The Book Buddhist Jurisprudence and Pre-Constitutional Principles recently published, authored by the retired and also first Chief Justice of Bhutan, Lyonpo Sonam Tobgye, and Jeffrey Avina provides deep insight into Buddhist teachings relating to law along with the western legal principles, inviting attention to the resemblances between two viewpoints, thereby venturing into a field not commonly explored before.

The Book is arranged in 15 chapters beginning with a definitional approach to the law from western legal thinkers such as Aristotle, and Roscoe Pound to Buddhist explanation of State, leadership and legal principles. The succeeding chapters analyses, and draws a comparison between the western and Buddhist legal jurisprudence through the lens of legal classification and philosophy; offences, judges and their qualification; jury system; administration of justice and judicial procedures; general principles of liability and affirmative defences; decision-making process and decisions; the foundation of sentencing and punishment; Buddhist criminal jurisprudence; grading and categories of criminal offences; laws and ethics related to the public welfare; affiliation between the modern constitutional ideas and Buddhism; and the correspondence between a caring government that leads to a just society.

The authors accurately compile the Buddhist teachings accentuating laws and its philosophies and compares with the corresponding equivalent of western legal theories and their underlying basis. Further, similarly, as Buddhist values were assimilated into shaping the legal system in the east, the influence of western religious beliefs in modelling its laws, is also evidently portrayed. The Buddhists teachings on the way of righteousness, Code of Laws (Vinaya), impartiality and equanimity, have been incorporated into most modern Constitutions albeit under different terms such as rule of law, right to life, separation of power and so forth. The philosophical rationale that lay behind the legal principles originated from the west including the procedural feature of conducting trials has almost a parallel justification under the Buddhist teachings. The evaluation of Buddha’s teachings on the preciousness of human life, justice, fairness, liberty, equality, peaceful coexistence etc. made by various scholars presented in the Book indicates the universality of these principles, as generally applicable to human beings, propounded 2500 years ago, and relevant even today.

An interesting facet of Buddhism displayed here is its germaneness to social life, emphasis on justice and betterment of human existence through certain rules, guidance, and standards as opposed to only ultimate enlightenment as perceived by most. Buddha’s teaching spanning over approximately 2500 years covers a wide array of subject matter each applicable to their respective intended subjects including to bodhisattvas, arhats, monks and nuns, and the laypeople generally. Although world literature is replete with exhaustive discussions on the origin of legal principles, and their mutating forms with changing circumstances excluding the fundamental principles, infrequently is there a book that draws an analogy between Buddha’s teachings on law and the western legal principles, with detailed elucidations on Buddha’s teachings on substantive as well as procedural laws.

This Book abounding with the mammon of symmetrical analyses of western legal philosophies and principles, and Buddhist legal jurisprudence will be valuable to the limited literature on the same.

Reviewed by Attorney General Lungten Dubgyur and Senior Attorney Namgay Wangmo