Buddhism & Squatting

A Buddhist perspective on squatting

“There is the case where a monk — having gone to the wilderness, to the shade of a tree, or to an empty building — sits down folding his legs crosswise”

Satipatthana Sutta (See also)

When The Buddha lists places to go for practice, this list usually includes an empty or abandoned building. There is a reasonable question then of Buddhism’s relationship to squatting, “the action of occupying an abandoned or unoccupied area of land or a building”. At first look the suttas seem to have an implicit support for squatting. Shelter is also listed as one of four requisites used for practice in multiple suttas

“The community of monks was also worshipped, revered, honored, venerated, and given homage — a recipient of robes, alms food, lodgings, & medicinal requisites for the sick”

U.d 2.4 see also U.d 6.10

While shelter broadly is necessary, empty places are explicitly praised

“Live enjoying seclusion, bhikkhus; live delighting in seclusion, engage in practising inner mental tranquillity, not neglecting meditation, possessing insight, and frequenting empty places. If you live enjoying seclusion, bhikkhus, … and frequenting empty places, one of two fruits is to be expected: final knowledge here and now or, there being some residual defilement, the state of non-returning.”

Iti 45

In the Cullavagga some definition to usage of abandoned buildings is given (in relation to new monastics and therefore likely on land already considered owned by the monastery):

“If the dwelling is unoccupied, then — having knocked on the door, having waited a moment, having unfastened the bolt, having opened the door — he should watch while standing outside [C: in case he sees the tracks of a snake or a non-human being leaving]. If the dwelling is dirty or bed is stacked up on bed, bench on bench, with the lodgings piled on top, then if he is able, he should clean (the dwelling). [C: If he’s not able to clean the whole dwelling, he should clean just the section he plans to live in.]”

[What follows is specific instructions for cleaning the building and putting away one’s things]

– Cv.VIII.1.2-5 (C: is commentary)

The direction to knock and wait seems to indicate checking if a building is well and truly abandoned. Likewise in the Vinaya there are rules given regarding entering residences at the wrong time (Bhikkuni):

Should any bhikkhuni, having gone to family residences in the wrong time (between sunset and dawn), having spread out bedding or having had it spread out, sit or lie down (there) without asking the owner’s permission, it is to be confessed.

Pācittiya 17

Should any bhikkhuni, having gone to family residences after the meal (between noon and sunset), sit or lie down on a seat without asking the owners permission, it is to be confessed.

Pācittiya 16

Should any bhikkhuni, having gone to family residences before the meal (before noon), having sat down on a seat, depart without taking the owner’s leave, it is to be confessed.

Pācittya 15

Further in the Bhikkhu’s rules there are guidelines for the construction of a new hut

“Sanghadisesa rules 6 and 7. In both these rules The Sangha is required to approve the site of a new hut and make sure both the site and the dwelling are suitable, the owner bhikkhu firstly declaring that “no harm shall be done” and that there is “space on all sides”

The definitions given for these are:

Where harm will be done:

it is the abode of ants, termites, rats, snakes, scorpions, centipedes, elephants, horses, lions, tigers, leopards, bears, or hyenas, or any other animals;or it is bordering on a field of grain, a field of vegetables, a slaughtering-place, a place of execution, a charnel ground, a park, a king’s property, an elephant-stable, a horse-stable, a prison, a bar, a slaughterhouse, a vehicle road, a crossroads, a public meeting hall, or a cul-de-sac.

Which lacks a space on all sides:

it is not possible to go around it with a yoked cart, or to go all the way around it with a ladder, this is called “which lacks a space on all sides.”

Akaliko

“The origin stories in Sanghadisesa 6 are interesting because they include two stories of monks who lived in wilderness areas who were troubled by other inhabitants encroaching on “their” space and disturbing their meditation.

The first story 1 is a monk troubled by a naga who is terrifying him by wrapping himself around the monk. He is advised by his elder brother to ask for the naga’s jewels in order to make it so uncomfortable that it doesn’t return to bother him.

Another monk 1 living in a wilderness grove was troubled by a flock of birds disturbing his meditation, so he goes to see the Buddha himself who asks: “Would you like that flock of birds not to return?” And then the Buddha recommends asking each bird who roosts in the grove for a feather, as some sort of rental payment:

“Listen to me, good birds. From whoever roosts in this forest grove, I want a feather.Each one of you must give me a feather.” And in the second and third part of the night do the same thing.”

It seems even wilderness places could be ‘owned’ and even its natural inhabitants evicted! If it’s like this with forest animals, one can only imagine that there would be an even greater sense of ownship when it comes to humans, and that squatting or encroachment would not be accepted.”

