Buddhism & The Death Penalty

On Sept. 28, the state of Florida executed Manuel Valle after he spent 33 years on death row. On Sept. 21, the state of Georgia took Troy Davis’s life, despite a lack of evidence proving his guilt. On the same day, the white supremacist Lawrence Brewer was killed by lethal injection by the state of Texas, despite the a request by the victim’s family that the district attorney not seek the death penalty.

Buddhists, along with a growing number of members of other religions, believe that the death penalty is fundamentally unethical. From the Buddhist perspective, non-violence, or not harming others, is the heart of the Buddha’s teachings.

Everyone has the ability to uproot negative, self-centered thoughts and instead nourish an open engagement with others. In doing so, we find true happiness and fulfill our potential as human beings. Manuel Valle, Troy Davis, and Lawrence Brewer and the 3,200 inmates on death row will not have this opportunity.

According to Buddhism, everything that happens in our lives is the result of causes and conditions. Nothing happens at random. Every action gives rise to results that we experience immediately or in the future. By not committing any of the five non-virtuous actions (killing, lying, stealing, sexual misconduct, taking intoxicants), we ensure that we ourselves are not victims of murder, theft, etc. Likewise, when we do experience such misfortunes, we recognize that they arise in our lives only because of similar actions we committed in the past.

We bear full responsibility for our present and future lives, both for the positive and negative experiences.

In the works of a great Tibetan scholar, the Sakya Pandita, “Howsoever anyone breaks the law, they may win for a while, but in the end, they lose.” Even though someone may appear to get away with breaking the law, in the long run, he/she will experience the results of the negative action. Karma, the law of cause and effect, is definite and not subject to the inequities and arbitrariness of any legal system. As such, the death penalty is unnecessary, because the person who violates the law by committing murder will definitely bear the horrible, irreversible karmic consequences.

In the Dhammapada, we find the following verses:

“Whoever harms with violence

those who are gentle and innocent,

to one of these ten states

that person quickly descends:

he would beget

severe suffering;

deprivation and fracturing

of the body; or grave illness, too;

mental imbalance;

trouble from the government;

cruel slander;

loss of relatives;

or obstruction of property.”

Both murderers and supporters of the death penalty deserve our compassion because they will experience the karmic effects of killing. It may seem strange to generate compassion towards those who harm us. Buddha taught that our actions are influenced by causes and conditions; similarly our minds are poisoned by ignorance, attachment and hatred. When our minds are overcome by hatred, at that moment, we go crazy, and we are not able to control ourselves.

One of the defining scholars of Buddhism, Nagarjuna, wrote to a king: “Especially generate compassion for those whose ill deeds are horrible.” Punishment should be carried out with compassion, “not though hatred nor desire for wealth,” or for retribution, since retribution is another name for revenge; “revenge” implies the action is done with anger, and therefore would burden the executioner with hatred and its resultant poor karma.

His Holiness the Dalai Lama signed Amnesty International’s pledge against the death penalty several years ago, and has spoken out against it on multiple occasions. He opposes the death penalty because it punishes the person and not the action.

Buddhism does allow ending the life of another when it is done in self-defense, and the argument could be made that, sometimes, capital punishment could be viewed as a society’s attempt at self-defense. But when there are other means available to prevent a person from harming others, such as imprisonment, it would seem that the less lethal option should be favored.

Countering violence with violence only results in more violence. The true enemy is our own self-cherishing and self-grasping tendencies, and the negative behavior that we engage in to defend, protect, and sustain ourselves even at others’ expense.

Source: Originally written for faithstreet.com by Losang Tendrol, a nun in the Tibetan Buddhist tradition. She teaches meditation and Buddhism at the Guhyasamaja Buddhist Center in Reston. The Center was founded in 1994 and is affiliated with the Foundation for the Preservation of the Mahayana Tradition. The Center follows the Gelugpa tradition, the same lineage as His Holiness The Dalai Lama.