Questions and Answers by Thich Nhat Hanh - more questions and answers

Capital Punishment

Thich Nath Hanh, I Have Arrived
Thich Nath Hanh,
I Have Arrived Poster

Q:Thay, what are your views on capital punishment? Suppose someone has killed ten children. Why should he be allowed to live on?

A: Ten people are dead; now you want another one, you want eleven. A person who has killed ten children is a sick person. Of course we want to lock him up to prevent him killing more, but that is a sick person, and we have to find ways to help that person. Killing him does not help him, and does not help us. There are others like him in society, and looking at him deeply we know that something is wrong with our society; our society has created people like that. Therefore, looking at him, we can see in the light of interbeing the other elements that have produced him. That is how your understanding arises in yourself, and then you see that that person is there for you to help, and not to punish. Of course you have to lock him up for the safety of other children, but locking him up is not the only thing you can do. We can do other things to help him. Punishing is not the only thing, we can do much better.

Recently Buddhist books on meditation, Buddhist magazines, and even Dharma talks have been offered in prisons, and many inmates have been practicing accordingly. Several of them have gotten relief, and have been able to live peacefully in prison. I myself get a number of letters from prisoners, and many of them come from prisons in North America who have read my books. One person said, "Thay, when I stand above the staircase and look down, and see other inmates running up and down, I can see their suffering, their agitation. I hope they can do as I do, walking down and up the staircase in mindfulness, following my breathing. When I do that, I feel peace within myself, and when I feel peace within myself I can see very clearly the suffering of other inmates." That person has been able to create, to give rise to the compassion within him. You know, when we have compassion in our hearts, we don't suffer too much. When compassion is there in our hearts, we are not the person who suffers the most.

There is another prisoner who received a copy of Being Peace, a photocopy, and later on he got the real book Being Peace, so he had two copies. He had stopped smoking, but he still kept some tobacco. One day the fellow next to his cell banged on the wall and shouted to ask for some tobacco. Although he did not smoke anymore, he wanted to offer him this tobacco. And he took the first page of Being Peace, and he wrapped some tobacco in it, and sneaked it to the other side, with the hope that the other person might enjoy being peace. He himself had enjoyed being peace, and had started practicing sitting meditation in his cell. He just gave a small amount of that tobacco, and the next time he used page two, then page three. He was on death row. Finally he had transferred the whole set of copied pages to the other prisoner. It was wonderful, the other prisoner began to practice in his cell, and became very quiet. In the beginning he had banged, and shouted, and cursed. But finally he became very subdued and very calm, and he was released. In order to thank the other person, he passed in front of the cell, and they looked at each other, and together they recited one sentence from the book, which they both knew by heart. That prisoner on death row was able to write a whole book on his practice, within his cell, and the book has been published by a publisher outside.

So it is clear that punishment is not the only thing we can do. There is much more we can do in order to help. Transformation and healing is possible in these difficult situations. Another prisoner wrote to me, saying, "Thay, I am very surprised to find that I can still retain my humanness in prison, and that I have not gone mad. That is thanks to the practice. My only hope is that one day when I am released, and someone comes to see me and looks at my face, and says, "With the amount of suffering he endured in prison, yet he can look like that" that would be wonderful, the greatest reward that I could get." He said that the conditions in which he lived, the suffering he endured in jail, you could not imagine. But he has managed, in order to survive, to keep his humanness alive through all these difficulties. If we suffer less outside here, and have a little bit of time, of course we can do something to help those inside. That is why killing that person only reveals our weakness. We surrender. We don't know what to do any more, and we give up. That is a cry of despair, when you have to kill people. I hope that together we can practice looking deeply in order to find better means than to approve of capital punishment. My answer to the question is that not only can we reconcile justice and compassion, but we can also demonstrate that true justice must have compassion and understanding in it.