Hostname: page-component-5d59c44645-jqctd Total loading time: 0 Render date: 2024-02-22T22:04:31.267Z Has data issue: false hasContentIssue false

Buddhism and Constitutional Practice

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  02 August 2018

University of Otago, New
Get access


Image of the first page of this content. For PDF version, please use the ‘Save PDF’ preceeding this image.'
Article Commentary
© National University of Singapore, 2018 

Access options

Get access to the full version of this content by using one of the access options below. (Log in options will check for institutional or personal access. Content may require purchase if you do not have access.)



Associate Professor of Buddhism and Asian Religions and the Associate Dean (International), Humanities Division at the University of Otago, in New Zealand.


1. French, Rebecca R, ‘The Case of the Missing Discipline: Finding Buddhist Legal Studies’ (2004) 52 Buffalo Law Review 52 Google Scholar.

2. Among them: Ishii, Yoneo, Sangha, State, and Society (University of Hawai‘i Press 1986)Google Scholar; Harding, Andrew, ‘Buddhism, Human Rights and Constitutional Reform in Thailand’ (2007) 2 Asian Journal of Comparative Law 1 CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Whitecross, Richard W, ‘Buddhism and Constitutions in Bhutan’ in Rebecca Redwood French and Mark Nathan (eds), Buddhism and Law: An Introduction (CUP 2014) 350 CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Lee, Darius, ‘Here There Be Dragons! Buddhist Constitutionalism in the Hidden Land of Bhutan’ (2014) 15(1) Australian Journal of Asian Law Google Scholar Article No 2; Schonthal, Benjamin, Buddhism, Politics and the Limits of Law: The Pyrrhic Constitutionalism of Sri Lanka (CUP 2016)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Shah, Dian AH, Constitutions, Religion and Politics in Asia: Indonesia, Malaysia and Sri Lanka (CUP 2017)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

3. Take, for example, the revision of Thailand’s constitution. As of two years ago, the Thai constitution (promulgated in 2007) pledged only a commitment to ‘patronize and protect’ Buddhism while promoting ‘the good understanding and harmony’ among all religions (art 79). Since April 2017, Thailand’s new Constitution has eliminated reference to other religions and given the state strict responsibilities towards the majority faith. Beyond simply recognizing Buddhism special status in Thailand, the new Article 67 obligates the state to ‘promote and support the education and dissemination of the dhammic principles of Theravada Buddhism’, while also adding prohibiting the ‘undermining of Buddhism in any form’.

4. Schonthal, Benjamin and Ginsburg, Tom, ‘Setting an Agenda for the Socio-Legal Study of Contemporary Buddhism’ (2016) 3(1) Asian Journal of Law and Society 1 CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Schonthal, Benjamin, ‘Securing the Sasana through Law: Buddhist Constitutionalism and Buddhist-Interest Litigation in Sri Lanka’ (2016) 50(6) Modern Asian Studies 1966 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

5. Schonthal, Benjamin, ‘Formations of Buddhist Constitutionalism in South and Southeast Asia’ (2017) 15(3) International Journal of Constitutional Law 2 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

6. Indeed, one finds questions in all three cases a number of other influences common to the history of religion and law within southern Asia: influences of (direct and indirect) colonialization, nationalism, populist and elite politics, ideologies of communism and (neo)liberalism, and struggles to ‘indigenize’ Western legal traditions

7. See eg Tierney, Brian, Religion, Law, and the Growth of Constitutional Thought, 1150-1650 (CUP 1982)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Berman, Harold J, Law and Revolution, the Formation of the Western Legal Tradition (Harvard University Press 1983)Google Scholar; Berman, Harold J, Law and Revolution, II: The Impact of the Protestant Reformations on the Western Legal Tradition (Harvard University Press 2006)Google Scholar; Amir Arjomand, Saïd, ‘Islamic Constitutionalism’ (2007) 3 Annual Review of Law and Social Science 115 CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Brown, Nathan J, ‘Egypt: Cacophony and Consensus in the Twenty-First Century’ in Robert W Hefner (ed), Shari’a Politics: Islamic Law and Society in the Modern World (Indiana University Press 2011)Google Scholar.

