Buddhist Should Oppose Capital Punishment
By Damien P. Horigan
Today in South Korea there is growing interfaith movement to abolish the death penalty. Some Buddhists have joined this movement already, but I feel that more Buddhists should support the drive to eliminate the death penalty in Korea.
Most countries in Europe and Latin America have already abolished the death penalty for all crimes. Moreover, many of these nations have ratified special regional human rights treaties for either Europe or the Western Hemisphere that outlaw the use of the death penalty. There is also a United Nations (UN) treaty that a number of nations have ratified outlawing capital punishment.
A number of countries in regions outside of Europe and Latin America have abolished capital punishment as well. Some of these nations are developed Western nations such as Australia, Canada, and New Zealand whereas others are developing non-Western nations in Asia like Cambodia, in Africa like Namibia, or in the South Pacific like Vanuatu.
In the case of the United States, we need to consider the fact that there are both federal and state crimes. Some crimes are tried by federal courts whereas other crimes are tried by state courts. For instance, murder is normally a state crime that is handled by state courts, but sometimes it can be a federal crime as well.
In the United States, the death penalty has been retained at the federal level. Also, many of the individual states in the United States have retained it. Texas, for example, carries out executions on a regular basis. However, some states in the United States have abolished capital punishment at the state level i.e., for state crimes. My home state of Hawaii is a good example of a state that has abolished capital punishment.
Here in South Korea the death penalty is theoretically available as punishment for a number of crimes including offenses under the controversial National Security Law, but nobody has been executed since Kim Dae-jung became president
On a couple of occasions bills have been introduced in the National Assembly to eliminate the death penalty. I feel that Buddhists should support any such move to abolish capital punishment.
But, why should Buddhists support the abolition of the death penalty?
Non-violence (Sanskrit: ahimsa) is an important part of Buddhist teachings. As most readers of The Dongguk Post probably know, the First Precept of the Five Precepts
(Panca Sila) teaches that we should not kill. To me, the fact that not killing is the first precept indicates its importance in the field of Buddhist ethics.
Ahimsa is related to the concept of karma. Killing another sentient being has karmic consequences.
Merely witnessing an execution can be a disturbing experience. In one of the Jataka tales, which are stories of the past lives of Sakyamuni Buddha, we learn about a young prince named Temiya. Temiyas father was Kasikaraj, the King of Benares.
At the tender age of nine, Temiya witnessed the execution of four bandits. The executions had been ordered by his father. The event horrified Temiya. He was afraid that one day he would become king and would have to order such executions.
The young prince then pretended to be deaf and dumb in order to avoid ascending to the throne. This continued for a number of years. Eventually, Temiya resolves his dilemma by becoming a recluse. By his example, he is finally able to influence his father.
In this Jataka, we are told that Temiya was the historical Buddha in a past life.
Buddhism teaches that all sentient beings have Buddha Nature (Sanskrit: Buddhata). All sentient beings deserve to be happy. All sentient beings have the potential to become Buddhas someday.
No many how depraved an individual might be, he has the potential to become enlightened.
In the Pali Canon, there is the famous story of a murder named Angulimala. In todays terms, we would call Angulimala a serial killer. Angulimala lived in a forest and the local king had organized a large search party to arrest Angulimala. However, Sakayamuni Buddha went into the forest by himself to look for Angulimala not to arrest him, but to save him.
Although Angulimala had killed many people, Sakyamuni Buddha was able to show Angulimala the right path. Eventually, Angulimala was reformed by the Buddha. In fact, Angulimala became a great monk even though he had killed many people. When the king learned of Angulimalas transformation, he was amazed.
Some Buddhist rulers
Throughout history, a number of Buddhist rulers have abolished the death penalty.
The Indian Emperor Ashoka (2nd century B.C.E.), who was a great supporter of Buddhism, appears to have possibly abolished the death penalty although we cannot be completely certain about that. In any event, non-violence became an important part of Ashokas policies. For example, Ashoka apparently served vegetarian meals in his palace.
There are accounts of a number of other kings in Ancient India who apparently abolished the death penalty. The writings of the 8th century Korean monk Hye Cho
( ) is a good source of information on this topic.
King Beop of Baekje
Korean history also has a similar ruler. In the Samguk Yusa there is a story about a king of Baekje named King Beop i.e., Beop Wang (circa 600 C.E.).
King Beop was a supporter of Buddhism. He established a couple of temples and arranged to have a number of monks ordained.
Most interestingly, he placed a ban on killing. King Beops ban included a ban on killing animals. Among other things, this ban on killing can be seen as an Ancient Korean precedent for abolishing the death penalty.
Based on Buddhist teachings and Buddhist history, I would like to urge all Buddhists in Korea to oppose the death penalty.
The writer is an American lawyer and an Assistant Professor at the Ewha Graduate School of International Studies in Seoul.
Damien P. Horigan firstname.lastname@example.org
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