Review: Kieffer-Pulz on Lammerts, 'Buddhist Law in Burma: A History of Dhammasattha Texts and Jurisprudence, 1250-1850'

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Review recently published by H-Buddhism:

D. Christian Lammerts
Petra Kieffer-Pulz

Kieffer-Pulz on Lammerts, 'Buddhist Law in Burma: A History of Dhammasattha Texts and Jurisprudence, 1250-1850'

D. Christian Lammerts. Buddhist Law in Burma: A History of Dhammasattha Texts and Jurisprudence, 1250-1850. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2018. 304 pp. $65.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8248-7260-1.

Reviewed by Petra Kieffer-Pulz (Academy of Sciences and Literature, Mainz) Published on H-Buddhism (March, 2020) Commissioned by Thomas Borchert (University of Vermont)

Printable Version:

Buddhist Law in Burma is a brilliant study of the history and development of legal dhammasattha literature in Burma from the thirteenth to the nineteenth centuries, demonstrating “the centrality of law as a sphere of Buddhist knowledge and literary production in Burma” (p. 1).[1] It represents the first scholarly engagement with this topic and is an indispensable tool for anyone interested in the development and character of Buddhist law in Burma and beyond. At the same time, it can serve as a guide through the wealth of dhammasattha texts in manuscript sources. D. Christian Lammerts has meticulously investigated these texts, to a large extent unedited and untranslated to date, and uses them as the basis of this study. In doing so, he manages to refute several preconceived notions that have shaped the view of the history of law in Burma in the past, such as the preconception that Buddhism “gave rise to no law aside from the vinaya” (p. 1); or that precolonial Burmese legalism was of an unchanging nature; or that the Burmese dhammasattha genre was born out of the Sanskrit dharmaśāstra literature;[2] or that the Dhammavilāsa dates back to twelfth-century Pagan; or that the anonymous Manu kyay or Manu raṅḥ akyay (before 1782) was the most authoritative Burmese legal treatise of the precolonial era, to mention only a few.

The book consists of two parts: “Sources” and “Revisions and Reasons.” The first chapter introduces the topic and discusses it against the background of previous research. Chapters 2-4 (part 1) provide a thorough and substantial study of dhammasattha literature, starting with traces of dhammasattha between 1250 and 1600 (chapter 2) and dealing in detail with the two oldest dhammasattha texts dating from the seventeenth century, the Dhammavilāsa dhammasat (chapter 3) and the Manusāra dhammasattha (chapter 4). The second part gives an overview of new dhammasatthas, produced between 1681 and circa 1850, their reception of the old dhammasatthas, and new developments (chapter 5). Chapter 6, which functions as the conclusion of the book, begins with a summary of the contents of the preceding chapters. Lammerts then proceeds to look into the questions of why the jurists of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries advocated for the continuous production and use of the dhammasatthas, for whom they were compiled and to what end. The book provides a “Transliteration Table of Old Burmese, Burmese, Pali and Sanskrit Written in the Burmese Script,” an appendix with four dhammasattha bibliographies bolstered by rich notes, a bibliography, and a general index.

Precolonial Burma knew a number of forms of law, such as the proceedings of vinaya courts, collections of monastic judgments (vinicchaya, eighteenth to nineteenth centuries), the Pāli commentarial legal tradition, transcripts of disputes involving laypersons and sometimes monks from the epigraphic and manuscript corpus (twelfth to nineteenth centuries), the royal legal tradition since the thirteenth century, and the upade (Pāli upadesa) legislation by kings Mindon and Thibaw (nineteenth century). It is in the light of this legal diversity that Lammerts studies Buddhist law mainly as represented in the dhammasatthas, but also taking into account other witnesses. His two objectives are, first, “to map and describe the significance of the production, circulation, and transformation of dhammasattha treatises in precolonial Burma,” and, second, “to provide an account of the genre’s general jurisprudence—the way different treatises represent their authority and function, particularly in relation to Buddhism and Buddhist literature—and to examine how and why this jurisprudence changed over time up until the mid-nineteenth century, when British colonial rule began to encroach upon Burmese legal discourse and practice” (p. 2).

