer from damaging seeds and crops. He eats once a day and not at night, refraining from eating at improper times. [13] He avoids watching dancing, singing, music and shows. He abstains from using garlands, perfumes, cosmetics, ornaments and adornments. He avoids using high or wide beds. He avoids accepting gold and silver.
    [14] He avoids accepting raw grain or raw flesh, he does not accept women and young girls, male or female slaves, sheep and goats, cocks and pigs, elephants, cattle, horses and mares, fields and plots, [15] he refrains from running errands, from buying and selling, from cheating with false weights and measures, from bribery and corruption, deception, and insincerity, from wounding, killing, imprisoning, highway robbery, and taking food by force.” Thus the worldling would praise the Tathágata.

  13. I assume that you quoted this passage to suggest that Buddhism opposes slavery. It does not support that claim. What it says is that the Buddha did not accept, as personal gifts, anything other than the handful of specific types of gifts that monks are allowed to accept—mainly, cooked food (vs. “raw grain or raw flesh”) and cloth suitable for making monastic robes.

    Reputable sources I cited say that there are passages in scripture in which he said that monasteries must accept slaves as gifts to the monastery (as opposed to personal gifts). I have not located these passages myself. (If anyone knows of one, please let us know!)

  14. Ah, yes, found some, in the chapter “The Monastic Ownership of Servants or Slaves” in Gregory Schopen’s Buddhist Monks and Business Matters. This has lengthy quotes from two different vinayas. In each, the Buddha says that while it is not permissible for an individual monk to accept a gift of slaves, it is required that a monastery accept such a gift, as an institution. The relevant passages are available online, on Google Books.

  15. I don’t doubt this, but could someone post a reputable source for the Buddha himself accepting slaves as gifts to the sangha? Preferably from the original scripture like the OP says.

  16. Yes, see Schopen’s piece. I’ve found a version of it as a standalone PDF so you don’t need to fight Google Books to locate the relevant bit. There’s lengthy quotes from two different vinayas. They are somewhat long and complicated, so I won’t copy them in here.

    The lengthiness is important because, in the course of long meandering stories about other matters, the two passages clarify the ownership status of the “servants or slaves” involved. Schopen’s topic is not slavery as a moral issue, so he doesn’t discuss that. His interest (in much other work as well) is monasticism as an economic institution; so the issue of whether the slaves are owned by an individual monk or by the monastery corporately is what he cares about.

    One of the scriptures he quotes is Bhesajja-khandhaka in the Pali Vinaya, which I’ve linked at Sutta Central. The other, perhaps stronger, one is from the Tibetan edition of the Mulasarvastivadin Vinaya. The translation doesn’t seem to be online other than in Schopen’s article.

  17. In Thanissaro Bhikku’s translation of the Digha Nikaya, Discourse 2 Fruits of the Contemplative Life states:

    “He abstains from accepting uncooked grain… raw meat… women & girls…
    male & female slaves… goats & sheep… fowl & pigs… elephants, cattle, steeds, &
    mares… fields & property.”

    This is found on page 47 of the edition (dated 150107) currently up on dhammatalks.org and his translation of the Vinaya says the Commentaries suggest that monks who did accept slaves incurred a dukatta. Ok, it sounds like maybe this was a problem if the Commentaries centuries later were mentioning it, but it seems likely that it was not considered acceptable by the Buddha and the early Sangha to accept slaves.

    One point to add, I think it is important not to forget that reforming society or its system of morality/ethics on a large scale was not something the Buddha was interested in doing (personally I think he was too smart to even try and aware that it might destroy the early community if he too overtly criticized many of the people who they were LITERALLY dependent upon to even be able to eat). He was concerned with helping people find freedom in Nibanna, not making this world a nicer place to live. I always remember what Thanissaro Bhikkhu says, basically that the Buddhists who practice “the Dhamma in line with the Dhamma” have always been on the edges of society, and their values have never been broadly reflective of any traditionally “Buddhist” culture, ancient or modern. He has written some interesting pieces on this issue, including some thought provoking quotes from Ajahn Mun on this topic.

