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Book Review: Buddhism, Politics and the Limits of Law

In recent decades, high profile controversies of monks involved in law and politics, as well as serious violent conflict, across South and Southeast Asia has exposed our current knowledge of the causes and consequences as insufficient. This has generated renewed scholarly interest in the study of Buddhism, law and politics. Benjamin Schonthal’s book on Buddhism, Politics and the Limits of Law is part of this exciting and timely new generation of scholarly engagement on Buddhism and law in Asia.
            As a leading scholar in the field, Schonthal’s work demonstrates and cements his position as a pioneer in the contemporary study of Buddhism and law. His book joins a small but growing body of literature exemplified in works such as the edited volume Buddhism and Law,[1] the special journal issue of Buddhism and Law in Asia[2] (of which Schonthal is the co-editor), and Walton’s Buddhism, Politics and Political Thought in Myanmar.[3] In addition, Schonthal is on the editorial board of a new journal, Buddhism, Law and Society, that was launched in 2016 and is set to be the latest forum for this growing body of research. In short, Schonthal’s work represents a new turn in the study of contemporary Buddhism and comparative law, and marks the consolidation of this area of study.
In Buddhism, Politics and the Limits of Law, Schonthal offers a rich, empirical analysis of a timely and sensitive issue across Asia – the interaction between constitutional law and Buddhism. His book exhibits exemplary socio-legal research, and this quality has been previously recognized as his thesis (upon which the book is based) received the Law & Society Association Dissertation Prize (2013). His book is written in a compelling and accessible style, beginning with an opening story that raises the anomaly of monks (emblematic of religion and the private sphere) in court (symbolic of the public sphere). This visual conundrum of who should stand up to honor whom in a courtroom – religious monks or the secular judge – is powerful and pulls the reader into this intriguing dilemma.
Methodologically, Schonthal builds upon the idea of microhistory, and expands on this to develop the concept of constitutional microhistory[4] (illustrated well in chapter 6). This approach enables Schonthal to justify and advocate for the use of sources and materials beyond normative sources of constitutional law.
The animating idea central to Schonthal’s work is the concept of pyrrhic constitutionalism.[5] As comparative constitutional law scholars should note, Schonthal is careful to explain that by ‘constitutionalism’ he is referring to a narrow understanding of “practices of drafting and adjudicating constitutional law”, rather than the wider use of government limited by law.[6] His idea then of pyrrhic constitutionalism is one in which the practice of constitutional law may upset the intended aims of the law, including its broader influence on social life....
            Anyone interested in how constitutions manage religion should read this book. In addition, scholars who find themselves surrounded by an unwavering faith in the constitution will have their assumptions about the inherent goodness of constitutional law shaken. This arguments in this book have long-lasting and broad implications for the way in which we think and study about law and religion. Schonthal book not only has resonance for contemporary debates in other Buddhist majority countries that constitutionally recognize Buddhism, such as Myanmar and Thailand, but also for debates over the relationship between religion and constitutional law more broadly.

For the full book review - see Melissa Crouch (2017) Buddhism, Politics and the Limits of Law, Asian Journal of Law and Society.

French, Rebecca and Mark Nathan (2015) Buddhism and Law: An Introduction. Cambridge University Press.
Schonthal, Benjamin and Tom Ginsburg (2016) ‘Buddhism and Law in Asia’, special issue, Asian Journal of Law and Society.
Walton, Matthew (2016) Buddhism, Politics and Political Thought in Myanmar. Cambridge University Press.

[1] French, Rebecca and Mark Nathan (2015) Buddhism and Law: An Introduction. Cambridge University Press.
[2] Schonthal, Benjamin and Tom Ginsburg (2016) ‘Buddhism and Law in Asia’, special issue, Asian Journal of Law and Society.
[3] Walton, Matthew (2016) Buddhism, Politics and Political Thought in Myanmar. Cambridge University Press.
[4] Schonthal, p 18.
[5] Schonthal, pp 11- 17.
[6] Schonthal, p 12.
[7] Schonthal, p 153.
[8] Schonthal, p 7.

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