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Fazang on Weapons, Filial Piety and Slavery

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 One striking feature of the Fànwăng-jīng Púsàjièbĕn-shū 《梵網經菩薩戒本疏》 (Commentary on the Origin of the Brahma Net Sutra Bodhisattva Precepts) is Fazang's comments on the potential permissibility of killing in extreme situations and military matters. As ISHII Kōsei has stressed, Fazang was something of a realist when it came to precepts and his comments on the potential permissibility of violence and weapon ownership reflect this. Fazang addresses these controversial topics and his responses perhaps reflect his connections to the state and the connection of Buddhism to state affairs which inevitably would have included warfare in this period.

The tenth minor precept in the Fànwăng-jīng (Brahma Net Sūtra) is a prohibition against the possession of weapons (畜諸殺具戒第十) and it also states a Bodhisattva is not to take revenge on behalf of one's parents:


If one is a son of the Buddha, one should not store any weapons such as knives, clubs, bows, arrows, spears, axes or other weapons of war as well as evil nets, traps and tools used in killing beings. All of these must not be stored. Furthermore, a Bodhisattva must not even avenge the killing of their parents, let alone other sentient beings. If one intentionally stores any knife or club [weapon], they commit a minor sin.

In the commentary along with remarks on violence we also find Fazang's thoughts on filial piety or xiào 孝 which in this context is intrinsically tied to issues of violence. Throughout ancient China filial piety demanded that a child was obligated to avenge the murder of their parents. Even for Fazang, who was not even Han Chinese but of Sogdian ethnicity, such a sense of filial duty no doubt existed in his mind and possibly was at odds with his Buddhist convictions. Moreover, the society in which he lived held such views and perhaps Fazang had no choice but to make a compromise. Here specifically the sūtra states that avenging the death of one's parents is unacceptable. It is here that Fazang compromises. To him exacting revenge on behalf of one's parents, while a sin, is only minor while taking revenge on behalf of anyone else would constitute a major sin:


The sin of exacting revenge for one's parents is light. The sin for exacting revenge for others is heavy.

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Fazang continues this discussion of fulfilling filial piety in the interpolation of the twenty-first minor precept which concerns violence and vengeance. The original precept reads as follows:


The Buddha said, “A son of the Buddha must not return anger with anger, blow for blow. If someone should kill his father, mother, elder brother, younger brother and relatives, he must not exact revenge. If a country's ruler is killed by others, again one must not exact revenge. To take a life to avenge a life does not abide with the way of filial piety. Furthermore, one must not keep slaves, striking and scolding them – everyday accumulating the three karmas (verbal, mental and physical) with verbal misdeeds immeasurable. How much more so intentionally carry out the seven heinous sins! Therefore should a renunciate Bodhisattva, lacking a compassionate mind, even for misdeeds carried out against his relatives, seek out revenge he commits a minor offence.

Fazang's comment on this utilizes the typical question and answer pattern common to Buddhist commentaries:


Question: within worldly propriety not exacting revenge against your father's enemies is unfilial. Why in this sūtra is retribution not considered filial? Answer: the religious and the worldly are contradictory. The worldly is based on the present and does not speak of future cause and effect or karmic retribution. Now if multiple retributions are carried out the suffering and karma becomes more and more [because those you have hurt will seek out revenge] – you make your father sink into eternal kalpas [of suffering). How is that fulfilling the way of filial piety? How much more so when these enemies were possibly one's own father or mother in a past existence? Now if you kill them, how is that filial piety? Thus it is said that it does not abide with the way of filial piety.

Indeed, Fazang is at heart a Buddhist and so encourages forgiveness and compassion, but as noted above, perhaps having realized that such sentiments were not going to be so readily accepted by individuals holding fast to the demands of filial piety, he makes a compromise: while it is wrong to exact revenge, doing so on behalf of your parents is less worse than doing it for anyone else.

