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How Should a Criminal Be Treated? (A Buddhist Response)

Jail cells at the Southborough Police Station, from


There are some satisfactory definitions of ‘crime’ and ‘criminal’. But the question of ‘what is a crime ?’ has baffled thinkers on ethics for centuries.  The intricacy of the question is rooted in the reasons forwarded for ‘good’ and ‘bad’ or ‘right’ and ‘wrong’. If killing is wrong, for example, in the general consensus of ethicists, how can we allow killing in wars or as a capital punishment go unpunished, on the contrary salute the soldiers? Thus, most of the wrong doings or crimes have multiple explanations depending on the diversity of their occurrences. The question with regard to the ways of punishing wrong doers or criminals also is desperately in need of a conclusion; presently baffled in the maze of contrasting answers that various civilizations provide. In this essay I avoid such intricacies and controversies of ethicists and other experts, e.g. criminologists. I attempt a simpler yet adequate explanation of ‘crime’, criminals, and treatment of a criminal from Buddhist perspective and show that despite being over two millennia and a half old, this explanation is imposing and absolutely applicable to this day. I draw cases of crimes and punishments from P?li sources and the present day practice or application of the Buddhist way of treating criminals to support my stand. 

Crime and Criminal

According to Oxford English Dictionary, a criminal is a person who has committed a crime, and a crime is an offence against an individual or the state which is punishable by law. A ‘crime’, as the Encarta Dictionary defines, is an illegal act – an action prohibited by law or a failure to act as required by law. According to the Buddhist philosophy of ‘no-soul’ [anatt?] there is a slight different explanation. As everything is subject to change, this does not believe in fixity of any being, thing, or action. Therefore, some definitions of ‘crime’ and ‘criminal’ are possible for conventional use, but, in deeper analysis we see that every material thing is constituted of four great elements and every being is conglomeration of the five aggregates. Thus, we may label a person ‘criminal’, but, when we analyze him/her physically and psychologically it becomes really hard to point the real doer of an action to designate using a specific label. Among the five aggregates there is an implicit relation that functions like a thread to combine them together in different situations of three times. This thread of relationship is called ‘the stream of consciousness’ – (viññ?nasantati/sota)[1] . Each stream of consciousness is understood as a separate individual. He or she is identified according to the nature and characteristics of the particular stream of consciousness that he or she is or possesses. Thus, to explicate simply, it is not possible only for a hand to steal; the hand should be alive being related with the thread of consciousness to intention and undergo necessary steps to complete the action. Therefore, if we cut the hands of a thief, the punishment is weird and inadequate.

According to Buddhism an action initiates in one’s intention [cetan?]. Therefore, the form of punishment for an evil-doer, the thief in this case, should result in the total reformation of his or her intention. By cutting a hand we can, at the highest, cause some physical harm; there is no certainty of the thief becoming a really virtuous person [sappurisa] after that. He or she may even commit serious evil actions than that. By such punishment we consider only one, i.e. form [r?pa (material) part], among the five aggregates, ignoring the important functions of the other four psychological factors. In brief ‘a crime’, according to Buddhism, is that action which is harmful to the person who commits and/or to others. Therefore, theoretically, when we talk about a criminal, we need to consider him or her with the five aggregates.

Types of Punishments Generally Seen

Criminal actions and their punishments are diverse. It is not possible in this short paper to talk about all forms of them. I would just note the types of punishments generally seen and later evaluate the justification of these punishments from Buddhist perspective. 

The system of punishment has a long history in the human civilization. Imposing punishment to criminal depends on the gravity of one’s offence and it differs from society to society. To justify a criminal of one’s wrong doings (crimes), to measure the gravity of one’s crimes and accordingly to impose punishments, a systematic judiciary procedure is followed. In the process of justification when the person is found guilty [of the wrong], one is then given punishment accordingly. Among the punishments given to the criminals are imprisonment, exile, fines, forfeiture of property, removal from public office, death, and disqualification from holding such office etc.

