Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The Zen Cure, an Alternative to the Death Penalty and a Case for Dharma Lineage

Getting strapped into "Old Sparky"

It seemed like a bright idea at the time, but I'm having doubts that this argument can withstand scrutiny. If it turns out to be exploring a dead end, perhaps others can see a way through. Anyway, here it is.

The death penalty is wrong for so many reasons and should be abolished. Zen practice can (suddenly and/or gradually) result in a fresh view of the world, the unfolding of wisdom and compassion, and a commitment to the Bodhisattva path. Inmates on death row should have the option of intensive Zen training with a qualified teacher. Their progress could be verified by masters with recognized dharma transmission and by experienced psychiatrists. The ultimate goal is their return to society.

The penal system deters crime, rehabilitates offenders and protects the public. At least that's the theory.

The death penalty doesn't deter crime. States in the USA without the death penalty have consistently lower murder rates. In the Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology, A recent study concluded:

The findings demonstrate an overwhelming consensus among these criminologists that the empirical research conducted on the deterrence question strongly supports the conclusion that the death penalty does not add deterrent effects to those already achieved by long imprisonment.

And of course the death penalty doesn't rehabilitate offenders - at least, not in this lifetime.

The death penalty may protect the public, but at great cost. The Innocence Project reports that, despite apparently compelling evidence of guilt at trial, 300 inmates on death row have been exonerated based on DNA [as at September 29, 2012]. One wonders how many of the 78 people executed in the USA in 2011 and the thousands awaiting execution (3,189 as at January 1, 2012) may be innocent.

Another purpose of the penal system is retribution. Killing a murderer is supposed to make society in general, and the family of the victim in particular, feel better. Personally, the killing of Troy Davis, Saddam Hussein and Osama Bin Laden all just made me feel sick.

Religious beliefs don't seem to make taking a stand on capital punishment any easier. If you believe every word of the Bible, then you will also support the death penalty for Adultery - Men and Women (Leviticus 20:10), Blasphemy (Leviticus 24:16), Breaking the Sabbath (Exodus 31:14-15), Being a Disobedient Child (Exodus 21:15 and Leviticus 20:9), Homosexuality - Men Only (Leviticus 20:13), and Not Being a Virgin on Your Wedding Night - Women Only (Deuteronomy 22:20-21), whereas Jesus is said to have said "turn the other cheek" and "if you did it to the least of these, you did it to me." Some Christian denominations that do not oppose capital punishment, like the Roman Catholic Church and Southern Baptists, still decry its use for vengeance. Many others outright oppose it.

You would think that Buddhists would be on side, but there is even disagreement about whether Buddhism forbids the death penalty. In general, Buddhist groups in secular countries such as Japan, Korea, and Taiwan tend to take an anti-death penalty stance, while in Thailand, Sri Lanka, and Bhutan, where Buddhism has strong political influence, the opposite is true. Just as the First Precept against killing other beings seems to be circumventable to permit eating animals because they taste good, it has been gotten around, it seems, to sanctify killing people for the greater good, whatever that means.

So the choice has to be a personal one. I hope you will forgive my biased phrasing of the question: "Is the priceless gift of a human nervous system and consciousness, through which we can awaken to our interdependent, compassionate nondual nature, and in a sense, through which the universe can realize its own existence, something we have a right to take away from another human being just because she or he has done it to someone else?"

Can a murderer be cured? I think the answer is 'yes', at least sometimes.

In his Message Supporting a Moratorium on the Death Penalty, His Holiness the Dalai Lama said:

Before advocating execution we should consider whether criminals are intrinsically negative and harmful people or whether they will remain perpetually in the same state of mind in which they committed their crime or not. The answer, I believe, is definitely not. However horrible the act they have committed, I believe that everyone has the potential to improve and correct themselves.

Is Zen training a way to do it? Again, I think the answer is a qualified 'yes'. Even though the justice system is supposed to weed out those who are not guilty by reason of insanity, there will be those on death row who are deeply disturbed - either originally or as a result of "death row syndrome." Can they be reached by a skilled psychotherapist or a wily Zen master? There is only one way to find out.

Ultimately, how can apparently cured murderers be let loose on the streets? Many, I suspect, are, or have learned how to be, skillful con artists, capable of faking spiritual transformation and psychological healing. That's where even more skill is required to detect the fakers. For psychological issues, it probably means highly qualified psychiatrists. For Zen issues, the obvious choices are masters who have received full dharma transmission, i.e. those who have been through the process of "it takes one to know one".