Although no dhammasattha written before the seventeenth century has come down to us, the many mentions of the dhammasattha in epigraphic, literary, and legal contexts between the thirteenth and early seventeenth centuries indicate that dhammasattha “claimed jurisdiction over Buddhists” and that it was considered the final resort for judgments (pp. 43-44). This probably is based on the fact that (at least in part of the legal tradition) law was considered of cosmic, not man-made, origin, “retrieved off the boundary wall of the universe (cakkavāa)” by the seer Manu (p. 51). Manu was the judge of Mahāsammata, the first elected king of the world, and presented the law he had transcribed from the wall to the king. Even if this cosmic law is abbreviated, summarized, or distorted, its essence was considered to have remained unchanged throughout its transmission in these early times. As Lammerts puts it: “Witnesses to the circulation of dhammasattha in Burma before the seventeenth century testify not to the presence of a corpus of variously authored and titled legal texts and commentaries but to the ongoing transmission of a sole authoritative treatise,” namely, “a dhammasat in the vernacular and associated with a figure named Manu” (p. 46).

Chapter 3 deals with the Dhammavilāsa, the earliest securely dated example of the dhammasattha genre from Burma and Southeast Asia, written in the vernacular by an unknown author before 1637-38 (date of the exemplar of a manuscript copy of this text). As shown by Lammerts, the ascription of this text to twelfth-century Pagan goes back to the Monywe Sayadaw Ariyāvaṃsa Ādiccaraṃsī (1766-1834). The Dhammavilāsa is not one of the most commonly transmitted texts and shows more substantial textual variations than other dhammasatthas, so that it sometimes “becomes hard even to speak of Dhammavilāsa as a single or unified text” (p. 57). Its largely independent recensions in Arakanese, Mon, and Shan manuscripts hint at an even greater variety. An overview of the contents shows the multiple topics covered: election of Mahāsammata and appointment of Manu as his judge; judges; witnesses and evidence; the biography of Manu; the thirteen characteristics of the Dhammasat; and a list of the eighteen titles of law, including the law of debt, deposit, sale without ownership, resumption of gifts, slavery, and inheritance. In several manuscripts the subgroupings are each introduced by a Pāli verse or prose text. The Pāli is followed by a nissaya gloss, that is a work in which each Pāli word is translated into Burmese, sometimes also with additional literary or explanatory material (occasionally this nissaya gloss is also missing). The intention (adhippāya) is then explained in an entirely vernacular passage. The jurisprudence visible in the Dhammavilāsa is at the same time “resembling and differing from figurations preserved in transregional Pali literature” (p. 179).

Chapter 4 examines the Manusāra dhammasattha written in Pāli and vernacular, and authored in 1651-52 by a monastic, the Taungbhila Sayadaw Tipiṭakālaṅkāra, and a layperson, the judge Kaingza Manurāja. It is the first Burmese law text to differentiate between monastic (corpus vinaya) and lay jurisdictions (corpus dhammasattha). It consists of a Manusārapāha written in Pāli verse (about 525 stanzas; this is the ha text), with a nissaya (the ha text seems to not have been circulated independently). The nissaya in part deviates so much from the ha text that Lammerts suggests the ha to be a recension of an independent earlier work. The “Manusāra is the first dhammasattha to include an explicit discussion of laws regulating the inheritance of property belonging to the sagha as a community whose rules differ from those of nonmonastics” (p. 112). These secular laws disagree with the monastic law, a fact referred to by the authors, though no solution is offered. Lammerts provides us with a detailed and highly welcome biography of one of the authors, namely, of the monk Tipiṭakālaṅkāra, who also is the author of the Vinayālakāra, a commentary on Sāriputta’s twelfth-century Vinayasagaha, important for the monastic legal history of seventeenth-century Burma.

Part 2 (chapter 5) addresses the reception of the old dhammasatthas in the dhammasatthas that originated between 1681 and the middle of the nineteenth century and discusses changes in the genre. The latter resulted mainly from the evaluation of dhammasattha law in light of the piakat (Pāli tipiaka). In 1681 the court of Ava had enacted a royal order to create a catalog of the piakat (Piakat samuiṅḥ) implemented by a number of monks. With the exception of Uttamasikkhā the authors of these catalogs excluded the dhammasatthas from the piakat. Uttamasikkhā, however, characterized the dhammasatthas as man-made and as not belonging to the Buddhist sāsana, indeed, even as an obstacle to the path. Other dhammasat texts acknowledged disagreements between prior law texts, and therefore doubted the claim of the unaltered essence of the first cosmic dhammasattha (Mahābuddhakura dhammasat, 1733-52). Many of the dhammasatthas written in the early Konbaung period are retellings or recastings of Tipiṭakalaṅkāra’s and Kaingza’s Manusāra. Some authors of the eighteenth century, such as Letwe Nauratha and Ñāṇālaṅkāra, discussed the Manu/Mahāsammata story in comparison to what was handed down in Pāli texts.

