Fascinating story on the evolution of temple laws from colonial days

Dr. Wickrema Weerasooria’s book ‘Buddhist Ecclesiastical Law’

On Tuesday, February 15, the Postgraduate Institute of Management (PIM) will be launching ‘Buddhist Ecclesiastical Law’, authored by the well known lawyer and academic Dr. Wickrema Weerasooria. The guests of honour are Ven. Professor Bellanwila Wimalaratne Thera, Chancellor, University of Sri Jayewardenepura, Chief Justice Asoka de Silva and Former Attorney General, Acting Chief Justice and Supreme Court Judge Rajah Wanasundera.

The author Dr. Wickrema Weerasooria will outline the contents of this book and the reason for writing it and its objectives. The book provides a comprehensive coverage of the subject of Buddhist Law in Sri Lanka. Consisting of over 850 pages of 30 chapters the text will be a guide not only to Sri Lankan lawyers and judges but to global scholars as well.

Buddhist scholar Dr. Ananda Guruge in his foreword states:

As an author of over 54 texts on Buddhism, education, history and culture, I can myself confidently state that there is no other single book in the world similar to this text which is over 850 pages of 30 chapters on the subject of Buddhist ecclesiastical law. Such a book can only be written in Sri Lanka where Buddhist temporalities have been subject to the legal process for nearly two centuries. In that context, this scholarly text is a global first and since it is written in English it will be of immense benefit and knowledge to all Westerners interested in Buddhism and as to how secular and temporal affairs relating to Buddhism were managed in modern times.

As we all know Sri Lanka (or Ceylon as the country was called prior to 1972) has been the repository and custodian of pure Theravada Buddhism for now over 2600 years. When the British got possession of the entire island in March 1815, they gave a solemn oath at the famous Convention held in Kandy in March of that year (well-known as the Kandyan Convention) “to protect and safeguard the religion of Buddhoo with all its rites and ceremonies etc” as had been earlier done by the country’s kings. The British did this despite vehement criticism that a Christian monarch (first George III and then Queen Victoria) should not be the Protector of “a heathen or pagan religion”.

The contents of Dr. Weerasooria’s text appear to have originated from three major issues the British faced in Ceylon. Firstly, the necessity for them to settle disputes relating to succession to the chief priesthood or head of a Buddhist temple, where the incumbent died. In earlier times, the King had performed this duty and appointed the successor. Secondly, the temples owned vast amounts of land (temporalities) donated to them by the King or other wealthy chiefs or even average people.

By tradition, temple property was exempt from all taxation or any form of revenue collection. The British did not mind this but they found abuses where non – temple lands were being classified as temple lands to avoid taxes and levies. Thirdly, the British found that some Buddhist monks were not capable of managing temple lands (some because of old age), and cases of abuse were not uncommon. Hence the plea was to appoint lay trustees. Thus, the main issues to be addressed were, the appointment of incumbents or Viharadipathis to temples, the proper classification and registration of temple land, the collection of revenue and the prevention of abuse in the management of temples.
Also, the enlightened legal and judicial system established by the British from 1833 and the abolition that year of Rajakariya (or service by the people to the King and the Chiefs) and its impact on the feudal systems of land tenure – all resulted in considerable litigation.

In deciding the disputes so litigated, the Englishmen who were then the Judges administering justice applied “customary law” as explained to them by learned Buddhist monks of experience and learning. Truly, it was this “customary law” made “by the Buddhist priests for the priests”, plus some legislative provisions introduced by the British – that came to be developed by the courts as Buddhist Ecclesiastical Law. Ceylon also has a rich tradition of law reporting from the 1830s. In the law reports, the above issues were firstly titled “Buddhist Law”, next “Buddhist Temple Law”, then “Buddhist Temporalities Law” and finally “Buddhist Ecclesiastical Law”. This indeed, is the fascinating story that Dr. Weerasooria unfolds in this book. Buddhist Ecclesiastical Law soon became a virile and living system of law in Ceylon. A careful study of the system (as outlined in this text) also shows the close interconnection between the culture of the Sinhalese (the majority population) and the Buddhist religion and the important part played by Buddhism in the formulation of the laws and customs of the Sinhalese.

