Mercy and Punishment: Buddhism and the Death Penalty

Leanne Fiftal Alarid & Wang Hsiao-Ming. Social Justice. Volume 28, Issue 1. Spring 2001.

The death penalty abolitionist movement has been stronger in Western Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong, and parts of South Africa. From a worldwide view, the United States has been criticized by other countries and by human rights groups for continuing to use capital punishment, especially for minors under 18 and mentally ill persons (New York Times, March 28, 1999). Capital punishment generally retains moderate public and political support in North America, South America, Eastern Europe, and countries of the former Soviet Republic. Death penalty practices are used in North Africa, the Middle East, and Asian countries such as China, Japan, Singapore, and Taiwan (Hood, 1996).

According to Table 1 (located at the end of the article), 87 out of 195 (44.5%) nations and territories in the world currently retain the use of the death penalty as a form of punishment. Thirteen countries have abolished the death penalty for most civilian crimes, but capital punishment is still used in “exceptional circumstances,” such as wartime or under military law. For 20 countries (10%), the death penalty is retained under statute for civilian capital crimes, but an execution has not taken place in the last 10 years. Finally, 38% of all nation-states have abolished the death penalty for all crimes (Amnesty International, 2000). The United Nations conducted a survey to determine why some retentionist countries were reluctant to abandon the death penalty. The countries cited a number of reasons, including retribution, cultural customs, early law (e.g., Islamic), general deterrence, specific deterrence, political unrest, political instability, and religious influences (Hood, 1996).

Religious Influences and the Death Penalty

The relationship between religious views and attitudes toward capital punishment has found support in the literature. Studies conducted in the U.S. found that Protestant fundamentalists (defined as those who interpret the Bible to be the literal word of God) were more likely to hold attitudes in favor of the death penalty than were members of other religious factions and denominations (Borg, 1997; Grasmick et al., 1993; Young, 1992). Even though most mainstream religious philosophies oppose violence and the taking of human lives, including death associated with capital punishment, the death penalty is indeed debated from religious views (Hanks, 1997; McBride, 1995). Both abolitionists and supporters of the death penalty often use the New Testament to defend their opinions, with supporters also favoring the Hebrew scriptures to justify their beliefs (House, 1991; Langan, 1993; Sharp, 1994; Szumski, Hall, and Bursell, 1986; Williams, 1992). While one view may quote the “eye for an eye” Bible passage, Pope John Paul II recently issued a statement calling for an end to capital punishment.

Religion thus remains a powerful societal force in criminology and criminal justice. Pope John Paul’s visit to St. Louis, Missouri, in 1999 directly influenced the late Governor Mel Carnahan to commute Darrell Mease’s death sentence to life imprisonment without parole. Carnahan, who had approved 26 previous executions, made his decision after meeting with the pope (New York Times, April 3, 1999). As Applegate and his colleagues (2000) point out, criminological research should examine religious influences outside Christianity, like Buddhism.

A significant proportion of the world’s population is Buddhist, especially in Asian nations (Elder, 1998; U.S. Bureau of the Census, 1997). What is the relationship between Buddhism and the death penalty in Southeast Asia? Why is the abolitionist movement virtually nonexistent in Asia? In this article, we introduce the essence of Buddhism and link the Buddhist perspective to the death penalty. Then, using historical documents and interviews from practicing Buddhist monks and leaders of Buddhist organizations, we more closely examined Sri Lanka, Japan, Taiwan, and Thailand.

The Essence of Buddhism

To understand Buddhism and its relation to the death penalty, we introduce the origin and extent of Buddhism, its teachings, and cosmology. The death penalty is linked to Buddhism using the Five Precepts.

The Origin of Buddhism

The founder of Buddhism was Gautama Buddha, otherwise known as Shakyamuni. “Buddha” actually means “awakened” or the “enlightened one.” Gautama Buddha was born a prince in northern India in the sixth century B.C., with the name “Siddhattha Gotama.” His name was changed to “Gautama Buddha” after he attained enlightenment and realized the truth (Ch’en, 1968). Buddha did not claim that he created the world. Rather, Buddha taught individuals to rediscover the universal law of Dhamma, and, consequently, to relieve their own suffering (Duhkha). For nearly half a century, Buddha walked on the dusty paths of India to practice his ministry (Puligandla and Miller, 1996).

