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Victimless Crimes – A Buddhist Response

Chicago Criminal Courts. From

Editor’s note: This article was first published in the now-retired Bodhi Journal, Issue 12, June 2009.

A crime is usually understood as the infringement of an established system of law of a community or of a state. Crime has punishments as its integral retributive measures. Punishment is said to be the very basis of any society. There is no society without punishment. Buddhist discourses on kingship or government recognize three such punitive acts as an integral authority of a state, namely,

1.    censure him/her who should rightly be censured (garahitabba? garaheyya)

2.    be indignant to him/her who should rightly be indignant (khipitabba? khipeyya)

3.    banish him/her who deserves to be banished (pabbajetta? pabbajeyya)

As any legal system of established laws and their corresponding punishments are decided on the basis of cultural and religious backgrounds, crime becomes one that of dynamic nature. It is no less interesting to see the Buddhist attitude towards such so-called crimes and their resolutions, especially because ‘moral perfection’ is one of the enlightened experiences of a Buddhist saint, a man perfected whose attainment of nibb?na is explained as ‘the destruction of greed, hatred and ignorance’ which are the very basis of crimes and social misbehaviors.

Buddha lived in a social environment where crimes and primitive punishments meted out on criminals were not, inevitably, absent. Crimes like stealing or doing something evil were dealt with harsh punishments ranging from ‘whipping, cutting off limbs, putting in darkness, burning hands with a torch, putting fish hooks in the body, pulling out pieces of flesh from the body the size of coins, screwing a spike from one ear to the other, beating until the body is as soft as straw, throwing into boiling oil, giving to the dogs to be eaten alive, raising on a spike until life lasts or cutting off the neck with a sword’[1] . Elsewhere in the Canon, these kinds of graphic description of punishments handed out to criminals are equated with the punishments given to hell beings. The question now is whether Buddha endorsed these graphic methods of cruel punishments as counteractive measures to prevent crimes and social misbehaviors. It is interesting to note that though Buddha had a fine philosophy of morality and ethical values, he did not, however, lay out or endorse any definite stand on types of criminal punishments. Criminals, it seemed to him, are in need of rehabilitation, instruction and moral guidance more than harsh punishments and condemnation to death. The only place where Buddha seemed to have laid down some specific guidelines for punishments for the infringement of spiritual values is in the community of monks and nuns.

Terms like p?r?jika (downfall/failure), p?cittiya (expiation), sa?gh?disesa (formal meeting of the community), nissaggiya (forfeiture) and p??idesan?ya (confession) are used to denote the forms of punishments to be meted out to the ‘wrongdoer’ in the spiritual monastic community. None of these terms, however, suggests any form of physical punishments; all have to do with psychological. The Buddha’s precedence of punishment, as far as the Vinaya is concerned, rules out any form of physical punishments like cutting off limbs, or worst, throwing the wrongdoer to the dogs to be eaten alive.

According to the vinayic terms mentioned above, p?r?jika is the worst punishment which entails the complete and permanent expulsion from a community i.e. to banish someone who deserves to be banished. The successful integration of the serial killer A?gulim?la into the Buddhist monastic community by the Buddha indicates an example that wrongdoers can, when integrated and rehabilitated into social and spiritual sphere, can be transformed into a saint, a man perfected. Our focus here however is not to discuss  such crimes that involve two parties – the wrongdoer and the victim/s such-as murders, rapes, robbery and the like. Our interest here is on a special category of crimes, known by sociologists and criminologists as – victimless crimes, crimes without victims, so called because the victims are the offenders themselves. Prostitutions and promiscuity, drug addictions, alcoholism, gambling, and vagrancy, suicide and self-injury or self-immolation, and in modern day context, frauds in stock markets and politics, cheating and deception and tax evasion are all included in this category of victimless crimes. It is interesting to know that some of these victimless crimes such-as prostitution are legal in some countries while in some other countries some of them such-as suicide, self injury and the like are not dealt legally.

Some people consider victimless crimes as individual rather than being social. Therefore, to understand the importance and vitality of this category of crimes from a Buddhist perspective, it is very important that we first understand what an individual means to Buddhism and what his place is in a social context. Our common knowledge tells us that society is a unit of individuals. In other words, an individual is a unitary screw-part of a society. Buddhist social teachings compare the society with that of a boat in the sa?s?ric ocean whose various parts are screwed up together by bolts and nuts. When any of the screwed up part gets loosen up, the boat can no longer be expected to sail smoothly without dangers of being cracked into pieces. This analogy is the Buddhist picture of an individual and society.

