Monastics and the Law

MN 81 is interesting in that the theft of the property is (it seems implicitly) predicated on no harm coming to the owner. We might extrapolate that the usage of unused property, the usage of which doesn’t cause harm, is permissible. However, we might also assume that Buddha Kassapa already knew that the owners would be happy to hand over the grass and was prioritizing time or something.

@Brahmali Would you happen to know the Vinaya’s stance on potential conflicts between dhamma practice and secular law? This was raised in one thread previously about handling waste disposal and digging the earth, although that question resolved without essentially answering the question: When practices conflict with local laws, what is to be done? An example I can think of is mandatory military service wherein one cannot attain exemption.


It is usually understood that monastics should uphold the laws of the land. This idea is normally based on the following passage from the Vinaya, found at the beginning of the third Khandhaka on Entering the rainy-season residence:

“Monks, you should comply with the wishes of kings.”

As an aside, whether this actually means that monastics are obliged to abide by the law is open to debate.

In reality it is rare for the law and the Vinaya to clash directly. It is possible to come up with theoretical scenarios, such as the one you are suggesting about military service, but often there turns out to be practical solutions even for these. There was a case, apparently, of a monk who was called up to join the army while he was living with Ajahn Chah. This was at a time when the Vietnam war had repercussions throughout South-Eadt Asia, including Thailand. The monk asked Ajahn Chah what he should do. Ajahn Chah said he should go. The monk asked what would happen if he was asked to shoot anyone. Ajahn Chah said to aim above the head of the person. And apparently he did go to join the army and some time later he returned to monastic life. Issue resolved!

I find it a bit disturbing that a monk should be obliged to join the military, and I do hope this was a exceptional case. In many countries, certain in most of the Western world, this would not happen.

It is quite common, however, especially in traditional Buddhist countries such as Thailand, for the law to regulate the Sangha. In such cases conflict between your duties as a monastic and the law are occasionally quite real. One example is the Thai law that stops monks from ordaining bhikkhunīs. I would say this is in direct opposition to the requirement that monks ordain bhikkhunīs, especially when there is no bhikkhunī-sangha. In cases such as this you really do wonder whether the law has jurisdiction over the bhikkhu-sangha.

In Thailand there are a number of such laws that directly regulate the Sangha. An important aspect of these laws is the creation of a Sangha hierarchy that to some extent overrides the independence of individual monasteries as established by the Vinaya. Again, one may wonder to what extent the Sangha is bound by such laws. Of course it’s complicated, because you don’t want to create unnecessary disharmony in society. Yet I think it is bad for Buddhism if the law contradicts the Vinaya best practice.

It’s an interesting issue you have raised. What do other monastics on this site think of this?

@Sujato, @Vimala, @Dhammanando, @Vimalanyani, @Khemarato.bhikkhu, @Amatabhani, @Akaliko, @Charlotteannun, @Sobhana


Maybe the question is not so much if monastics feel bound by such laws but what kind of consequences would happen if they disregard it. For example, what kind of actions secular authorities will take to enforce it and how that influences one’s personal practise and general sangha life.

Personally, I think that as a monastic, I am bound by dhamma-vinaya and have a duty to respect it and make an effort to keep it. If secular law actually contradicts basic dhamma principles in a way that interferes with my monastic life, it may be better for serious practitioners to go elsewhere. The Buddha recommended not to stay in unsuitable places and we are homeless wanderers anyway.
In practise, this may not always be possible (visas, support), but is an ideal to aspire to.

If you adapt vinaya to follow secular law, all kinds of undesirable consequences arise. If I understand correctly, the laws governing the sangha in Thailand have lead to the creation of strong hierarchies, power struggles, and other tendencies that directly contradict the Buddhist mental training. It seems crazy for a serious practitioner to willingly submit to that. But maybe it is possible for individuals to stay out of it all and do their own thing. So the secular law wouldn’t have any impact on them.

At the moment, bhikkhunis are still lucky because we are not so much part of the patriarchal hierarchy and therefore not that much impacted by secular laws governing the sangha power structures.


I just read Bhikkhu @cintita’s “Culture of Awakening” and I liked his simile of the comet. The awakened ones are the head, and the rest of us are the tail around the comet: our own odd cultural attachments to views and rituals separating us from them. Our job is to point ourselves towards nibbāna and to draw as close as possible. As we orient ourselves in that direction, inevitably some cultural elements around us will be going in different directions: those cultural practices that are pushing in the right direction should be taken up enthusiastically; those that are contrary to the dhamma should be resisted; but most cultural elements are completely orthogonal and should simply be tolerated to avoid conflicts.

