Sunday, December 6, 2009

How About A Complete Stay

For the first time ever in Singapore the High Court has granted a prisoner on death row a stay of execution. The prisoner, Yong Vui Kong, 21, was found guilty of drug trafficking. At a High Court hearing just days before the execution was due to be carried out Justice Woo Bih Li allowed the stay pending a hearing before the Court of Appeal to be held this coming Tuesday. Yong’s petition for clemency was rejected by the President on November 20th.Representing Yong, Mr. M. Ravi, argued that executing Yong before his appeal was heard violated his constitutional rights. The Court of Appeal have yet to hear Yong’s case, as it was withdrawn by his previous counsel, who had been assigned by the State. As the Court of Appeal is currently on vacation and unable to convene Mr Ravi asked the High Court to grant a stay of execution for Yong, until his application for an extension of time and a full appeal can be heard. After hearing arguments presented by both the defense and the prosecution, Justice Woo accepted Mr. Ravi’s request.This case has drawn attention to executions in Singapore which, together with Japan and the US, is the only fully developed country to retain the death penalty. It has created some interest within the Buddhist community also because Yong has converted to Buddhism during his time in prison. That his conversion is genuine is suggested by statements of contrition and his willingness to take his punishment.
Capital punishment is called brahmadanda or dandavadha) in Pali. The Tipitaka describes a number of gruesome ways criminals were executed during the Buddha’s time (M.I,87). It also records for us the words of a judge condemning a thief to death. 'Tie his hands behind his back with strong rope, shave his head, parade him through the streets to the sound of a harsh drum, take him out by the south gate and chop his head off!' (D.II,322). Horrible and heart-rending scenes were common at the places of execution. We read of a monk pleading with an executioner to dispatch a criminal quickly so as ‘to put him out of his miser’ (Vin.III,86).
The Buddha objected to capital punishment mainly because it involves cruelty and killing, thus contravening the first Precept. He said that judges who hand down cruel punishments, tormentors and executioners all practise wrong, literally ‘crue’l livelihood (kurura kammanta) and create much negative kamma for themselves (S.II,257).
Buddhism would also say that it is better to try to reform criminals and turn them into productive members of society rather than execute them. A king in the Jataka says of a wrongdoer: ‘I punish people according to justice but also with sympathy’. (Ja.III,442). This same point was made by the great Buddhist philosopher Nagarjuna in the 1st century CE: ‘Just as a son is punished out of the desire to make him worthy, so punishment should be inflicted with compassion and not through hatred or greed. Once you have judged angry murderers you should banish them without killing them’. This approach would seem to be more fitting with modern society.


yuri said...

A few days ago the Russian Supreme Court rejected all efforts to reintroduce capital punishment in the country. But the pressure was very strong, and if a referendum were organised the majority would be for the capital punishment. Four-five years ago while still trying to become a Christian, I was with the majority. But since I became a follower of the Buddha's teaching a strange change has taken place. Looking at people in, say, metro carriage I, though vaguely, feel their lives - and sometimes I see people who once committed an act of utmost violence or even murder. But I feel like all people around me were my children in former lives, and I look with deeply felt kindness at all including even those "dark" people. And surely I cannot imagine demanding a capital punishment for my "own children". Strange but true! :)

Soe am i said...

"But whoever develops mindfulness of death, thinking, 'O, that I might live for the interval that it takes to swallow having chewed up one morsel of food... for the interval that it takes to breathe out after breathing in, or to breathe in after breathing out, that I might attend to the Blessed One's instructions. I would have accomplished a great deal'" AN 6.19

a quote from translation of Maranassati Sutta from

Aaron said...

Hi Bhante,

Capital punishment is indeed easily the most controversial topic in society, and proponents of capital punishment generally assume that most people are incapable of good and need to be made to toe the line of the law by being shown extreme examples of what happens to those who disobey the law. It is this fundamental assumption that perhaps puts the Buddhist at odds with proponents of capital punishment.

Indeed, banishing someone, or in modern times, life imprisonment, is perhaps a much kinder way of dealing with evil-doers. However, keeping people alive comes with an economic price that has to be eventually borne by taxpayers. Otherwise, it would be perhaps equally cruel to scrimp on providing for the prisoner, leaving him in hunger and filth. In this respect, perhaps ending that person's life would be a better option.

Ultimately, I am against the death penalty even though I can perfectly understand some of the main arguments in favor of the death penalty. Again, issues such as this brings to mind the imperfections of being human, and this is another good opportunity to reflect on the teachings of the Buddha about the imperfection of life and how to escape it.

wizwman said...

Who gets worse kharma? The judge who handed down the sentence or the President who has power to pardon but did not, even though refusal is probably based on advice?
Perhaps we Buddhist should vote for a Buddhist candidate in the next President election if there is such a candidate.
In this case, the condemned person is barely into adulthood and was probably induced into committing the crime due to poverty and ignorance. He deserves compassion.

aah-haa said...