Secondly, life as a human being for Buddhism is a basic good. Hard is it to be born as human, so declared the Buddha[2] . Thirdly, while compassion to lend help and to instruct when in need is an integral part of Buddhism, it is ultimately the individual that matters the most in the pursuit of self-enlightenment. Therefore, Buddhism would concentrate on the individual well-being and progress for the holistic transformation of a society. It is under these three so-called victimless crimes that are to be discussed from a Buddhist perspective.

In Buddhism, the most important thing is to view crimes in a given context from three perspectives – sociological, legal and karmic or spiritual. While commonly designated crimes like murders, rapes etc. come under the denomination of these three, victimless crimes however vary i.e. some of them, as we have noted above, may not be considered sociologically and legally valid or weighty, the spiritual aspect may be reserved a part though. In a Buddhist context, the karmic aspect of any given crime is considered to be the most important. Hence, while reserving enormous respect for social and legal validity of any crime, Buddhism would look at these victimless crimes from a deeper spiritually significant level. Buddhism is able to take advantage of this level of understanding mainly because it has the strong advocacy of life after death, technically known as punabbhava which moves in a cyclic circumference known in Buddhism as sa?s?ra, the cycle of repeated births and deaths.

The Buddhist understanding of victimless crimes would further take us to understand that a crime in any form is to be avoided on four grounds – fear of self-reproach(attanuv?danubhaya), fear of others’ reproach (parav?danubhaya), fear of punishment (da??a bhaya) and fear of going to a woeful state (duggati bhaya)[3] . Suicide and self-immolation, for example, may transcend the first three but they are still to be avoided on the ground that ending of this life is not the end of life. Ending of life for its mere sake would only land such a one to a unhappier state.      

Prostitutions and promiscuity, drug addictions, alcoholism, gambling and vagrancy are all considered social evils which have been extensively dealt with in popular social suttas likeSigalov?dasutta, Parabhavasutta and Ma?galasutta to name but a few. Prostitution, said to be the world’s oldest profession, is connected with a woman selling her body for sex in exchange of money or favor while promiscuity is mainly a man’s behavior in gratifying his endless thirsts of sensuality. They are the causes of the 20th century HIV/AIDS epidemic in many countries and have since then been the theme of discussion and issue in many international forums and campaigns. Buddhism approaches this issue from more of a preventive standpoint than providing resolutions.

 Prostitution, though has been proved to be due to economical reasons, has ultimately to do with psychological tendencies of desire, greed, vanity, wrong views and delusion. Sus?m? and Ambap?l? were two of the famous and high rated prostitutes connected with events of Buddha’s life. They were popular among kings, nobles, princes, warriors and millionaires. Buddha used the rotting dead body of Sus?m? to show the futility and dangers of physical attraction to a monk who was in love with her when she was active as a high rated prostitute. The story of Ambap?l? is interesting in this context because she decided to become a common wife (i.e. prostitute), technically known in the Canon as g??ik?, because she had too many suitors to choose from!

In the Ther?g?th?, we find a couple of elderly nuns who have been former courtesans and their recallings of their lives as such reveal that they once were all victims of self vanity and self-view of their beauties. Realizing the karmic dangers of being in such unworthy social positions, they joined the monastic sa?gha and soon became arahants. Their examples show that prostitution, besides being induced by social reasons, is also due to how one perceives the reality of the world. The promiscuous behavior of a man is certainly the business of prostitution. The Par?bhavasutta lists promiscuity as a cause for one’s downfall. The Buddhist notion of samm? di??hi (right view) is to be used with samm? v?y?m? (right effort) to transform one’s lifestyle (samm??j?va). Contentment (sa?tu??hi), self-restraint (atta-sa?vara)and mind cultivation (bh?van?are needed to be exercised in the pursue of sensuality in the domain of a higher life. Self indulgence, according to Buddha, is low (h?no), vulgar (gammo),ordinary (pothujjaniko), ignoble (anariyo) and senseless (anatthasa?hito). While accepting sensuality as an integral part of an ordinary life, Buddhism includes refraining from sexual misconduct as its third precept but a life of complete celibacy is recommended for a higher life.

Drug addictions and alcoholism are considered in Buddhism as forms of madness, folly and stupidity that lack the control of thought, speech and action[4] . The Buddhist fifth precept deals with this issue of drugs and alcoholism. The terms used are sur?, meraya andmajja. These three terms holistically refer to any form of substance that causes sluggishness and negligence. While trafficking of drugs is punishable by death in many countries, its serious effects remain confined mainly to the offender him/herself. Yet, its social repercussions are causes of serious concerns. Drug addiction or alcoholism is one of the six channels by which one can dissipate one’s own wealth which may result in actual loss of wealth, increase in quarrels, susceptibility to disease, loss of good character, indecent exposure and impaired intelligence. These six resultant consequences are indeed pragmatic in social context so much so that marriages and families break up due to this so-called victimless crime, which in fact victimize and destabilize an entire social setup.