The doctrine of Buddhism is not a system of philosophy in the Western sense, but is rather a path toward enlightenment. Buddhism assumes that all human beings are fundamentally good and that all beings can achieve enlightenment, but they have to choose this path. The Buddha’s doctrine is a “vehicle” to help people cross the river of life from the shore of ignorance, desire, and suffering, to the other shore of transcendental wisdom (enlightenment), which ensures liberation from desire and suffering. Thus, a Buddha can be anyone who has walked this path and has shared with others what they have found.

The two major schools of Buddhism are Theravada (or Hinayana) and Mahayana. Theravada, the earliest and more conservative of the two schools, dominated in Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia (Horigan, 1996). The Theravadan belief was that suffering could be alleviated through individual efforts or “individual vehicles” (Dhammananda, 1987).

Mahayana, or the “Great Vehicle,” maintains that “individuals can seek salvation through the intervention of other superior beings called Bodhisattvas” (Ibid.: 59). While the former sect, the Theravada/Hinayana, sought liberation for individual benefit, the Mahayana pursued full enlightenment to benefit all beings. Mahayana tended to be more liberal, and predominated in China, Japan, North Korea, South Korea, Hong Kong, and Taiwan (Ibid.; Strong, 1995).

Extent of Buddhism in Southeast Asia

Buddhism continues to be a major influence on the cultural and daily lives of some people in East and Southeast Asian countries (Dhammananda, 1987). However, most Buddhist practices in a number of countries are superficial. For example, nearly all Buddhists worship Buddhist saints, pay tributes, or thank Buddha for hearing their wishes and prayers. Yet the genuine study of Buddhism, its rituals, and the carryover of religious values and teachings to daily life is not common.

All 14 Southeast Asian countries listed in Table 2 formally retain the use of the death penalty. According to the CIA 2000 World Fact Book, Buddhists constituted the primary religious group in nine out of 14 countries located in Southeast Asia, though none claimed to be a Buddhist state. These countries included Cambodia and Thailand with the highest Buddhist populations (each with 95%), Taiwan (93%), Burma and Hong Kong (each with 89%), Japan (84%), Singapore (70%), Sri Lanka (69%), and Laos (60%). Nearly half (47%) of the total population in South Korea are Buddhists. Yet, Buddhism has a minor influence (three percent) in the Philippines, since Spanish colonists of Roman Catholic religious affiliation (83%) settled that country. Finally, Buddhism has almost no recognizable influence in the People’s Republic of China, North Korea, and Vietnam. Buddhist practices that do exist in these countries are covert, practiced privately, and not officially recognized by the government in statistical data or by any other government institution.

Several traits related to Buddhism can be found in Southeast Asian life. For example, ghost feeding, a ceremony based on the Buddhist idea of rebirth, is more prominent in Burma and Thailand, and to a lesser extent, in China, Japan, Korea, and Taiwan. Additionally, Chinese and Taiwanese public officials, who by law must dispose of animals or execute criminals, typically pray to the dead bodies after the execution so they are pardoned from “bad karma,” a practice that is also related to Buddhist beliefs.

The Basic Teaching

Most religious experts have not considered Buddhism to be a fundamentalist religion because its teachings are not dogmatic. While in many Western religions, a dogma or creed is accepted on faith rather than reasoning, the goal of Buddha’s teachings was to help people seek the truth of life (Fox, 1970; Snelling, 1991). Buddha’s teachings were recorded in Pali (an Indian literary language) during the first century B.C. (Ch’en, 1968). The entire collection of Buddha’s teachings, or Tipitaka, consisted of three sections: (1) the Sutta contained simple and conventional anecdotes and talks delivered by Buddha on various occasions; (2) the Vinaya, the disciplinary code, comprised the rules and regulations for the monks (Bhikkhus) and nuns (Bhikkhunits); and (3) the Adhidhamma consisted of Buddha’s complex moral philosophy (Dhammananda, 1987; Powers, 1995).