The late eighteenth century sees the import of Sanskrit dharmaśāstras mostly prominent in Bengal with mainly marriage and inheritance law. These were transliterated into the Burmese script probably under the direction of the monk Ñāṇābhivaṃsa. But they seem to not have had a lasting impact in Burma.

Ariyāvaṃsa, one of the most influential persons in the nineteenth century, like others before him rejected the cosmic origin of the law, declaring it to be made by the first king of the world (Mahāsammata) and to be Buddhist law, because it was made by Buddhists. The first dhammasattha of the Konbaung era, which is not only a reedition of an earlier dhammasattha, is Khemācāra’s Vinicchayarāsī (1768 CE). It differs by beginning with salutatory Pāli verses taken over from fifth-century Pāli commentaries and by restricting dhammasattha to laity. It sets out to validate the dhammasattha by comparing it with the “teaching of the Buddha” (buddhavacana), using the four means taught in Pāli commentarial literature: it can be shown to having been stated in a canonical text (sutta), or to conforming to what has been stated in a canonical text (suttānuloma), or to belonging to the opinions of the elders who participated in the first joint recitation one year after the Buddha’s demise (theravāda), or to belonging to “one’s own opinion” (attanomati), which covers all statements of monks different from the elders included by theravāda.

The dhammasatthas most widely circulated in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were the three written by Vaṇṇadhamma Kyaw Htin. The first of these, Manusāra rhve myañ (1769), is a revision of the Manusāra pāha with a new nissaya; the second, Vinicchayapakāsanī (1771), is a “reworking of Kaingza’s Mahārājasat”; and the last, Manuvaṇṇanā (1772), is a nissaya on laws transmitted in a variety of dhammasatthas (p. 164). Lammerts reveals the innovations in Vaṇṇadhamma’s treatment of inheritance law compared with his source texts, indicating that Vaṇṇadhamma made explicit discrepancies between dhammasattha and vinaya law to an unusual degree.

The eighteenth century also saw a new development, namely, the production of histories of dhammasatthas, a kind of bibliography of this genre. This resulted from the assumption that dhammasatthas were products of worldly legislation and thus needed to be situated in specific temporal contexts. Four such bibliographies (by Khemācāra, Vaṇṇadhamma, Letwe Sundara, and Ariyāvaṃsa) are given in the appendix.

Finally, Lammerts looks at the development of dhammasattha law in the context of more general currents that were crucial for the juridical reformulations, such as concerns of donors who sponsored the copying of the piakat and wanted to be sure that what was copied was the word of the Buddha or its authorized commentators, and thus yields merit. Or the intramonastic competition of mainly regional saghas without direct relations with the Burmese throne, which started “to represent themselves as more worthy of patronage than others due to their stricter adherence to the letter of the vinaya” (p. 176). As the basis for economic wealth, the dhammasatthas made merit-making possible in the first place.

Chapter 6 begins with a summary of key findings of the preceding chapters and then proceeds to examine why dhammasatthas were still produced in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, how, for whom, and to what end. Lammerts singles out judges as the main recipients, and subsequently he discusses who acted as judges and which kind of judges were mentioned in the texts.

Lammerts thus traces the development of the dhammasattha literature of Burma from the first securely datable beginnings to colonial times and draws a vivid picture of the dynamic changes of this genre and the law represented in it. He does this by reading treatises that are for the most part available only in unedited manuscripts. The fact that thereby many ideas established in secondary literature for decades are proven wrong shows how important it is on the one side to use this material and on the other to make it available to a wider readership through editions and translations. In addition to the overarching theme, Lammerts enriches the book by a wealth of individual observations scrupulously researched and offers many avenues for discussion.[3] In the process, he creates an excellent starting point for further investigations.[4] This comprehensive study is the first to meticulously analyze the dhammasattha treatises and related texts in such depth and breadth. Clearly written and thoroughly well printed, this book will certainly have a long-lasting impact and undoubtedly serve as a standard reference work for Buddhist law and the dhammasattha literature.[5]


[1]. I thank Alastair Gornall (Singapore) for correcting and improving my English.

