Are Buddhist monks above the law of the land? (A lawyer’s/Buddhist’s point of view)

Supreme Court is not exactly the place show solidarity. However, if somebody opts to do so, nothing will stop them.

In the aftermath of 1971 insurrection, a group of (old) JVP hardcores demonstrated their loyalty to the party by rising not at the entry of the judge, but of their supreme leader Rohana Wijeweera sahodaraya the great to the court room. They were promptly banned from observing the subsequent proceedings.

Last Friday, the history repeated. A group of Buddhist monks saw no need to rise for the judges – who on an earlier date have ordered the remand one of their ilk. They were asked to leave the room to return, but that direction went unheeded.

Anuradha Ratnaweera, a fellow blogger, who maintained a deafening silence when Buddhist monks were tear gassed, baton charged and physically assaulted till they vomit by the Sri Rohana Janaranjana Rajapakse regime few months back, for conducting a peaceful unarmed protest, now sees this incident as an insult.

He questions whether Bhikkus should be made to rise at the entry of (lay) judges.

Let me try to answer, as a lawyer and a Buddhist.

Firstly, our feudal beliefs only make us think showing respect to another makes one inferior. That is not so. In Western universities professors sometimes address their students ‘Sir’ or ‘Madam’. Government officials address every citizen respectfully. That does not make them any inferior.

Secondly, one rises at the beginning of the court proceedings to show respect not to the judges – but to the judiciary. Shouldn’t we show some respect to the body that we trust to offer justice?

Thirdly, everybody has a domain. It is stupid to expect the same level of respect outside that domain.

Let me take an example from the President Mahinda Rajapakse himself. On one New Year occasion (when the country was not at such a mess) we saw him offering ‘bulath atha’ and kneeling down in front of his elder brother Minister Chamal Rajapakse according to the traditional Sinhalese customs.

Why don’t we question the appropriateness of the Executive President of the land kneeling down in front of one of his own ministers?

The simple answer is although he is the President in one domain, the moment he comes to ‘Maha gedara’ for New Year celebrations, he becomes another member of the family. In that domain he is expected to show respect to elders, irrespective who they are.

Similarly, the court is not the domain of Bhikkus. The court does not see the differences between priests and laymen. (That is why no white sheets cover their chairs) So in the same manner that any judge is expected to remove footwear at the entry of the temple (that is irrespective of his/her religion) a Bhikku is expected to rise when the judge enters. If any Bhikku does not want to do so, he can remain at the temple and save the trouble.

Interestingly, Buddhist monks normally follow a ‘trick’ to avoid any confrontation. Instead of staying in the court room, they enter the room after the judge(s) take chairs. That circumvents any conflict between the religion and the law.

This incident, to say the least is a bad precedent. It should not have happened. Nobody says laws are perfect. They are made by imperfect human beings. Still this is not the way to protest a law.

After all, the Ministry of Environment is headed by the lay leader of a very much pro-Buddhist, pro-Bhikku political party. If they do not like the noise pollution laws why not put some pressure on the Ministry to change them?

(PS: One point I fully agree with Anuradha is his observation that the judgments should not be based on the behavior of the public in the court room.)

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23 thoughts on “Are Buddhist monks above the law of the land? (A lawyer’s/Buddhist’s point of view)

  1. Since my name is mentioned in the blog, I am compelled to answer.

    First, tell me, as a lawyer, can a Judge change his decision based on the behavior of the audience? Can the “mistakes” done by the audience add to the punishment of a defendant, even if the audience is his own family?

    My blog post clearly says, multiple times, that everyone is under the law. It clearly indicates my liking that the defendant should be punished.

    I agree that the “trick” of coming to the courtroom after the judges is a neat way to solve the problem. No doubt about that.

    As this case was related to the religion, the monks can’t simply mind their own business back in their temples.

    We can’t seperate the world into absolute domains. You can bring examples to support and oppose it. Contrary to Mahida Rajapaksa explample you have mentioned, don’t you remember Chandrika Bandaranaike knelt down in front of her mother (the then prime minister) just after swearing in as the president? This was at office, not at “maha gedara”.

    About the tear gas incident, do you think that the monks behaved appropriately? After staying in a University for four years, I know that the “monks” there don’t behave like monks. Go to any “bhikshu nivasaya” of a University after 8 and see how many of them are “picking flowers” after 8? Don’t expect me to defend their behaviour.

    As far as I heard, and saw in a TV channel, a policeman very respectfully spoke to a monk and asked a few representatives to go and meet the president. And I also saw a monk hitting his breast and screamed “ඇයි අපි කවුද?”. Now that’s not monk-like behavior.