Buddhism does not focus on grand metaphysical questions such as “How was the world created?” Rather, the “Four Noble Truths” are foundational in Buddhism because they maintained four important points: (1) all life is characterized by suffering; (2) ignorance, attachment, and anger (trishna) cause human suffering; (3) the cause of suffering can be terminated; and (4) suffering can be overcome through the “Noble Eightfold Path,” which is made up of three categories: wisdom (prajna), meditation (samadhi), and morality (shila) (Dhammananda, 1987; Snelling, 1991).

Within the three categories of the Noble Eightfold Path, wisdom involved both right understanding and right thought. Meditation, which covers the right mindfulness and the right concentration, is the specialized activity that helps people to fully realize Buddha’s teachings. Finally, morality included the right speech, action, livelihood, and effort (Powers, 1995). Although Buddhist ethics are not codified into a rigid moral law, these moral principles suggest that a layperson follow Five Precepts (Pancha Shila). The Five Precepts require followers to abstain from taking the life of all living beings, taking that which is not given, promiscuous sexual behavior, telling lies, and self-intoxication with drink and drugs. Although each precept was expressed negatively, each has a positive counterpart. For example, the positive counterpart of the first precept is to preserve life with kindness and compassion (Harvey, 1990: 207).

The Buddhist Cosmology

A common form of Buddhist cosmology asserts that there are countless world-systems afloat in an infinite space. Each world-system can be divided into three main realms: desire (kamadhatu), form (rupadhatu), and no-form (arupadhatu). Within this three-tier system, there are six realms: gods, humans, animals, titans, hungry ghosts, and inhabitants of hell. All forms of being are born into one of the six realms, according to individual karma, or the actions of an individual’s body, speech, and mind, which act as a seed for future “fruit” (vipaka). Linked to the notion of karma is that of rebirth, or the “causal connection between one life and another.” Rebirth is commonly confused with reincarnation, which refers to souls that travel eternally back and forth from body to body (Snelling, 1991: 59).

In sum, although Buddhism has developed over the past 2,500 years, the fundamental principles remain the same. For example, Buddha’s goal of enlightenment and ways of achieving merit and maintaining a better life through the principle of karma have remained constant through the ages. The Buddha, the teaching (Dharma), and devout monks and nuns from the religious community (Sangha) remain three distinct catalysts for spiritual guidance and inspiration. The ultimate goal of Buddhists is liberation from the cycles of uncontrolled rebirth, through enlightenment, in which individuals have fully developed their abilities to benefit all other living beings (Schuon, 1993).

The Death Penalty and Buddhism

To understand the link between Buddhism and the death penalty, it is important to understand the relationship between Buddhist morality and secular law, as well as the meaning of Buddha’s teachings through the Five Precepts (Horigan, 1996).

Buddhist Morality and Secular Law

Buddhist morality is based on the universal law of cause and effect (Kamma), which distinguishes between a “good” or “bad” action according to intent, and the way by which the action may affect others. “Good” behavior results from love, charity, and wisdom, while “bad” behavior results from greed, hatred, and vengeance. The Buddha said, “an action, even if it brings benefit to oneself, cannot be considered a good action if it causes physical and mental pain to another being” (Dhammananda, 1987: 161).

In this context, capital murder, the offense most often committed by death row inmates, is absolutely unacceptable in Buddhism. Similarly, the death penalty as a punishment is a “bad” action of psychological, emotional, and physical trauma that convicted individuals face during the time spent on death row. In countries that have used capital punishment, innocent people have been sentenced to death (Marquart and Sorensen, 1997) and executed (Radelet, Bedau, and Putnam, 1992). The death penalty was historically related to retribution and to the state’s interest in seeking control from individuals intent on exacting their own revenge. In ancient Asian cultures, banishment and exile were frequently used as punishment for criminal acts (Horigan, 1996).

Though the Buddhist code was considered superior to the civil law and punishment developed by mortals, Buddhists obeyed government authority and civil law when the monastic community of monks and nuns recognized this authority (Swearer, 1995). Since there is no evidence that Buddha ever spoke on the issue of the death penalty, we must look to the Five Precepts within Buddha’s teaching.