[2]. For some critical thoughts concerning Lammerts’s observations about the relation between dharmaśāstra and dhammasattha, see the reviews of the present book by Donald R. Davis Jr., Journal of the American Academy of Religion 87, no. 2 (June 2019): 546-49, esp. 548ff,; and Gregory Kourilsky, “De la ‘dynamique’ du droit bouddhique birman,” Bulletin de l’École française d’Extrȇme-Orient 104 (2018): 377-85, esp. 382ff,

[3]. The Pāli portions in many dhammasatthas are often corrupt according to Lammerts, so that he sometimes reconstructs the lines. Some of his choices are ones that one might disagree with. For example, there is a question whether one should go even further in the reconstruction by reading (with the nissaya) dhana tassa vilumpitvā for dhanatassa vilumpitvā. Concerning the presentation of Pāli one should think whether it would not be more reader friendly to mark elisions and to write ther’ eka for thereka; labhat’ eka for labhateka; pokkharaī c uyyānaka for pokkharaīcuyyānaka, etc. (pp. 232n80, 244n135). The rendering of sammukhibhūta sagha as “the monks resident at the monastery” or as “local community” is not completely correct, since this term refers to the community present at a specific moment within a sīmā and thus could also include guest monks; pabbajitaparikkhāra is translated as “requisites of ordination,” but “requisites of the ordained” would be closer to the Pāli (pp. 39, 41, 243n121, 112). Perhaps Lammerts here follows the interpretation of the nissaya.

[4]. Let me add a few remarks. In the list of manuscripts to be kept by the monastery given in Sirīsaṅghapāla’s Vinaya Decisions a “Major” and a “Minor Vinayasagaha” are listed and discussed by Lammerts (pp. 42, 216n96). Recently I came across a Burmese palm leaf manuscript of the Fragile Palm Leaves Collection, no. 3048 (dating from 1866), which contains Sāriputta’s Vinayasagaha (= imuttakavinayavinicchayasagaha, foll. ka.v–dhaṃ.r) designated among others as Mahāvinayasagahapakaraa (fol. dhaṃ.r10) in the text and a Vinayasagahasakhepapakaraa (foll. dhāḥ.v–bai.r), which is an abbreviated version of the former created by omitting sentences and paragraphs of the longer version. It could well be that this abbreviated version was considered a “Minor Vinayasagaha.

In connection with the story of the inheritance of a ruby ring Lammerts states: “In the ‘Discourse on the Property of the Dead’ (Matasantakakathā) and its commentaries, introduced in chapter 2, the Pali vinaya forbids the inheritance of monastic property by laypersons in all instances except when a layperson has served as a ‘supporter of the sick’ (gilanupaṭṭhaka) to a monk prior to his death. Any lay or monastic ‘supporter of the sick’ is thus entitled to inherit a certain share of the deceased monk’s personal (puggalika) property” (p. 75). Lammerts uses the words “Pali vinaya” in the Burmese sense of applying to the entire tradition of monastic law, comprising the root-texts and commentaries, not, as one could understand, the Vinaya root text only. But in the present context a diversification could be possible, since the Vinaya root text (Vin I 303,27–305,14 = Mahāvagga VIII.27.1–5) does not mention laypersons as supporters of a sick but only monks or novices. The extension to laypersons occurs only in the commentary to the Vinaya, the Samantapāsādikā (Sp V 1134,1–4.13–15). In examining the Manusāra’s position concerning inheritance law, Lammerts states: “Manusāra excludes the laity from having any share at all in monastic inheritance, even in cases where a layperson may have acted as a supporter of a sick and dying monk (gilānupatthāka).” He, therefore, concludes that the Manusāra in this regard “prescribes even stronger laws prohibiting the lay inheritance of monastic property than does vinaya legislation” (p. 114). This from the Burmese point of view is correct, but from the Pāli material it only hits the point if we do not differentiate between the Vinaya root text and its commentary. Otherwise the Manusāra is in perfect agreement with the Vinaya.

Concerning the Pāli term aṭṭa (variant aḍḍa), Lammerts states that Pāli aṭṭa is occasionally glossed in dhammasattha texts as “law” and that its more conventional meaning in Pāli is “lawsuit” (p. 229n33). Here I would like to add a reference to Oskar von Hinüber’s article (“Buddhist Law according to the Theravāda-Vinaya,” Journal of the International Association of Buddhist Studies 18, no. 1 (1995): 7-45, esp. 30) who hints at a passage of the Samantapāsādikā, where aṭṭa is said to refer to “a law suit” in secular law, whereas in monastic law adhikaraa is used, and aṭṭa is defined as that which is decided by judges (vohārika-vinicchayo, Sp 906,24–25).              

[5]. Whether hatthapāde (p. 60) in the nissaya instead of hatthapādehi as in the ha is a typo or a fault of the manuscript, is uncertain. The link given for Alexey Kirichenko’s documents does not work (p. 247n162). I found the documents at (accessed August 11, 2019). 

Citation: Petra Kieffer-Pulz. Review of Lammerts, D. Christian, Buddhist Law in Burma: A History of Dhammasattha Texts and Jurisprudence, 1250-1850. H-Buddhism, H-Net Reviews. March, 2020. URL:

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