As the son of a raja, Siddhattha had grown up in a household where political and legal questions were daily topics. He had attended dozens of sessions in the assembly and had been present at numerous trials. Thus he had gained a considerable knowledge of legal matters. Although politics and jurisprudence were not central to his thinking, which was essentially concerned with philosophical matters, nevertheless he was more proficient in law than the other leading teachers of his time, and this knowledge was of great assistance to him for the consolidation of his Order. There were two legal areas in which it was necessary to establish regulations: the relation of the Sangha to the state and society, and the internal law of the Order, which sets up a code of behavior for monks and nuns and stipulates the penalties for misconduct.

The kings respected the Orders (gana, sangha) as autonomous corporations with their own legal code outside secular jurisdiction. Bimbisara of Magadha issued express instructions to his officials to take no action against mendicants of the Buddha’s Order who might commit offenses. Two cases recorded in the Pali canon make clear this exemption from secular justice.

A woman of the Licchavi tribe had committed adultery. Since her husband, when he found out, received permission from the tribal council to kill her, she fled to Savatthi, taking with her some articles of value, and succeeded by bribery in being accepted into the Buddhist order of nuns. Thereupon her husband appealed to King Pasenadi, but the king decided that since the woman had become a nun, no further steps could be taken against her.

Image: Buddha preaching the Law to his disciples, from The Caves of the Thousand Buddhas (George Braziller). (c) 1990 The British Museum.
Image: Buddha preaching the Law to his disciples, from The Caves of the Thousand Buddhas (George Braziller). (c) 1990 The British Museum.

 

The second case is that of the monk Dhaniya, who, wishing to build himself a hut, took some planks away from King Bimbisara’s royal timber store, telling the overseer that he had special permission from the king. The case was brought before Bimbisara’s court in Rajagaha. The king declared that the permission he had once given to the monks referred unmistakably to uncut timber lying in the woods. Dhaniya was well aware of this, and for his deception deserved flogging, prison, or banishment. However, in view of his clerical status, he, Bimbisara, would refrain from imposing any punishment and merely give the defendant a solemn warning.

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