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The Impossibility of a Buddhist State

  • Benjamin SCHONTHAL (a1)

Abstract

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.

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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: ben.schonthal@otago.ac.nz.

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References

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