8. In addition to the works cited above, see Emon, Anver, ‘The Limits of Constitutionalism in the Muslim World: History and Identity in Islamic Law’ in Sujit Choudhry (ed), Constitutional Design for Divided Societies (OUP 2008) 258 Google Scholar; Agrama, Hussein, ‘Secularism, Sovereignty, Indeterminacy: Is Egypt a Secular or a Religious State’ (2010) 52(3) Comparative Studies in Society and History 495 CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Lombardi, Clark B, ‘Constitutional Provisions Making Sharia “A” or “The” Chief Source of Legislation: Where Did They Come From? What Do They Mean? Do They Matter?’ (2013) 28(3) American University International Law Review 733 Google Scholar; Quraishi-Landes, Asifa, ‘Islamic Constitutionalism: Not Secular. Not Theocratic. Not Impossible.’ (2015) 16 Rutgers Journal of Law and Religion 553 Google Scholar.

9. Eugénie Mérieau, ‘Buddhist Constitutionalism in Thailand: When Rājadhammā Supersedes the Constitution’, this Special Issue.

10. On this topic, see eg Baker, Chris and Phongpaichit, Pasuk (trs), The Palace Law of Ayutthaya and the Thammasat: Law and Kingship in Siam (Cornell University Press 2016)CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

11. Schonthal, Benjamin, ‘The Legal Regulation of Buddhism in Contemporary Sri Lanka’ in Rebecca French and Mark Nathan (eds), Buddhism and Law: An Introduction (CUP 2014)Google Scholar; Ashin, Janaka and Crosby, Kate, ‘Heresy and Monastic Malpractice in the Buddhist Court Cases (Vinicchaya) of Modern Burma (Myanmar)’ (2017) 18(1) Contemporary Buddhism 199 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

12. It must be recalled, as well, that constitutional law in these settings was not introduced as a replacement to royal law but to colonial laws, meaning that at the time of their inception, the links with dhammarāja ideals had already been broken.

13. See eg Eugene Smith, Donald, Religion and Politics in Burma (Princeton University Press 1965 Google Scholar, pbk repr 2015); Kemper, Steven, The Presence of the Past: Chronicles, Politics, and Culture in Sinhala Life (Cornell University Press 1991)Google Scholar; van der Horst, Josine, Who Is He, What Is He Doing: Religious Rhetoric and Performances in Sri Lanka during R. Premadasa’s Presidency (1989-1993) (VU University Press 1995)Google Scholar; Manor, James, The Expedient Utopian: Bandaranaike and Ceylon (CUP 2009)Google Scholar.

14. Deegalle, Mahinda, ‘Politics of the Jathika Hela Urumaya Monks: Buddhism and Ethnicity in Contemporary Sri Lanka’ (2004) 5(2) Contemporary Buddhism 83 CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Schonthal, Benjamin and Walton, Matthew J, ‘The (New) Buddhist Nationalisms? Symmetries and Specificities in Sri Lanka and Myanmar’ (2016) 17(1) Contemporary Buddhism 81 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

15. Schonthal, ‘Securing the Sasana through Law’ (n 4).

16. One study that takes some steps in this direction for the study of Myanmar is Nick Cheesman, Opposing the Rule of Law (CUP 2015) 28–36.

17. Jeyaraja Tambiah, Stanley, World Conqueror and World Renouncer: A Study of Buddhism and Polity in Thailand against a Historical Background (CUP 1976)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Gunawardena, RALH, Robe and Plough: Monasticism and Economic Interest in Early Medieval Sri Lanka (Arizona University Press 1979)Google Scholar; Harris, Ian (ed), Buddhism and Politics in Twentieth-Century Asia (Continuum 1999)Google Scholar.

18. Schonthal, ‘Formations of Buddhist Constitutionalism’ (n 5) 714–15.

19. Nyi Nyi Kyaw, ‘Religion of the State or Religion of the Nation? Religion and Textual and Contextual Constitutionalism in Buddhist Myanmar’ (Religion and Constitutional Practices in Asia Conference, Colombo, 9-10 November 2017).

