Faith In Action: Buddhism

The Buddhist belief in karma and reincarnation has been used in the past to justify slavery, the logic being that a person's enslavement must be a result of punishable actions in a previous life. But in other cases, Buddhist temples have served as safe-havens for escaped slaves. And the Chinese Emperor Wang Mang, a Buddhist, may have been history's first powerful abolitionist, outlawing the slave trade in the year 9 A.D.

The eight-fold path of Buddhist beliefs explicitly teaches against the trade in living beings. According to Buddha's "Discourse to Sigala" in the Sigalovada Sutta, an employer should care for workers by assigning work according to ability, paying just wages, providing health care, providing perks and granting leave time. While the Buddha did not directly address slavery in this Sutta, it is impossible to imagine slavery surviving in any area where these teachings are followed.

"Brute force, no matter how strongly applied, can never subdue the basic human desire for freedom."
—Dalai Lama, Tibetan Buddhist Spiritual Leader

The Buddhist tradition of mindfulness encourages the faithful to consider one's personal responsibility in larger systems such as the global economy, as well as in smaller systems such as one's attitudes toward others. This holistic perspective prompts Buddhists to ask if they benefit from slavery and slave-tainted products, even if they aren't personally involved in trafficking and slavery. Mindfulness challenges Buddhists to think in connected, systemic terms.

According to the Dalai Lama, "Peace can only last where human rights are respected, where the people are fed, and where individual and nations are free."


An American Monk's Perspective on Modern Slavery

"One must ask: 'of course I don't employ slaves but where do I participate in the global economic process by which slavery is at the ground level of basic goods?"
—Claude d'Estree, Buddhist Chaplain, University of Denver

Claude d'Estree brings a unique perspective to fighting slavery. The Dalai Lama appointed d'Estree as Harvard University's first Buddhist chaplain in 1979, and he currently serves as chaplain at the University of Denver. But Professor d'Estree's is also a law school graduate who teaches classes on international human rights. He chairs an anti-trafficking task force and requires students to attend police training as part of his course on slavery.

When it comes to the relationship between slavery and Buddhism, d'Estree points to the concept of right livelihood. Meditation is often thought of as the central aspect of Buddhism, but d'Estree says ethics is at the heart of the faithful Buddhist's practice of the eight-fold path. Three of the eight steps are dedicated to ethics: right speech, right livelihood and right action.

He explains that on the surface one might say that right living "means you're not yourself involved in human trafficking, that you don't employ or take advantage of people who have been trafficked." A good start admits d'Estree, but only a start.

Professor d'Estree says the mindful Buddhist must ask: "of course I don't employ slaves but where do I participate in the global economic process by which slavery is at the ground level of basic goods?"

The practice of mindfulness allows for an additional series of even deeper questions about one's self: "What is it about me, as a human being, that wants to somehow dominate others – any aspect of others: intellectually, physically, in the workplace?"

The Buddhist perspective on slavery is introspective and compassionate. But from d'Estree's perspective, the fight against modern slavery is too big for any single faith tradition to take on. Instead, he hopes that "the world's religious traditions may find for the very first time at least one common outlet of expression, one thing they can agree on" in the anti-slavery movement.


What You Can Do

  • Educate yourself and your religious community about modern-day slavery. Books, videos, and documents are available from Free the Slaves.
  • Integrate anti-slavery themes into prayers, sermons, study sessions and other gatherings at your church, mosque, synagogue or temple.
  • Take action as a religious community to raise donations for grassroots groups fighting slavery around the world, and to communicate with lawmakers about funding efforts to fight trafficking in the U.S.
  • Share your successes with other faith communities. E-mail your stories to