Universiteit Leiden

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Research project

The Interaction of Religion and Law in Tibet: Law in Buddhist Texts and Buddhism in Legal Texts

Most of the vast Tibetan literature was authored by monks. They were Buddhists par excellence, educated in a system in which Indic- and Indian-inspired texts played a pivotal role. What they wrote was primarily religious or philosophical in nature, but also extended to ‘secular’ topics. Through the texts they authored, monastic Buddhism exerted profound influence on most if not all aspects of society, including the legal system. However, ‘secular’ legal thinking influenced Buddhist ideology in its turn. How did religion affect law, and how did law affect religion in pre-modern Tibet? What is the interaction between religious and legal texts – in language usage, compositional patterns, themes, and argumentation? In which direction(s) do they travel?

2016 - 2019
Berthe Jansen

I will address these questions by investigating Tibetan legal texts from the 17th to 19th centuries and monastic guidelines, and their relevant Indic and Chinese counterparts. This will allow a theorization of Tibetan legal thinking and its Buddhist monastic contexts, and a positioning of Buddhist thinking within a broader socio-legal perspective. This is particularly relevant today, as Buddhist monastics throughout Asia are pivotal in developing laws and regulations (e.g. Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Thailand) and in actively resisting them (e.g. Tibet, China) – and our understanding of these matters hinges on a reliable historical perspective.
This research will also produce important insights into broader issues within Tibetan studies, such as the much-debated relationship between Tibet’s centre and periphery (Goldstein 1971). Studying law codes and local monastic guidelines together will refine our notions of the hegemonic relationships between lay-people and monks and between the Buddhist clergy and the state. In addition to contributing to Buddhist Studies, this research will also advance a nuanced theoretical conceptualisation of the dichotomies of ‘the secular’ and ‘the religious’ at large, in particular with regard to existing notions of law.

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