Representative Michele Bachmann’s recent ill-informed references to the American Founding Fathers abolition of slavery has forced many to recall that those Most Holy Founders not only tolerated slavery but even owned slaves. It seems appropriate to take the opportunity to remember too that some of our Buddhist Founding Fathers have not been on the side of history we’d expect. It is clear in the historical record that early Chinese Buddhist monasteries owned slaves, and it appears that the practice was not unusual in India either.
I came to this from a recent reading of Jacques Gernet’s Buddhism in Chinese Society – an interesting old book about the economic impact of Buddhism in medievel China that argues that Buddhism was far more than a passive recipient of imperial patronage and popular dana, and was in fact a powerful economic force that engaged in all manner of commercial, industrial, and even financial services. It gives plenty of grist to the mill of our American Buddhist “benefit dinner” and “capital campaign” approach! But of all the surprising and amazing revelations of Buddhist capitalist excess and usury, the accounts of slavery most took me aback.
Slaves in Chinese monasteries, unlike the serfs of the “sangha families” that the monasteries controlled but who retained some modicum of autonomy, were completely owned by the monastery. In Gernet’s words, “they constituted commercial goods that could be used for any purpose.” Their work ranged from menial cleaning tasks to peak season field labor, although Gernet also includes an account of slaves used to play musical instruments for the entertainment of guests. It’s clever to sometimes refer to we temple residents as “Zen slaves,” breaking our backs for the maintenance of a San Francisco Zen Center whose financial plan since Richard Baker-Roshi has rested on leveraging the pious and unpaid “work practice” of resident Zen students. But I don’t think I’ll make that quip any more – this history is too dark and really too terrible.
Gernet’s take on slavery in Chinese monasteries is disturbing for its casualness, which is in turn the casualness of Gernet’s primary sources. Oxen, land, slaves – just the things that a monastery might get donated. Just the kinds of property the rules need to be clear about, etc. It seems that the monks took slavery less as an occasion for outrage than an occasion for careful bookkeeping.
It appears that this casual attitude about slavery operated in Indian Buddhism too. I haven’t done any reading on this, but a scholar named Jonathan Silk has done some work on it, and his project, through Leiden University in the Netherlands, on Buddhism and Social Justice includes work on Buddhism and Slavery in Ancient India, from which the below is taken. Summarizing the Indian approach in words that could equally apply to Gernet’s account of the Chinese, he says:
…for Indian Buddhists, there was no such thing as any “problem of slavery.” Slavery was an unremarkable part of the world of ancient India, which received no special attention from Buddhist authors.
The codes of all sects agree that a slave cannot be ordained, but their reasons for doing so clearly lie not in any opposition to slavery but rather in the well recognized reluctance of the Buddhist communities to interfere in previously established relations of social obligation, since it is also generally forbidden to ordain escaped convicts, debtors, those in royal or military service, and so on (Sasaki 1996).
Again, when Buddhist texts speak of restrictions on the monastic ownership of slaves, they do so virtually without exception in the context of restrictions on individual—rather than corporate—ownership of wealth in general, and not with the intention of singling out slave ownership as somehow different from any other type of ownership. On the contrary, in Buddhist literature of all varieties, stock descriptions of wealth, even that gifted to the Buddha, regularly include both male and female slaves. Some texts, emphasizing the moral obligation of the monk to receive whatever is given in reverence, in conformity to the ideals of charity discussed above, declare that it is an offense not to accept such offerings, the lists of which regularly include slaves.
So when the Tea Partiers dream of their Golden Age and we dream of our Zen Golden Age, we’d do well to remember that change is sometimes for the better. Let’s not look back blindly from some desperate piety – let’s look our ancestors clearly in the eyes and understand where their worlds and ours simply and profoundly diverge.
And may our descendents do the same for us…