The Precepts and the Death Penalty

The Five Precepts are the starting point for the spiritual journey toward liberation, enabling people to live in civility. Unlike the Commandments that are divinely imposed, the Precepts suggest that believers must understand and accept the principles. The Five Precepts, or training rules, are that all individuals must abstain from taking a life, taking what is not given, sexual misconduct, false speech, and intoxicants.

Individuals who practice the first precept, to abstain from killing all living creatures, must learn to control their hatred and to cultivate compassion and kindness for all creatures (Horigan, 1996). In Buddhism, “compassion is the aspiration that beings be free from suffering, and is the antidote to cruelty” (Harvey, 1990: 209). On the subject of compassion, the Buddha said: “If a person foolishly does me wrong, I will return to him the protection of my boundless love. The more evil that comes from him, the more good will go from me. I will always give off only the fragrance of goodness” (Dhammananda, 1987: 173).

The first precept extends beyond humans to all living creatures, including birds, fish, or insects. In Buddhism, all creatures are sacred beings. The difference between humans and animals is that humans have memory and imagination, as well as the ability to develop reasoning. Buddhists believe that animals do not have these powers. Thus, the First Precept restrains Buddhists from killing any living beings, and the death penalty would be inconsistent with this belief. Buddhists would favor rehabilitation using the path to enlightenment, which would enable even the most dangerous convicted killer to find his or her Buddha-nature (Horigan, 1996).

Below we address why the death penalty still exists in Buddhist countries by examining two questions: (1) Were/are Buddhists active in law and politics? (2) How influential is Buddhism in Southeast Asia? We attempt to answer these questions by using historical documents, current news articles, and interviews from practicing Buddhist monks, leaders of Buddhist organizations, and scholars who specialize in history and religious studies in Asian countries to examine various countries of Southeast Asia. Both authors also studied aspects of Chinese culture and the Chinese criminal justice system by traveling to Mainland China in the year 2000.

Politics, Violence, and Buddhism

In 1916, Max Weber (1958) declared that Buddhism was a “mystical” religious practice, totally separate from state political and economic involvement. Weber’s viewpoint has long been eroded by historical evidence of Buddhist kings and emperors who practiced violence to maintain order and control in Southeast Asia. According to Strong (1983), the earliest evidence of this link between Buddhism and politics can be found in the translation of the legend of King Asoka, who was an emperor during the third century B.C. According to legend, the fierce ruler Asoka converted to Buddhism and retained “danda” (torturous punishments) to maintain order and law. After his “conversion,” Asoka had 18,000 dissenters killed. Asoka even tortured his wife to death, despite the mercy requests from his own son, a Buddhist saint. Strong asks why the legend of King Asoka was so well known and why the king remains so revered as a model ruler in Japan, Korea, China, Sri Lanka, Thailand, and Burma. He writes, “his legend is thus paradoxical in its attitude, reflecting at the same time two distinct Buddhist reactions to the institution of kingship: wariness and criticism on the one hand, admiration and respect on the other” (Ibid.: 44).

To demonstrate the extent to which religion and politics were enmeshed, Strong showed that the people thought of their king as a “living Buddha” and strongly identified with him as one of the people. Buddhists generally recognized that the protection of their religious institutions was closely tied to the achievement of nationalist goals (Harvey, 1990).

Buddhist monks were dissuaded or prohibited from holding elected office, but Buddhists have always been politically active. Buddhist monks (the Sangha) have been used in many Asian countries by conservative (right-wing) and progressive (left-wing) political movements. Buddhist groups are politically active in Sri Lanka, Burma, Thailand, Cambodia, and Japan. Indeed, Buddhist political parties currently exist in some countries with new constitutional democracies (Ebersole, 1999).

Many Buddhist rulers have been politically active, and others, like King Asoka, have used their political power in violent ways that conflict with Buddhist beliefs. For example, in Korea, a leading monk raised a militia of 5,000 monks to resist the Japanese invasion in 1592 (Harvey, 1990: 202). Buddhist monasteries in medieval Japan had huge armies and repeatedly fought wars against other countries (Ebersole, 1999). As recently as World War II, Zen Buddhist leaders supported and justified the “holy war” efforts of Japanese militants and the emperor’s desire to expand between 1868 and 1945, resulting in the deaths of millions of soldiers and civilians (see Victoria, 1997).