    Very interesting article…Thanks!

  18. it was not considered acceptable by the Buddha and the early Sangha to accept slaves

    Yes; there are many other passages that say the same. But, as far as I know, all of them (like this one) suggest that it was unacceptable for an individual monk to accept slaves because they are an encumbrance. They don’t say slavery is morally wrong. In this case, slaves are listed along with uncooked grain and raw meat. Those are not immoral. An individual monk should not accept them because then he’d have to cook them, and that’s not his job.

    reforming society or its system of morality/ethics on a large scale was not something the Buddha was interested in

    Yes, that’s an important point. As I explained elsewhere, this was only added to Buddhism in modernity (and mostly only after 1980).

  19. I have been reading this series with interest, though many months behind. I’d like to point out that while you cite the Schopen article as the only evidence that the Buddha “himself” allowed accepting slaves, the article instead argues the opposite:

    “The Mulasarvastivadin account of Pilinda would at first seem to presuppose permanent monastic establishments whose repair and maintenance required a large non-monastic work force—notice that both it and the Mahaviharin account concern the gift not of single servants or bondmen, but large numbers… Such establishments, to judge by the archeological record, were not early. It seems, in fact, they only begin to appear around the beginning of the Common Era, and even then were probably not the norm.” (167)

    Schopen concludes from his textual analysis of two vinayas that precisely because of their references to slavery neither could have been redacted before the first or second century CE, in other words the same distance in time from the establishment of the sangha as the fall of Constantinople is to us: “But since it also seems that neither account in either vinaya can be early, then it would also appear that references to aramikas and kalpikaras elsewhere in their respective vinayas also cannot be early” (171). So it seems curious to argue that “In most or all Buddhist cultures, monasteries routinely owned slaves,” which isn’t necessary for the larger thesis that Buddhism wasn’t addressed to social issues. Maybe the retort will be that Buddhism is defined as the historical record of diverse texts and practices, and so “early Buddhism” is a construction about which nothing can be known. At least according to Schopen though, one thing that can be known about it it couldn’t have had slaves the way that later communities did.

    I look forward to reading more in the series!

  20. Alex, thanks for a thoughtful comment!

    When I said “In most or all Buddhist cultures, monasteries routinely owned slaves,” I meant during periods that are historically well-documented. Especially, this was true as of the time Asian Buddhism and Western modernity first interacted (the 1700s). I think the same was probably true as far back as there are good historical records, meaning back to about 650, but I haven’t looked into that in detail.

    “In most or all Buddhist cultures” couldn’t have referred to the period of the Buddha’s life, because Buddhism only existed in a small part of India then.

    There is a standard rhetorical move, much used in Buddhist modernism, which is to excuse each defect of actually-existing Buddhism by saying it’s a “later distortion,” and that the “true, original Buddhism” didn’t have that defect. Apologists can get away with this because we don’t know very much (if anything) about Buddhism in the B.C. era. There are essentially no historical records, other than the scriptures. Nearly all Western historians agree that most of the scriptures are fiction, and not reliable guides to B.C. Buddhism, but do not agree about which (if any) are factual.

    Schopen is skeptical about the historicity of early Buddhism—i.e. he doesn’t think many, or any, surviving texts reflect it accurately. I’m not knowledgeable enough to have a strong opinion, but based on my limited knowledge, I tentatively agree. I provisionally regard all Buddhist scriptures as fictions.

    So, to be precise about what I did and didn’t say earlier… I wrote:

    there are passages in scripture in which [the Buddha] said that monasteries must accept slaves as gifts to the monastery

    I said that the passages say that the Buddha said that. I don’t regard the scriptures as factual, so I didn’t mean that I thought that meant the Buddha actually said that. (Provisionally, I don’t think the Buddha actually said anything, because provisionally I think he’s a purely fictional character.)

    Schopen provides two such passages. Part of his point is that these vinayas must have been written centuries after the Buddha supposedly lived, at a time when conditions were quite different, and the Buddha couldn’t actually have said that. I presume he is right about that.

