Did the Buddha allow slaves to be used by the sangha?

Hello !

Good day .

I would like to apologize for the title since it sounds inflammatory but it encapsulates my question basically . I have a question that I have been ruminating over. I have done my own search and browsed the sutta central discourse to try to understand it but I am still left unsure. My question is in regards to slavery.

I have read in Sāmaññaphala Sutta that monks should not accept slaves and also in Vanijja Sutta that it is wrong livelihood for people to trade in human beings.

But what I am surpised about is that when I dove into papers published I have come across this : https://journals.ub.uni-heidelberg.de/index.php/jiabs/article/download/8824/2731 . It was a paper by Gregory Schopen titled : The monastic ownership of Servants or Slaves : Local and legal factors in the redactional history of the two Vinayas. I have tried my best to understand the paper and the Vinaya but based on my understanding is that the Buddha allowed slaves to be used by the Sangha. He referred to the Bhesajja : The story of Pilindavaccha in regards to the monastery attendant.

From the Vinaya Bhesajja :

Then the venerable Pilindavaccha gladdened, roused, rejoiced, delighted King Seniya Bimbisāra of Magadha with talk on dhamma. Then King Seniya Bimbisāra of Magadha, gladdened … delighted by the venerable Pilindavaccha’s talk on dhamma, rising from his seat, having greeted the venerable Pilindavaccha, departed keeping his right side towards him. Then the venerable Pilindavaccha sent a messenger to the Lord to say: “Lord, King Seniya Bimbisāra of Magadha desires to present an attendant for a monastery. Now, Lord, what line of conduct is to be followed?” Then the Lord on this occasion having given reasoned talk, addressed the monks saying:

I allow, monks, a monastery attendant.”

To quote Gregory Schopen :

First of all, it would appear that the accounts of Pilinda in both the
Mahaviharin and Mulasarvastivadin Vinayas contain or deliver the ini -
tial rule allowing for the acceptance by monks or monastic communities
of aramikas or kalpikaras. They were, as it were, the charters for such
practices. But since it also seems that neither account in either vinaya
can be early, then it would also appear that references to aramikas and
kalpikaras elsewhere in their respective vinayas also cannot be early. It
would seem unlikely that incidental references to aramikas or kalpikaras
would precede the rule allowing their acceptance. But since such references
are scattered throughout both vinayas as we have them the implications
of this are both far reaching and obvious.
Then there is the problem of what to call aramikas or kalpikaras: are
they servants, forced laborers, bondmen, slaves?


We might note first that the language of the Mahavihann account is not particularly helpful. It does, however, indicate that aramikas were human beings who could be, and were, given (datu-, dammi, dinna,detha, padasi) by one person (the king) to another (the Venerable Pilinda), and appear to have been, in this sense at least, chattels. "

I have also read this article online : Buddhist morality is Medieval | Vividness .
Specifically :"

According to scripture, the Buddha himself (after enlightenment) accepted slaves as gifts to the sangha, and he did not free them

He referenced the Schopen paper and from” Encyclopedia of Buddhism" :

" 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".

Also as said by Richard Gombrich in Theravada Buddhism - a social history from ancient Benares to modern Colombo :

While a famous sermon, the Sa¯mañña-phala Sutta, stresses the practical benefits for a slave in leaving his servitude and joining the Order, in fact runaway slaves were not allowed to join the Order. Moreover, though in ancient India there was no caste or other form of social ranking within the Order itself, the Order soon came to own (lay) slaves."

Did the Buddha allow in the Vinaya for slaves to be used ? Is it said that for individual monks it is improper to accept slaves but for the monastic order it is allowed for them to be used ? I have been made aware of slaves that have sadly been present in the history of the sri lankan , chinese and thai sangha , but I did not know that possibly it has been allowed for the monastic order possibly in the Vinaya ( (PDF) Buddhism and Antislavery | Michael Jerryson - Academia.edu) .

All of those are based on my understanding based on Mr.Schopen’s paper and I am very open for correction .I just am honestly bothered a lot by it so please correct me if my understanding is wrong .

Thank you .


Let’s tag venerables @Brahmali and @Dhammanando who may be able to answer or discuss your questions with property.


Welcome to the Forum, @RMC. You are much better researched than I am, and I await the the Venerables’ answers with the greatest interest.

@Gabrel_L: I’m sure the Venerables will answer with propriety :slight_smile: I laughed at what the autocorrect did to your post and changed it from with property. :rofl:


I am also honestly bothered by this, good grief. I hope it’s not true.


Iircc, this is one of the more egregious places where the commentaries twisted around the Dhamma to suit their interests but I’ll let those more knowledgeable give a more a thorough reply.


Debtors were made slaves and they would not be allowed to become monks because 1) creditors would continue to hound them, and 2) the monkhood would become a refuge for debtors.

“And when a poor, destitute, penniless person, being hounded, does not pay, he is put into bondage. For one who partakes of sensuality, bondage is suffering in the world.”—AN 6.45


Attendant is kapiya, not slave. He is either a volunteer who’s willingly helps the monks in many aspects, like handling money, etc. Or he is paid to be a full time kapiya, which is a system in place in many monasteries where there’s no majority Buddhist populations. Those more popular monasteries can always have lay person as anagarika, they can serve as kapiya, but many smaller, less popular monasteries, don’t have that option.

As you said, since it’s clear that individual monks are not to own slaves, so too does the whole of the sangha. There’s many vinaya rules for monks not to simply ask unreasonable things to lay people, least the lay people find it troublesome to donate to the monks. Hint is not even possible, just can say what you need. Even to the kapiya, at most a monk can request up to 6 times before having to give up the things he requested.