I loved this explanation and have tried to put it into practice myself. I have enthusiastically taken up ordination as it seems to go in the right direction. I always politely decline to get involved in temple politics, but when pressured into breaking minor vinaya rules, I usually just say “krap, Ajahn!” and hop my healthy body into the car!

In reflecting on the history of the sasana, it did strike me (as, Ajahn, I think you’re alluding to?), that the most damaging events in the history of the sasana (India, Japan, communist China…) have been from military interference. It’s a bit ironic that the Thai (and Burmese?) military government’s attempts to “protect” the sangha may ultimately prove quite counterproductive, but I must say I’m very grateful for the generous “sangha visa” I received from them to stay with a wonderful and beloved teacher.

But, I’m not so sentimental as to confuse gratitude with debt, and

as Venerable @vimalanyani beautifully put it.

Thankfully the courageous Bhikkhunis, Bhikkhu @Sujato, Buddhist Insights, etc have proven that “Westerners” can support the Sangha too and so these days there’s simply no need to sacrifice principles to keep wearing the golden, Thai handcuffs if ever that day comes when I feel a true conflict between that affiliation and my Dhamma practice.

But may that day not arrive anytime soon! I’m kinda starting to like Thailand! :grimacing::pray:


I don’t believe such a law exists, unless one has been created in the last few years. There was, apparently, a statement by the Mahatherasamakhom, but that was many decades ago., and it is not clear what force, if any, that holds under law. The senate review found that the ban on bhikkhuni ordination is unconstitutional on two grounds: it violates gender equality and religious freedom, both of which were guaranteed under the Thai constitution. Obviously there’s been a few constitutions since then, but as far as I know, the senate committee finding is still the highest legal advice and would prevail until and unless a Supreme Court or similar found differently.

Indeed, although again you’d have to question to what extent such matters are in fact dealt with in law. I mean obviously there are certain official rules that are followed, for example regarding the appointment of upajjhayas, but in many cases the rules are simply adopted by the Sangha on its own.

The Sangha strongly opposed the upajjhaya law when it was implemented, but by now, it seems most monks assume it is the right way to do things. It don’t know why, it is obviously against the Vinaya, and it has hardly produced a functional Sangha.


I can imagine the look on the judges face as a naughty monastic pleads “not guilty” to breaking the laws of the land, by virtue of being ordained! :laughing::laughing::laughing:

But in all seriousness, as it stands, monastics are clearly obliged to obey the law by dint of being humans living in multicultural, multi-faith, secular society. Otherwise, they would think themselves either “outside the law” or, even, “above the law” — something to be suspicious of with any group, let alone religious ones. Most people today identify as having no religion. You’d think the idea that religious minorites should have powers that allow them to behave outside the law—acting according to their faith, as they see fit—would be an idea that belongs to another time; like the theocracy of Tibet, or the rampant power play and wealth hoarding of the Holy Roman Empire. Yet for some reason, the idea that religious groups should have more rights than the average citizen is actually growing more potent in today’s western societies—perhaps because religion is on the wane, this is a last gasp attempt to assert control…

At the moment here in Australia, there is an ongoing debate about some proposed legislation called the Religious Freedoms Bill by the government, but named the Religious Privileges Bill or the Religious Discrimination Bill by its opponents. This legislation purports to protect people’s right to religious beliefs, practices and their expression but has the effect of entrenching prejudice and discrimination based on religious beliefs. The need for this legislation is not exactly clear, as freedom of religious practice in Australia is fairly well respected, but the difference with this legislation is that it seeks to privilege those areas of life where religious beliefs come into conflict with secular laws. This legislation comes on the back of the legalisation of same-sex marriage, and is seen as a conservatve religious response to enshrine articles of faith into legal protection, fearing that religion’s social influence is in decline, attempting to use poltical power to create legislation that consolidates it.

This new legislation would override the existing anti-discriminstion legislation, which protects people from discrimination based on race, gender, sexuality and disability. It’s worth noting that as it stands, the current anti-discriminatin law in Australia already includes includes many exemptions that allow religious institutions, schools and hospitals to refuse to hire staff who are queer and trans, as well refuse divorced or unwed parents and adulterers. It also gives them the right to sack them if they are hired but later found to be any of these things. (This is despite those institutions receiving government funding from all tax payers, including one assumes, those very groups they exclude!) It also gives the right for religious schools to expel a student if they are gay.

In this sense religious institutions are already ‘outside the law’ in that they have powers to behave in ways that are not allowed by any other institution or employer, but yet are miraculously within the law, in that being a religious group allows them to behave this way. In the future, if this bill is passed, the right to discriminate on ‘religious grounds’ will be extended to other employers and businesses and every citizen. The idea that anyone can act in broader society purely on the basis of their faith is a scary idea, isnt it? (Remember that in Australia Buddhists are less than 3% of the population! That situation is true for some Christians in other countries.)