    So please don’t try to compare the incidents. In one incident, a set of monks were sitting in a courtroom. In the second one, they were screaming on the road (look at the monks in Burma who are protesting, how monk-like they are), and picturing an different image of Buddhism to the world.

    So, don’t expect the same kind of response from me to both incidents.

  2. “As this case was related to the religion, the monks can’t simply mind their own business back in their temples.”

    As far as I see, the incident per se has nothing to do with religion. One individual has broken the law and the legal procedure follows.

    If something has to do anything with the religion it is the noise pollution laws and NOT the incident. I do not expect everybody to be happy with the laws. But if they are not happy, there is a process to modify laws. Court room is not the place to protest. Judiciary theoretically does not impose laws, it only sees them executed.

    So undisciplined behavior in the court room will not solve any problems.

    Also please note all the monks note involved in this incident have political motivations. Their sole intention is to get some free publicity out of it for their political movements. It will only complicate matters.

    If there is a protest that should be against the law and NOT against the legal procedures. I am happy the Mahanayake of Asgiriya chapter has fully reliased it.

  3. Please note that I have no concerns about the case itself. It is perfectly alright.

    As a Buddhist, I also believe that this incident should never have happened. If there are two highly respected entities in the society, the question “who is most respected” is a very dangerous one to ask. As you had mentioned in the blog post, if the monks continued to use the said “trick”, this would never become an issue.

    So yes, certain questions are best left unanswered, and “should monks get up when the judges arrive?” is one, a very dangerous one for that matter.

    Unfortunately the incident has come to pass, when we have more important things to worry about. And it has raised that very dangerous question which should never been asked. I personally think that it should have an answer “no”.

  4. “So undisciplined behavior in the court room will not solve any problems.”

    I am not sure if being seated is undisciplined behavior. Screaming and kicking (like the so called “monks” involved in the tear gas incident) can IMHO.

    “If there is a protest that should be against the law and NOT against the legal procedures.”

    Why not?

  5. One last point:

    “PS: One point I fully agree with Anuradha is his observation that the judgments should not be based on the behavior of the public in the court room.”

    Ajith, why don’t you elaborate one this one as well? After all, the law and judgment itself is more important than proceedings.

  6. “I am not sure if being seated is undisciplined behavior.”

    Of course, they clearly show their disrespect to judiciary. They seem to think they are above the law and deserve special treatment. What else the message they want to pass?

    Any law abiding citizen should sympathise that section of Buddhist monks have fallen down to this low level. In addition to questioning the highest court of law they behave in a manner not expected by Buddhist monks by any Buddhist.

    “Screaming and kicking (like the so called “monks” involved in the tear gas incident)”

    I have no special reason to defend the monks involved in street protests who are mainly JVP suporters. However in a democracy anyone has a right to engage in peaceful protests in streets. (but not in court rooms) If they are not behaving in the monk-manner it is their supervisor monks and Buddhists in general should take care of that. Police has no right to tear gas because they behave in the manner not expected by monks.

    Street and court room are two entirely different places. One should know the difference.

    “Ajith, why don’t you elaborate one this one as well? After all, the law and judgment itself is more important than proceedings.”

    Nothing to elaborate. Why should the behavior of a third party matter?

  7. “So yes, certain questions are best left unanswered, and “should monks get up when the judges arrive?” is one, a very dangerous one for that matter.”

    I disagree. Anybody who comes to seek justice should first respect the judiciary. It is not the judges one respect. It is the judiciary system.

    Priest or not, everyone is same in front of the law. There are no special treatments. We are no more living in feudal times. This is the modern society.

  8. Country’s law equal to all including clergy – Asgiri Mahanayake Thera

    by Cyril Wimalasurendre

    Most Ven. Udugama Sri Buddharakkitha Mahanayake Thera of Asgiriya found fault with the members of the Sangha for the episode in Supreme Court where a monk was remanded and bail refused.

    Most Ven. Buddharakkitha Mahanayake Thera speaking from the chair at an educational meeting at the Asgiriya Maha Pirivena yesterday said that the country’s law was equal to all irrespective of the status of clergy or laymen.

    He said, the recent unpleasant incident in the Supreme Court erupted as the monks failed to follow the conventional procedure in a court house by rising and courtesying the judges when they entered.

    The courts of law must be respected by every one be they laymen or sangha. Paying respect to the court does not mean paying respect to the judges but it is respect to the institution, the Maha Nayake Thero said.

