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Sutras (suttas) are discourses. Those of the Pali Canon are placed in nikayas (collections), and show where to find them.
Pali Canon collections:
AN - Anguttara Nikaya
DN - Digha Nikaya
MN - Majjhima Nikaya
SN - Samyutta Nikaya

The Eightfold Path says one is to avoid slave trading, prostitution, buying and selling children or adults,. (Article 5). Article 4 implies much the same. Bhikkhu Bodhi: "Buddha mentions five specific kinds of livelihood which bring harm to others and are therefore to be avoided: dealing in weapons, in living beings (including raising animals for slaughter as well as slave trade and prostitution), in meat production and butchery, in poisons, and in intoxicants." (AN 5.177). (Source: Access to Insight: "The Noble Eightfold Path: The Way to the End of Suffering," by Bhikkhu Bodhi [1999])

There are other old mentions to take into account too.

Buddhism and Slavery

In the Apannaka Sutta Buddha says that the one who is on the right path delights in concord, cleanses his mind, and "abstains from accepting male and female slaves."

The Blessed One instructs similarly in the Kevatta Sutta, "To Kevatta", where he describes how a monk is to live:

He abstains from the taking of life, merciful, compassionate for the welfare of all living beings. He lives not by stealth but by means of a self that has become pure. He speaks words worth treasuring, seasonable, reasonable, circumscribed. He abstains from damaging seed and plant life, abstains from accepting male and female slaves, and from goats and sheep. He abstains from mutilating, executing, imprisoning, highway robbery and plunder. (DN 11, Excerpts]

Buddha enlarges on the subject in the Samannaphala Sutta, "The Fruit of the Contempative Life" (DN 2):

Buddha asked a king consider a slave who leaves him without permission to live as a homeless monk, and what the king would do when others rat on the slave and tell the king where to find him.

"I should bow down to him, invite him to a seat, and provide him with righteous safety, defence, and protection," said the king.

Buddha said further, "A monk abstains from abusive speech and idle chatter, from accepting male and female slaves, elephants, cattle, and fraud. He abstains from mutilating, executing, imprisoning, highway robbery, plunder, and violence. He abstains from wrong livelihood, from . . . male slaves, female slaves - he abstains from wrong livelihood . . . from bringing forth flames from the mouth. For he has [to do with] mindfulness and alertness." (Excerpted)

The codes of behaviour are stricter for monks than for lay persons.

Buddha also signals in the Lochitta Sutta that the way lies in being released from slavery and confinements, giving an example of someone who thinks, "Before, I was a slave . . . Now I am released from that slavery, subject to myself, not subject to others, freed, able to go where I like." "Because of that he would gain joy and experience happiness," adds Buddha. (MN 39:134 and DN 11-12). It is also in the Maha-Assapura Sutta (The Greater Discourse at Assapura), MN 39]

In his basic design, the eightfold path, Buddha also calls for avoiding blameworthy trades such as dealing in slavery, and instead getting wholesome attitudes and some fit and decent occupation. It could be too bad to take the dignity from folks, and also in the light of karma (repercussions)- Thus, there are things to avoid and not be guilty of. They might be risky for one's future fare. Dealing in male and female slaves means that true and benevolent Dharma is being extinguished, says Buddha in The Sutta about "The Total Extinction of the Dharma": [◦Link].

Slave trading is not fit for monks and lay Buddhists according to central words by Buddha, confirmed in the Noble Eightfold Path, point 5.

Slavery existed at the time of Buddha among non-Buddhists, among lay followers, and monks in later centuries. The Adiya Sutta (AN 5.41) (see below) shows it occurred in Buddha's day. See also, for more examples, the Aputtaka Sutta (SN 3.19), Velama Sutta (AN 9.20), Muluposatha Sutta (AN 3.70), Nagara Sutta (SN 12.65), and Dhananjali Sutta (MN 97).

Goings in ancient Egypt

In the light of modern research, slavery was not widespread in Egypt. The workman teams that built the large pyramids, were not slaves, for example. Slavery in Egypt seems to have been fairly rare before the Ptolemaic period (305 to 30 BC), when Egypt was ruled by the Hellenistic Ptolemaic dynasty, and slavery was not a dominant fixture at that time either.

