Never by hatred is hatred conquered,
but only by the readiness to love
does hatred end.
This is an ancient law.
–– Dhammapada 5 ––
I was recently asked by the Faith Initiative of the New Hampshire Coalition to Abolish the Death Penalty to give them a statement from a Buddhist perspective on the death penalty. The familiar words from the Dhammapada quoted above came immediately to mind. I sent them, along with the following thoughts:
“When, even for a moment, we have the attitude in our mind and heart that allows for the killing of one human being––no matter what the reasons––it makes possible the killing of others. It opens up an ancient taboo and feeds the hatred and fears that are so easily triggered in our nervous systems and in our collective community. The public killing condoned by the death penalty erodes the clarity of mind, which is essential for wisdom and compassion to emerge. Such an act nourishes and perpetuates a culture of violence. Killing never ends by killing, but only by finding a way not to kill, does killing end. Non-killing and the willingness to love serve humanity well. To remove the death penalty from New Hampshire law will be a compassionate act for this and for future generations.”
I, with others in the Valley Insight community (VIMS), volunteer in the Berlin, New Hampshire state prison for men and have done so monthly for almost fourteen years. We practice meditation together and discuss Buddhist teachings. There are a few men in our group who have killed people and who are in prison for life without parole. They are goodhearted and sincere people who are seriously and strenuously committed to moving away from hatred. They work hard to establish new ways of thinking and acting. I am very thankful that they were not given the death penalty. They are among my best teachers.
One time, in the summer, the VIMS group inadvertently brought a tick into the prison with us. During our meeting one man saw it on the floor and commented that, though he was a big and strong man, he was very afraid of that little insect. We were all in the midst of a Lyme disease scare at that time. As the designated group leader, I felt responsible; and although we had recently been discussing the Training Precepts and their rootedness in nonharming, I stated to everyone that, in service of the greater interest, I would kill the tick. I was about to get up to do so when one of the men, someone who had killed another human being, said, “Wait a minute. I take a vow in every moment not to kill. There must be another way.”
We pondered the matter of how not to kill a small, possibly infectious tick. One man had a paper towel in his pocket. He put it on the floor, and we managed to get the tick onto it. Then we folded the paper many times until it was securely and carefully confined where it could do no harm. I put it in my pocket. When our meeting was over, we left the building. We drove away down the long prison drive and turned onto the main road. Soon we stopped beside an open field, where we unfolded the paper and released the tick.