How Does Buddhism Shape Constitutional Law?

Buddhism and Comparative Constitutional Law

By Justin Kempf

A review of Buddhism and Comparative Constitutional Law edited by Tom Ginsburg and Benjamin Schonthal.

Buddhism and Constitutional Law

Over the past year I have made a real effort to explore constitutional law. Americans talk quite a bit about their constitution, but they know very little about constitutions in other countries. They often presume American constitutional principles as the norm rather than the exception. So, as an American I genuinely want to know more about the constitutional principles from other countries and traditions. Some ideas really do transcend cultures and eras. However, I have also discovered a much wider range of constitutional possibilities than I had otherwise imagined.

Perhaps one of the most creative efforts to reimagine constitutional traditions is found in a new book with the deceptively dry title Buddhism and Comparative Constitutional Law. It considers how Buddhist traditions influence the construction of constitutional law. It is imaginative, because its influence is almost proto-constitutional. The writers describe how Buddhism provided legal constraints for rulers before the construction of formal constitutions. Most telling is an early line from D. Christian Lammerts’ chapter where he writes, “The king does not make law. His sovereignty is absolute. Law, as dhamma, originates outside the king, who merely acts as the judge and enforcer of law.”

While the book makes clear that Buddhism shaped legal traditions differently in different cultures, it also shows how nonwestern religions also placed limitations upon rulers. Indeed, constitutionalism, at its core, is the institutionalization of law. It establishes formal rules that transcend political power. In this way, the writers identify a constitutional tradition embedded within Buddhist culture. Moreover, it opens the possibility for different ways to think about democracy. It’s an excellent read that examines multiple countries from a novel perspective. It is a great addition for those who want to examine legal traditions from a variety of cultures.

About the Author

Justin Kempf manages this blog and hosts the podcast Democracy Paradox. He lives with his family in Carmel, Indiana.

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