Buddhism as presented in this study is neither homogenous nor unitary, since the historical development and cultural impact of Buddhism varied widely throughout Southeast Asia. According to Horigan (1996: 286), Buddhism is the official state religion in Bhutan, Cambodia, Sri Lanka, and Thailand. Because information on Bhutan and Cambodia was sparse, we selected two Asian countries where Buddhism is an official religion (Sri Lanka and Thailand) and two Asian countries where Buddhism is not an official religion (Taiwan and Mainland China).

Sri Lanka

Since the 18th century, Sri Lanka (formerly Ceylon) has had a history of ethnic and religious tension and violence. Under Portuguese, Dutch, and then British rule, Buddhist influences were weakened as three successive foreign countries encouraged the abhorrence of Buddhist culture, language, and literature. From 1935 to the mid-1950s, Buddhism became the vehicle for excluded Sri Lankan native groups in rural areas to assert political power over the urban elitists in power (Tambiah, 1992).

Sri Lanka’s first constitution was imported from Britain in 1947. At that time, Sri Lanka had a mandatory death penalty for murder and the possibility of receiving a death sentence for possession of any offensive weapon or explosive. In 1948, Buddhist militants attempted to make the abolition of the death penalty a political issue, though efforts were unsuccessful (Peebles, 1999a). Since the initial document, the constitution was rewritten in 1972, 1978, and is currently under revision (Wickramaratne, 1996).

In September 1959, Prime Minister Bandaranaike was assassinated by a Buddhist monk and two co-conspirators who helped elect him, because the monk felt the prime minister had not lived up to his political promises to promote Buddhism within politics. The constitution stated that the government could not confer advantages on one religious group to the exclusion of other religious groups. The assassin was hanged and the two co-conspirators’ death sentences were reduced to life imprisonment (Peebles, 1999a).

Sri Lanka has a republican form of government. The current political system was made up of leaders of the Buddhist religion who are apparently not guided by their Buddhist beliefs. Peebles explains this observation by quoting anthropologist Edmund Leach: “It is not the case that all good Buddhists are politicians, but it is nearly true that all effective politicians in Buddhist countries have, for centuries past, found it expedient to claim to be good Buddhists.” Horigan (1996: 287) asks how modern governments with Buddhist ties approach the issue of capital punishment.

Hood (1996) notes that Buddhist organizations in Sri Lanka have generally either supported capital punishment or have been indifferent to the practice. An execution has not taken place in Sri Lanka since 1977 because the president commuted all death sentences to life in prison. More recently, the government has given way to public demand to bring back the practice of capital punishment to reduce increasing levels of violent crime (Peebles, 1999b).


In contrast to Sri Lanka, Thailand has never been colonized by a foreign government, so the country has dealt with many internal struggles (Tambiah, 1978). Throughout its history, Thai political leaders and Buddhist monks have relied on each other for political power and legitimacy. The monks wished for the rulers to maintain Buddhist values so that the monks could remain influential to them as religious mentors and spiritual leaders on the political periphery. Political leaders, in turn, sought the cooperation of Buddhist monks to validate themselves in front of the people and to help keep political and social control (Suksamran, 1982). The rulers used Buddhist monks to carry out governmental policies among the people.

During the early 1970s, Thailand underwent enormous social and political change. Right-wing political monks viewed communism as a threat to the existing social structure, while the less organized and less charismatic left-wing political monks believed the threat originated with capitalism. The latter wished to develop a socialist society based on Marxist ideology, and both sides advocated violence to achieve political goals (Suksamran, 1982; Tambiah, 1978).

The intertwined political/religious relationship continues today, with political power the greater of the two, despite the supposedly “separate” religious domain of Buddhist monks (Suksamran, 1982). The long-term effects of the political involvement of a small number of Buddhist monks have yet to be seen. Hood (1996) noted that Thailand resumed the practice of capital punishment in 1996, though it is unclear whether the Sangha or political leaders initiated the move.