The simple premise of capital punishment is 'an eye for an eye'. No second chance, no rehabilitation. Once executed, there is no return. On the surface, it is barbaric even if carried out in the most humane manner. Any punishment must fit the crime but it is not easy to decide what is appropriate and fair. Most discussions on capital punishment centred on the cruelty of taking away the life of the offender, not about the victim who died of drug overdose/addiction. What about murders and violent crimes? While every life is sacred and any form of snuffing out life is to be discouraged, it is inevitable that killing takes place every moment. Using chemo to kill cancer cells is also killing. Spraying insecticide is also killing. Surgeons who choose to perform a dangerous operation (like separating the Iranian conjoint twin) have been accused of murder. It is a bit naive to say judges who hand out capital punishments and executioners are in the wrong livelihood. Buddhists should practice the First Precept but should not hold on to it dogmatically. Capital punishment has its purpose and should be applied carefully, judiciously, wisely, tempered with compassion, and as a last alternative resort befitting the very serious nature of the crime. Here, I must make a distinction between very serious crimes and those pertaining to incorrigibility. So, are drug traffickers incorrigible? Therefore, my concern is not capital punishment but whether it befits the crime.

Joshua said...

It is indeed heartening to know Buddhists do not condone the death penalty. It is my hope that we can also practice compassion for our fellow human beings by also speaking out against such practices in our own ways. If there's something we can do, and yet we don't, surely we are also somewhat responsible.

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no said...

There is a point, although skirted, has not been explicitly stated. It is that one of the purposes of the law is to prevent crime, not just to punish criminals. A severe punishment will serve to deter a severe crime. Thus capital punishment is there in the law to serve to deter the severest crime, which if not prevented will inflict great pain and suffering to people.

Thus it can be said that when a person commits a crime which will merit capital punishment in the law, he has chosen death by his own will. The judge does not mete out the punishment with hate or anger. The law simply reqires the punishment to be meted out. The act of killing in capital punishment does not have "evil intention" behind it.

However, this is not to say that "cruel and unusual punishments" are acceptable as forms of punishment.

Joshua said...

Anyone remember the story of Agulimara? The brigand who was murdering people and using their fingers to make necklaces for himself, and how he was redeemed by the Buddha. (you can read it here-

I'm guessing it's a powerful story about giving people second chances, and trusting that paying the debts of karma doesn't need to be with one's life.

aah-haa said...

Story of Agulimara: in this instance, I see it as using the sutta in the wrong context. I also see it as a classic problem when believers of faith hold steadfastly and literally to a legendary story. It is quite inconceivable that Agulimara could commit 999 murders and get away with it till he met the Buddha!
While the principle or law of kamma is straightforward, its actual working is anyone's guess. So "trusting that paying the debts of karma doesn't need to be with one's life" may be wishful thinking albeit a compassionate one.
Bottom-line: law-makers have debated vigorously on capital punishment, and if due processes of prosecution, defences, appeals and clemency are in place, any fear of miscarriage of justice is abated. Capital punishment is never intended to be part of the 'circle of violent' and judges don't enjoy handing out death sentence. Compassion should be tempered with sensible reasoning, equity and wisdom, not blindly or dogmatically. Have compassion but practise correctly. Forgiveness is a good virtue but don't carry it so far as to defile it such that offenders feel no remorse or regret for their actions. Worse, they can go on perpetrating after confession and forgiveness by the redeemer, whoever that may be. While one should be given second chance for rehabilitation, there is also the reality that there is no second chance in life. We may say no one has the right to take another life, so what gives the drug-pusher or murderer the right? The murdered cannot be restored to life but that is not a good reason to do away with capital punishment. So the alternative is life sentence which is imprisonment till death. In our so-called noble show of compassion we think that murderers actually want to live. Have we not come across those who felt so strongly the grave wrong committed and actually want to ‘redeem’ by asking for the death sentence?

Joshua said...

Regardless whether the story is literal or embellished by later generations, that it is included in the suttas, and often quoted shows quite clearly the Buddhist angle on forgiveness.

Now as for your argument on compassion, I see a lot of presuppostions - that those in favor of replacing capital punishment for something less extreme are unwise and following scriptures blindly and dogmatically - "The Buddha says one, so we follow lor."

Actually, to arrive at the conclusion that violence can only start ending once people make a conscious not to inflict violence, even as a deterrence or revenge, requires a lot of thought, reflection, and even practice in everyday lives not to avenge any wrong done unto ourselves.

In meditation, we are taught to extend our compassion to all, yes all, sentient beings. Everyone deserves EQUAL compassion, there is no 'preference' that victims or good people deserve MORE.

