Buddhism holds the view that a person is good as soon as he refrains from doing evil. The Buddhist attitude towards criminals is focused in a way so that they may be reformed and rehabilitated to be good citizens. Buddhism does not advocate inhuman corporal punishment. The punishment has to be levied after a careful consideration of facts in accordance with the law. There should not be any motive of retaliation or revenge on the basis of a ‘tooth for a tooth’, but levied out of compassion with motive to reform, correct and rehabilitate. The Buddhist attitude is highlighted in some of the Buddhist discourses.
In the Kesi Sutta of the Anguttara Nikaya, the horse-trainer, Kesi, visits the Buddha. The Buddha asks him how he trains horses. Kesi replies that he trains some by gentleness and some by harshness and others by both and those who do not submit to his training, he destroys. The Buddha then says that just in the same way he deals with men. Some he tames by gentleness – telling them what is good and showing them the way to a heavenly state, others by harshness [or rather, firmness] – condemning the evils in them, and yet others by both. Those who do not submit to any of these methods he ‘destroys’ by refusing to admomish them, which shows that they are incorrigibles who cannot be disciplined by any means [unless they change later]. [The Buddha is for instructive and corrective; and is against the destruction of sentient life by capital punishment or the death penalty.]
In another instance found in the Abhayarajkumara Sutta of the Majjhima Nikaya, the Buddha questions Prince Abhaya on what he would do if the baby boy lying on his lap were to put a stick or stone into his mouth due to carelessness of the nurse or the Prince. He replies: ‘I would get it out, revered Sir. If I were not able to get it out at once, I would take hold of his head with my left hand, and crooking a finger of my right hand, I would get it out even though it were with blood. The reason is that I have compassion for the baby.’ Then the Buddha replies, ‘Whatever speech the Tathagata [the Buddha himself] knows to be fact, true, connected with the goal [of enlightenment], but not liked by others, disagreeable to them, the Tathagata knows the right time for explaining that speech. The reason being that the Tathagata has compassion for sentient beings.’
An Approach To Buddhist Social Philosophy
Ven. Pategama Gnanarama