From vinaya to
Buddhist sign in the
development and evolution of world judicial system
The origin of judiciary, anywhere in the world, can be traced
back to ‘Aganna Sutta’ of Digha Nikaya. vinaya (discipline), one
of the most important aspects of Buddhist philosophy, lays down
the judicial procedure used when dealing with offences committed
by Bikkhus. This judicial procedure has paved the way for modern
day judicial system, says Ven. Medagoda Abhayatissa Thera, (BA
Hons. Royal Pandit M.A., M.Phil), Chief Incumbent of Sunethra
Maha Devi Viharaya, Pepiliyana. The Thera is a lecturer at Lanka
Buddhist and Pali University and Sunethra Maha Devi Theravada
International Buddhist Centre.
The Thera explains Sri Lanka has a long history of judicial
proceeding running beyond the years of the Common Era. Also
according to Abhayatissa Thera, it was Ven. Abhi Dhammika
Godutta Thera, then Chief Incumbent of Isurumuniviharaya of
Anuradhapura who was the first Chief Justice in the country,
appointed by King Bahathika Tissa who ruled the country in
Following are excerpts:
Q: How did the judicial system initiate in this world?
A: According to Buddhism, the origin and development of
society and man’s place in it, is described in the ‘Agganna
Sutta’ of ‘Digha Nikaya.’ It started with the idea of private
property in society. Before the institution of private property
system, there were no owners of lands.
People continued to feed on the paddy they harvested from the
fields. When the institution of family came into existence,
their requirements were shifted. When they began to live as
husbands and wives they started indulging in sexual intercourse
and built houses.
Every morning and evening they went to the fields and gathered
paddy for the day. Lazy persons thought they could save the
journey of going to the field every morning and evening and
therefore, gathered sufficient paddy for several days.
As a result of this, there arose the difference between have and
have not. Then they wanted to divide the fields between them.
That is how present private property system began.
So, the land that had hitherto been owned commonly became
Thereafter, greedy persons while enjoying their fields started
steeling the harvests of lands belonging to others. Then
aggrieved parties assaulted them with sticks and hands. This was
the beginning of stealing, lying, censure and punishment.
In order to prevent these evil tendencies spreading among them,
they recognised the need to maintain a certain moral standard.
They selected one among them to function as the guardian of
They decided to select the most capable, popular and handsome
person for the post of guardian. His functions were to carry out
the responsibility of dispensing justice. He was required to
censure and punish those who deserved such punishment. Also,
when he consented to accept the post, he was promised a share of
their produce as a reward for his services. Since he was
selected by the whole society he was called ‘Maha Sammata.’
H was known as the lord of the field, and he had the last word
in disputes relating to paddy fields. He was conferred with the
title ‘Raja.’ Thus, the idea of government originated with the
It is the humankind’s evil tendencies, and thoughts that created
the necessity for a judiciary in the world.
Q: Could you explain the Buddhist meaning of judiciary?
A: An examination of vinaya rules and discipline for monks,
derived basically from five precepts or five basic moral
injunctions of Buddha in the vinayapitaka.
It is interesting to note that the philosophy behind the vinaya
and ethics for monks is the continued existence of the Sangha
The punishment meted out to the culprits in Sangha Society
appears corrective and never retributive. According to Buddhist
vinaya, there are two types of offences; minor and major.
Those who commit minor offences were given the opportunity to
correct it. In respect of major offences, the Judge Vinayadahara
is asked to examine following six points carefully: Facts of the
case (vatu) (2) vinaya rules relevant to the facts of the case (malika)
(3) correct interpretation of the relevant rules (padabhajanya)
(4) threefold groups of rules (tikapriccheda) (5) minor offences
contained in the definition of major offences (6) circumstances
in which one is not liable to punishment (anapatti).
Q: Can you cite a case from Buddhist history where such a
punishment was put to practice?
A: The case of Bikkhu Sudinna is a good example. Sudinna
became a Bikkhu giving up his layman’s life. Members of his
family continued to pressure him to give up the robe and lead a
layman’s life. He refused. But finally, his former wife came to
him and requested to impregnate her with a child, for the
existence of their clan. After numerous requests Suddinna agreed
to have sexual intercourse with her.
The case was taken up before Buddha. After considering all six
points, Buddha acquitted Suddinna. However, after this, Suddinna
became addicted to sex and he had started having sexual
intercourse with female monkeys. Buddha then pronounced him
guilty. Thereafter, Buddha prohibited all Bikkhus to have sex
with human being or animal. When Buddha laid down this law, it
was reported that some monks in the remote areas of India were
in the habit of having sex with female monkeys.
All those monks were disrobed and expelled from the sasana.
Q: That is an example from Lord Buddha’s days. Can you cite
an example from Sinhala King’s days?
A: King Bhathika Tissa who ruled the country during the
Anuradhapura period appointed a chief priest of Isurumunivihara
Ven. Abhi Dammika Godutta Thera as the Chief Justice. I believe
this priest is the first Chief Justice in this country.
Godutta Thera gave a very fair judgment in a dispute case
between two monks, over an alms bowl made out of a coconut
shell. A monk who was living at Kalpitya Samudra Viharaya made
this arms bowl out of a very big coconut shell. It was carved
The monk one day noticed his alms bowl missing. His efforts to
find the alms ball were not successful. One day he left for
Anuradhapura Isurumuniviharaya and there he saw the alms ball,
and a certain monk who visited Kalpitiya Samudra Viharaya was
using the bowl.
The first owner made a complaint to the chief priest and stated
that his arms bowl was stolen by the priest who was using it.
Godutta Thera heard the case the second owner said that. He did
not have any intention of stealing it but brought it when he
came to Anuradhapura.
Then Ven. Godutta Thera summoned some merchants who came from
Kalpitiya to Anuradhapura and asked the value of an alms bowl
made out of a coconut shell.
They said it was not considered valuable. Since there was no
evidence to prove that it was stolen and the priest also did not
have any intention of stealing it, Ven. Priest came to the
conclusion that the monk was not guilty. When the King heard
about this judgment, he appointed Ven. Abhi Dhammika Thera as
the Chief Justice.
Q: What is your comment on the punishment given to Arahath
Priest Kelani Tissa by King Kelani Tissa over a message send to
the Queen by the King’s brother?
A: The King was wrong there. It was not a decision taken
according to Buddhist judicial principles. King Kanira Janu who
ruled Anuradhapura was a very reasonable king. He settled a
dispute among Bikkhus of Segiri at Mihintale. However, 61
Priests did not accept his settlement. The King then treated
them as traitors and killed those Bikkhus by pushing them down a
mountain called Kanira.
This act is entirely against Buddhist judicial principles.