Law and Karma: Dalai Lama to speak publicly for first time about the law and social change

by John DellaContrada, UB NewsCenter, Aug 28, 2006

BUFFALO, N.Y.  (USA)-- In his very first visit to a U.S. law school conference, His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama will publicly share for the first time his thoughts on how religion, particularly Buddhism, can influence law and bring about social change.

The conference, "Law, Buddhism and Social Change: A Conversation with the Dalai Lama," will be held Sept. 20-21 at the University at Buffalo Law School. An intimate two-hour discussion between the Dalai Lama and legal practitioners and scholars from around the world will open the conference at 9 a.m. on Sept. 20. For more information, go to

"This will be one of the first times the Dalai Lama has been asked about legal subject matter," says UB Law School Professor and conference organizer Rebecca French, an international authority on Tibetan law and author of "The Golden Yoke," the first book on Buddhist legal traditions in Tibet.

"It will be fascinating to hear the Dalai Lama describe the best way, from a Buddhist perspective, to think about punishment, rehabilitation and retribution, and I suspect the conversation will address how Buddhist beliefs might influence the U.S. legal system," adds French, who notes that the Dalai Lama has participated in a series of similar public forums on the subject of science and the mind.

The conference is being organized by the Baldy Center for Law and Social Policy and the UB Law School. It is being offered in conjunction with the Dalai Lama's visit to UB, Sept. 18-20,

French expects the conversation between the Dalai Lama and the scholars in attendance to be quite expansive, covering issues ranging from how constitutions provide social order, the purpose of criminal punishment and the Karmic consequences of legal decisions.

The Dalai Lama also may discuss his thoughts on governmental control of personal freedoms. The Dalai Lama has spoken before on the detrimental effects of TV on American society, and may comment on whether the government has an obligation to restrict unhealthy behaviors, French says.

The UB Law School is home to the Law and Buddhism Project, the world's first and only center for the study of law and Buddhism. A goal of the conference and of the Law and Buddhism Project, directed by French, is to introduce Buddhist legal concepts to the U.S. legal system, says UB Law School Dean Nils Olsen.

"It is truly a great honor that the Dalai Lama has chosen to speak at our law school and discuss issues that go to the heart of law and morality," says Olsen.

"U.S. law schools and universities have a long tradition of studying legal principles found in Judaism, Christianity, Islam and Hinduism," Olsen explains. "The serious study of Buddhist legal traditions in the U.S. is long overdue. Buddhism, like other world religions, can have a very positive effect on our understanding of morality and law."

A legal anthropologist who has spent several summers studying Tibetan law at the Dalai Lama's compound in India, French says Buddhist concepts of Karma, human interconnectedness and reincarnation could have a positive effect on the U.S. legal system, and should be studied.

"Buddhists believe that you can't have closure in a case unless all parties are in agreement with the decision, and unless the whole network of people affected by the case is compensated. From this process, you have a social catharsis; you have a feeling that society has been healed.

"In the U.S. legal system, one individual gets into friction with another individual, and from that spark of friction one person wins and one person loses," French explains. "Very little thought is given to interconnectedness of people and how the decision affects all the individuals involved in the case. This process often produces anger, social isolation and unhappiness with our legal system.

"Ultimately, I would like to coordinate all of the Buddhist lawyers in the U.S. and help bring people together to introduce compassion and Buddhism to the American legal system," she adds.

French says Americans today seek a better understanding of how religion and morality shape society's values. Faith-based political initiatives and debates over the constitutionality of public religious displays are examples of how American society is attempting to reconcile morality, law and religion, she says. Awareness and study of the religious foundations of law can provide guidance to legal practitioners and the lay person, French contends.

"Understanding the moral foundations of our society and our legal system is essential for understanding who we are as a people and a nation," she says. "Thinking through other religious legal systems is one of the best ways to understand the moral foundations of our own legal system, and is one of the few ways to bring in absolutely new ideas that people can ponder."

Conference participants will include: French; Timothy Brook, professor of history, University of British Columbia; Georges Dreyfus, professor of religion, Williams College; Kenneth Ehrenberg, assistant professor of philosophy, UB; David Engel, SUNY Distinguished Professor, UB Law School; Leslie Gunawardana, professor, University of Peradeniya, Sri Lanka; George Hezel, professor of law, UB Law School; Andrew Huxley, senior lecturer in law, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London; James Magavern, senior partner, Magavern, Magavern & Grimm; Fernanda Pirie, research fellow, Center for Socio-Legal Studies, University of Oxford; Frank Reynolds, professor emeritus of the history of religions, University of Chicago; Kenneth Shockley, assistant professor of philosophy, UB; Winnifred Fallers Sullivan, associate professor of law, UB Law School; Vesna Wallace, associate professor of religious studies, University of California, Santa Barbara; and Richard Whitecross, research fellow, School of Social and Political Studies, University of Edinburgh.

The University at Buffalo is a premier research-intensive public university, the largest and most comprehensive campus in the State University of New York.

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