Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Giving Sanctuary

Sanctuary (abhayatthana or pujjatthana) is the right of asylum available in certain religious establishments and which is recognized by the government. Sanctuary in Buddhist monasteries had a long history in Sri Lanka lasting for at least 1000 years. Royal officers or those who believed a crime had been committed could easily be infuriated, jump to conclusions and dish out swift justice to whoever seemed to be the most likely offender. This sometimes led to innocent parties being punished. An accused who was able to flee to the nearest monastery would be protected from such mob justice. Sanctuary would give him an opportunity to explain himself and allow his accusers to calm down so that the facts could be more objectively examined. The monks in the monastery the accused had sought sanctuary in would also be able to adjudicate on the accused’s behalf. Numerous documents from ancient Sri Lanka show that royal officers and others were forbidden to enter certain monasteries or sometimes even monastic estates, to apprehend offenders without permission of the monks. The rules of sanctuary varied at different times and in different places but usually a person was given sanctuary for five days or until the next full moon. If the monks decided the person seeking refuge was guilty they would expel him or allow royal officers to enter the monastery to arrest him. On other occasions they might negotiate a settlement between the accused and his victim and the judicial authorities.
Sanctuary was usually given to those accused of committing what were called ‘the five grave offences’ (pancamahaparadha), although exactly what constituted these is unclear. It might have been breaking the five Precepts or five of the six ‘acts of immediate retribution’ (anantariyakamma, Miln.25), i.e. murdering one’s mother, one’s father, an arahat, injuring a Buddha or causing a schism in the Sangha (Atthasalini 358). In this context injuring a Buddha was understood to as stealing or desecrating a Buddha statue or other sacred objects. Other versions of the five grave offences included assault, killing cattle, banditry and rape.
Violating the right of sanctuary could have very serious consequences for those who did it. The Mahavamsa records an example of this. During political upheaval in the reign of King Udaya III (934-937) a number of court officials fled to the monastery of some monks revered for their simplicity and holiness. The king and his soldiers pushed their way into the monastery and summarily executed the officials. As a protest against this violation of the right of sanctuary and the shedding of blood in their monastery the monks rose in a body and left the capital for the forest. In response to this protest riots broke out in the capital, sections of the army rebelled and the life of the king himself was threatened. To calm the situation the king had to send his senior ministers after the monks to beg for their forgiveness and plea with them to return to their monastery. The humiliated and chastened king had to promise never to violate the right of sanctuary again.
There is nothing in the Tipitaka addressing the matter of sanctuary in monasteries although it is may have evolved from a general respect for the Sangha and the Buddha’s teaching allotting punishment with compassion.
I have been unable to find any material showing that the custom of offering sanctuary in monasteries existed in Buddhist countries other than Sri Lanka. Do any of my readers know of any?


buzzilo said...


(sorry I will ask you here because not found any email addresses..)

My question: is there translation of your book GQGA at russian language? If not, can I do that and publish it on website?


Sundara said...

Whenever I think of people requesting sanctuary I always think of them doing so in Christian monasteries or churches. I never realised, or even heard that Buddhism had the same tradition (well at least in Sri Lanka anyway). That's very interesting. Thanks for posting Bhante!

Alessandro S. said...

Greetings, Bhante. Concerning the question at the end of your post, I asked my thai wife about any such tradition in Thailand. She answered that in times past something like sanctuary did exist in Thailand, but she added that people seeking protection from the law or from someone's revenge usually put on the bhikkhu's robes (in a hurry, I presume). It was not a codified custom, rather a spontaneous "seeking refuge" into the most obvious place one would think of as a place where anger and violence would boil down. This reminds me of this excerpt from the Milindapanna:

«Then the king said, "What is the purpose, your reverence, of your going forth and what is the final goal at which you aim?"
«"Our going forth is for the purpose that this suffering may be extinguished and that no further suffering may arise; the complete extinction of grasping without remainder is our final goal."
«"Is it, venerable sir, for such noble reasons that everyone joins the Order?"
«"No. Some enter to escape the tyranny of kings, some to be safe from robbers, some to escape from debt and some perhaps to gain a livelihood. However, those who enter rightly do so for the complete extinction of grasping."»

Shravasti Dhammika said...

Dear Alessandro, thanks for that interesting and relevant quote from the Milindapanha.