The law of equal retaliation (known as lex talionis), is also present in some societies. This is a form of corporal punishment that demands “an eye for an eye.” For example a death sentence would be given to someone who had deprived a person of life. In primitive societies, crimes were recognized as sins and such cruel punishment as ‘public stoning’ was encouraged by some religions. However, at present, administrators of prisons in some countries share a common purpose of internal rehabilitation of the criminal’s attitudes regarding life instead of imposing physical punishment. In this way the prisoners, some of whom are accused of serious crimes are made aware of the sanctity of life and the art of harmonious living. Various religious masters and educationists are invited to visit prisoners and provide teachings and trainings to improve their living and change their understanding of and attitudes towards life and universe.

Sort of Criminals Found in Buddhist Literature

The Buddhist discourses such as Aggaññasutta[2] and Ku?adantasutta[3] explain the causes leading to the arising of crimes in a society or country. The internal factors a criminal fails to overpower are the grips of greed, hatred, and delusion. The preliminary basis of crime according to Aggaññasutta was ‘theft’. The thief, even being pressed and socially censured, denied to confess his wrong. As a result, all other sorts of evils, such as punishing, killing, etc. emerged in society.[4]

In Buddhist literature, we come across various types of criminals the Buddha had to confront. Among them were a serial killer A?gulim?l?, a notorious bandit ?lavaka, a hetaera Ambap?li, and many others. In fact, Devadatta who was a cousin and brother in law of Siddhattha Gotama, was an insolent opponent of the Buddha. Among all the reported trouble-makers and malefactors in Tipi?aka, Devadatta was the most arrogant who even set conspiracies to kill the Buddha and did never change his views. The method the Buddha employed to reconcile them and explanations he provided as to why a person slips away from the standard human life are very practical evidences to formulate the Buddhist view of crimes and punishment.

In the Vinayapi?aka, we see miscreants within the community of monks [sa?gha] misinterpreting the doctrine and dispensation of the Buddha for their individual gains. Although the early Theras’ purpose was to eliminate suffering and realize nibb?na, some later monks wanted to enjoy at the cost of gifts obtained from devotees. In spite of 227 regulatory rules, some of them invented despicable means to commit the major offences – of murder, theft, falsehood, and sensual misconduct. The Buddha pronounced their immediate downfall from the sa?gha and established the pronouncements as guiding principles to respond to similar occurrences in future. 

Buddhist Way of Punishments – with Some Elaborations from P?timokkha

The method employed in Buddhism to reform the above malefactors had always involved ‘compassion’; the purpose was ‘a greater social benefit’ and ‘a greater social good’ [bahujanahit?ya bahujanasukh?ya]. Buddhism views the reality in terms of the three universal characteristics [tilakkhana]. The Buddha’s explanation had a sad tone when he explains that it is not understanding, not realizing the nature of existence that beings tangle themselves in troubles in the world. Therefore, responding to all sorts of social threats, the Buddha had a complete compassionate heart devoid of any ego centric attitude. He did it not for the sake of saving a job or as a lawyer in support of a convict. The Buddha was the greatest friend of humanity who maintained total objectivity to establish the truth. Therefore when we judge a criminal act, we need to come out of our selfish attitudes, to which lawyers may object. The first and most important condition for a lawyer and persons involved in judging a criminal act is to maintain perfect honesty. 

In the Buddhist monastic community, there were people from all the castes. Yet they lived in peace and harmony was preserved without slightest problem. They were all secured by the thread of friendship [mett?] and principles of noble life [brahmacariya]. Even then there were some who could not cope with the noble life being unable to defend themselves against the evil mental forces. The Vinayapi?aka shows the gradual emergence of these and Buddha’s response to them. These disciplines are enveloped under the heading p?timokkha which means ‘towards the liberation’.