    This is irrelevant to the question of what scripture says. Vinaya is the core part of scripture, as far as Buddhism was actually practiced in Asia. Vinaya does say that the Buddha said that monasteries must accept gifts of slaves.

    So, you wrote:

    you cite the Schopen article as the only evidence that the Buddha “himself” allowed accepting slaves

    But I didn’t say anything about what the Buddha himself actually said; I only talked about what scripture said he said. And, I didn’t cite Schopen for that (although I provided the link so people could check), I cited the two scriptures themselves.

    I hope that’s all clear now! Let me know if not.

  21. Hi David. Yes, we certainly can’t read these texts as factual records. Just the point that historians and archaeologists maintain that there were communities for hundreds of years before the common era that were in some sense Buddhist, and that they likely couldn’t have held slaves (this is not a doctrinal but an archaeological argument), and that the early Sri Lankan ones didn’t either (Schopen’s reading). I agree these aren’t more authentic than other historical and contemporary communities, but I don’t think they’re less authentic either, and so reading about them factors in my overall thinking about Buddhism and slavery. In reading more through the series I realized that Tibetan Buddhism is the main reference point for your discussion, so thus it makes sense that slavery has to be a central question (touring the Potala palace gives a sobering view of the wealth disparity there and the system that enforced it), and in this context it is relevant to show that it existed already in CE monasteries in India.

  22. A few points;

    Emphasizing compassion doesn’t seem to me like an absence of an ethical system, it seems like a specific kind of ethics, what (I think) is called virtue ethics. Virtue ethics might not be very good for designing systems which are fair or have good outcomes (like say, non slave owning societies), but that’s not really the point.

    There is an important respect in which both Buddhism and Jainism were ethical revolutions in their time, which was the rejection of animal sacrifice, a strong critique of the prevailing Brahmin religion. As far as I can tell, early Buddhism in India advocated animal welfare and vegetarianism which is an area in which modern, western societies are remarkably deficient, although there are ethicists trying to rectify this within the Christian and enlightenment traditions.

    Also, though not true for all Buddhisms, there were concepts of ‘just war’ and dharmic kingship. A good place to start might be Iain Sinclair’s “War Magic and ‘Just War’ in Tantric Buddhism”.

    If you said that Buddhism’s ethics are nasty, irrational, and hard to swallow for someone versed in the modern enlightenment tradition, and that using Buddhist ethics to prop up feel good, secular progressivism is an ahistorical fantasy, I agree. But keep in mind that the Bible’s endorsement of slavery didn’t prevent many fervent Protestants from working actively and in some cases being martyred to attain its abolition.

  23. I can’t go back and edit my comments, but I would like to strike the last point on my previous comment off as unfair. I was only trying to point out that ethics exist as dynamic systems that can become unrecognizable over time; Christian ethics created the basis of enlightenment ethics and, over time, did complete 180s on issues like slavery. How that kind of historical process could be replicated by modern Buddhist ethicists, I have no idea, but simply throwing out Buddhist ethics and replacing them with secular progressivist ones is not the same as subjecting them to the kind of historical evolution in Christian ethics that came about through centuries of scrutiny, discussion, and, in some cases, extremely violent conflict.

  24. Hi Justin, thanks for the comments!

    Emphasizing compassion doesn’t seem to me like an absence of an ethical system, it seems like a specific kind of ethics, what (I think) is called virtue ethics.

    Several things to say about this…

    • Keown, at the dawn of Western Buddhist ethical theorizing, claimed that Buddhist ethics are a virtue ethics; but the consensus of later work is that this was clearly untrue, and even he has abandoned it.
    • Compassion is one virtue, but as far as I know, no one has tried seriously to construct a systematic virtue ethics based only on compassion.
    • Actually I’m not sure “systematic virtue ethics” is even a thing in Western moral philosophy. Virtue ethics is sometimes described as whatever vague intuitions are left after you abandon consequentialism and deontology.
    • Compassion-based ethics is not only possible, it’s nearly universal: it’s what’s called a Stage 3 ethics in the Kohlberg/Kegan framework.
    • That kind of ethics is non-systematic. My claim was not that emphasizing compassion leads to the absence of morality, but to the absence of systematicity.
    • Keown explains in some detail, in a paper I referenced, why you can’t base a just war theory on compassion.