    Even the Speaker of Parliament pays his regard to the mace. If sangha fail to follow the conventions and law and order of the country, they too have to suffer the consequences, the prelate stressed.

    The Sangha must be disciplined and law-abiding and be a category that refrained from committing acts of disrespect, the prelate further said.

    The prelate said that some groups accuse the Mahanayake Theros that they did not speak on behalf of the monks who fell in difficulties like the one that took place in the courts of law recently. “But, we are not able to safeguard monks when they do wrong,”the prelate said.

    The Mahanayake Thera said that the manner in which some young monks behaved in some institutions and universities, was very unpleasant and painful. Some young monks belonged to mob type unruly elements.

    They forget that their parents offered them to the Order (Sasana) with much aspirations, he said.

    The Mahanayake Thero lauded the contribution to education of the young monks by the Asgiriya Maha Vihara Pirivena.

    Ven. Galagama Attadassi Anunayake Thera of Asgiriya, Ven. Daranagama Kusaladhamma and Ven. Narampanawe Ananda Nayake Theros, Public Administration and Home Affairs Minister Deshamanya Karu Jayasuriya, Deputy Minister of Land and Land Development Chandrasiri Sooriyaarachchi and Principal, Gateway College, Kandy Asoka Herath were present among others.

    http://www.island.lk/2008/09/07/news25.html

  9. If the monks continue to behave badly people might expose more vicious deeds. Buddhist or any other denomination, basic human weaknesses are prevalent among majority of priests. Hence they must be kept subject to due diligence, to protect the gullible public.

  10. The court has issued a decision based on the behaviour of the audience. Talk about earning respect.

    Should a monk pay respect to a set of judges and always remind that they are below the low? If they won’t, will it put them above the law? No!

    Order of power and venerability should not necessary be the same.

    Here is an analogy. The Military Police is a unit in the army who can check anyone in the army for discipline related matters, even a General. At Military Police check points, they stop officer vehicles, salute them, check them afterwards where the office should obey the Military Poiliceman, and again salutes the officer afterwards.

    Saluting the officer mean that he is above the law exercised by the Military police. Respect and power are two independent things.

    So any arguments “monks are also below the law” is not relevant. Not paying so called “respect” to the court does not put them above the law.

  11. “Saluting the officer mean that he is above the law exercised by the Military police. Respect and power are two independent things.”

    Correction: Saluting the officer does not mean that he is above the law exercised by the Military policeman. Respect and power are two independent things.

  12. I think I have repeatedly told the respect for judiciary and NOT for judges.

    Clear cut social strata exists only in feudal societies. Modern society respects more for institutions rather than individuals. It is all a case of hats people wear. It is the hat that gets the respect, not the individual under it.

    Military has an entirely different hierarchical set up for obvious reasons. That cannot be compared with anything in the open society.

    The problem in Sri Lanka is a set of monks, because of the recently earned political influence try to gain some undue share of power (that they don’t deserve) thru a dubious mix of politics and religion.

    Sorry, we cannot let that happen. This is not Afghanistan and we cannot let Talibans take control. They need to be shown their proper place.

  13. “Here is an analogy. The Military Police is a unit in the army who can check anyone in the army for discipline related matters, even a General. At Military Police check points, they stop officer vehicles, salute them, check them afterwards where the office should obey the Military Poiliceman, and again salutes the officer afterwards.”

    So probably you might have liked the judges to fist worship Kelaniye Buddharakkhitha and Talduwe Somarama, then issue capital punishment for assassinating Bandaranaike and then worship them again. Right?

    Is this some kind of a joke?

  14. Ajith, Anuradha,

    Whther you like it or not, we are heading for a Buddhist-Taliban rule. MR is in the B-T’s side for political reasons and even others will ultimately submit to the bloody B-T. They will never be defant against B-T again because he will be having a hard time now onwards from B-T. See what happened to Managala after saying that Sangha report should be thrown out. Ultimately he gave into B-T. Likewise, same thing will happen now too. We all will lose our freedom and Taliban will mess family planning (See Rawaya) and be against romance, sex, entertainment, siting ethics but they will enjoy everything in temples and while abroad. So, there should be a brave movement against this BT. Now somebody gave a good start and rest of others should take it forward. It is the BT who messed all peace attempts in this country throughout the history fearing they lose their recognition. They are a menace to the country. We don’t need this BT to protect Buddhism. Buddhism will be protected by itself since it is a scientific vision. If any protection should be done, it is from this BT mafia that the Buddhism should be protected.

  15. I appreciate if you can select pen-names not related to a religion, because it creates a wrong impression – that is unless you are a real Mullah.