Gambling has long been a social disturbance which is another channel of dissipating wealth and is recognized as a social evil in Buddhism. Interestingly, in the West, many legally recognized places operate as gambling dens where millions of dollars circulate. But in Buddhist social context, gambling is a matter of winning and losing, when one wins, he begets hatred and greed; when he loses, he mourns and increases his anger. Gambling is obviously a way of being drained of one’s earned resources.

Vagrancy has the word vik?lavisikh?cariya in the P?li Canon which actually means loitering in the streets at unseemly hours. This definition of course may make no sense in technologically and economically advanced countries where cities never sleep. In such context, there cannot be such thing as seemly hours. However, in recent time, public begging and loitering in the form of being a tramp has been illegalized. Nonetheless, the Buddhist definition of vagrancy as loitering at unseemly hours at unseemly places is in fact a social behavior not to be resorted to by one who wants to preserve one’s social dignity. Buddhism thus considers a person with such a behavior as without protection, his family and properties are also without protection and what is worse, he, when at a wrong place at a wrong time, can be arrested by authorizes on suspicion of crimes, which then would make him object of false rumors. Recent stories of suspected terrorists being arrested, accused and tortured by authorities just because they happened to be at the wrong place at the wrong time can be a real example to avoid what we may call vagrancy or vik?lavisikh?cariya in a Buddhist context.

Suicide and self-injury or self-immolation is another set of so-called victimless crimes that has a long history. Suicide and self-injury have been topics of many controversial discussions in recent time from a Buddhist point of view. Here we shall not debate on the issue of right, to use a modern terminology, to denote that while one has no right to torture or kill another fellow being, one may, to a degree, have the right to do whatever one wishes to oneself. In Buddhist texts, suicide and self-injury have been dealt with from more of a spiritual/karmical bearing than a social. We have already noted at the beginning that life as a human, in Buddhism, is an intrinsic good and is rare and that this life is only a part of a larger and longer chain of births and deaths known as sa?s?ra.

Buddhism denies such things as eternal life and/or no-life after death which are two extremes of reality technically termed in Buddhism as sassatav?da (eternalism) and ucchedav?da (annihilism) respectively. Avoiding these two extremes, yes and/or no theories, Buddhism has advocated a middle path, the ariy???ha?gikamagga and tried to explain human existence on the basis of its unique theory of Dependent Co-arising(pa?iccasamupp?da). With this theory, Buddhism has held the view that as long as sa?s?ricdefilements like cravings, desire, greed, hatred and ignorance are present in one, life, for him, shall continue and this makes no sense at all trying to end this life without an end to these defilements first. Hence, suicide is not a solution to human existential problems.

The state in which these sa?s?ric defilements find no footing is defined in Buddhism asnibb?na, which is the ultimate goal (attha?) and essence (s?ra?) of life. Emile Durkheim was the first to categorize three kinds of suicides. First is egoistic suicide which is the outcome of a lack of integration of the individual to society, second is altruistic suicide which results from the individual’s taking his own life because of higher commandments, either those of religious sacrifice or unthinking political allegiance and the third is anomic suicide which is due to the lack of regulation of the individual by society, so that the person is isolated from society[5] .

From an examination of suicide in Buddhist texts, Lamotte has listed another set of three kinds of circumstances under which a Buddhist may choose to commit suicide, so to speak. First is an arahant, having completed his work, decides to meet death voluntarily to enter nibb?na; second is a bodhisattva offering his life for the welfare of beings and the third is someone offering his body to pay homage to the Buddhas[6] . Padmasiri de Silva has examined the above six circumstances of suicides with the conclusion that the Buddhist circumstances of suicide are very much different from that of suicides cited by Durkheim. We can understand his conclusion from the view point of what we have discussed so far. Durkheim’s discussion of altruistic suicide, though runs parallel to the Buddhist concept of a bodhisattva sacrificing his body for others, is not exactly what Buddhism advocates or rather would exonerate because, as Padmasiri puts it, ‘working for the welfare of others through compassion, certain types of self-sacrifice and risk-taking for the benefits of others, fearlessness of facing the truth and kindred virtues take an important place in Buddhism. Risk to one’s life in certain situations or even accepting death may be understood and declared free of blemish and defilement according to the word of the Buddha, depending on the context. But the killing of oneself for the sake of others is not something that the Buddha would build into the system’[7] .