The lot of slaves in the ancient Egyptian society was rarely as bad as that of slaves in other societies, for in Egypt, treating a slave well was a moral duty. And during pharaoh times no slave markets seem to have existed. However, conquests in Nubia, Canaan and Syria brought in many prisoners of war that were enslaved or absorbed into the army. Their period of enslavement was often limited, in that debt slaves or prisoners of war were at times set free after serving for a certain period.

Some Egyptians were sold into slavery because of debts or sold themselves to escape poverty. Some slaves regained their freedom through their own efforts, others were bought out of it, and in some cases through a combination of these two ways. On the whole, slaves were frequently not happy being slaves - that is a main point.

The Old Testament holds that Israelites took to capturing slaves and keeping them once they took over the land of Canaanites by holocausts. They claimed that God had instituted the forms of slavery they kept at. Parts of the Bible regulates slavery by the Law of Moses.

[Egypt sources: A, B, C, D]

If you groan against slavery, try not not to keep it up and make it worse if you get into power.

Slavery-Trapped One Way or Another

The Law of Jews says yes to slavery, and Jesus vouces for it in Matthew 5:17-19. (Cf. Exodus 21:20-21; Matthew 20:26-27; Titus 2:9). Thus, the Bible's God, its old laws, Jesus and Paul all accept slavery. Slavery was an important facet of life in biblical times. Both the Old and the New Testaments contain instructions regarding slaves which contemporary Jews and Christians generally disregard, and which Christian apologists frequently attempt to play down or deny, as there is no ideal slavery for slaves. (Mark 10;17-8).

Slavery often means that slaves are forced to work, or else they will be punished by their master. There have been different types of slavery. Some societies had an economy that was built on slavery to a large extent, like ancient Greece and ancient Rome had many slaves. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights says that slavery is wrong. Slavery is now banned by international law. Nevertheless, there are still different forms of slavery in some countries (Simple English Wikipedia, "Slavery").

When slavery was legal, "good people" tended to consider it morally acceptably and economically essential. Then, is everything perfectly nice, decent and going fine in the world nowadays, you think? There are tens of millions of people trapped in various forms of slavery throughout the world today, writes Slavery Today, and show up four forms. They are:

  • Labor Slavery. About 50 percent toil in forced labor slavery in industries where manual labor is needed - such as farming, ranching, logging, mining, fishing, and brick making—and in service industries working as dish washers, janitors, gardeners, and maids.
  • Sex Slavery. About 12.5 percent are trapped in forced prostitution sex slavery.
  • Forced Marriage Slavery. About 37.5 percent are trapped in forced marriages.
  • Child Slavery. About 25 percent of today's slaves are children.

(Slavery Today: Slavery Is Everywhere 2007-2018

A Slavery Resurgence

Slavery is shown by being exploited and completely controlled by someone else, without being able to leave. Slavery Today points out:

  • There has been a resurgence of slavery in the past few decades.
  • Slavery today is a hidden crime, since it has become illegal, formally at least.
  • Slaves are forced to work, without pay, under the threat of violence. They cannot walk away.

Moreover, "good people" are often and unwittingly connected to slavery, for its tentacles reach into "our homes, offices, and schools through many of the products we buy," affirms Slavery Today. For example, slaves harvest cocoa in West Africa, and it ends up in our chocolate. . . . Many food products and raw materials are tainted by slavery - such as tomatoes, tuna, shrimp, cotton, diamonds, iron, sugar, and gold.

Very few found slavery to be unnatural or immoral until the second half of the 1700s, writes Encyclopaedia Britannica (EB, "slavery"; also see Wikipedia, "Slavery")


Slavery and Buddha's Teachings Continued

Guru Rinpoche, or Padmasambhava
Padmasambhava, Guru Rinpoche

Not So Simple Anyway

In The Story of Buddhism: A Concise Guide to Its History and Teachings (2001), Dr Donald S. Lopez Jr. tries to show why Buddhism has been so appealing and helpful through many centuries and many cultures. He also writes it is

virtually impossible for a single scholar to claim knowledge of the entire tradition across its vast geographical and chronological sweep. I certainly cannot make such a claim. . . . The process of writing this book has left me with a deep sense of respect for the hundreds of scholars who have written about Buddhism over the last century. Their names are too numerous to list here. (Ib. ix)

"So many minds, so many opinions." As we seek to peel the opinions like onions, what is left? Various views and positions of scholars. To see what Buddha says in the most reliable ancient discourses that bear his name, might work far better.

