Buddhist View On Capital Punishment

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Buddhism was founded by a Hindu warrior prince from North Central India in about 500 BC (as reckoned by Western time). The prince became a Buddha "meaning an enlightened one" - after leaving his family and trying for years with various teachers to find a way towards "enlightenment". This eventually came to him as he sat in mediation beneath a tree. He is not regarded as a god, although his image is worshipped and used as an object for mediation. Buddha is the supreme teacher; Buddhism does not have a concept of god, in the same sense as in theistic religions.

Buddhism teaches that all human beings have the potential to achieve or arrive at enlightenment by their own moral and spiritual efforts. Buddhists hold that life is characterised by suffering and that we are bound in an eternal cycle of life, death and rebirth into another life of suffering.

Only by living a morally and spiritually proper human life can one escape the eternal wheel of suffering and instead of being reborn, enter the state of "Nirvana", enlightenment, where suffering is ended.

The link between one life and the next is "karma", the result of one life's deeds which determines whether the next life is located higher or lower in the scale of living beings and thus potentially nearer to or further from achieving the enlightened state. To be born human, towards to top of the scale, is the result of good deeds, of moral behaviour in previous existences.

Good deeds and thoughts have their own reward - taking you nearer to the goal of Nirvana - and likewise wrongful behaviour and thoughts result in their own punishment - that of binding the wrongdoer more firmly to the wheel of suffering and rebirth. Karma, both good and bad, is inevitable. There is no need of a God to judge or to punish, or to prescribe punishment or to give authority to men to punish.

Buddhist teaching, as handed down orally and then contained in various revered texts (notably the "Dhammapada"), stresses the way a human being should live in order to strive for and attain the goal of enlightenment. By contrast with other religions, the "law" of the Buddha is more like "advice" for the individual's earthly and spiritual journey, for the way to generate good karma and, in a sense, avoid the punishment which necessarily follows wrong doing or wrongful thoughts and passions.

The central idea of the Buddha's teaching is a scheme of moral and spiritual improvement, the Noble Eightfold Path, which describes what is Right View, Resolve, Speech, Action, Livelihood, Effort, Concentration and Contemplation. Right Action is set out in a number of precepts which necessarily follows wrongdoing of wrongful thoughts and passions. The first of these is to abstain from taking life. The Buddha's path is equally clear on the attitudes that will help or hinder one's progress. The injunctions on Right View and Right Resolve make it clear that there cannot be any question of acting in a spirit of revenge, of hatred or with a desire for retribution. These concepts are quite alien to Buddhist thinking on crime and punishment. Indeed, Buddhism regards all strong desires, cravings and passions as both the root cause of suffering and obstacles to enlightenment. Actions and attitudes should be characterised by compassion.

Of course Buddhist societies do have to have some codes of punishment to be administered by human beings towards their fellow human beings for the crimes they have committed in this life, if only to protect society from further criminal activity. The Buddha's teachings, by focusing on the individual (and the rules of behaviour for monks and nuns) do not comment on how society and the community is to be protected. But if punishments are to be administered in accordance with the teachings, this should be done in a spirit of compassion, aimed at helping the criminals along their path of life by correcting them, giving them a chance to do good deeds to earn merit (good karma) that would compensate for the bad karma they have earned by their crime.

Moreover those administering the punishment should not do anything to earn themselves bad karma and should observe the teachings on Right Livelihood (which would argue against being an executioner) and above all observe the first precept of Right Action - to abstain from taking life.

The Sri Lankan Foundation Human Rights Centre writes: The Right to life is recognised in the very first Precept (of the Five Precepts, namely Pancasila) that the Buddhist layman is expected to observe. Buddhism both in the realm of religion as well as philosophy, begins with an insight into a fundamental consideration that all life has a desire to safeguard itself and to make itself comfortable and happy. This is the ethical assumption on which the Buddhist concept of human rights is founded. The Dhammapada for instance, categorically asserts that "all beings desire happiness" and that "life is dear to every living being". It tenders advice that "having taken one's own self for comparison (with other human beings) one should neither harm nor kill". It will be noted, then that Buddhist thought extends the right to life to the animal kingdom as well. In Buddhist religious life, the philosophy of maitri and avihimsa, universal love and non-violence, derives its validity from this position. Furthermore, as Buddhism looks at it, a living being's progress in the "upward way" to perfection ought not to be interfered with by not allowing its life to run its full course on earth. This has been succinctly expressed in "The Light of Asia" by Sir Edwin Arnold when he penned the words: "Kill not for pity's sake, lest ye slay The meanest thing upon its upward way." Since, the Buddhist context, the taking of life of even the meanest thing cannot be condoned, capital punishment is repugnant to Buddhism. Punishment should be reformatory, not punitive. All forms of retaliation are ruled out, for, as the Dhammapada says, "Hatred does not cease by hated; hatred ceases only by love; this is the eternal law". (Dh. 1.5.)