20. Schonthal, Buddhism, Politics and the Limits of Law (n 2) chs 4 and 6.

21. Maung Maung Than, Tin, ‘The “Sangha” and “Sasana” in Socialist Burma’ (1988) 3(1) Sojourn: Journal of Social Issues in Southeast Asia 26 CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Maung Maung Than, Tin, ‘Sangha Reforms and the Renewal of Sasana in Myanmar’ in Trevor Ling (ed), Buddhist Trends in Southeast Asia (Institute of Southeast Asian Studies 1993)Google Scholar; Tosa, Keiko, ‘The Sangha and Political Acts: Secularization in a Theravada Buddhist Society’ (2017) 44 (3-4) Internationales Asienforum 271 Google Scholar.

22. For example, if one looks historically at the development of the Sangha Acts in Thailand over the last 100 years – from the royally promulgated versions to most recent ones – one sees gradual attempts on the part of the government to order, centralize, and control the monastic hierarchy of the country. Using these Acts, Thai governments have tried to manufacture a Buddhist Pope in the form of a national ‘sangha king’ (Pali sangharāja) who, in principle if not always in practice, can speak as the paramount authority for Buddhism.

23. For an amazing account of this fact in colonial Burma, see Kirichenko, Alexey, ‘The Thathanabaing Project: Monastic Hierarchies and Colonialism in Burma’ in Thomas Borchert (ed), Theravada Buddhism in Colonial Contexts (Routledge 2018) ch 8 Google Scholar.

24. Gehan Gunatilleke, ‘The Constitutional Practice of Ethno-Religious Violence in Sri Lanka’, this Special Issue.

25. Here I have in mind the genre of Buddhist literature called lineage texts (vamsa-s). See eg Walters, Jonathan S, ‘Buddhist History: The Sri Lankan Pāli Vamsas and Their Commentary’ in Ronald B Inden et al (eds), Querying the Medieval: Texts and the History of Practices in South Asia (Oxford University Press 2000) 90 Google Scholar.

26. For a recent example of the use of sāsana histories in Myanmar see Matthew J Walton, ‘Religion and Violence in Myanmar’ Foreign Affairs (New York, 6 November 2017), <> accessed 21 April 2018.

27. On religion in the liberal imaginary, see Sullivan, Winnifred F, The Impossibility of Religious Freedom (Princeton University Press 2005)Google Scholar; Mahmood, Saba, ‘Secularism, Hermeneutics, and Empire: The Politics of Islamic Reformation’ (2006) 18(2) Public Culture 323 CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Salomon, Noah, ‘The Ruse of Law: Legal Equality and the Problem of Citizenship in Multi-Religious Sudan’ in Winnifred Fallers Sullivan, Robert A Yelle and Mateo Taussig-Rubbo (eds), After Secular Law (Stanford University Press 2011) 200 Google Scholar; Shakman Hurd, Elizabeth, Beyond Religious Freedom (Princeton University Press 2015)Google Scholar.

28. Sāsana comes from the verbal root śas, meaning to instruct, and which, by extension, comes to stand in for everything that the Buddha instructed. On the sāsana and religion contrast see: Malalgoda, Kitsiri, ‘Concepts and Confrontations: A Case Study of Agama’ in Michael Roberts (ed), Sri Lanka Collective Identities Revisited (Marga Institute Press 1997) 55 Google Scholar; Marie Turner, Alicia, Saving Buddhism: The Impermanence of Religion in Colonial Burma (University of Hawai‘i Press 2014)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Ross Carter, John, ‘A History of “Early Buddhism”’ (1997) 13(3) Religious Studies 263 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

29. Choudhry, Sujit, The Migration of Constitutional Ideas (CUP 2006)Google Scholar; Kumarasingham, Harshan, Constitution Maker: Selected Writings of Sir Ivor Jennings (CUP 2014)Google Scholar; Hussin, Iza, ‘Circulations of Law: Cosmopolitan Elites, Global Repertoires, Local Vernaculars’ (2014) 32(4) Law and History Review 773 CrossRefGoogle Scholar.