It is only through meditation, and practice that we gradually realize why, the First Precept as you pointed out, makes sense. It is not 'following dogmatically', but a realization of the simple truth of the sutra. (it's hard to explain the process within a few paras that people literally take entire books to explain, so this will have to suffice)

So my observation (forgive me if I'm wrong) is that you seem to have very little understanding of the Buddhist teachings beyond surface knowledge. It is therefore my fervent prayer that you will go deeper into the faith, and that one day you will encounter your Buddha nature.

Aaron said...

Dear no,

Your point of deterrence of crime was addressed by my earlier comment on the assumption of the fundamental nature of human beings. The idea of severe punishment to deter crime assumes that human beings are inherently incapable of good (and by extension, incapable of change for the better) and need to be controlled through extreme measures. This is a fundamentally problematic assumption for the Buddhist.

In the very first place, the Buddha himself would not have bothered to deliver his first sermon after reaching Nibbana if he assumed that human beings were incapable of good. If I do not recall wrongly, the Buddha contemplated for some time on whether to teach what he has learnt through his efforts, and after careful contemplation, he concluded that human beings are indeed capable of good and change, which is why he decided to dedicate himself to teaching.

Besides, if severe punishment is indeed capable of deterring crime, why do we still have drug trafficking in Singapore, when all it takes is 15 grams of heroin for you to lose your life? You need to consider why people turn to crime in the first place. Is it because they are evil by nature, or is it due to hardship or dire life circumstances? If we just seek capital punishment as the only antidote to the ailment of crime, then we are just treating the symptom instead of the root of the issue.

Aaron said...

Dear aah-haa,

Your idea of compassion seems to be conditional, which is not the compassion that the Buddha teaches. The Buddha did go as far as to say that even if one's limbs were hacked off and that one shows no anger or negative emotions towards the perpetrators, one is a true follower of the Dhamma.

By the way, your argument that compassion should not be blind or dogmatic is problematic, at least for me. What are the determining factors of blind or dogmatic compassion? Are these factors universally agreed upon? The markers of blind and dogmatic compassion varies from person to person, and while you might think that the Buddha is crazy in the instance I raised in the first paragraph, likewise, the Buddha might also think you are nuts in thinking that there's such as thing as blind or dogmatic compassion. It's all a matter of perspective.

Finally, with regards to death as redemption, that is honestly a stupid idea. What can you do to redeem yourself when you are dead? Isn't it far better to be alive and do something constructive, such as making things for the needy, counsel other people who have gone down the wrong path etc? I'm sorry I'm blunt, but death as redemption is a foolish idea.

Joshua said...


'I will never declare I know more about compassion than anyone"

But that's what you had been trying to do. :)

"To show the Buddhist angle of compassion is acceptable but to hold it out as universal and the only way is bigoted. "

I do believe this is a blog about buddhist matters, and so, yes, the buddhist perspective would matter in this case.

And erm, yes, according to Zen teachings everyone has a buddha nature within them. The purpose of Buddha's teaching is to make them realize it.

As for wisdom, giving doesn't mean spoiling. If punishment has to be meted out, it should be done with the purpose of ensuring the criminal learns his lesson. A dead person learns nothing.

aah-haa said...

A pure Buddhist blog will confine itself to Dhamma musings and nothing wordly else. Alternative views within Buddhist circles are not unheard of. Compassion is one word spelt in a certain way in English and that is the only universal thing about it. While perfectly alright to express the Buddhist point of view of compassion, it is wrong to dismiss others. Putting words in my mouth definitely in not Buddha nature. Somehow, the fact about plucking vegetable out of the ground is not acceptable as killing the plant goes to show some extent of bigotry.

no said...

Dear Aaron,

I did notice that you have touched on the point, which I did indicate to that effect though I did not mention your name. But I felt that deterrence is such an important objective of penalties under the law that I wanted to emphasize it.

I don't think severe punishments and humans being capable of doing good can't go together. We are all susceptable to temptations of all sorts even though we agree that we are capable of good. Hence we need deterrents so that we don't so easily succumb to the temptations caused by greed, hatred, and so on. I completely support efforts to reform the offender, once the courts have passed the sentence. However, I think if penalties are to be effective deterrents, they can't be so comfortable as if it is like a prolonged stay in a hostel in an educational institution, with release once the offender has been re-educated and reformed. Capital punishment may be at odds with Buddhist precepts, but laws are at the state level whilst Buddhist practice is at the personal level. Institutions and procedures in any country may lead to death and violence when certain conditions are fulfilled. For example, the protection of boundaries from smugglers which might lead to hot pursuits and deaths. Another obvious example will be national defence which might lead to war.

Joshua said...

This might help shed some light,though it's of course only just one view, but which I believe is argued quite credibility and with substance.

aah-haa said...

Thanks for pointing another site. I read this blog to follow and to note the issues but will not comment here. Please go to