Buddhist View On Capital Punishment

Buddhism and Capital Punishment
Most world major religions take an ambiguous perspective on capital punishment. This also applies to Buddhism, a diverse religion with various regional traditions. Even though the Buddha believed in non-violence and compassion for all living beings, he didn’t speak specific doctrines on capital punishment.

The First Precept teaches that one should refrain from taking the life of any living being. The Buddha also did not support physical punishment, claiming that an action cannot be regarded as a good action if it brings physical and mental suffering to others.

The Buddha said: ”If a person foolishly does me wrong, I will return to him the protection of my boundless love. The more evil that comes from him, the more good will go from me.”

In terms of death penalty, some Buddhist countries hold the view that the death penalty is permissible if used in a right way. Secular countries like Korea and Japan are against the death penalty, while Thailand and Sri Lanka take a pro-death penalty stance. However, almost all Buddhist groups consider that the death penalty is not a means of retribution.

Buddhism and Punishment
Buddhism believes in the cycle of death and life. The consequences of punishment will affect the incarnation of both the offender and the punisher.

Buddhism thrusts a strong view upon the morality of punishment:

  • Inhumane punishment of an offender won’t solve his wrongdoings or those of humanity in general. The best treatment of an offender is reformatory but not punitive.
  • The extent of punishment should be scaled to a limit where an offender’s crime exerts an bad influence on the general. The punishment should fit the crime.
  • Punishing an offender with cruelty will not only impair the mind of the offender, but also the punisher’s mind.

2 responses to Buddhist View On Capital Punishment

  1. I’m sorry to contradict you one one point, but in Japan, there is death penalty. Every year, about 3 or 4 times in the year, they execute prisoners by hanging. In July 2010, for example, 4 inmates were executed. They always talk about it in the news and most people are for the death penalty.

  2. Mercy, Redemption & the Death Penalty
    Dudley Sharp

    1) Saint Augustine confirms that ” . . . inflicting capital punishment . . . protects those who are undergoing capital punishment from the harm they may suffer . . . through increased sinning which might continue if their life went on.” (On the Lord’s Sermon, 1.20.63-64.)

    2) Saint Thomas Aquinas finds that ” . . . the death inflicted by the judge profits the sinner, if he be converted, unto the expiation of his crime; and, if he be not converted, it profits so as to put an end to the sin, because the sinner is thus deprived of the power to sin anymore.” (Summa Theologica, II-II, 25, 6 ad 2.)

    3) Quaker, biblical scholar Dr. Gervas A. Carey:

    “. . . a secondary measure of the love of God may be said to appear. For capital punishment provides the murderer with incentive to repentance which the ordinary man does not have, that is a definite date on which he is to meet his God. It is as if God thus providentially granted him a special inducement to repentance out of consideration of the enormity of his crime . . . the law grants to the condemned an opportunity which he did not grant to his victim, the opportunity to prepare to meet his God. Even divine justice here may be said to be tempered with mercy.” (1) (p. 116).

    4) Romano Amerio, a faithful Catholic Vatican insider, scholar, professor at the Academy of Lugano, consultant to the Preparatory Commission of Vatican II, and a peritus (expert theologian) at the Council.

    “The most irreligious aspect of this argument against capital punishment is that it denies its expiatory value which, from a religious point of view, is of the highest importance because it can include a final consent to give up the greatest of all worldly goods.

    This fits exactly with St. Thomas’s opinion that as well as canceling out any debt that the criminal owes to civil society, capital punishment can cancel all punishment due in the life to come. His thought is . . . Summa, ‘Even death inflicted as a punishment for crimes takes away the whole punishment due for those crimes in the next life, or a least part of that punishment, according to the quantities of guilt, resignation and contrition; but a natural death does not.’

    The moral importance of wanting to make expiation also explains the indefatigable efforts of the Confraternity of St. John the Baptist Beheaded, the members of which used to accompany men to their deaths, all the while suggesting, begging and providing help to get them to repent and accept their deaths, so ensuring that they would die in the grace of God, as the saying went.” (2)

    Some opposing capital punishment ” . . . go on to assert that a life should not be ended because that would remove the possibility of making expiation, is to ignore the great truth that capital punishment is itself expiatory. In a humanistic religion expiation would of course be primarily the converting of a man to other men. On that view, time is needed to effect a reformation, and the time available should not be shortened. In God’s religion, on the other hand, expiation is primarily a recognition of the divine majesty and lordship, which can be and should be recognized at every moment, in accordance with the principle of the concentration of one’s moral life.” (2)

    Some death penalty opponents “deny the expiatory value of death; death which has the highest expiatory value possible among natural things, precisely because life is the highest good among the relative goods of this world; and it is by consenting to sacrifice that life, that the fullest expiation can be made. And again, the expiation that the innocent Christ made for the sins of mankind was itself effected through his being condemned to death.” (2)

    5) The Catechism of The Roman Catholic Church (2005) states: “The primary scope of the penalty is to redress the disorder caused by the offense.” “When his punishment is voluntarily accepted by the offender, it takes on the value of expiation.” 2266

    This is a specific reference to justice, just retribution, just deserts and the like, all of which redress the disorder.