I think for many of these authors, there will need a lot of time to actually read those books, research their background etc. My guess is that they don’t actually properly understand what kapiya means.

I read the quote as the king would pay for a full time kapiya to be employed at their monastery.


I read Schopen’s article as discussing material stemming from what Bhante @sujato has termed the “middle period” of Indian Buddhism, from roughly the turn of the CE to 500 CE.

For example, Schopen says (p. 173),

Finally, and by way of conclusion, we should probably note what
should be obvious from the above discussion: the accounts of Pilinda
can almost certainly not tell us anything about what very early Buddhist
groups were. They, and the vinayas as we have them, can, however, tell
us a great deal about what those groups had become. There are good
reasons for thinking that neither account could have been redacted much
before the 1st or 2nd Century C. E.

Schopen is discussing events that took place when the sangha was quite large and institutionalized.


Thank you all for sharing your thoughts and thank you @Gabriel_L for tagging the venerables to get their opinion . I have read @dougsmith 's reply and thank you for the clarification :smiley: . I read again the article to make sure and on further reading is it correct to say that this part was of later addition to the Vinaya ?

To quote from the journal :

There are at least two things about the Mahaviharin text which might
suggest that it is local: its beginning and its end

There are a number of uncertainties here, but in large part that may be
because the activity described in our text is so odd, if not entirely unique:
It is not commonly described elsewhere in Indian literature, if at all.

It can be said that it is added later since the action of improving caves are incredibly rare in India but in Sri Lanka it is normal to do so. Basically the practice is of Sri lankan origin not Indian .

To start with, the Mahavihann account which should represent the
earliest version has itself been labeled a probable “late interpolation.”
Moreover, both the beginning and the end of the Mahaviharin account
may well reflect not early Indian, but Sri Lankan practice, and even formally
the Mahaviharin version looks—if anything—like an abbreviated
or an abridged version of a longer account.

From : Buddhism and antislavery ( (PDF) Buddhism and Antislavery | Michael Jerryson - Academia.edu)

What I would like to look into is whether the acceptance of monastic attendants was the loophole that was taken advantage of in Sri Lanka and the likes.

Or are there any reasons for the sangha to accept slaves even though it is improper for monks to accept them? :thinking:

Would love to hear more learned opinions than mine :smiley: :pray: .

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Just because people, including kings and governments, who are “Buddhist” do a thing, even in the name of Buddhism, doesn’t make it in accord with the Buddha’s teachings. That’s probably very obvious to everyone here, but I just wanted to point that out. Looking at recent events in Myanmar as a contemporary example of this, the purging (to put it nicely) of the Rohingya people and the coup can hardly be considered Buddhist. There are even Buddhist monks in Myanmar who have been very outspoken in their support of the Rohingya ethnic cleansing. None of this makes it remotely in accord with what the Buddha taught, though. I believe one of the kings of Sri Lanka actually had a school of Buddhism in Sri Lanka completely eradicated, monks and all. Anyway, there are many examples of things like this happening throughout the history of all Buddhist countries.

To expand a bit on the point above, in Theravada forest traditions where monks don’t handle money a layperson who is able to handle money, or perform other actions forbidden by the patimokkha (maybe like cutting tree branches), will often accompany a monk or nun on thudong. The Ajahn Cha monasteries, for example, have laypeople responsible for handling all the money donated to the monastery, too.

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This is a long shot, to say the least. Let’s look, once again, at the passage quoted by Schopen. Here is my rendering of it:

At one time Venerable Pilindavaccha, wanting to build a shelter, was having a hillside cleared near Rājagaha. On that occasion King Seniya Bimbisāra of Magadha went to Pilindavaccha, bowed, sat down, and said,

“Venerable Elder, what are you having made?”

“I’m clearing the hillside, great king, because I want to build a shelter.”

“Do you need a monastery worker?”

“The Buddha hasn’t allowed monastery workers.”

“Well then, Venerable, please ask the Buddha and tell me the outcome.”

“Yes, great king.”

And Pilindavaccha instructed, inspired, and gladdened King Bimbisāra with a teaching, after which the King got up from his seat, bowed down, circumambulated Pilindavaccha with his right side toward him, and left.

Soon afterwards Pilindavaccha sent a message to the Buddha: “Venerable Sir, King Seniya Bimbisāra of Magadha wishes to provide a monastery worker. “What should I do?”

The Buddha then gave a teaching and addressed the monks: “I allow monastery workers.”

Once again King Bimbisāra went to Pilindavaccha, bowed, sat down, and said, “Venerable, has the Buddha allowed monastery workers?”

“Yes, great king.”

“Well then, I’ll provide you with a monastery worker.”

The word I render as “provide” in the last line above is dammi, which literally means “I give”. But just as the verb “give” in English is very flexible, so is the verb dammi in Pali, having a large number of subtle connotations. In our monastery, for instance, I might ask the monk in charge of work to “give me a worker”. This does not mean I become the owner of that person (!), but merely that I am asking for someone to work with me for a certain period of time. In the same way, I think it is a magnificent overreading of the Pali to suggest that the king’s use of the word “give” actually refers quite literally to the ownership of a person, that is, slavery. What is really going on here is that Schopen is, as so often, making mountains out of non-existing molehills, as a famous scholar memorably put it.

By the way, the sort of person the king is “giving” is not actually a kappiya, “an attendant”, but an ārāmika, one who lives in a monastery, or a monastery worker.

Does this help?


Oh! Richard Gombrich! I just read that one :joy:


Thank you Ven.@Brahmali for your answer . It cleared up a lot of my questions :pray: .


Yes me too. It seems much more of a molehill than a mountain to me now! Thank you Venerable.