    There is an important respect in which both Buddhism and Jainism were ethical revolutions

    I agree! As I said at the end of this post, Buddhist morality is surprisingly good, for a pre-modern religion.

    Iain Sinclair’s “War Magic and ‘Just War’ in Tantric Buddhism”

    Thanks for this reference! If anyone is interested, it is available at http://sci-hub.io/http://www.ingentaconnect.com/content/berghahn/socan/2014/00000058/00000001/art00008# .

    This is from 2014. It will be interesting to see what impact, if any, it has on contemporary Buddhist just war theory. (None of the sources I used knew about the text he points to.)

    Some things worth noting:

    • The just war part of this paper concerns only one, very late, very atypical scripture. It’s influential in Tibet but unknown elsewhere, and considered an outlier even within Tibetan Buddhism. Nevertheless, if we are looking for a Buddhist just war theory, and it has one, that is exciting.
    • The just war part of the paper is only two paragraphs (on pp. 161 and 162).
    • The first starts “Here, finally, are clear Buddhist rules for going to war.” However, frustratingly, he says very little about what the rules actually are.
    • The Kalacakra Tantra has not been translated into English, so it would take quite a lot of work for me to check. (I can puzzle out Tibetan very slowly with a dictionary.)
    • Given how vague and brief he is about what the text says, and given how badly he seems to want there to be such a thing as Buddhist just war theory, I have to say I suspect he may be engaging in wishful thinking, and reading much more into the text than is actually there.

    Christian ethics created the basis of enlightenment ethics and, over time, did complete 180s on issues like slavery. How that kind of historical process could be replicated by modern Buddhist ethicists, I have no idea, but simply throwing out Buddhist ethics and replacing them with secular progressivist ones is not the same as subjecting them to the kind of historical evolution in Christian ethics that came about through centuries of scrutiny, discussion, and, in some cases, extremely violent conflict.

    Yes, I agree with this!

    Perhaps a genuine modern Buddhist ethics would be possible. I don’t see an obvious way to get there, and I’m not sure it’s something we should want, expect, or care about. But I’m not sure not, either! And I’ve made some preliminary suggestions for what one might look like later in this blog series—particularly here.

  25. Interesting article but I can’t help feeling it is wrong to say, “according to scripture, the Buddha himself (after enlightenment) accepted slaves as gifts to the sangha, and he did not free them.” I do not think this is correct. Can someone provide a source for this if it is indeed correct. Specifically, which scripture indicates the Buddha accepted slaves (after all he forbid monks to do this, even if they didn’t keep the rule).

  26. Hi, see this comment. Also, we’ve discussed the related issues in other comments in this thread, a number of times. It may be useful to read through the whole thing.

    In short, Schopen’s article has lengthy quotes from two different versions of vinaya in which the Buddha himself accepted slaves as gifts to the sangha, and he did not free them.

    after all he forbid monks to do this, even if they didn’t keep the rule

    As far as I know, he did not forbid monks to do this, in any scripture. What he forbade was monks accepting gifts of slaves as individuals. That was not a statement of opposition to slavery, but an application of the general rule that monks as individuals cannot accept gifts of most sorts of property. As far as I know, in each of the instances in which he forbade individual monks from accepting gifts of slaves, he simply included slaves among other types of livestock, such as cattle.

  27. Thank you for your post. As a Buddhist of 40 years, it will give me plenty to think about. Buddhism has one saving grace though. It isn’t revealed by God and so it isn’t Gospel. The kalama sutra advises you not to believe anything until you find out for yourself that it has merit. I certainly think these problems you point out would be what I would call the unmeritorious aspects of the sutras. My only guess is that having been developed in the iron-age that Buddhism has been tainted with iron-age morality.

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