    We must first recognize the guilt/sin/crime of the aggressor and hold them accountable for that crime/sin/disorder by way of penalty, meaning the penalty should be just and appropriate for the sin/crime/disorder and should represent justice, retributive justice, just deserts and their like which “redress the disorder caused by the offence” or to correct an imbalance, as defined within the example of 2260

    “For your lifeblood I will surely require a reckoning…. Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed; for God made man in his own image.” “This teaching remains necessary for all time.”

    6) Jesus: Now one of the criminals hanging there reviled Jesus, saying, “Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us.” The other, however, rebuking him, said in reply, “Have you no fear of God, for you are subject to the same condemnation? And indeed, we have been condemned justly, for the sentence we received corresponds to our crimes, but this man has done nothing criminal.” Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” (Jesus) replied to him, “Amen, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” Luke 23: 39-43

    Mercy, salvation and redemption will not be measured by the method of our earthly death , but by our state of grace in the context of the eternal.

    7) The Humanitarian Theory of Punishment C.S. Lewis

    “According to the Humanitarian theory, to punish a man because he deserves it, and as much as he deserves, is mere revenge, and, therefore, barbarous and immoral. It is maintained that the only legitimate motives for punishing are the desire to deter others by example or to mend the criminal. ”

    “I believe that the “Humanity” which it claims is a dangerous illusion and disguises the possibility of cruelty and injustice without end. I urge a return to the traditional or Retributive theory not solely, not even primarily, in the interests of society, but in the interests of the criminal.”

    “The reason is this. The Humanitarian theory removes from Punishment the concept of Desert. But the concept of Desert is the only connecting link between punishment and justice. It is only as deserved or undeserved that a sentence can be just or unjust.”

    “My contention is that this (Humanitarian) doctrine, merciful though it appears, really means that each one of us, from the moment he breaks the law, is deprived of the rights of a human being.”

    “Thus when we cease to consider what the criminal deserves and consider only what will cure him or deter others, we have tacitly removed him from the sphere of justice altogether . . .”.

    ” . . . in the process of giving him what he deserved you set an example to others. But take away desert and the whole morality of the punishment disappears. Why, in Heaven’s name, am I to be sacrificed to the good of society in this way?—unless, of course, I deserve it. ”

    “The punishment of an innocent, that is , an undeserving, man is wicked only if we grant the traditional view that righteous punishment means deserved punishment.”

    “But to be punished, however severely, because we have deserved it, because we ‘ought to have known better’, is to be treated as a human person made in God’s image.”

    “This is why I think it essential to oppose the Humanitarian theory of punishment, root and branch, wherever we encounter it. It carries on its front a semblance of mercy which is wholly false. ”

    ” . . . the Humanitarian theory wants simply to abolish Justice and substitute Mercy for it. Mercy, detached from Justice, grows unmerciful. ”

    8) Why do parents punish their childen for transgressions? I think it easy to understand sanction of a child, by a parent, is a reflection in love.

    They want the child to understand the level of transgression, which is reflected in the degree of sanction (retribution), that the expected and hoped for result of that sanction is teaching, to encourage sorrow and apology that will be reflected in improved behavior, that such rehabilitation will result in a better person that will improve the total moral good (rehabilitation and redemption).

    Few are so naive as to believe that any or all of these can or will take place in many or most circumstances with criminals within a criminal justice system. It does, however, recognizes that sanction can be restorative and rehabilitative.

    9) Never Forget Mercy for the Innocent

    “The Death Penalty: More Protection for Innocents”


    1) synopsis of “A Bible Study”, from Essays on the Death Penalty, T. Robert Ingram, ed., St. Thomas Press, Houston, 1963, 1992. Dr. Carey was a Professor of Bible and past President of George Fox College.

    2) “Amerio on capital punishment “, Chapter XXVI, 187. The death penalty, from the book Iota Unum, May 25, 2007 ,

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