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 [Dhamma Talk]


AN 8.38

Eight benefits the birth of a good man brings into the world.

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Index to available translations: AN 8.38

This sutta speaks of the birth of the good man being of benefit to his slaves. There will be those who say such a person could not be a good man, that this condones slavery, and that therefore Buddhism condones slavery, and that the Buddha condoned slavery. I have heard these ideas said.

To understand this from the point of view of the Dhamma, one must bring to the forefront two ideas:

The first is that beings are responsible for their own conditions as a consequence of their previous actions: kamma.

This is fundamental to the understanding of Buddhism and if this idea cannot be seen or understood in theory, then it must be taken on trust for any of the rest of the doctrine to be comprehensible.

It is not that many of the doctrines of the system will not be of benefit whether or not one believes in kamma, it is that without the idea of kamma they are stripped of the logical basis which makes Buddhism otherwise so acceptable to the rational mind.

Giving, for example, is beneficial whatever one believes, but without the idea that it produces good results for the self in consequence, it lacks rationality.

The idea that beings are responsible for their situations makes the idea of trying to alter the situations of others other than by the attempt to educate them to the benefits of skillful behavior, absurd.

If the external form of slavery were abolished (which it has not been, in spite of great effort and much blodshed) beings whose kamma would otherwise result in slavery would find themselves enslaved in other ways.

The second thing to be understood in this matter is that the goal of the Dhamma is the complete abandoning of the world.

It is not, as many would try to say, to save the world for worldly living or to make good kamma.

The goal is to escape kamma.

The Buddha does not waste his time on the impossible.

The Arahant has no more attachment to the beliefs held in the world than does the theater goer who sees a play in which some of the characters are slaves and some advocate slavery, or the nature-lover who admires the wild-life without judging the carnage that actually occurs in the wild.

When asked, Gotama states that no man should sell himself into slavery, or sell human beings (AN 5.177).

Further there can be no question that he does not advocate forcefully taking people as prisoners into slavery.

And it is explicitly stated that a man should not deal in the sale of human beings.

Those statements cover the issues relevant to the goal: the betterment or salvation of the individual by the individual himself.

The nature of the detachment of the Arahant is that when not asked directly about something, to judge, or speak out about it, (let alone take action) would be involvement and such a thing down to the smallest movement conceivable, would not be possible: he is completely detached and thinks only of what leads to the goal in abstract terms.

The arahant can respond about issues if asked directly and where the issue concerns the goal, because, as with the character in a play or movie, that is his role as long as the body remains.

To speak out spontaneously about the evils of slavery would be interference indicating attachment and it would be of such a nature as would cause unpleasantness (think of the Civil War in the U.S.A., for an example — the Buddhist is as concerned about not creating unpleasantness for the bad guy as for the good guy) and would be about something that does not lead to the goal.

Such behavior as is advocated is advocated by example.

And here the example is the 'attendant' that elders often had. Such a bhikkhu attends on his teacher without pay, and voluntarily and considers it an honor.

Where is the difference then between that and the man who has sold himself into slavery?

Just words and attitudes.

This is not a topic that can be spoken of, for or against, beyond a certain point, as one that leads to the goal or prevents one from attaining the goal. There are shades of understanding.

Conversely, when speaking of a topic, it is dealt with objectively whether or not the secondary issues are problematic: a good man will benefit his slaves, whether or not slavery is right or wrong.

Then there is reading this sutta carefully.

It in no way precludes that the benefit to the slave of the good man being born might be that the good man frees the slave. Or, if a man had sold himself into slavery because he was unable to make a living otherwise, to treat him as a man who worked for room and board. So it would be going too far to say that this sutta advocated slavery, or that by it the Buddha, or Buddhism advocated slavery, or that the sutta misguides in it's description of the good man.

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