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Fazang also compromises on the permissibility on the keeping of weapons. He insists that keeping weapons to defend the Buddha or placate beings does not constitute a violation of the precept. However, he also insists that one can beg for, or even buy, weapons from wicked people to destroy them and this as well does not constitute a violation. Again we see here Fazang painting a picture where taking the route of lesser evils, rather than proclaiming an idealistic and thus unrealistic path, is sometimes necessary. In regards to the tenth minor precept prohibiting weapon ownership he notes the following:


VII. Exceptions. In principle one is not in violation if it is to defend the Buddhadharma or to placate sentient beings. There is also no violation if one begs and obtains (weapons) from evil people and while having the intention to destroy them has yet to destroy them. In contrast to the aforementioned [exceptions], all ownership is a violation. For this reason if a Bodhisattva sees others owning (weapons), he encourages them to destroy them. If his encouragement is unsuccessful he should beg or trade for them. If he still is unable to obtain them, then he should use coercion, threats and so on and obtain them. He must stop them [from keeping the weapons).

His remark about placating sentient beings is particularly striking. Considering the readership of his time was probably made up to some extent by the power wielding aristocracy who operated a government which inevitably had to deal with rebellions and warfare, this consent for weapon ownership was probably written with such persons in mind. It also might be said that as the state and Buddhism were entangled this interpretation, where keeping weapons to defend the Buddhadharma is permitted, might be logically extended to behind the institution where the imperial government provided essential economic support and the lines between the religious institution and the state had become blurred. However, this should not be read as Fazang supporting a militant government under the banner of religion. Again it must be stressed that Fazang was realistic about the world of his time and his connections to the state and aristocracy, even at this point in his career, would mean he would have known well the limitations of idealistic ethics.

Fazang in his commentary also affirms the existence of social hierarchy and promotes no such egalitarian ideals as one might expect of a Buddhist in our present day. For example in his remarks on the prohibition on engaging in slave trade (傷慈販賣戒第十二), Fazang describes the difference in severity of selling people of different social classes:



VI. Severity. Concerning the object: selling a free commoner is considered the worst, trading slaves should come next, selling livestock should be considered as light and selling coffins should be considered the lightest. Concerning the mind: there are inferior, middling and superior afflictions divided into varying degrees of severity. Concerning the action: seeking much profit in the sale and together with evil people creating extreme sufferings and so on is in principle the most severe.

The use of the term liángrén 良人 or commoner is significant because it is contrast to jiànmín 賤民, or more specifically núbì 奴婢 as it is used in this sentence is significant. In other words, buying and selling off slaves is less worse than selling a commoner into slavery. Presumably this is because that while the slave is already in servitude, if one should sell a common free person into slavery one is both guilty of selling a person and forcing them into slavery.

We should take a moment to consider that this social class distinction had legal definition in period secular law. These same issues were addressed in secular law books such as the Tánglǜshūyì 《唐律疏議》whose compilation was completed in 653CE, about thirty-five years before Fazang penned his commentary. It was illegal to sell free persons into slavery and there was appropriate government paperwork that had to be processed which detailed the origins of the sold slave.(9)

One example is in law 294 under section twenty where we find legal protocols dealing the severity of selling relatives into slavery who are not one's parents and are younger than oneself (諸略賣期親以下卑幼為奴婢者). In the commentary that follows the question is raised as to whether or not selling your wife into slavery comes under the jurisdiction of this law (問曰:賣妻為婢,得同期親卑幼以否)(10). This indicates that both in secular law and Buddhist ethics of this time the issues arising from slave trade were being discussed, though the validity of the institution of slavery itself was not called into question.

Indeed, in Fazang's interpretation there is a difference between the value of a slave and a free person. Although he does stress that selling free people into slavery is wrong(11), he makes no indication of disapproval of such a system of slavery in the first place and affirms the reality of slavery that was commonplace in his day. Furthermore, while the twenty-first minor precept specifically says keeping slaves is not to be done(12), Fazang, abbreviating the Yogâcāra-bhūmi-śāstra, does affirm elsewhere in his commentary that Bodhisattvas are not guilty of violating the eighth major precept on covetousness if they should refrain from giving their slaves under certain circumstances(13). Fazang fails to address the evident contradiction here: that while in the Fànwăng-jīng keeping slaves is clearly unacceptable, the Yogâcāra-bhūmi-śāstra indicates that Bodhisattvas do keep slaves. Fazang states that keeping slaves and mistreating them gives rise to immeasurable sins, but does not specifically state that keeping slaves is unacceptable.


