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Home Academic Work Articles Archive Comfort or Challenge? - 4

Comfort or Challenge? - 4

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Back, then, to our question: why do so few people in the wider world find Theravada Buddhism worthy of their serious consideration? Well, mankind has two great moral problems: let me label them sex and violence. I shall now speak about each in turn; and since I have already mentioned murder and nationalism, I shall first say some more about violence.

Buddhism proclaims itself the religion of non-violence, ahimså. It is therefore only natural that people ask how it measures up to this claim. My own experience is that they ask whether the recent history of Sri Lanka, Myanmar, Thailand, Laos and Kampuchea, the five Theravāda countries, shows a better record in this respect than that of other countries. The answer, as we all know, is embarrassing. Sri Lanka has recently brought to an end a civil war which lasted for more than 25 years, a whole generation, and the new government is showing alarming authoritarian tendencies. In Myanmar the central government, which has no democratic legitimacy at all, has been fighting minority populations for even longer than that, and millions of people have fled the country. Thailand of course has a far better record, but here too there has been serious civil conflict, sometimes violent, for much of the last two years; in May this year people seeking refuge in a monastery in the heart of Bangkok were killed by what some call the forces of law and order; the last military coup d’état was only 4 years ago; the far south of the country is not at peace; and there has been sabre rattling in a border dispute with a Theravādin neighbour, Kampuchea.  Laos (which I know little about) has not been exactly peaceful, while poor Kampuchea under Pol Pot suffered something close to auto-genocide.

Let me immediately add that this summary is, I know, very inexact. In some cases it is not the Buddhist population or Buddhist government who are primarily to blame for the violence. All I am saying at this point is that unfortunately it is not possible for those who want to persuade others that Theravāda Buddhism leads the world in non-violence to demonstrate that theory is at all matched by practice.

This gap between theory and practice is particularly glaring when we look at law enforcement, and in particular at capital punishment. While one has to be extremely careful in assigning blame for the general political record which I have just summarised, the same is not true in this area. What part does Buddhism, which professes non-violence and love for all, play in public life? We need look no further than the first precept: not to take life. More than half the countries in the world have abolished capital punishment, which means that the state does not take life. Yet in the list of those which have no capital punishment figure only two Buddhist states, Bhutan and Kampuchea. This despite the fact that there have been numerous studies of whether capital punishment lowers the crime rate by acting as a deterrent, all of which have concluded that it does not. So there is not even a pragmatic argument for retaining capital punishment: it is there only to satisfy the desire for revenge.

Capital punishment usually follows a terrible crime such as murder, and such crimes are certainly detestable. That is why treating those criminals humanely really puts to the test whether we are sincere about out principles of love and non-violence. Of course, if someone murders a person dear to me, it is too much to expect me ever to love that murderer. That is why we have a judicial system, rather than allowing everyone to take the law into their own hands. But if I am a sincere Buddhist, how can I ask the state to kill on my behalf? And there is a further point. Buddhism says that anyone who has done an evil deed will have to suffer for it: that is the law of karma and retribution. If we sincerely believe in that fundamental Buddhist tenet, how can we justify multiplying the violence by making judge and executioner too commit murders?

Make no mistake: the state that uses the death penalty is to that extent corrupting its citizens and going against the Buddha’s teaching. I was present at a huge international Wesak conference here in Bangkok, when at a panel session a Norwegian proposed from the floor that the death penalty was incompatible with Buddhist principles and should be abolished. I was shocked by the panel’s glib response: that this was a difficult question to resolve, because many people in Thailand favour the death penalty. So is it the duty of the Sangha to lead on moral issues, or to follow the crowd?

Again, I do not intend to single out one country. After all, the Norwegian spoke against the death penalty in front of Sangha members from every Theravada country, and not one of them spoke up to support him. So much for the religion of universal compassion.


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