Case Study

How Buddism and Law are Interconnected

Avater User Author Bud & Prairie

Last update Dec 28, 2022

MY CLIENT directed me to the INTERCONNECTION between the BUDDHISM and LAW.

By Bud & Prairie


4 August, around that time, I met one of my Indian clients in his office. That was a magnificent office with various ancient decorations, where I could find a Teaching Buddha statue. He told me that wisdom, understanding and fulfilling destiny were represented in the Teaching Buddha statue, and that the Great Buddha was possibly the largest Buddha statue in India at the time and was consecrated on 18 November 1989 by the 14th Dalai Lama.

The client, an Indian lawyer, quickly directed me to the interconnection between the Buddhism and the law. He started with the definition of the law, then the life of Buddha and the interconnection between the two.

The client said that perhaps the best-known definition within the sociology of law community is that of Max Weber: “An order will be called law if it is externally guaranteed by the probability that coercion (physical or psychological), to bring about conformity or avenge violation, will be applied by a staff of people holding themselves specially ready for that purpose”. Similar definitions include Donald Black’s terse statement: “Law is governmental social control”. While these types of definitions have sometimes been attacked as employing a Westernized conception, appropriate for developed states but inappropriate for other societies, Hoebel advances a similar definition of law in all societies: “The really fundamental sine qua non of law in any society—primitive or civilized—is the legitimate use of physical coercion by a socially authorized agent”.

Then, he turned to the life story of the Buddha (the word ‘Buddha’ means the enlightened one or the awakened one) which begins in Lumbini, near the border of Nepal and India, about 2,600 years ago, where the man Siddharta Gautama was born. Although born a prince, he realized that conditioned experiences could not provide lasting happiness or protection from suffering. After a long spiritual search he went into deep meditation, where he realized the nature of mind. He achieved the state of unconditional and lasting happiness: the state of enlightenment, of buddhahood. This state of mind is free from disturbing emotions and expresses itself through fearlessness, joy and active compassion. For the rest of his life, the Buddha taught anyone who asked how they could reach the same state.

He added the five Laws of Buddhism cover the precepts which are commitments to abstain from killing living beings, stealing, sexual misconduct, lying and intoxication. Within the Buddhist doctrine, they are meant to develop mind and character to make progress on the path to enlightenment. Karma (which means “cosmic law and order”, as expressed by the teachings of the Buddha, and also the term for “phenomena” in Buddhist philosophy) is a Buddhist concept that can influence legal proceedings. The reason for an illegal occurrence in this lifetime could be found in one of several previous lives or in this life; the punishment of an illegal act in this life could occur in this life or in a future life. Studies of the use of karma as a rationale for not pursuing an injury case in a modern Thai city have demonstrated this.

“When Siddhārtha Gautama first sat under the pipal tree, law and justice were connected to the idea of dharma, the proper and natural development of the social and universal orders through morality and religious teaching. Siddhārtha Gautama was born heir apparent to the throne of the regional kingdom of Śākya in a time when princes were trained extensively in the Sanskrit smṛti legal literature, especially the Dharmaśāstras and the Dharmasūtras. He was taught the ritual and legal roles of a king who stood as the ultimate authority for maintaining the peaceful relations of his subjects. His turn away from his family obligations, from the opportunity to be king, and more specifically, from the administration of legal power was a personal renunciation but not an indicator of either a lack of interest in or a rejection of the importance of rules of conduct and social order. The enlightened Buddha conceived of society as having two parts—a monastic saṅgha seeking enlightenment through his teachings and a supportive patron laity that donated to the saṅgha to make merit. He began immediately to teach, collect disciples, and form the new monks into a social order by expounding the rules and requirements of the group. These rules were later collected and written down as the Vinaya Piṭaka. As a central Buddhist teaching and one third of the Tripiṭaka, the Vinaya provides us with the clearest information about the Buddha’s prescriptions as to the required behavior for ordained monastic practitioners.