    In any country the religion of the majority receives a higher position than other religions. That we all understand and I have nothing against it. Sri Lanka is a ‘Buddhist country’ in the same sense that Japan, Thailand, Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia are Buddhist countries. Buddhists constitute the most significant religious group in our society. No more, no less.

    However yes, that does not mean the majority has to behave in the Talibanic manner to preserve that position.

    My position is Buddhism is strong enough to stand on its own feet without any political crutches.

  16. “So probably you might have liked the judges to fist worship Kelaniye Buddharakkhitha and Talduwe Somarama, then issue capital punishment for assassinating Bandaranaike and then worship them again. Right?

    “Is this some kind of a joke?”

    It would definitely be some kind of a joke, if happens that way.

    The defendant is considered innocent *before* the trial, but after being sentenced guilty, he will cease to be a monk because he is proven to fail to hold to his Upasampada.

    Even better if the monk himself can give up “Cheewaraya” temporarily to stand trial. There was a nice Sinhala movie “Adhishtana” where a monk was accused of being the father of an unborn child, and he leaves temple and stays at home without the “Cheewaraya” until his innocence is proven.

    Anyway, please note that we are talking about the monks in the audience.

  17. අනේ අම්මපල්ලා මුන්ට මොළේ කළඳක් නැති හැටි.

    අපේ උන්නාන්සෙලට එහෙම එක එකාට ඕනැ විඩේට නැඟිට්ට හැකියැ. මොකද යටට කියලා අමුඩ කෙටියක් වත් අඳින එකක්යැ. හොළවා හොළවා නෙවැ එන්නෙ. ඒ සංගදියෙ ඔය උසාවියට මංගැච්චුව විසේකාර ගැටිස්සියක් හෙම ඇහැ ගැටිලා විපරියාසියක් හෙම උනොත් නඩුකාර හාංදුරුවො අහයි උසාවියෙ කූඩාරං ගහනවද කියල.

    අර උන්නාන්සෙල ගැන දන්න අනුරාද කොලුවට තමා ඕව තේරෙන්නෙ. මූලදරුමවාදීන් ඕව දන්න එකක්යැ.

  18. මා නම් සිතන්නේ දිනපතා නැගෙන සද්ද නම් උවමනා ම නැහැ කියලයි. මුල් කාලේ මුස්ලිම්
    පල්ලි වල තමයි මේ දෙය තිබුනේ. පන්සල් වලට බෝ වුනේ මේ මෑතක දී. සමහර විට තරඟයට
    වෙන්නත් ඇති. බුදු රඳුන් ගේ බණ නම් කෙසේ වත් පරිසරය කෙලෙසීමක් නොව, පරිසරය
    පිබිදීමක්. පිරිත් පවා අපට දැනෙන්නේ එය ඇසීමට වඩා ඒ හා සමඟ සජ්ඣායනා කිරීමෙන්
    බව මගේ අදහසයි. එවිට මිනිස් කට හඬ නිසා නැගෙන සද්දය, යන්තර හරහා නැගෙනා කෘතිම
    හඬට වඩා පිවිතුරු නොවෙද?

    තවද, නීතිය සහ සඟරුවන ගැන පැනය නම් ඉහත සඳහන් වූ පරිද්දෙන් ම, සංඝාධිකරණයකින්
    විසදෙනවා නම් හොඳ යැයි මටත් සිතේ. උදාහරණයකට යුද සෙබලුන් යුධ නීතියට
    (යුධාධිකරණකය) මෙන්ම සිවිල් නීතියට ද බැඳේ. මෙවැනි සුලු නීති බිඳ දැමීම් මෙන්ම
    සමහර තැනෙක සමහර චීවර දරන්නන්, මිනී මැරුම්, සහ ස්ත්‍රී කෙලෙසීම් පවා කළ සැටි
    පුවත් පතෙක පලවෙයි. මොවුන් පලමු කොට මෙවැනි සංඝාධිකරණයකින් සිවුරු ඉවත් කොට
    සිවිල් උසාවිය වෙත යැවිය යුතු නොවෙද? අපගේ ත්‍රිවිධ රත්නය රැක ගැනුම අප මහත්
    වෙහෙසක් යොදවාම කළ යුතු වේ.

  19. “නීතිය සහ සඟරුවන ගැන පැනය නම් ඉහත සඳහන් වූ පරිද්දෙන් ම, සංඝාධිකරණයකින්
    විසදෙනවා නම් හොඳ යැයි මටත් සිතේ”

    Eeta wada honday horage ammagen pena ehewwanam

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