Taiwan (The Republic of China)

Taiwan is a capitalist state with a political democracy. Its population has the same percentage of Buddhists as Thailand does. To gain insight into Taiwanese perceptions of the followers of Buddha, four Taiwanese Buddhists were interviewed face-to-face. Interviews were conducted using a series of open-ended questions. Each interview lasted approximately 50 minutes.

Two of the interviewees were Buddhist Reverends and two were leaders of Buddhist lay organizations. All four agreed that the death penalty was not consistent with the Buddhist doctrine. For one interviewee, “taking life from human beings, regardless if it is murder or the death penalty, is against the First Precept. According to Buddhism, murder or the death penalty accounts for bad karma.” Both lay organizational leaders stated that Buddhists (at least in Taiwan) retain the death penalty because traditional Buddhists were seldom involved in law making and politics.

State operations are based largely on political interests rather than religious principles. As a result, the death penalty was retained even after they accepted the teachings of Buddhism. Reverend Chodron confirmed this when she noted that “the people involved in politics and government are a different group of people than these pursuing spiritual goals. Those who make the laws could advocate capital punishment, although a large portion of the population are Buddhist.” Buddhism, then, seems to play a minor role in political decisions in Taiwan.

The People’s Republic of China

China widely uses the death penalty for violent, property, and public order crimes. China executed approximately 18,000 people during the 1990s (Amnesty International, 2000). We interviewed one historical and religious studies scholar and one international law professor to obtain information on Buddhist influences in China. Evidence suggests that in China, Buddhist leaders have historically been politically dormant, but for different reasons than in Taiwan. Buddhism did not have the same effect or influence when introduced into China as it had in Sri Lanka, Burma, Cambodia, and Thailand.

Although modern Chinese law was founded on a combination of Confucian, Buddhist, and legalist philosophies, former Chinese emperors primarily followed the Legal School (Fa Jia in Mandarin Chinese). The old Chinese proverb, “kill the chicken to frighten the monkey,” squarely illustrates this reality. Chinese authorities usually believe that executing an offender (i.e., chicken) to deter thousands of potential offenders (i.e., monkeys) is the most parsimonious way to maintain social order. Their belief seems coincidentally compatible with the Western deterrence concept. Consequently, the Chinese Communist government, consistent with Chinese tradition, often publicly executes criminals and uses television, radio, and the press to increase the effect countrywide (Lepp, 1990).

In addition, Taoism has had more of a “religious” influence in China than has Buddhism. Chinese Buddhist monks established their own separate communities, which were ruled by monastic law (Lee and Lai, 1978). As a communist country, China still does not formally report on or recognize religious beliefs or philosophies within politics or human rights issues. It can be inferred, therefore, that Buddhism is powerless in China.

Discussion and Conclusion

Religion has many functions in society. At a basic level, religion teaches or reminds us how to improve ourselves as human beings and how to treat others. Some would argue that religious influences are not as strong as they were in the past. However, a significant number of people around the world actively participate in a wide variety of denominations. Religion in some Asian countries is tied directly to political influences. As discussed, Southeast Asian countries comprise one-third of the world’s population. Nearly two-thirds of all people in Southeast Asian countries are Buddhist. People of Buddhist faith, like other religious denominations, have ideological teachings that influence individual beliefs and opinions.

This research extends the relationship between religion and capital punishment by expanding beyond Western traditions and examining the role of Buddhism and the death penalty in a sampling of Southeast Asian countries. That relationship cannot be examined in isolation. In the study of comparative criminal justice, political, economic, and cultural factors should always be taken into consideration (Reichel, 1999). Merryman (1985) argued that countries do not duplicate legal systems, but they do often share similar legal traditions. The present study finds that there are no identical political, economic, or legal systems in Southeast Asian countries. The people of Southeast Asia have diverse customs and cultural heritages. Yet, many Southeast Asian countries share, among others, a Buddhist tradition, and preserve capital punishment, a form of retributive punishment that is inconsistent with the compassionate spirit of Buddhism (Horigan, 1996: 288).

