Unlike religions that provide guidelines on punishment as dictated by scripture, Buddhism approaches the idea from a more abstract perspective. Buddhists do not believe in a god that will punish those who commit sins. Instead, the Buddhist belief in karma, or the notion that every action has a consequence, holds that punishment comes as a natural result of hurtful acts.
While the Buddha did not clarify a detailed system of punishment for societies, he did provide broad guidelines for punishing monastics who break the Vinaya code of discipline. Dictated and carried out entirely within a monastic community, punishments can include censure, or guidelines that limit certain types of speech, demotion, or the stripping of seniority, suspension, and in extreme cases, banishment from the monastery. Banishment is reserved only for those monastics who commit flagrant offenses and, importantly, will not admit to them. Even in the case of banishment, monastics are given the opportunity to rejoin the monastery if at some point in the future they admit to the wrongdoing and reconcile with the community.
In the Bhaddali Sutta, the Buddha explains how punishments should be enacted on a case-by-case basis that takes the best interests of individual offenders into account. The function of punishment is to instruct and rehabilitate, never to gain retribution. In other words, punishments do not make the offender "pay" for his crime. Justice is interpreted in the context of the first noble truth -- suffering -- and punishments implemented in the way that causes the least amount of pain, stress and conflict for the offender and the community at large.
In line with the fundamental Buddhist principle of selflessness, the premise that victims should take revenge on those who harm them is not accepted in Buddhism. The Khantivada Jataka tells of an instance when, in a previous life of the Buddha, a king ordered an executioner to cut off the Buddha's hands, feet, ears and nose. Despite the brutal treatment, Buddha did not get angry or wish any evil on the king.
This story highlights how absolute compassion and selflessness are key in uprooting craving, believed by Buddhists to be the root cause of suffering. The first moral precept in Buddhism is to abstain from killing, and without exception, violent thoughts and actions run contrary to the Buddhist path. Ironically, some nations where Buddhism has widespread political and cultural influence -- including Thailand and Sri Lanka -- employ capital punishment and have fought bloody wars both in recent times and centuries past.
Given the teachings on nonviolence, Buddhism could be interpreted as taking a position of indifference to crimes that many feel should warrant direct, concise punishment. This apparent passiveness is explained by the concepts of karma and rebirth.
Buddhists believe that ultimately, punishment is dictated by a natural order in which a person's unethical actions, either in the current life or a subsequent one, will catch up with them. The Buddha did not hold back when warning his followers about the karmic conditions that lead to naturally manifesting punishment. The Dhammapada, an anthology of verses, explains how anyone who inflicts violence on unarmed people will endure consequences like going mad or the death of loved ones. These punishments are believed to be carried out by the natural processes of the universe, not victims, authority figures or anyone else.
Hell & Rebirth
Buddhists believe in 31 planes of existence, the lowest of which is a hell defined by horrific pain and suffering. It's believed that those who commit the worst offenses are reborn in hell, but even more common actions are thought to potentially cause rebirths that could be viewed as a sort of hell. For example, someone who oversees the slaughter of thousands of chickens in his lifetime could be reborn as a chicken in the slaughterhouse.
Even for those who end up in hell, however, karmic punishments are temporary and Buddhism never gives up on individuals no matter how horrifying their actions may be. Hurtful deeds born of ignorance result in punishment, but no sentient being is considered inherently evil or hopeless. When negative karma has been resolved in hell or other planes, a fresh life in a higher plane is possible.
- BBC: Religions: Buddhism and Capital Punishment
- Buddhist Monastic Code II: Chapter 20 Disciplinary Transactions
- Conflict in Buddhism: Violence for the Sake of Peace?
- BBC: Religions: Buddhism and War
- Dandavagga: Violence
- The Thirty-one Planes of Existence
- The Virtue of Forbearance
- Death Penalty Statistics, Country by Country
- Photos.com/Photos.com/Getty Images