There are at least four ways in which Buddhism interacts with law. First, Buddhism itself incorporates a monastic law code, the vinaya, and special disciplinary procedures for the monastic population. This code has been analyzed extensively and functions as a template for secular rules. Second, some regions have created Buddhist states following the example of AŚoka, an early Buddhist political leader. Sri Lanka, Bhutan, and Thailand are current examples. Third, Buddhism has been a significant social force in shaping the cultural attitudes toward law and the legal system in many Asian countries that are not Buddhist states. The time period and the local context from which Buddhism was exported to the country, as well as the local context into which it has been adopted, are all important factors. Fourth, when the local population reasons through the lens of Buddhism, the legal system can be significantly affected. The form of reasoning and the backdrop of the vinaya rules, as well as the foundational principles of Buddhism, such as karma (action), anitya (impermanence), causation, factoral reasoning, and right action, can all strongly affect a legal system.

The Prātimokṣa, or precepts, is a list of offenses in the Vinaya numbering from 218 to 263 for males and more for females. They range from the most serious—a violation of celibacy, theft, and intentional murder—to the least significant, concerning attire and walking style.

The Prātimokṣa also contains a list of the procedures for resolving legal disputes within the monastery itself. It outlines types of verdicts that are possible, the definition of innocence, seven ways to settle a case, the definition of a majority verdict, insanity pleas, and levels of culpability. The Khandhaka section of the Vinaya provides the working structure of the monastery, the rules by which the community is organized. It regulates the wearing and sewing of robes, types of food, drink, medicine, and times of eating and sleeping.

A category of the relationship between Buddhism and law is legal pluralism. Many modern states such as Sri Lanka, Vietnam, Laos, and Mongolia have layers of colonialism, fragmentation, ethnic struggles, and global influence that have resulted in particularized legal pluralisms.

Sri Lanka is an example, along with states such as Tibet, Burma, and Thailand, of areas that received Buddhist teachings from another country at the same time that they unified and developed advanced legal and administrative procedures. This is the first type of historical transmission of law that occurs in a Buddhist context. From this acculturation process evolved jurisprudential cultures, legal processes, rituals, and law codes that were heavily inspired by Buddhism. Recalling the reign of King Aśoka, the idea of the compassionate chakravartin, or wheel-turning king, often became the model for the ruler in these states.

The first king to unify Burma was King Anawrata of Bamar, who created a Buddhist capital at Pagan in 1057 ce. This Pali Buddhist king worked with monks to create the dhammasat and rajasat secular law codes based on Buddhist treatises, Hindu law, and the Sinhalese version of the Vinaya. In the following centuries, these law codes spread across what are now Burma, Thailand, Cambodia, and Laos, adapting to the local areas, languages, and spirit cults. In succeeding dynasties, especially under the Konbaung Empire (1752–1885), Burmese Buddhism moved down into the village level, with local monasteries taking over the functions of educating the youth, providing a standardized Buddhist ethical code, and unifying the country culturally and legally.

Interactions between Buddhism and law also occur when (1) basic Buddhist principles and reasoning processes, (2) Buddhist practices, rituals, and procedures, and (3) Buddhist ideas about legal subject matters such as murder, theft, inheritance, and land tenure are employed by the population when using the legal system. Finally, (4) Buddhist ideas can be captured in literature such as the jātaka tales of the former lives of the Buddha, in puppet plays, art, or numerous other aspects of culture and then influence the way in which a legal system operates.

Legal systems are strongly influenced by the foundational ideas that their participants employ, such as the concepts of causation, intention, cosmology, conflict, notions of the community, karma, compassion, identity and subjectivity, status, jurisdiction, sanctuary, shame, apology, and evil.

In pre-1960 Tibet, monastic ritual debate techniques were one of the foundations of legal argumentation. Specialists in monastic legal decision making were often appointed to represent a monastery in a secular civil suit. Also, ritual ceremonies of catharsis and apology often follow lawsuits in Tibet, Japan, and Burma. Criminal cases were assessed by the four factors of Nāgārjuna, a great Indian Buddhist scholar of the second century, who looked to the object of the action, the motivation of the actor, the action itself, and the completion of the act. These four factors were written into the Law Codes of the Dalai Lamas.