Let us see what else Donald Lopez Jr. holds. He debates the nirvana that Buddha entered when he was Awakened and when he finally passed away, forty years or so later. Lopez writes: "When we examine this momentous event from the vantage point of Buddhist doctrine, it seems that at that moment the Buddha ceased to exist. . ." (Ib. 47)

Buddha lore

Did Buddha go? Where and how so?

In addition to "Maybe yes, maybe no, what do I know," we may study furter. Lopez says Buddhist theory talks of two types of nirvana. They are "nirvana with remainder," and "nirvana without remainder". Buddha achieved Awakening under the Bodhi tree. Many say that was his "nirvana with remainder": he walked around for forty years afterwards, which is a good indication he was not all extinguished.

A "nirvana without remainder" is presumed to be a final nirvana. Buddha is said to have passed into it upon his death. "But where did he go?" asks Donald Lopez Jr., and answers that a Theravada text tells of a monk who announced that the Buddha taught that a monk who has destroyed desire, hatred, and ignorance no longer exists after his death. Sariputra went to see the monk and said to him that it is wrong to say that the monk ceases to exist when he enters nirvana because the monk does not exist before entering nirvana either.

And then again, some see no difference between nirvana (first type) and nirvana (finale).

There is another view too: Tensions between different notions are seen in the Diamond Sutra too, where the buddha-to-be is said to vow to lead all beings into the final nirvana, knowing that there are no beings to be led to the final nirvana, Lopez sums up.

(Lopez 2001, 47-48, passim)

Better meditate with pleasure

Wise Buddhists rise beyond slavery to theory, of course . . . Again and again, as often as it takes.

"Buddhists, rise beyond slavery" and "Buddhists rise to theory" might be meant, but no, it is "Wise Buddhists rise beyond slavery to theory". This shows in its way how ancient text can be misunderstood too - Richard Gombrich gives an example in his What the Buddha Thought (2009). In it, he holds that the most common Buddhist doctrine today holds there is no Atman (Self, soul, spirit), but it is rooted in a mistranslation of this:

Things are impermanent, i.e., ever-changing, and by that token they are not satisfactory, and by that token they cannot be the atman [spirit].

Later Buddhists came to interpret the third hallmark in that old doctrine as 'not having a self or essence', but that was not its original meaning, says Gombrich. The true meaning he finds is 'is not atman' rather than 'does not have atman'. And comparison with the Vedanta further shows that the translation 'self' is appropriate, Dr Gombrich sums up (2009, 69-70).

This suggests that the ancient Buddhist Anatta doctrine (no-atman, no-self doctrine) is based on a faulty understanding. And what about the attempts of some who claim (in theory) to be nothing (no-self), to go about and tell others that they and all are nothing? When 'no one' speaks, should other 'no ones' listen and find meanings in so-called nothingness, (void)? Can 'no one' have full control of anything?

Many said earlier that Nirvana means 'extinction', blotting out of existence. Far from it, Buddha tells in several passages. What he calls Nirvana is to be experienced by the wise, and is desirable, undefiled supreme security, supreme foundation of truth, undeceptive and it ranks as the supreme noble truth. And Nirvana . . . can be seen with the arising of spiritual vision, he teaches also. [Evidence gathered]

Beware of theory. As it is, Buddhist theory and explanations are due to assumptions and notions about lots of issues, for the sake of convenience and for many other reasons.

It is easy to get swindled. A good tip is to move from speculation and theory to practical Buddhism without vices, as that is what Buddha's guidelines are for.

Buddha teaches attentiveness and a deep life-style where much of value is built up by moral living - by living up to moral norms and basics that he also teaches. [Link]

Satisfied slaves? (Alarm bells are ringing)

By attentive reading you may come across passages where Buddha teaches that righteous wealth righteously gained provides the owner and his slaves with pleasure and satisfaction, and maintains that pleasure rightly . . . "He provides his mother and father with pleasure and satisfaction, and maintains that pleasure rightly. He provides his children, his wife, his slaves, servants, and assistants with pleasure and satisfaction, and maintains that pleasure rightly," says Buddha. [Adiya Sutta, "Benefits to be Had From Wealth" (AN 5.41). Emphasis added]

It goes to show that norms are stricter for monks and lay followers. Monks do not deal in slavery, while slavery and drudgery beneath householders might be OK. Truth be told.