Essentially, this legislation erodes what were previously regarded as universal human rights and instead favours religious rights.

Examples of what this will mean have been raised in the submissions from public interest groups and the government itself, which detail how this legislation will work in practical terms. For example, the proposed laws may protect a boss or colleague who says to other employees at work:

  • ‘menstruating women are unclean’
  • ‘homosexuality is a sin’
  • ‘Idolators and drunkards are going to burn in hell’
  • ‘prayer can cure your disability’
  • ‘every child should have a mother and a father who are married’
  • ‘God made only men and women’
  • ‘people who don’t believe in Jesus can’t get into heaven’.
  • ‘women must submit to her husband or learn to stay silent’
  • ‘men are the protectors and maintainers of women because they are stronger’

Statements which are malicious, likely to harass, threaten, seriously intimidate or vilify, or which encourage serious offences, will not be protected. But where the line will be drawn between statements that are allowed and those which are not is unclear. Doctors, nurses, midwives, pharmacists and psychologists will be given greater protection to refuse treatment on religious grounds where they object to treatment.

Some scenarios from the submission process:

Employment Scenario : A long-standing English teacher at a religious school is asked, contrary to her own religious views, to sign an amended ‘statement of faith’. It includes the statement that ‘marriage must be between a man and a woman’. She offers to keep her personal views private but refuses to sign the statement. Under the proposed laws, she could be fired for having religious views different to those of her faith-based employer.

Disbaility Scenario A support worker tells a woman in a wheelchair to pray for healing to walk again. Under the Bill, the worker could bring a religious discrimination complaint if disciplined for making such a comment, while the woman’s disability discrimination protections could be taken away to accommodate the worker’s religious statement.

Education Scenario A student attends the same religious school through their primary and secondary education. At 16 they lose faith in the religion of the school and tell a teacher that they are now agnostic. The school would be able to expel, suspend or otherwise punish, for example, give detention to the student.

You can read more here and here.

Is this the kind of world we want to exist in? Where individual private aspects of faith are allowed free rein in the world beyond? Should monastics and Buddhists be allowed to do and say whatever they want? Does being Buddhist convey a magical power to always act and speak well? Not if the Buddhsts I know are anything to go by!! :laughing:

It’s significant to remember that Buddhism is not without disriminatory practices based on articles of faith. This includes refusing ordination to women, and to people who have epilepsy and other medical conditions. This is currently an illegal position in Australia as it discriminates against disability, whch is protected by law. I recall seeing monastery application forms that asked people to reveal their HIV status, something that, in Australia, is protected by Federal anti-discrimination leglislation. It is illegal to ask, and also illegal to discriminate on the basis of a person’s HIV status, but these monasteries were either ignorant of the law or didnt think it applied to them.

As Buddhists, we also (mis)use the doctrine of kamma as a way to explain people’s disabilities and I have heard and read awful statements by Buddhists about this which would be quite hurtful to those with disabilities. Do Buddhists have the right to tell someone that they have a disability because they greedy and angry in a past life? In my own experience as a Buddhist, I have never experienced any limitation or discrimination to practice my faith, but as a queer man, I have experienced prejudice, discrimination and vioelnce based on religious views about my sexuality and also legislation that discriminated against me and continues to.

Sometimes I find it hepful to think about these issues as if Buddhism was a different religion just to see how it feels. Sure it’s nice to meditate in public, maybe chant the metta sutta out loud, but what if, instead, it was Christians praying in tongues in public, loudly preaching that I was going to hell, trying to save my soul?? Or, sure, it’s nice to offer flowers and incense to a Buddha image in the park, but what if it was 100 goats being sacrificed in a Voodoo ceremony? Should I be able to tell women and men to cover up their bodies inside or outside of the monastery to protect my virtue as a monk?

Giving certain groups religious privileges will certainly have unintended consequences, as the Satanists of Noosa have recently so brilliantly articulated.

Here’s an excerpt:

Satanism has a message so powerful that we do not need laws to protect it. Simply put Noosa Satanists feel the proposed Religious Discrimination Bill is completely unnecessary and a waste of the Federal Government’s time.

Having said that, should this Parliament vote to enact this legislation then Satanists across Australia will aggressively use this law to ensure that we can access all the privileges it guarantees. From access to street evangelism, school breakfast programs, school chaplaincy programs, school personal development programs, school touring bands programs, school weekend camp programs, Federal, State, and Local grant programs, access to public facilities, etc. The list is endless.


