A Statement of Opposition to Capital Punishment from
a Zen Buddhist Perspective

by Kobutsu Malone

Zen Buddhism in America is not a “corporate entity,” it is not a belief system with a central agreed upon set of beliefs to which all who would be called “Zen Buddhists” adhere -- in my heart of hearts I hope that it never becomes so. I can only speak from my own perspective as an American Rinzai Zen Buddhist priest who has witnessed first hand the horrific spectacle of a human being murdered in a state sanctioned choreographed execution.

I know of other Buddhists who actively support the death penalty. This occurs more than we might like to admit in all so called “spiritual communities.” It matters little to members of these “communities” if the so called leadership pronounces from on-high that the death penalty, or any other practice for that matter, is objectionable as a matter of faith. We do not have to look too far to recognize that members of traditions that have declared practices such as birth control to be contrary to tenets of faith are in large part ignored by the body of the community.

You see, if we are really interested in the truth, we have to recognize that hierarchical, patriarchal, or any other power-over dynamic that may be practiced over groups of people can not be spirituality. It can be called “religion” in the popular sense because power-over dynamics are at the heart of organized corporate religions.

Genuine spirituality is anarchistic in nature, by that I mean that spirituality involves profound questioning of all authority, scriptural, dogmatic, hierarchical, clerical and even “commonly held beliefs.” Anarchy here does not imply chaos, in the sense I am using the term, it requires deep responsibility. “Spiritual anarchy,” if you will, does not connote the lack of discipline, precision, or perception -- it actually fosters these characteristics.

The Zen Buddhist tradition is as unique for each zen practitioner as their finger prints or the patterns of their irises. There is no belief involved in Zen practice since it is an experiential tradition based on the direct practice and experience of spirituality. So, as a consequence, there can be no dogmatic statement made by any practitioner that will hold for all others. There are differences of perception in Zen and, in truth, in all traditions, that is human nature. To rely on dogma does great disservice to spiritual practice and relegates us to the role of automatons operating under the direction of external authority. It could almost be seen as a tendency toward spiritual fascism, the ultimate expression of spiritual materialism and the denial of human potential.

Having said all that, I can only present the viewpoint of one simple Zen Buddhist priest, I oppose the death penalty as I oppose all murder, as I oppose the imposition of suffering on all beings through the action of the individual, group, or state. My opposition is based on simply my own choice. It does not rely on any scriptural command of my tradition, any dogma, any external coercion or any commandment from above. My opposition is my responsibility, it is my “ability-to-respond.” Who I am is who I choose to be, consciously and deliberately -- I am not who I am told to be. I choose for myself to adhere the First Precept of Buddhism that goes something like this:

“I am reverential and mindful of all life, I am not violent and I do not kill”

Precepts in the Buddhist tradition are not commandments, they are simply expressions of ways of being which we may, or may not, choose to manifest. I choose to manifest this precept based on my life experience, my perceptions of reality and my choice to contribute to the betterment of society by not causing suffering to others.

Zen, I suppose, is a very simple tradition, no dogma, no commandments, no authority, above us only sky......