Buddhist monks with honest and pure hearts are not to own male and female slaves. They are to avoid stealing, to abstain from taking what is not given to them, and so on. They keep aloof from stabbing, beating, chaining, attacking, plundering and oppressing, says Buddha about morality (the Noble Eightfold Path) in early scriptures. (Nyantiloka: Word of the Buddha: An Outline of the Ethico-philosophical System of the Buddha in the Words of the Pali Canon 2001, 67)

Lay members of Buddhism are to train their own minds and explore the better teachings and explain them in tune with Buddha's sensible advice. Laying up wealth and funds is fine, Buddha teaches, but such things had better be used for better things than empty and vain boasts and shallow show-offs, but for a rewarding, fulfilling life. To set slaves free and provide for their future thriving and satisfaction by such as plots of land that each is fit to sustain a former slave family, might work well in olden times. [Link]

Five fundamentals

How to conduct oneself wisely in matters of the heart and other matters? One is to put the best of wise teachings into a coherent practice. The moral Five Precepts are meant to be valid for all Buddhists, laypersons included. They aim at all followers of Gautama Buddha: the five fundamentals:

  1. Abstain from harming any sentient, breathing life;
  2. Abstain from stealing;
  3. Abstain from sexual misconduct (improper or illicit sexual relations);
  4. Abstaining from false speech, including lying and deceiving;
  5. Abstain from the use of intoxicating drinks and drugs and other causes of great heedlessness.

If someone buys or enslaves another, it breaks with the first norm, that of ahimsa, non-harming. It may also be tantamount to breaking one or more of the second, third, and fourth of the basic norms for Buddhist lay persons too, depending on the kind of slavery and treatment.

It is favourable and recommended to use things basically in their relation to enlightenment and the Dharma (fit teachings; righteous deals, etc.); and learn teachings that help happiness and success [c.f. e.g. Link A and Link B ]. There ought to be no room for a life of depraved ceremony-and-party-infested glamour and rigmarole in it.

"To read and not to understand is to pursue and not take (German)."

The Advice of Buddha

In the Mahaparinibbanasuttanta (The Large Text on Buddha's Demise) (DN 16), Buddha tells:

DHARMA WHEEL Even though it is not blossoming-time, trees are standing in full bloom. They let fall a dense and mild shower of flowers over me to honour the truth-arriver [Tathagatha]. From heaven the most beautiful mandarava flowers fall in honour of the truth-arriver. The air is filled with heavenly song and music in honour of the truth-arriver.

But that is not how to honour, respect and deeply heed the truth-arriver [Tathagatha], Ananda. The monk, nun, layman or laywoman who lives the teaching [Dharma] in all his behaviour, he or she honours me the most, and shows me the greatest respect, Ananda. Therefore, train yourselves to live the teachings and live decently in everything, Ananda! . . .

Be energetic and work hard to reach the most sublime goal [In Lie Bsa 115-16, 118, 126, emphasis added; In Maha-parinibbana Sutta: Last Days of the Buddha. Trs. Sister Vajira and Francis Story, 1998. (DN 16.5.6)

These are about his final sayings.

So get into deep principles. For example, we do well not to think that building a stupa or tower or something else in stone in honour of ourselves or Buddha - whatever - is the most valuable use of resources, for "a castle of bone" - a living human being, maybe an animal too - matters more than a castle of stone. It is a proverb with much of value in it.


Fit Buddhism, Literature  

Carus, Paul, 1905, Amitabha. A Story of Buddhist Theology. Chicago: The Open Court Publishing Company, 1906.

Gombrich, Richard F. What the Buddha Thought. London: Equinox, 2009.

Lie, Kaare A, tr. Buddhas samtaler: De lange tekstene. Digha Nikaya. Bind 2. Det store bindet: Mahavagga (Conversations of Buddha: The Long Texts. Digha Nikaya, Vol 2. The Large Volume: Mahavagga). Oslo: Solum Forlag, 2005.

Lopez, Donald S., Jr. 2001. A Story of Buddhism: A Concise Guide to Its History and Teachings.: San Francisco, CA: HarperSanFrancisco.

Nyantiloka Mahathera. 2001. Word of the Buddha: An Outline of the Ethico-philosophical System of the Buddha in the Words of the Pali Canon. Electronic edition. Kandy, SL: Buddhist Publication Society.


A. Dollinger, André. Ancient Egypt: Slavery, its causes and practice. 2000.

B. Jimmy Dunn: Slaves and Slavery in Ancient Egypt.. 1999-2003.

C. The Ancient Egypt Site. Slavery.

D. WikiAnswers. What was ancient Egyptian slavery like?

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