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“Furthermore, one does not keep [slaves]...” and below specifies the severity and circumstances. Through keeping slaves and physically striking and verbally scolding them one gives rise to the affliction of ill-will. Of the sins and faults of the three karmas, there is a disposition towards much verbal karma and thus it is said that verbal sins are immeasurable.

There are two possible interpretations of the original line in the sūtra. The first is that keeping slaves is unacceptable as one beats and and scolds them thus giving rise to negative karma. The other is that keeping slaves is unacceptable only if you unreasonably beat and scold them. Taking into consideration the remarks elsewhere in the sūtra regarding the unacceptability of slave trading, the former interpretation seems more accurate. However, Fazang favours the latter interpretation. His interpretation does not extend any further than stating that mistreating slaves gives rise to misdeeds as if avoiding the salient point of the sūtra. Interestingly, another commentary writer from a few decades later Mingkuang 明曠 interprets this in a similar fashion stating that while renunciates may not keep slaves, for the laity it is permissible provided they do not unreasonably beat or scold them thus giving rise to negative karma.(15)

We might ask why both authors take this stance towards slave ownership and in return the question might be asked for whom were they keeping in mind when writing these commentaries. It goes without saying that for Fazang at least, being so well connected to the powers of the time, he was writing with the aristocracy in mind. Slavery was simply the reality of the day and to demand otherwise would have likely attracted hostility from various sections of society. The best one could do was to ask people to treat their slaves reasonably.


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1(CBETA, T24, no. 1484, p. 1005, c14-17)

2(CBETA, T40, no. 1813, p. 639, b29)

3 There should be a 所 following 人 here because this sentence is passive.

4(CBETA, T24, no. 1484, p. 1006, b21-26)

5(CBETA, T40, no. 1813, p. 644, a7-12)

6 Reading 檢使 as 撿挍 as per the Xinwenfeng reprint of the woodblock edition of the commentary. See Fànwăng-jīng Púsàjièbĕn-shū 《梵網經菩薩戒本疏》 (Taipei: Xinwenfeng 新文豐, 1977), 312.

7(CBETA, T40, no. 1813, p. 639, b5-9)

8(CBETA, T40, no. 1813, p. 640, a14-17)

9 See Denis Twitchett, "The T'ang Market System," Asia Major vol. 11, part 2 (1966): 202-248. Online pdf available for download here:

10See 《唐律疏議》under heading "故唐律疏議卷第二十賊盜".

11《梵網經菩薩戒本疏》卷2:「三盜二足者。若盜良人男女作賤。隨移二脚便重。故菩薩內戒經云。菩薩不得良民作奴婢。」(CBETA, T40, no. 1813, p. 618, a28-b1)

12《梵網經》卷2:「尚不畜奴婢打拍罵辱。日日起三業口罪無量。」(CBETA, T24, no. 1484, p. 1006, b24-25)

13 《梵網經菩薩戒本疏》卷4:「十八又諸菩薩於自妻子奴婢僕使親戚眷屬。若不先以正言曉喻令其歡喜。終不強逼令其憂惱施來求者。十九雖復先以正言曉喻令其歡 喜生樂欲心。而不施怨家惡友藥刃羅剎等。二十若有上品逼惱眾生樂行種種暴惡業者。來求王位終不施與。若彼惡人先居王位。菩薩有力尚應廢黜。況當施與。二十 一又諸菩薩終不侵奪父母妻子奴婢僕從使親戚眷屬所有財物持用布施。二十二亦不逼惱父母妻子奴婢僕使親戚眷屬以所施物施來求。」(CBETA, T40, no. 1813, p. 631, a27-b9)

14(CBETA, T40, no. 1813, p. 644, a12-14)

15《天台菩薩戒疏》卷2:「尚不等者出家制不得畜。在家開畜。不得非理打罵起業。」(CBETA, T40, no. 1812, p. 593, a23-25)