As the Buddha taught that each individual was an impermanent collection of ever changing physical and mental states, conditioning the person’s mind to a tranquil life and the dharma was often seen as the best form of punishment. Also, legal oaths were taken in front of artistic renderings of the Dalai Lama or the Buddha.”

The client gave me an overview of the Buddhism world, where we could find the interconnection between the Buddhism and the law. That’s amazing!

How did Buddhism affect the law and government?

As Buddhism spread from India to China and Japan, Pagan, and Sumatra, it had extensive influence on secular legal systems. Modern scholars have begun to look more seriously at this influence, as well as the operation of legal procedures within Buddhist monasteries and nunneries.

Buddha indicated a preference for democratic and representative forms of government. In his teachings and prescriptions, Buddha endorsed democratic principles such as citizen participation and free expression of opinion; deliberation, consultation, and consensus-building; voting and respect for popular consent; transparency via face-to-face meetings and public debate; primacy of the rule of law and limited government. We see these predilections in Buddha’s endorsement of republican principles in the sūtras and the incorporation of democratic principles into the rules governing Buddha’s own society of monks and nuns in the vinaya. Buddha’s teachings are directly relevant to contemporary politics and are compatible with the governance of a modern democratic state. Buddha’s political thinking parallels Western liberal-democratic thought with its emphasis on equal rights, protection against tyranny via equality before the law, and participatory and deliberative governance.

What are the main laws of Buddhism?

The Five Precepts
  • Refrain from taking life. Not killing any living being. …
  • Refrain from taking what is not given. Not stealing from anyone.
  • Refrain from the misuse of the senses. Not having too much sensual pleasure. …
  • Refrain from wrong speech. …
  • Refrain from intoxicants that cloud the mind.

In broad terms:

The Four Noble Truths are accepted by all schools of Buddhism and have been the subject of extensive commentary. They may be summarized as follows. The first truth, suffering (Pali: dukkha; Sanskrit: duhkha), is characteristic of existence in the realm of rebirth, called samsara (literally “wandering”);

In Buddhism, dharma is the doctrine, the universal truth common to all individuals at all times, proclaimed by the Buddha.

The idea of punishment goes against Buddhist ethics because it causes suffering. There are consequences for a person who acts in an unskilful way, their actions will lead to suffering both in the present and in their future lives. Buddhists believe everyone can change, no-one should every be beyond hope or redemption.

How many laws are there in Buddhism?

In the fundamental teachings of Buddhism, the Three Laws are: All things are impermanent. Nothing has an ego. Nirvana is quiescence.

Avater User

Bud & Prairie

We offer a full complement of services in all areas of IP law, including without limitation patents; trademarks; copyrights; industrial designs; IP litigation; anti-counterfeiting and enforcement; and licensing, due diligence, and contract review. Our strong technique fields include bio-chemistry, biotechnology, pharmaceutical, superconductor devices and systems, civil engineering, electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, electronics, computer software, telecommunications, information technology, communications, media, construction. Bud & Prairie boasts a team of highly-qualified lawyers, licensed patent and trademark agents, engineers, paralegals, technical staff and legal professionals whose knowledge, experience, and acumen are second to none. Most of our attorneys and consultants own advanced degrees from both domestic and foreign institutions. We have the depth of experience of our partners with a perfect combination of knowledge, foresight and creativity, making us possible to analyse and solve issues faced by clients from various industries and providing them with all-round or holistic solutions that are not only legally sound, but also commercially sensitiv


Advantages to Power

Our Borderless Teams

Expert & Experienced Team

Cost-Effective & Friendly Solutions

State-of-the-Art Technologies

Client-Oriented Approach

Network of 280+ Lawyers

Responsiveness & Flexibility