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.
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.
Buddhism is extraordinarily anti-sexual.
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.
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.
Cabezón argues that we should
know, understand, and reflect on what Buddhism actually says about sex
analyze it using Western ethical principles of rationality, justice, and equality—all concepts which are unknown in traditional Buddhist morality
reject Buddhist sexual morality on that basis.
Harvey really, really wants it to exist, but in the end he doesn’t say it does, because it doesn’t.
Women were better off under Buddhism than some other religions [true, but that does not make them equal to men]
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]
Some scriptures say the best female Buddhists are better than some male Buddhists [not a statement of equality of the sexes]
Various women attained enlightenment, according to scriptures [but in each case this is described as peculiar, and in most cases as incomplete]
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.
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.)
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 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.
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.”
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.”
There are gray areas, and it is surprisingly difficult to draw a line between slavery and employment.
“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.
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
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.
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.
Tantric Buddhism is the exception, obviously.
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.
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.
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.
“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.”
“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.
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!
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.”
Apologists say these were “hereditary servants,” which apparently makes it OK.
“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?