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Judging in the Buddha’s Court: A Buddhist Judicial System in Contemporary Asia

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  15 September 2020

Benjamin Schonthal*
University of Otago


Drawing on textual and ethnographic research conducted over the last five years, this article analyses an important genre of judicial practice in South and Southeast Asia that has been almost entirely ignored by socio-legal scholars: Buddhist systems of judging. Using the judicial system of one monastic group in contemporary Sri Lanka as a case-study, it argues that Buddhist judging requires more than just the internalization of moral principles, as is often assumed. According to Buddhist (monastic) principles of judging, legal procedures—similar to those used in state legal settings—are equally essential. These procedures govern everything from making legal complaints, to the structuring of trials, to determining jurisdiction, and many other topics. By examining Buddhist judicial systems, this article not only casts new light on the pluri-legal landscape of Asia; it also offers new reflections on the intersection of religion-based and state-based systems of law in the contemporary world.

Judging and Judgment in Contemporary Asia
© The Author(s), 2020. Published by Cambridge University Press on behalf of Asian Journal of Law and Society

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The author is grateful to David Engel and two anonymous reviewers for their very helpful feedback on drafts as well as to Prof. Asanga Tilakaratne, Ven. Raluwe Padmasiri, Bandara Herath, Dinushka Peiris, Amali Priyadarshani, Dinithi Ranasinghe, Tilak Jayatilaka, and Iromi Perera for their support and guidance during various phases of the project. Appreciation also goes to Deane Galbraith for editorial help. A significant debt of gratitude is owed to judges and judicial officials in the Rāmañña Nikāya for sharing their thoughts and time so generously with me. The research for this article was made possible by the Marsden Fund of the Royal Society of New Zealand, Grant Number OU01514.


Associate Professor of Buddhism and Asian Religions in the School of Social Sciences at the University of Otago in New Zealand. Correspondence to Ben Schonthal, PO Box 56, Dunedin 9054, New Zealand. E-mail address:



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