A Brief Introduction to a Buddhist View of the Death Penalty

A Brief Introduction to a Buddhist View of the Death Penalty 

Jin-ker WEN *


      Buddhism has had great influence in the history of Asia. Buddhist doctrines are still deeply rooted in people’s minds. According to research conducted in Taiwan, Buddhist scriptures reflect a clear and strong attitude against the death penalty. Historically Buddhist teachings have had a substantial impact on penalty policy in a number of countries. Given the current trend to abolish the death penalty promoted by international human rights groups, Buddhism can provide traditional thought and faith-based resources to urge those Asian countries where the death penalty has not yet been abolished to reflect upon their use of this form of punishment. 

The impact of the Buddhist attitude against the death penalty on history  

      Buddhism is probably the first religion that clearly opposes the death penalty. It advocates the abolition of the death penalty, and exerts its influence where Buddhism is prevalent.

      In the third century BC, with King Aśoka’s conversion to Buddhism, Buddhism became prevalent in India and spread to become an international religion within Asia. Through Aśoka’s open advocacy of Buddhism, the Buddhist view of the death penalty gradually extended its influence over all India, as well as other areas where Buddhism was popular.

      Between the fifth and eighth centuries AD, Buddhist monks who travelled from China to India all mentioned in their biographies that there was no death penalty in India.

      Buddhism was disseminated in China. Although no abolition of the death penalty has been documented, yet during a number of dynasties, remission and mitigation of the death penalty were granted for religious reasons or on feast days. In Japan the death penalty was suspended from 810 to 1156 AD. In Tibet a Buddhist legal system was established and the death penalty has been abolished since 1349.  

The doctrine and practice of opposition to the death penalty 

      According to Buddhism, those who pursue absolute spiritual freedom shall hold to the discipline of doing no harm to other lives, and adopt a merciful attitude to protect other lives from harm. An attitude that opposes the death penalty has developed under this principle.

      The root cause of Buddhist opposition to death penalty is the Buddhist principle of ahimsa, which means ‘no killing’. An act of killing takes place under three conditions: first of all, the sought-after targets of killing must have lives. Second, there has to be an attempt to seek to take someone’s life. Third, an act of killing is carried out. Under these conditions, the crime of killing is committed whether it is done by oneself, or ordered, accepted, encouraged, or praised by someone else.

      In Buddhism, murderers, executioners, and judges, who sentence to death, have all committed the crime of killing, which will cause them to enter hell in their afterlives.

      Under the influence of this belief, stories in Buddhist scriptures even mention how the Sudra, the untouchables, insist on refusing to become executioners and even lay down their life for this belief. 

 Moreover, given an attitude of opposition to the death penalty, a Buddhist litigant in a murder case or family of victims would insist on refusing to impose the death penalty on murderers. The story of how the renowned Mahamaudgalyagana did not seek revenge after he was killed is very well-known.

      Opposition to execution by oneself or for oneself, and the redemption of those who are facing the death penalty manifest the Buddhist attitude against the death penalty.

      According to three passages documented in the biography, the founder of Buddhism, Śakyamuni Buddha, or Gautama Buddha, helped redeem and remit criminals before their execution, and taught them to become Buddhist saints, Arhats.  

      Inspired by these passages, in Mahayana, the principle of ahimsa includes not only abstinence from the act of killing but also the saving of lives. In Mahayana sutras, rescuing criminals facing capital punishment is an indispensable step in order to become a Buddha.

      The most familiar Buddha who rescues those who are facing the death penalty is Avalokiteśvara, or Guanyin in Chinese. According to the Buddhist classics, once criminals who are about to be executed call on the name of Avalokiteśvara, the executioner’s sword will shatter and shards fall off. This belief in Avalokiteśvara is quite well-known. 

      According to the Buddhist view of the history of the evolution of the world, all sin and suffering in human society comes from punishments, killings and theft. To cease killing is crucial to the beginnings of global purification. Only by abolishing the death penalty and stopping all killing can the purification of society be activated. 

      The ideal political figure in Buddhism is called ‘a wheel-turning king’, raja cakkavattin. The characteristics of a wheel-turning king are his practice of the ten wholesome ways of action. The first of the actions is ahimsa.

      All the above shows that the political ideal of Buddhism is to establish a society without the death penalty and a society in which benevolence is cultivated. Since the beginning of modern times, the movement towards the abolition of death penalty, based on Western ideas of justice and human rights, justifies our expectation of a benevolent society and matches our Buddhist ideals.

*Jin-ker Wen, is a senior producer at Radio Taiwan International. He is an amateur researcher in Buddhism and has published several books on Buddhism. He is concerned with the issues on the death penalty. He published a book on Buddhist opposition to death penalty in 2006. 

Translation by Joyce CHANG