On the complete authority of p?timokkha an offender in the Buddhist monasticism is charged of his action. There are four different types of situation which necessitate disciplinary action or legal proceedings (referred to as adhikara?a). They are Viv?d?dhikara?a(legal proceeding of disputes), Anuv?d?dhikara?a(legal proceeding of censure), ?patt?dhikara?a(legal proceeding of misconduct) and Kicc?dhikara?a(legal proceeding of duties).[5] The purpose of imposing penalties to the offender is for his personal and moral well being. Usually when somebody breaches any rule, a disciplinary procedure is followed in that the Sa?gha is called upon to impose on the offender, at his request, the penalty of either M?natta or Pariv?sa. In such gathering the miscreant admits his wrongdoings and promises not to commit such action again.

But in case of P?r?jika, the gravest of the monastic offences, no such procedure is followed, the offender is considered defeated from his monastic living and thus ex-communicated from the Sa?gha. This in some way might be compared with the punishment called ‘banishment’. But unlike the banishment from the state which involves various other hard treatments such as providing little or no food etc. the miscreant in Buddhist monasticism though ex-communicated is given complete opportunity to lead a virtuous life in the lay society. A miscreant monk or nun who after committing an offence does not admit has to undergo a different type of penalty known as Ukkhepaniya Kamma which involves the loss of power, prestige and privilege enjoyed by the monk in his/her normal daily life. Thus the miscreant is reminded of his wrongdoings and how it is harmful to his spiritual practices and monastic living.

As to the question why a criminal should be punished, the rationale provided is that it is the retribution for breaking the law of a society or country. The punishment is given as revenge or retaliation for wrongdoings. It is also to deter future criminality by the offender and others who harbor similar intentions. Buddhism also maintains a similar justification that everyone fears the rod [or punishment].[6] Fear of punishment (da??abhaya)[7] is one of four motives that discourage an individual to perform illegal actions. Above all, the underlying purpose of punishment in any form is to maintain a peaceful living in a society. For everybody desires happiness (sukhak?ma) and dislikes suffering (dukkhapa?ikk?la).[8] But owing to misconception regarding the worldly existence and out of infatuation [moha] and unrestraint craving, one performs antisocial actions that cause anguish not only to him or her but also to the society. Having a peaceful environment (patir?padesav?so) is also said to be one of highest blessings which is supportive to the spiritual development.

P?rajikais the administrative rules that the Sangha use to check their behaviour. Every fortnight the Sa?gha is expected regularly to recite it being gathered in the Uposatha hall to remind themselves of the duties and thus keeping them in the spiritual path. According to Prof. Dhammavihari, this ritual has been vital to the early Buddhist monastic community to maintain and establish its purity and exercise control over its miscreants.[9] The practice is still seen in Buddhist countries like Thailand, Sri Lanka and Burma etc. A miscreant in the Buddhist monasticism is punished not by the judgment of any specific authority but according to thedhamma. Thus the Gopakamoggall?na Sutta[10] states that punishment is meted out not on the authority of persons but solely on the authority of the Dhamma.[11]  

The kind of punishment that Buddhism recognizes is more psychological than physical. Because it is due to wrong concept regarding life and existence that people perform evil actions that bring about evil consequences. Two most popular wrong concepts regarding life and existence in which people indulge are the view of existence (atthita) and non-existence (natthita).[12] Since everything has its origin in the mind, if an individual is introduced to right understanding (samm? di??hi), all his actions automatically will be beneficial to himself and to the society in which he lives. The psychological reform, in Buddhist system of punishment, serves that noble purpose. These reformations are exercised upon the miscreants with only one chief purpose that is to correct him, not to take revenge.