This is only a brief and I’m sure extremely naive sketch of a concept, not the blueprint for a solution. Many, many practical challenges await. In fact, it sounds more like the description of how an advanced civilization might treat its criminals in a science fiction novel, set in the distant future or a distant galaxy, rather than West Livingston, Texas.

But then who ever thought we would walk on the moon?

On the subject of how we relate to 'evil' people, Meredith Garmon has written some great posts over at Lake Chalice, including Primary Sociopaths and Secondary Sociopaths, Answer Evil with Justice and Community and The Wound that Cuts Through Every Human Heart.

May I also suggest exploring the Prison Dharma Network website if you haven’t already?

Photo: An African-American prisoner is prepared for execution in "Old Sparky," Sing-Sing Prison's infamous electric chair. Photograph taken circa 1900 by William M. Van der Weyde. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.


  1. Thanks, David. Check out this compelling documentary on bringing a Vipassana meditation retreat program to an Alabama State prison: http://www.dhammabrothers.com/ Rehabilitation is definitely possible. Unfortunately, it's not really the goal of our current prison system. Things are changing though. Thanks for reminding me about the Prison Dharma Network.

    1. Hi Chris, thanks very much for the link to The Dhamma Brothers. I enjoyed the article in Khabar Magazine From Murder to Meditation posted there.

  2. I was over visiting Lynette Genju Monteiro's fine blog 108zenbooks and discovered the story of the redemption of the criminal Angulimala and also the UK Buddhist Prison Chaplaincy. As they are both relevant to this post, I thought I would put up the links here. Thanks, Lynette!

  3. David, first, thanks for stopping by my blog.

    I of course agree on the death penalty. A thousand arguments swirl around this issue but, for me, only one is needed. The death penalty is simply inconsistent with a civilized society.

    As a fellow lawyer and student of Buddhism, happy to sign up and follow your thoughts.


    1. Hi Tom, thanks for following back - a pleasure to make your acquaintance! I'm enjoying your posts over at only here only now.

      I agree with your idea of 'civilized' not including the death penalty. I suppose others don't, but they probably think 'Buddhist lawyer' is an oxymoron :)

  4. At one time I would have argued to exhaustion on the "justice" and necessity of capital punishment. With my eyes (and heart) more open now I can't for a moment abide by anyone's right to take another life.

    Yet as you've laid out the "authorities" all make great claims that it's within our duty to preserve law through such measures... I'm glad we questioned those archaic commands and hope someday we can add executions to that list along with stoning and witch burning.

    Sure, we've come a long way... But looking at causing deliberate, vengeful death doesn't make it seem so. Surely the Prison Dharma Network can help rectify this dreadful missed opportunity to civilize ourselves.

    Thanks for another thoughtful post.

    1. Thanks, Bea. Yes we have come a long way, looking back on the horrors we have committed. I hope our grandchildren will look back and say the same thing about what we are doing now.

  5. David, a belated thanks for another honest, direct and heartful post. I like that you go where many fear to tread! :-). As a lawyer (you I mean), I think it's especially valuable that you will publicly discuss this stuff. We need a few more thousand people like you working in your field!

    For me, in my understanding of the Buddhist teachings on compassion, the choice to not cause deliberate harm to another is pretty unequivocal, no matter what they've done. Our state of interconnectedness at the very least reminds us (as did Jesus) that what we do to another we also do to ourselves; and that 'ignorance' (which is so much less pejorative a word than 'evil', isn't it?) resides in every heart – again Buddhism and Christianity both remind us of this, in different language.

    So as always, thank you. I have a friend over here who works in the Prison Dhamma Network - which reminds me, are you aware of the Network of Engaged Buddhists in the UK, headed up by my wonderful friend and Zen teacher the inimitable and radical Ken Jones (author of a book on Buddhism and Social Justice)?

    Salutations and thanks on your commitment.

    1. Thank you Roselle for your kind and thoughtful comment! I'm rather belated putting up the next post. Yes I prefer the term ignorance too - there is no issue of blame, which I think is just a distraction. I really believe that in due course ignorance will fade and compassion will flourish. In the mean time, anything we can do to hasten the process ...

      No I hadn't come across the Network of Engaged Buddhists, but I'm going to check them out. Thanks for the introduction!


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