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.

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.

Not long afterwards, the case was tried anew by the Buddha, who sentenced Dhaniya to the penalty set for theft—expulsion from the Sangha.

The exemption of the Sangha from secular law reached its limit where it clashed with the security of the state. The kings did not allow the Orders to become refuges for those who had bound themselves to the service of the state. Thus king Bimbisara requested the Buddha to ban the ordination of soldiers, because members of his army had fled into the arms of the Sangha when he wanted to send them into action over a frontier dispute. He made his request, to which the Buddha at once consented, in a friendly way, but not without emphasis. His legal advisers had advised him that a single monk or a chapter of monks who ordained men liable to military service—so as to withdraw them from active service—should be punished by beheading, having their tongues torn out, or their ribs broken. Weakening the armed forces was considered such a severe crime that its organizer could not be saved from punishment even by his monastic status.

The Orders were also closely watched to ensure their political conformity. Any form of polemics, let alone action, against the state was something the kings and rajas would not put up with. They maintained extensive networks of spies and informers who also penetrated the Orders, and quickly reported anything that might harm the state. King Pasenadi once even gave the Buddha a description of how this spy network functioned. Nothing is known of any differences between the Buddhist Order and the state.

On the contrary, the Buddha, not least because of his own caste and upbringing, fulfilled all the expectations of the Kings of Magadha and Kosala. He ordered the monks to obey the kings and to avoid politics…. He bade the laity perform their duties toward the state and the community and to live in peace together, but beyond this he saw no necessity to act as a social reformer. The raising of living standards was a matter for the king and the local authorities; a monk’s duty was to strive for his own emancipation. Social activity, being involvement in secular affairs, was a hindrance to his proper task.

Thanks to Gotama’s clear delimitation of the spheres of activity, a triangular relationship was soon established between the king, the Sangha, and the laity: the people supported the Sangha by giving alms and the king by paying taxes; the Buddha and the Sangha reminded the king to rule justly and the people to live in peace and discipline; the king provided for the safety of the country, for impartial justice, and for material conditions for the population sufficient to enable them all to give alms. He had the exceptional opportunity to gain more than average religious merit by establishing parks, dams, tanks, wells, and homes. Though abuse of power by the ruler and his officials occurred, and some bhikkhus were too demanding on their alms-round, the majority of the population was sufficiently content with what the king and the Sangha did, not to rebel against church or state. As far as we can tell, people felt themselves to be neither exploited nor the victims of an unjust system. True, voices were occasionally heard raised against the “lazy scroungers” and “idle priests,” but these were more the result of momentary annoyance than of any general dislike towards monasticism.

The model adopted by the Buddha for the organizational structure of the Sangha was that of the republics north of the Ganges. Having been brought up in the center of power in one such republic, he had been familiar with the system of debates in the council chamber from an early age, and adopted this as a matter of course for the Sangha. He himself, as legislator and leader of the Order, resembled the raja of a republic, however with the difference that he had not been elected but, as founder of the Order, had automatically grown into its leadership.

Excerpted from The Historical Buddha (Arkana, 1989), first published in Germany, under the title Der historische Buddha (Eugen Diederichs Verlag, 1982) and translated by M. Walshe.