Buddhists have played a significant role in constitutional law and politics, according to a new interdisciplinary course at the University of Chicago. Comprised of a seminar as well as a workshop series, “Buddhism and Comparative Constitutional Law” took place virtually due to the COVID-19 pandemic and was attended by a global audience. The course featured leading scholars from diverse fields, including anthropology, political science, religion, and law.
“On so many dimensions, this course collapsed space,” said Prof. Tom Ginsburg, who taught the course with lecturer Benjamin Schonthal. “And it brought audiences together that otherwise would not be in conversation. All of those things have been really exciting.” (UChicago News)
The course was developed and taught by Dr. Tom Ginsburg, Leo Spitz Professor of International Law at the University of Chicago, and Dr. Ben Schonthal, professor of Buddhism and Asian religions at the University of Otago in New Zealand.
According to Ginsburg and Schonthal, Buddhism’s prevalence in multiple countries means that it is unavoidable that the religion has significantly impacted constitutional law at national levels. This is especially true in South and Southeast Asia, where Buddhism has played a highly influential role, both historically and in the present day. Despite this, there is a significant lack of academic literature on the matter.
According to the University of Chicago’s website:
In recent years, constitutional reform efforts in majority-Buddhist Asian nations have sparked new questions about the religion’s interplay with law while also highlighting a striking gap in the academic literature. Although scholarship exists on Islamic, Christian and secular constitutional thought, the body of work on Buddhist constitutionalism is surprisingly thin—despite the religion’s extraordinary influence, especially in Southeast Asia. (UChicago News)
“Nearly one-fifth of the world’s population live in countries where Buddhism has played a major role in shaping culture, politics and—yes—law,” said Schonthal. “Scholars have long written about the important role that Christian ideas and actors played in the development of American constitutional law, and Buddhist actors and ideas did the same thing in many parts of Asia.” (UChicago News)
“Of course, the influence doesn’t run only one way,” he continued, “Changes to public law in Asia have also profoundly affected modern Buddhism. All of this means that if we want to understand some of the big issues facing the region—questions of democracy, nationalism, legal and religious reform—legal studies and Buddhist studies need each other.” (UChicago News)
The course comes at a time when Buddhist voices and influences are particularly relevant. In Myanmar, for example, Buddhist monks have protested the military coup, while others have voiced supports for the military. Buddhists have also been involved in the persecution of Myanmar’s Muslim minority Rohingya.
“In order to understand [this part of] the world, you have to understand what the Buddhists are thinking,” Ginsburg said. “And I think, by the way, that some of the students might have been surprised to learn that Buddhists are not always about peace and love—they can be political actors and even regressive ones.” (UChicago News)
Students reported that they enjoyed the intersection of different fields and the variety of angles from which the topic was explored during the course.