Akaliko

I think it’s important here that the sense of ownership in these examples comes from, at least in part, the active usage of the land for practice by the monks in question. I think it remains open whether the land would therefore become abandoned/opened if the monks left. Given that there is a non-offense for temporary day dwellings, it lends support for the idea that abandonment comes with the vacation of the space and/or that legal trespassing (as it is defined today) can be permissible when done in certain time frames. Further, considering the rules for how a lay person can sponsor a building on land found by a monastic do not make mention of any legality or prior ownership we can conclude either that legal concepts of property didn’t exist in the way or to the extent that they do now or that they were invalid as claims over unused property.

Definitely it seems that any usage of housing or land actively used/possessed by someone is off limits, although that’s not really what I mean by squatting (The action of occupying an *abandoned* or *unoccupied* area of land or a building). However, the operative word in the Pacittiyas is “family residences” (Horner translates this as “house” I think), I’m no scholar of Pali so I’m unsure what’s being translated to indicate possession (or how this was understood at the time of it being written in Pali).

However, in terms of rules regarding use it must also be understood that all rules of the Vinaya arose in direct response to someone doing something, initially there were no rules. Therefore some things which may have been a complete given could have been technically not done even as no explicit rule is made against it. However, given the breadth of rules that do exist I’d contend that it’s awfully likely that at least one person during Buddha’s life did something akin to squatting. It then becomes important to understand the intention and context of the rules around fair use of land/buildings.

The main points of contention become: What is indicating a state of being abandoned? How is property/possession defined? Above we’ve seen plots of the woods claimed as one’s own. How does this apply in the context of monarchs/the state who lay claim to large swathes of land with little/no plans to utilize the land other than for the sake of ownership itself?

For example, as far as I know, there’s almost no land in the USA that isn’t technically owned by someone. Whether that’s a real estate company, various state agencies, companies or individuals. Making the direction to meditate in an abandoned house essentially impossible *if* we are taking any land/building which is legally someone or something’s property to not be abandoned. In cases like the Bureau of Land Management (which basically allows anyone to use the land for camping) that seems more a case of “home owner granting permission to use”.

Was there considered a distinction between possession and property? Possession being that which has immanent use (will be used/is planned to be actively used) such as one’s toothbrush, summer home, barn, grain store, etc. Property being something which is claimed as one’s own yet is not currently in use and is not planned to be used personally (real estate planning to be sold, undeveloped land with no plans, even a million cases of surplus toothbrushes).

To make this a bit more grounded, suppose one is wandering through the woods of the USA, traveling through a forest and finds a nice little area to make camp. They do so. However, legally that 30 acres of forest is owned by “Natural Homesteads Inc” yet has no pending buyers and no pending development plans. Is this example in violation of the Vinaya?

Let’s deal with these questions each in turn:

Indicating a state of being abandoned or unoccupied seems to be basically that there are no living beings of sufficient size actively using or residing in the location. This can include anything from ants to humans. We can add further that this would include future plans for use (such as a construction site). This does not necessarily mean that private property is off limits but that it must have immanent use by someone.

I am unsure if the Buddha explicitly made a distinction between possession and property (or personal vs private property). This is a well understood idea in Libertarian Left circles and the development of this idea may be predicated upon the widespread creation and enforcement of private property within capitalism.

In the context of the state (and at the time, monarchs) we can use the above distinction between personal possessions (homes, barns, etc.) and private property (undeveloped land with no plans or buildings and abandoned with no plans to revitalize or reuse). Making the usage of private property therefore permissible and the usage of possessions not.

However, it is important to take into account The Buddha’s teachings on following the secular law of the nation in which one resides, as certainly a commandment to “obey the law” would negate the above arguments. The closest thing to this is the following allowance:

“Now at that time King Seniya Bimbisāra of Magadha, desiring to postpone the rains, sent a messenger to the monks, saying: “What if the masters could enter upon the rains at the next full-moon day?” They told this matter to the Lord. He said: “I allow you, monks, to obey kings.”

Kd.3.4.3 , 1.13

Ven Thanissaro provides some context:

“In the Buddha’s time, the determination of the lunar calendar was one of the responsibilities of the government in each kingdom or republic. Thus, to avoid controversy, the Buddha allowed that the wishes of kings be respected in this matter: If a king wanted to postpone the designation of the Asalhi full moon another month, bhikkhus were allowed to comply. (The rule coming from this origin story is stated in more general terms—“I allow that kings be complied with”—showing the general principle… that the Buddha was not so foolish as to try to legislate for kings. The Commentary notes, however, that this principle applies only in matters in which the king’s wish is in line with the Dhamma. No one, it says, should be complied with in matters where their wishes are not in line with the Dhamma.)”

BMC2 Ch 11 par. 3, Emphasis mine

So it seems here that following the law is permissible when it contravenes minor rules, yet not permissible when the law contradicts Dhamma. How this distinction is to be made seems to be something which is based on individual context. In respect to squatting, one would have to demonstrate that the occupation of abandoned and unused buildings or land is a part of practicing the dhamma in line with the dhamma.