“What the Buddha taught:
keep your slaves, but treat them well;
– don’t need to free them!

Slaves worked for temples,
slaves worked to make the monks free;
– sounds bad, but needs be!

Eat your meat also,
monks be careful where it’s from;
– otherwise it’s firm!

Women are lowely,
and Buddha’s they cannot be;
– bigotory is we!

And wars, lots of wars,
wars over land and temples;
– for nationalism!

Monks with knives and guns,
monks fight for king and country;
– that is quite funny!

No equality,
no political freedom;
– Buddha taught neither!”

By Bup Sahn Sunim

Contrary to popular images of Buddhism it is quite unethical in terms of modern liberalism (NB, Liberalism as in philosophical liberalism that has been around in the West for 500 years and has as it’s core tenants freedom and equality).

Buddha did not care much about political freedom or equality and neither has Buddhism until it started to reinvent itself by copying modern Western Liberal values in the 19th century. Nevertheless, institutions such as slavery and sexism still persisted and slavery was not outlawed in Buddhist Tibet until 1959 when Communist China took over and freed the slaves.

Take slavery, for example. Buddha allowed lay followers to own slaves and although he said (Pali-cannon) monks should not own slaves the Buddha accepted slaves for the monasteries [1][2][3][4] and did not let slaves ordain unless they had first been freed [1]. This practice was afterward universal in all Buddhist countries [2][5].

It might be argued that Buddha forbid the slave trade (AN 5.177), but for monks to obey the rule barring the cooking and storing of food, they would need somebody to do it for them and they found no conflict in doing this [2][5].

This is probably unpleasant news for modern Western Buddhists who try to deny this unpleasant fact by denying the various words in the languages of Buddhism correspond to “slave,” and try to pass these slaves off as “servant” or “serf.” The precise legal status of these people varied, is often unclear from the texts, but each of the contested Buddhist categories involves lifetime involuntary labour, 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.

Furthermore, most Buddhist countries eventually banned slavery due to pressure from western countries or directly by colonial powers (Japan is a notable exception who banned it in 1590) [5]; in Sri Lanka in the 1820s, in Burma, Laos and Cambodia at the end of the 19th century, and in Thailand due to pressure from Western governments in 1905. In Tibet slavery was outlawed after the Dali-lama left by the Chinese government. The last Buddhist country to abolish slavery was Bhutan in 1962 [5].

No doubt modern Buddhists would want to argue that we can extend some Buddhist principles to include the banning of slavery and equality for women and even animals but the fact remains that the Buddha saw no point in fighting for political and social freedoms and he and his tradition promoted and practiced slavery, sexism and speciesism which have all been part of the Buddhist tradition since its inception. Perhaps he saw no point in political freedoms that would leave one still a captive to the passions.

The history of sexism in Buddhism is well known and of course even now in many Buddhist countries women cannot ordain and it is commonly claimed by Buddhists that women can not become enlightened (although some traditions disagree especially the ones that have been influenced by western ideas of freedom and equality). There are other issues as well such as the treatment of animals, treatment of foreigners and minorities, war of conquests and so on that are very Buddhist but far from modern liberal-democratic ideas and practices.

So while we must concede that compared to other medieval religions (Christians, Muslims, Aztecs, etc) Buddhism seems less bad and that it was perhaps an improvement on what went before it, and also probably superior to any alternative available in Asia before modernity we can not fairly claim Buddha or Buddhism was concerned with freedom, equality or other modern liberal values. Furthermore, there are still many places in the world that would be better off with traditional Buddhist morality than what they have now. Nevertheless, we must concede that neither Buddha or traditional Buddhism shared our modern western liberal values enshrined in freedom and equality. It must be the case that when we think that Buddha or Buddhism is teaching our modern liberal values we are not learning from Buddhism but projecting ourselves and our values into a tradition that was not bothered about them.

[1] 1997, Junius P. Rodriguez, The Historical Encyclopedia of World Slavery, pp 111
[2] 1988, Richard F. Gombrich, Theravada Buddhism: A Social History from Ancient Benares to Modern Colombo
[3] 2004, Gregory Schopen, Buddhist Monks and Business Matters
[4] [4] 1994, Schopen, Gregory, “The Monastic Ownership of Servants or Slaves: Local and Legal Factors in the Redactional History of Two Vinayas” JIABS Vol 17/2 pp. 145-73 in Vol 2.
[5] 1963, Slavery as Known from the Buddhist Pali Sources, M. M. Singha, Indian Historical Quaterly, Vol.39, 1-4,