This current thread was split from another thread abut the legality of utilising abandoned buildings and whether monastics should follow the laws about property. It seems a step too far to think that a religious conceit should bestow a right to usurp property, or more generally, that laws shouldnt be followed just because of being religious. Even if we might accept a more liberatarian approach from people of our own religion, would we be so enthisuaiastic if it were someone from a different religion doing something you don’t like?

So, back to the question of following laws… As already pointed out in this thread, there are iniquitous and unconscionable laws which should rightly be questioned, resisted and perhaps broken because they are in themselves immoral. What these types of things actually are is not necessarily fixed and constant, but are culturally constructed, rooted to time and place. Things that have been permissable and defended in the past by governments and religious figures have at other times been repudiated and it is changing all the time. For example, in Australia it is now mandatory to report any knowledge of child sexual abuse. Yet the Catholic church is exempt from reporting confessions of abusers, because of canon law and the seal of confession. In many states, this remains the legal situation for the time being but proposed changes are being hotly contested by the church. When looked at like this, the idea of a law for lay people and a law for monastics becomes concerning. Sure, the idea of a monk squatting an abandoned building seems idealistic and romantic, but the broader ramifications of what this is idea is based on—religious privilege—has far greater impact in our society and we should be careful about such ideas.

Certainly, we can say that legality is not necessarily a good guide to morality at all, for example: slavery; apartheid/segregation; oppression of minorities and women; state sanctioned violence and; genocide have all been legal. But the idea that monastics and religious folks should be above legal constraints themselves is perhaps equally odious.



This seems quite suitable and in accordance with the Dhamma-Vinaya.

Where secular law and Dhamma-Vinaya are in contradiction, I think the most suitable thing to do is to disobey the secular law and obey the Dhamma-Vinaya.
The short-term apparent benefit of obeying secular law that contradicts the Dhamma-Vinaya does not seem worth sacrificing the long-term actual benefit of obeying the Dhamma-Vinaya.


Reminds me of:

Near Sāvatthī. As he was sitting to one side, King Pasenadi Kosala said to the Blessed One: “Just now, lord, while I was alone in seclusion, this train of thought arose in my awareness: ‘Who have themselves protected, and who leave themselves unprotected?’ Then it occurred to me: …

“That’s the way it is, great king! That’s the way it is!
‘Those who engage in bodily misconduct, verbal misconduct, and mental misconduct leave themselves unprotected .
Even though a squadron of elephant troops might protect them, a squadron of cavalry troops, a squadron of chariot troops, a squadron of infantry troops might protect them , still they leave themselves unprotected .
Why is that?
Because that’s an external protection, not an internal one.
Therefore they leave themselves unprotected.
But those who engage in good bodily conduct, good verbal conduct, and good mental conduct have themselves protected .
Even though neither a squadron of elephant troops, a squadron of cavalry troops, a squadron of chariot troops, nor a squadron of infantry troops might protect them , still they have themselves protected .
Why is that?
Because that’s an internal protection, not an external one. Therefore they have themselves protected.’”
SN 3:5 Atta-rakkhita Sutta | Self-protected



Good point.

Good point :thinking:
It prompted this thought in my mind: A Cakkavati and a Buddha could arise at the same time, but does that mean that a Cakkavati wields power over a Buddha? :thinking:
Even so, you bring up very real possibilities of abuse of power by treating religion as completely and unconditionally immune to (harmless and beneficial) secular laws.

Good point.


Now at that time King Seniya Bimbisāra of Magadha, desiring to postpone the rains, sent a messenger to the monks, saying: “What if the masters could enter upon the rains at the next full-moon day?” They told this matter to the Lord. He said: “I allow you, monks, to obey kings” (vassa).

Origin story of the allowance is not affecting monasic rules directly. This was about the calendar where monastics might not get their needs without changing the time.
Why monastics would ever change rules obeying a king?


Does this mean: “I allow you to obey this particular king in this particular instance” or “I allow you to obey all kings (and governments) always under any conditions”?

From my perspective, it seems like the Buddha allowed and permitted it just for that one occasion - it doesn’t seem like blanket permission to always obey all kings and governments forever into the future.

When it is allowed it is not only for this once.

Anujānāmi, bhikkhave, rājūnaṃ anuvattitunti.

Commentary explains this as follows.

anujānāmi bhikkhave rājūnaṃ anuvattitu nti ettha vassukkaḍḍhane bhikkhūnaṃ kāci parihāni nāma natthīti anuvattituṃ anuññātaṃ, tasmā aññasmimpi dhammike kamme anuvattitabbaṃ. Adhammike pana na kassaci anuvattitabbaṃ.

