Skip to main content Accessibility help

The Impossibility of a Buddhist State

  • Benjamin SCHONTHAL (a1)


This article considers the effects of special constitutional prerogatives for Buddhism in Sri Lanka. It argues that, contrary to the expectations of both supporters and opponents, these clauses have not done what they claim to do: they have not enhanced the dominance of Buddhism on the island. Through a detailed analysis of recent legal action, this article demonstrates how special constitutional protections for Buddhism, in fact, aggravate and authorize splits among Buddhists. In making this argument, this article points towards a larger thesis: constitutional provisions designed to ensure the inter-religious dominance of one tradition may, under certain circumstances, actually amplify intra-religious conflicts over the nature, boundaries, and doctrines of that tradition. This work therefore encourages scholars to rethink the assumed polarity between secular-liberal constitutions and religiously preferential ones. Although opposed in their expressive dimensions, religiously neutral and religiously preferential constitutions may in fact generate similar church-state conundrums. The case of Sri Lanka suggests that, in the same way as perfect religious neutrality is impossible, so too is perfect religious supremacy.



Hide All

Benjamin Schonthal in Senior Lecturer in Buddhism in the Religion Programme at the University of Otago and the author of Buddhism, Politics and the Limits of Law: The Pyrrhic Constitutionalism of Sri Lanka, which is forthcoming in 2016 with Cambridge University Press. The author would like to thank the Centre for Interdisciplinary Studies (ZiF) at the University of Bielefeld, the members of the working group on Balancing Religious Accommodation and Human Rights in Constitutional Frameworks, Jonathan Young, Aaron Glasserman, Asanga Tilakaratne, M. Saleem, Mitra Sharafi, Jolyon Thomas, and Pubudu Senaratne, along with the many legal professionals and litigants, named and unnamed, who generously shared their time during the period of researching and analyzing the court case described below. Correspondence to Benjamin Schonthal, Religion Programme, Department of Theology & Religion, University of Otago, PO Box 56, Dunedin, New Zealand. E-mail address:



Hide All
Abeysekara, Ananda (1999) “Politics of Higher Ordination, Buddhist Monastic Identity, and Leadership at the Dambulla Temple in Sri Lanka.” 22 Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 255280.
Abeysekara, Ananda (2002) Colors of the Robe: Religion, Identity, and Difference, Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press.
Agrama, Hussein Ali (2012) Questioning Secularism: Islam, Sovereignty, and the Rule of Law in Modern Egypt, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
All-Ceylon Buddhist Congress (2006 [1956]) Bauddha Toraturu Parīkṣaka Sabhāvē Vārtāva, Colombo: visidunu prakāśanayaki.
Blackburn, Anne M. (2001) Buddhist Learning and Textual Practice in Eighteenth Century Lankan Monastic Culture, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Glendon, Mary Anne (2001) A World Made New: Eleanor Roosevelt and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, New York: Random House.
Hirschl, Ran (2010) Constitutional Theocracy, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Holt, John (1991) Buddha in the Crown: Avalokitesvara in the Buddhist Traditions of Sri Lanka, New York: Oxford University Press.
Hurd, Elizabeth Shakman (2015) Beyond Religious Freedom, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Kemper, Steve (1978) “Buddhism without Bhikkhus: The Sri Lanka Vinaya Vardana Society,” in B.L. Smith, ed, Religion and Legitimation of Power in Sri Lanka, Chambersberg, PA: Anima, 212235.
Larsson, Tomas (2015) “Monkish Politics in Southeast Asia: Religious Disenfranchisement in Comparative and Theoretical Perspective.” 49 Modern Asian Studies 4082.
Mahmood, Saba (2016) Religious Difference in a Secular Age, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Malalgoda, Kitsiri (1976) Buddhism in Sinhalese Society, 1750–1900: A Study of Religious Revival and Change, Berkeley: University of California Press.
McDaniel, Justin (2013) The Lovelorn Ghost and the Magical Monk: Practicing Buddhism in Modern Thailand, New York: Columbia University Press.
Nu, U. (1954) Burma under the Japanese, Pictures and Portraits, New York: St Martin’s Press.
Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life (2009) “Global Restrictions on Religion,” online <> (last accessed 12 January 2016).
Rahula, Walpola (1974) “Appendix II: The Vidyalankara Declaration.” in, The Heritage of the Bhikkhu, New York: Grove Press, 111114.
Schonthal, Benjamin (2014) “The Legal Regulation of Buddhism in Contemporary Sri Lanka,” in R. French & M. Nathan, eds, Buddhism and Law: An Introduction, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 150167.
Sullivan, Winnifred F. (2005) The Impossibility of Religious Freedom, Princeton: Princeton University Press.
Tambiah, Stanley Jeyaraja (1976) World Conqueror and World Renouncer: A Study of Buddhism and Polity in Thailand against a Historical Background, New York: Cambridge University Press.
Turner, Alicia Marie (2014) Saving Buddhism: The Impermanence of Religion in Colonial Burma, Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.
Weerasooria, W. (2011) Buddhist Ecclesiastical Law, Colombo: Postgraduate Institute of Management.



Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed