Zen Slaves… No, Really

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.

And also,

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…

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6 Responses to Zen Slaves… No, Really

  1. Jeff says:

    Interesting and useful post, thanks for offering it. We should also point out that Japanese Zen monasteries had slaves too. This was in no way confined to the old days of India and China. To put a finer point on it, the exalted abbots of the sacred Zen lineages, as heads of their monasteries, ordered slaves to be beaten (and probably beat them themselves before they acquired enough status to make others do it), forced them to work, sold them to others when it seemed economically prudent, and worked to acquire additional slaves for the benefit of their Zen institutions. That’s who we’re chanting about when we recite the lineage; those are the men whose words are recorded in the koan collections. Pre-modern Buddhists did not share the same value set nor social relations that we do.

  2. Layla says:

    Your last sentence very apropos: “And may our descendants do the same for us…” We are surely blind to what they may well consider injustices but which to us are just “the way things are.” As far as I can tell slavery has been an ordinary part of human society and culture for most times and places until the last century or two, when awareness changed, probably concurrently with a consciousness change around the importance of the individual and the rights of the individual. And so it goes…

  3. Ed M. says:

    Interesting find! Not really that surprising though I guess. Slavery was an integral part of those societies as others have commented. It may just have seemed a basic fact of existence to those ancients, and rebelling against the social order might not have seemed like an option. Within the context maybe some of those slaves found relatively good deals when they ended up at monasteries. Like the founding fathers thing, it’s easy to say “Thomas Jefferson was a hypocrite, he owned slaves!” but what was he supposed to do, cut them loose to a probably much worse situation? At least he tried to treat them right and manumitted them at his death. Possibly the best he could do under the circumstances. And is slavery really gone? Even discounting overt slavery which still occurs in some parts, it could be argued that extreme economic pressures force many modern people into situations not so far different from overt slavery.
    That said… Slavery sucks. Economic pressures suck. Wealth disparity sucks. A world constructed in such a way that you basically have to do violence or oppress others, or at least participate in systems that do so, sucks. SAMSARA SUCKS!!!

  4. Eleanor says:

    Thank you Jiryu, this research is fascinating and I look forward to checking out those books. I feel somehow vindicated in reading how we condemn our ancestors for their actions. Maybe not condemn, but we certainly don’t condone the owning of slaves. Layla’s point made me think of my greatest grief in Buddhism, the unequal status of women in many cultures. I point to Thailand as a primary example. And the issue that struck me the most was the willingness of the Buddhist “community” (in quotes because it may not exactly be so closely connected) to go along with social norms. Women serve men in Thailand, especially outside of urban centers. Women serve monks. Monks cannot do certain tasks, according to their vinaya, such as handle money and shop and for some reason they don’t cook either. So women do it for them. Pretty willingly I might add. So the fact that women cannot be ordained is pretty convenient for the monks. Sexism, I think you call it (pardon my snark.)

    A casual examination of the number of women ordained in the US compared to men might reveal something of this nature as well, just not as overtly servile.

  5. Homefire says:

    Jiryu Mark wrote:
    “It’s clever to sometimes refer to we temple residents as “Zen slaves,” breaking our backs… I don’t think I’ll make that quip any more – this history is too dark and really too terrible”

    No, please make it more earnestly and seriously. Why would you condone even a hint of human rights abuse.

    I quit a local Soto temple after two years. It was clear that hierarchy, degrading offenses to ones person and breach of civil liberties is their norm.

    I could go on for pages with names. I’m still stewing about it after 10 years. But i don’t have the energy. I really love to sit, too bad. I’ll never get near a “sangha” again or a religious group of any stripe.


  6. Robert Hanson says:

    I think we are being unfair to our predecessors when we try to judge them according to our modern perspectives. What is occurring is a progressive evolution of social and spiritual consciousness. Hundreds of years ago, people were born into a world that had always, in virtually all countries and cultures, had slavery. It was taken for granted, in the way that leprosy and malaria were just assumed to be part of the human condition.

    Then come the Founding Fathers of the US. Here one can see the beginning emergence of the still on-going social consensus that slavery is an abomination. I say still on-going, since in some African and Islamic societies slavery openly persists today.

    None the less, many of the Founding Fathers, especially Thomas Jefferson, were adamantly opposed to slavery. If one reads between the lines of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, one can tell they are setting the stage for its future abolition.

    But they faced a genuine dilemma. For in building a coalition that could allow the new nation to succeed in breaking free of Britain’s control, every possible Colonial ally was needed. The Revolution barely succeeded with the coalition they were able to put together. Had the abolitionists insisted on an immediate ban of slavery, it would have torn the Colonies apart. Then England would have won the war, reimposed it’s hegemony, and slavery would have still continued unopposed.

    Jefferson, while wealthy, certainly didn’t have the financial means to buy up every slave he came across, and simply set them free. His solution was to treat those he owned well, at least by contemporary standards. And to mandate that his own slaves were to be set free on his death. While fervently looking forward to a time when slavery would be totally abolished.

    I believe we make a serious mistake when we try to impose current standards on people of past times and cultures. While those of us in Western Industrial societies today condemn child labor, we must remember there was a time in human history when the average life expectancy was only 35, and every hand that was available was needed for simple survival.

    Two processes are at work. First the human race is waking up, little by little, and with that comes greater compassion for others. The other aspect is that as societies become wealthier and more technologically developed, they can afford to adopt higher expectations for their environment, both physical and social.

    The world we have today is what it is because of the struggles of our ancestors to awaken, both spiritually and morally. As well as to develop technologically, allowing us to replace slaves with machines. We should be proud of the results of that struggle, not ashamed.

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