Monks in courts and Rule of Law

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 remanded.

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 response vehemently.

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 secular State?
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 ensued.

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 Poojaneeyanan’.