Buddhist doctrines hold nonviolence and compassion for all life in high regard. The First Precept of Buddhism requires individuals to abstain from injuring or killing all living creatures and Buddha’s teaching restricts Buddhist monks from any political involvement. Using historical documents and interviews with contemporary authorities on Buddhist doctrine, our research uncovered a long history of political involvement by Buddhist monks and Buddhist support of violence. Yet, there seems to be limited Buddhist involvement in Southeast Asian countries in death penalty issues. Evidence suggests that Buddhism has permeated American prisons by encouraging a small number of prisoners to look inward, to learn to be at peace with themselves, and to avoid confrontation. Prison is the perfect environment in which to practice meditation, and Buddhism is believed to aid in rehabilitation by increasing the control individuals have over their lives (PerezGiese, 1998).

Our research also uncovered evidence that points to a weak-to-moderate influence of Buddhism in modern-day Southeast Asia. Though most Asian lay Buddhists worship Buddhist saints, pay tributes, or thank the saints for hearing their wishes and prayers, we found that the genuine study of Buddhism, its rituals, and carryover to daily life is superficial for most Buddhist followers. Most monks, however, retain a genuine study and practice of traditional Buddhism and do not involve themselves in politics or violence.

The death penalty is inconsistent with Buddhist teachings, since philosophically, capital punishment and Buddhism are a false paradox. Yet, evidence suggests that most Southeast Asian countries practiced capital punishment long before the Buddhist influence emerged in India in 400 to 500 B.C. Today, 12 out of 14 Southeast Asian countries formally retain the use of the death penalty. Buddhist organizational leaders gave insight into why Buddhist countries preserve the death penalty. Although traditional Buddhists in Taiwan and China are seldom, if ever, involved in lawmaking and political appointments, Buddhists in Sri Lanka, Japan, Thailand, and Burma have been active in politics and violent militant activities for hundreds of years.

Our findings suggest that Southeast Asian policies regarding the death penalty are not significantly influenced by the compassion inherent in the Buddhist religion. This differs from research in the United States that has found compassion and religious beliefs to influence attitudes about punishment and rehabilitation. We did not measure correctional attitudes in this study, so a direct comparison cannot be made. Yet, by retaining the death penalty as a punitive measure, there must be other reasons why capital punishment is retained or used.

For example, there may be a belief by lawmakers in Southeast Asian countries that capital punishment is necessary for retribution, cultural customs, or for deterrence value. The death penalty existed before Buddhism was disseminated, and people were already used to this “tradition” of punishment. A long history of the death penalty, coupled with a tendency to avoid learning from experience, may explain the tenacity of capital punishment. Likewise, Buddhism tries to teach people how to live civilized lives, but this linear view leads people to believe that keeping order in society can justify ignoring Buddha’s teaching. As a result, the death penalty is acceptable to people in the name of retribution, just deserts, or justice. One study found that as the crime rate rose in China in the late 1970s, the death penalty began to be used more frequently. Deterrence and retribution seem to be the main reason for Mainland China’s continued use of the death penalty today (Lepp, 1990).

The retention of capital punishment as a policy may also be due to long periods of political unrest or economic instability in the country. Cross-cultural researcher, Keith Otterbein (1986), give a third explanation. Otterbein hypothesized that in countries around the world where the fear of crime is high and where the actual crime rate is high, capital punishment is most likely to be retained or used. In the United States, a country concerned with human rights issues in other countries, fear of crime has increased and most Americans favor harsh policies to effectively control crime (Dieter, 1997; Walker, 1994). Otterbein’s hypothesis has never been tested, but it is instructive for future research.

Understanding comparative perspectives has important implications for U.S. involvement in Southeast Asian human rights. In the last few years, the U.S. government has attempted to persuade China to change its position on various human rights practices. To address human rights issues in Southeast Asia, we must pay attention to each country’s unique political, economic, and religious developments, as well as to how the law models and influences thinking and behavior (Dellapenna, 1996).

Future research on the death penalty could include identifying Buddhist individuals who have supported it (formerly or currently). What documents, commentaries, or other factors or persons influenced this individual’s support of the death penalty? Citizens in Buddhist countries could be interviewed to determine the nature and extent to which abolitionist organizations exist in Southeast Asia. This could reveal a typical citizen’s view on how the Buddhist religion shapes people’s thinking on the death penalty and other such punishment philosophies.