So it is okay to work with accordance to a righteous order not the unrighteous and it makes sense.
Here anuvattituṃ means accord, agreement, concurrence.
Is the word obey give the same meaning or obey means something more than just accord?

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Would you be able to translate that commentary section into English?

You wrote:

Origin story of the allowance is not affecting monasic rules directly. This was about the calendar where monastics might not get their needs without changing the time. Why monastics would ever change rules obeying a king?

Here’s the allowance in full:

Kd.3.4.3 Now at that time King Seniya Bimbisāra of Magadha, desiring to postpone the rains, sent a messenger to the monks, saying: “What if the masters could enter upon the rains at the next full-moon day?” They told this matter to the Lord. He said: “I allow you, monks, to obey kings.” 1.139

The kings’ orders exception does exonerate monks from breaking a few minor rules relating to Vassa. (Unless you somehow define dukkhata as non-rules, perhaps because they aren’t listed in the Pātimokkha?)

Vassa rules affected:

“Monks, there are these two (periods) for beginning the rains: the earlier and the later. The earlier may be entered upon the day after (the full moon of) Āsāḷhī, the later may be entered upon a month after (the full moon of) Āsāḷhī. These, monks, are the two (periods) for beginning the rains.” 1.138

Kd.3.4.1 Now at that time the group of six monks did not want to enter upon the rains. They told this matter to the Lord. He said: “Monks, one should not not enter upon the rains. Whoever should not enter upon (them), there is an offence of wrong-doing.”

Kd.3.4.2 BD.4.185 Now at that time the group of six monks, on a day for beginning the rains, not desiring to enter upon the rains, intentionally passed a residence by. They told this matter to the Lord. He said: “Monks, on a day for beginning the rains, a residence should not be intentionally passed by one who does not desire to enter upon the rains. Whoever should pass one by, there is an offence of wrong-doing.”

Here’s a potential conflict with the rules: A king declares a wrong calculation of the Āsāḷhī date to begin the Vassa, but a scrupulous monk intends to strictly follow the Buddha’s Vassa rules of beginning residency on Āsāḷhī (appx July) full moon day, and to not pass up a potential residence on the correct day to start Vassa. Without the “obey kings” exception he could be in a quandary.

He may be discreet by starting his Vassa on the king’s date (which he knows to really be the 2nd Vassa start date), while being careful not to walk past any open residences on the real date. But what if his less-scrupulous fellows begin their Vassa residency on the King’s later date, considering it the 1st Vassa date - and allow other monks to begin a late 2nd Vassa yet another month later? How could the scrupulous monk go along with that? He could have problems with more rules, such as whether to share rains residency cloth with monks keeping the false later 2nd Vassa. Awkward.

So the exception does exonerate monks from breaking a few Vassa rules at kings’ orders, which certainly implies allowing monks to follow orders that would break other rules including Pātimokkha rules. But according to Ven Thanissaro the Commentary cautions that kings’ orders that would break Dhamma principles should not be followed.

From Ven Thanissaro’s BMC2 Ch 11 par. 3:

In the Buddha’s time, the determination of the lunar calendar was one of the
responsibilities of the government in each kingdom or republic. Thus, to avoid controversy, the Buddha allowed that the wishes of kings be respected in this matter: If a king wanted to postpone the designation of the Asalhi full moon another month, bhikkhus were allowed to comply. (The rule coming from this origin story is stated in more general terms—“I allow that kings be complied with”—showing the general principle… that the Buddha was not so foolish as to try to legislate for kings. The Commentary notes, however, that this principle applies only in matters in which the king’s wish is in line with the Dhamma. No one, it says, should be complied with in matters where their wishes are not in line with the Dhamma.)

In another post you asked about the meaning of the word “obey”. It conveys a passive or servile attitude quite different from the way you explained anuvattituṃ. For instance, “obedient” has been used to translate suvaco.

We can see above that Ven Thanissaro used “comply” instead, which is closer to your description.

[Edited for typos, fixed link, changed obey to obedient]


I am not going to do that.
It affects the vassa upagantabba (entering) rule. Starting date might change with the king calculations. This is not about changing a rule but a time.

Why the king (government) desiring to postpone the rains?
Calendar used in Magadha was based on the change of the moon, a circle takes 30 days. When we compare this with the number of days to a year there is a 5 1/4 days didference with 360 (30× 12) to the actual value 365 1/4. Therefore to fix this problem (to avoid problems with seasonal changes and the calender) changing the starting date is necessary. Still we do skip some full moon days (skipping blue moons).

You qouted:

That is why the king’s request was accepted.

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