Vinaya formalism and clericocentricity have had considerable influence in retarding social compassion and consequently social reform in Theravadin countries. The practice of slavery is a good example of this. The Buddha said that the buying and selling of human beings is a wrong means of livelihood (A.III,207), and monks and nuns were not allowed to accept gifts of slaves either (D.I,5). This disapproval continued at least until the time of the compiling of the Vinaya which also forbids monks from owning slaves. And yet we know from the historical records that the Sangha was a slave owning institution for centuries. The well-known Galapata inscription from 12th century Sri Lanka mentions a gift of 90 slaves to a monastery so they could ‘serve their lordships.’ Getting around an inconvenient rule like the one against owning slaves was child’s play for Theravadins. In the commentary to the Majjhima Nikaya Buddhaghosa explains exactly how to do it. When someone comes to your monastery to offer you a slave simply refer to the slave as ‘a servant’ and say ‘I accept this servant.’ This is another example of the ‘juggling definitions’ stratagem recommended by Thanissaro. During one period in Sri Lankan history it came to be considered meritorious to liberate slaves, as indeed it would be. This is one of many examples throughout Theravadin history where, periodically at least, some monks and lay people genuinely tried to practice the spirit of the Dhamma and apply it in the social domain. Sadly, it is also a good example of what usually happened to such efforts. The monks’ demand for attention and pampering and their constant preaching about making merit by giving to them meant that by the 5th century this humane practice had degenerated into a mere game.
This is what would happen. A wealthy man would offer his wives or children to the monks as ‘slaves’, they would spend the day in the monastery waiting on the monks, and then in the evening the man would pay the monks to redeem them. The wife and children got merit by serving the monks, the man got merit from both offering and liberating the ‘slaves’ and the monastery got the ransom money. Probably the only ones who were not happy were the real slaves who had to stay back to clean up after these games were over. For about 200 years this sort of thing become something of a fashion and records show that monasteries earned a good income from it. Meanwhile the impetus to free real slaves petered out. In Sri Lanka, Laos and Cambodia monasteries owned slaves and slavery existed until abolished by the colonial powers in the 19th century. The same was true of Burma where so-called ‘pagoda slaves’ were very numerous and formed a heredity underclass. Thailand’s King Chulalankhorn abolished slavery at the end of the 19th century, not to conform with the spirit of the Dhamma or in response to guidance from the Sangha, but because of pressure from Christian missionaries and Western powers. 
As with so many social evils the monks rarely lifted their voices or used their very considerable influence to protest cruelty or out of sympathy for the unfortunate. Theravadin apologists will say that monks are not meant to get involved in social issues. But as history shows, they were quite willing to get involved in slavery when it suited them, even though it was against the spirit of the Dhamma and the specific injunctions of the Buddha. Many similar examples of this sort of thing could be given.
- Although the making of new slaves was prohibited in 1887 those already in bondage were not finally liberated until 1911 and some of these were attached to monasteries. The Military Service Act of 1905, for example, exempted slaves of the Sangha from national service. [back]