Also, although the same Theravada Buddhism that applies in Sri Lanka applies in Myanmar (Burma) and Thailand (Siam), and in the early days Bhikkhus from Ceylon went in search of higher ordination to both Burma and Siam, neither of these two countries had developed Buddhist Ecclesiastical Law in the way it happened in Sri Lanka.

So it can be asked, what then are the main areas that come within the term or phrase “Buddhist Ecclesiastical Law”? Dr. Weerasooria provides the answer in this text of over 850 pages. He has painstakingly read and researched all the decided judicial decisions on the subject numbering over two hundred and fifty and condensed them into 30 chapters. In 20 of his 30 chapters, Dr. Weerasooria deals with all the important practical topics and issues that make up Buddhist Ecclesiastical Law. The most important are the rules relating to succession to be the head or “Viharadhipathi” of a temple. The now established rule of succession is pupillary succession where the senior most pupil of the incumbent tutor succeeds him. Next, the issue arises as to how a bhikkhu became a pupil of another. We know the Vinaya rules but for legal purposes pupillage is by Robing or Ordination. While both are required in the Buddhist Vinaya only one is sufficient under Sri Lankan judicial decisions to succeed to the incumbency. A robed bhikkhu (Samanera) also has the right to succeed as the head of a temple though he is yet to be ordained. The Sri Lankan courts have so decided.

There are also several judicial decisions relating to the definition of Sanghika property, that is property belonging to the entire priesthood, as opposed to Pudgalika property, the personal property of a Buddhist monk. The Buddha decreed that monks should give up material things when they took to the priesthood but in modern times these rules have not been strictly followed and several lawsuits had arisen where the Judges were called upon to decide on the ownership of land and movables (such as bank accounts) acquired and owned by individual bhikkhus. These decisions also form part of Buddhist Ecclesiastical Law. Other areas are the abandonment of a temple by the incumbent, the renunciation of the priesthood or expulsion from it. There are several Sri Lankan judicial decisions dealt with in this text on unsuccessful attempts to expel bhikkhus from the priesthood and the effect of voluntary renunciation from the priesthood. On the other hand the renunciation of the temple, also called abandonment, by the tutor, has dire consequences on the pupil who can normally succeed the tutor. Abandonment affects and destroys the pupil’s rights as well, although the pupil himself had no say in it. Disrobing or the renunciation of the priesthood is different and has no such consequences. Disrobing by a tutor is similar to ecclesiastical demise or death and the pupil succeeds as if the tutor had died. It has been so decided by the Ceylonese or Sri Lankan Courts as part of Buddhist ecclesiastical law.

Apart from customary law relating to Buddhist temples and temporalities, Dr. Weerasooria also outlines and discusses the legislation on the subject such as the Buddhist Temporalities Ordinance that came to be introduced from British times. The author traces the origin of this legislation to the famous Kandyan Convention of 1815 to which reference was made earlier in this Foreword.
As I mentioned earlier, Dr. Weerasooria is a lawyer and legal academic of distinction and repute who has written over eighteen legal texts. In that context, he has selectively included in this text a very interesting account of the judiciary, the legal profession and the early textwriters on Sri Lankan law and shown how the judges, the lawyers and textwriters contributed to the development of Buddhist Ecclesiastical law. As Dr. Weerasooria emphasizes the Buddhist law was for the most part comprised not in legislation but in “judge made law” based on customary practices. The textwriters and experts of the Buddhist priesthood outlined the practices; the lawyers who appeared in temple litigation formulated the practices into legal arguments and submissions and the judges who heard the disputes, incorporated them into their judicial decisions. Indeed, this is how this law came to be formed and developed.

As part of the above methodology, Dr. Weerasooria has included as chapter 21 of his text, a very apt and interesting Photo Gallery of personalities, events and institutions that all figured and played a dominant role in developing Buddhist law in Sri Lanka. In my opinion this thoughtful and carefully selected Photo Gallery adds great value to this text because as it is often said a picture speaks a thousand words.

Some modern issues that Dr. Weerasooria has included in his coverage are a Buddhist monk’s application to be enrolled as a lawyer (barrister). This was permitted by Sri Lanka’s Supreme Court despite vehement objections by Buddhist organizations. Other ongoing litigation relate to a bhikkhu’s right to a driving licence (which decision is still pending).

Among the concluding chapters of this text is one on the constitutional provisions relating to Buddhism as the majority religion and whether reform of Buddhist ecclesiastical law by legislation is contemplated or necessary.

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