|Monks in courts and Rule of
The recent controversy surrounding the
detention of a Buddhist monk by the courts, raised a hornet’s
nest of protest but thankfully, the issue was settled before
more damage could be inflicted on relations between the
government, the Buddhist clergy and the judiciary.
The Buddhist monks were aghast that one of them could be charged
with sound pollution and for reasons that were explained in some
detail, the ‘accused’ monk failed to appear in court. That
resulted in the monk being charged with ‘Contempt of Court’ and
Sections of the Buddhist clergy, irate by now, decided to make
their presence felt in court and were present in numbers-
several dozens of them, when the case was next called in the
Supreme Court. And, to add insult to injury, they did not stand,
when the presiding judges led by the Chief Justice walked in.
Perhaps they were trying to make a point: that the Buddhist
clergy was above lay people and would therefore, not pay
obeisance to the judiciary. But that action brought forth the
wrath of the Bench, who refused the monk’s request for bail.
A storm in a tea cup, one might say. In a country beset with
myriad problems, does it matter who stands up to whom, in order
to show due respect? But the principal argument that underlies
the controversy, certainly merits discussion: are Buddhist
monks-or anybody, for that matter, above the law?
A Mahanayake Thera’s response to this was edifying. The
Mahanayake Thera of the Asgiriya Chapter, the Ven. Udugama
Buddharakkhitha Thera issued a statement categorically declaring
that Buddhist monks should respect the law and in fact, set an
example to the lay public in doing so.
Although the matter seemingly ended there, when the monk at the
centre of the controversy thereafter, apologised to court and
gave an undertaking that he wouldn’t act in a manner detrimental
to the law, other repercussions were to follow.
The Jathika Hela Urumaya (JHU), notably an ally of the ruling
coalition and, whose minister in the United Peoples’ Freedom
Alliance Cabinet was responsible for agitating for the laws
against noise pollution, rebuffed the Asgiriya Mahanayake’s
The Ven. Ellawela Medhananda, the JHU’s senior and much
respected scholar monk told Parliament that monks stood up only
before a senior monk and did not do so even before kings- a
direct contradiction of the Asgiriya prelate’s point of view.
But we too, beg to differ from the view that the Buddhist clergy
should not ‘stand up to show respect’ to the judiciary. That
would be tantamount to conferring a special privilege on a
section of the population and would bring about more
controversies than answers.
How then should other religious denominations be treated? Will
they too, be offered the same privileges? If they are not, isn’t
that tantamount to discrimination? Wouldn’t all this angst
create more religious disharmony in what is purported to be a
Perhaps sensing the sensitive nature of this issue, President
Mahinda Rajapaksa has directed that a separate enclosure be
allocated in courts for the clergy, although it is not clear
yet, whether such enclosures would be reserved for the Buddhist
clergy; again, we hope not.
The issue here, as we see it, is that, by ‘standing up to show
respect’ a Buddhist monk is not paying any kind of obeisance to
that particular judge; he is only indicating his respect to the
rule of law, which the judge represents. And surely, there is
nothing wrong with that.
What the Buddhist clergy must also consider is that, they, as a
religious denomination, should not seek any ‘exclusive’
privileges. Whatever concessions and liberties that are extended
to them should also be available to clergy of other religious
denominations. This would only be fair and would prevent any
further division of our already ethnically fractured society
along religious lines.
It is true that the Constitution of Sri Lanka, in its second
chapter says that Buddhism shall be given the ‘foremost place’.
But this only means that ‘it shall be the duty of the State to
protect and foster the Buddha Sasana’. We do not for a moment
believe that it was envisaged to grant the Buddhist clergy any
extended courtesies and place them above the law.
It is also curious, if not downright amusing, to note that,
sections of the Buddhist clergy are now upset at the Supreme
Court’s ruling to detain this particular monk, who was at the
centre of the controversy and at the events that subsequently
It was only a few months ago that we saw Buddhist monks being
tear-gassed and baton charged in broad daylight in the city of
Colombo. The monks did not then sit down and demand respect;
they ran away from the melee in a rather undignified spectacle.
And strangely enough, we didn’t see that much of a brouhaha
then. Even the JHU was deafening in its silence regarding the
police action, although President Rajapaksa did issue a
directive to Police that monks should be treated with restraint,
if such incidents occur in the future.
We all recognise that the Buddhist clergy in this country has,
from time immemorial, played an integral role in the conduct of
affairs of this nation. That has been our culture and it is a
fact that we should be proud of. But the respect that the
Buddhist clergy enjoyed was always commanded and not demanded.
Even today, the vast majority of Buddhist monks continue to
command such respect.
Therefore, it is only correct that they too respect the law of
the land. After all, it was the Buddha who said, ‘Poojacha