The Buddha was not only concerned with spiritual welfare (dhamma), but also with material welfare (attha). Therefore he introduced an ideal government system for the secular community just as the monastic Sa?gha. In Cakkavattis?han?dasutta[13] we see a detail account of a universal king under whose reign not only his human subjects live happily and peacefully but even the beasts and birds. He does not rule the country by force, nor does he impose any physical punishment to the miscreants. He rules the country according to the principles ofdhamma or socio-ethical Norm without harsh punishment and weapon (ada??ena asatthena), and thus he is known as a ‘ruler who respects the Norm and governs according to the Norm’ – (dhammiko dhamma-r?j?).[14] This sutta explains the corruption and deterioration in society occur when there is no good interrelationship between various social, economic and moral factors. By punishment alone, the criminal activities from the country cannot be removed. The government needs to find out the underlying cause-s of various crimes and misbehaviours. Thus the sutta emphasizes on the balanced distribution of wealth and security of life. Thus when people in the country become happy and feel secure do not develop harmful tendencies within. With a happy and peaceful mind people then are able to understand the reality of existence and act accordingly. In other word they voluntarily engage in activities that bring about benefit and welfare for the whole community.


At present such movement as giving moral training to the miscreants in the prison is seen throughout the world. The vipassana meditation project undertaken by S.N Goenka has proved immensely successful in India and now adopted by various other countries [see:]. Many prisoners some of whom are even under death penalty have expressed that the life that they had had before they come into contact with such noble teaching was totally a worthless life. They are now happy that before their death, they are able to get this noble teaching. Therefore the conclusion that we can draw from the above discussion is that the criminal should be treated not with (physical) punishments as is usually the case, but with care and understanding. For, the only concern in our existence is to live a happy and meaningful life which finally culminates in the attainment of complete freedom from samsaric suffering.


1.    DN =D?gha Nik?ya.

2.    MN = Majjhima Nik?ya.

3.    SN = Sa?yutta Nik?ya.

4.    AN = A?guttara Nik?ya.

5.    Dhp = Dhammapada.


1.    Dhirasekera, Jotiya 1982: Buddhist Monastic Discipline, Colombo: M.D. Gunasena & Co. (Printers) Ltd.

2.     (tr.) Horner, I.B. 1949: The Book of the Discipline, Vol-I, London: Luzac & Company Ltd.

3.    Jayatilleke, K.N. 2000: Dhamma, Man and Law, Dehiwela: Buddhist Cultural Centre.

4.    Kalupahana, D.J. 1999: The Buddha and The Concept of Peace, Ratmalana: Sarvodaya Vishva Lekha Publication.

5.    Nyanatiloka 1952: Buddhist Dictionary (Manual of Buddhist Terms and Doctrines), Kandy: Buddhist Publication Society.

6.     (tr.) Prajnabangsha, Bhikkhu J. 1999: Bhikkhu Patimokkha, Rangamati: Raj Bana Vihar.

7.    Rahula, Walpola 1957: What the Buddha Taught, Bedford: The Gordon Fraser Gallery ltd.

8.    Ratnapala, Nandasena. Crime and Punishment in the Buddhist Tradition,

9.    _________________ 2005: Buddhist Sociology, Ratmalana: Sarvodaya Vishva Lekha Publication.

10.Wijesekera, O.H.De.A. 1977: Buddhist Essays, Colombo: Department of Government Printing.

1. Nyanatiloka, p. 193.

2. DN, Sutta-27.

3. DN, Sutta-5.

4. DN, Sutta-27.

5. For a clear understanding of these four types of legal proceedings see: Dhirasekera’s Buddhist Monastic Discipline (especially chapter X).

6. Dhp, Verse-129: Sabbe tasanti dandassa.

7. AN II, pp. 121-166.

8. SN IV, p. 172.

9. Dhammavihari, p. 91.

10. MN, Sutta-108.

11. MN. III. p.10: Tasmi? ce bhaññam?ne hoti bhikkhussa ?patti, hoti v?tikkamo, ta? maya? yath?dhamma? yath?nusi??ha? k?rem?‘ti. Na kira no bhavanto k?renti. Dhammo no k?ret?ti.

12. Kacc?nagottasutta of Nid?na Vagga of SN: Dvayanissito khv?ya?, kacc?na, loko yebhuyyena – atthitañceva natthitañca.

13. DN, Sutta-26

14. Wijesekera, p. 100.

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