The term ‘altruistic suicide’ is a little jarring as altruistic acts are good and risk-taking is merely incidental and a Buddhist may not convert altruistic suicide into a special creed[8] . Indeed, the notion of altruism in Buddhism is very special and it is not certainly self-denying altruism associated with suicide, asceticism and self-immolation. Hence, the action of the Vietnamese monks who set fire to themselves to protest against the war, the Burmese monks dying in military prisons from hunger strikes to protest against the military regime and in recent time, Sinhalese monks willing to die to protect Buddhism and the Sinhalese nation, even if it defies the description of suicide, may be hard to justify on Buddhist principles as ‘altruistic suicide’. The Buddhist circumstance of an arahant, on the other hand, committing suicide falls in none of the three cases cited by Durkheim because, a suicidal tendency is a matter of choosing a better life (bhava-ta?h?) or no-life (vibhava-ta?h?) against the current of this life. We must be well informed that an arahant is one who is in the state of such-ness (tath?ta) i.e. nibb?na, which is a transcendence of sa?s?ric existences. His voluntary meeting of death is not a matter of choosing bhava-ta?h?or vibhava-ta?h? but a matter of ‘when’ to enter nibb?na.  

Self-immolation may be considered the preliminary step towards suicidal tendency. The word Buddhism uses for ‘self-immolation’ is attakilamath?nuyoga which is a form of self mortification or torture. Attakilamath?nuyoga was a strong component of Jainist religious practice which was believed to eradicate past evil kammas and stop new kammas from arising. Canonical references record ascetic Gotama, when not yet a Buddha, practicing such severe self-mortifications starting from actual intentional harm to the body to respiratory blockade in the hope of enlightenment. His six years of such severe self-mortifications made him realized that that is not how one is enlightened but is painful (dukkho), ignoble (anariyo) and senseless (anatthasa?hito). Intentional self-injury, apart from a religious context, is a very rare phenomenon seen in social context but it does happen off and often. Buddhism has always emphasized the development of an all embracing mind of compassion and loving-kindness. In the Buddhist meditation of loving-kindness (mett? bh?van?), a unique exercise of Buddhist meditation in which love and concern are generated and spread upon all sentient beings, the first prescribed stage is to generate and spread love to oneself. Obviously, one who does not know how to love oneself does not know how to love others. The exercise of loving-kindness is to counter intense hatred, disgust and dislike which, when expressed on others, result in killing of another being but when expressed to oneself, result in suicide or self-injury. Self-injury, therefore, like suicide, is also not a solution to existential human problems.    

What we have discussed so far is seen at all levels of social and religious setups. Frauds in stock markets and politics, cheating and deception and tax evasion, however, are comparatively modern phenomena that take place amongst the rich and the powerful. Buddhism states that two lucid things namely, moral shame (hiri) and moral fear/conscience (ottappa) protect the world[9] . In the absence of these two, moral imbalance is certain to take place. Buddha calls a person who commits a crime a fool (bala)[10] . Such a person should refrain from committing any crime, be it gross or light, on the basis of threefold anguish, namely, by knowing that he is a criminal, by knowing how criminals are punished by the state and when he is taking rest, he feels remorse, having done wrong. Retribution follows him, after death he will be reborn in a place of woe[11] . Having involved in frauds, cheats and deception, one may get away from the fear of punishment from the state due to his influential position but that does not alone mean he can get away from social blame and deep inside his conscience, there may generate guilt and remorse of going to a woeful state after death. Thus, Buddhism with its principles ofkamma and life after death attempts to prevent social crimes of any gravity by always being far sighted. While criminal activities have retributive results in this life itself, Buddhism tries to induce a mental portray of a future existence in which life of a wrongdoer can be more dreadful and suffering.

The discussion so far on so-called victimless crimes would now bring us to the conclusion that in Buddhism, the issue of subjective and objective victims of social crimes needs to be looked at from beyond this life itself. The prevention of victimless crimes, what we may call, subjective victimized crimes such-as self-injury and suicide, lies, more than not, in the successful envisage of a more dreadful future existence for those who are involved in social crimes and misbehaviors of any form. And to our satisfaction, Buddhism has been moving on this very tract for the prevention of social crimes and misbehaviors while at the same time luring its followers to the achievement of nibb?na, a state where crimes find no footing.


1.    Durkheim, Emile, ‘Suicide’, Free Press, Glencoe, 1951   

2.     Lamotte, E., ‘Religious Suicide in Early Buddhism’, Buddhist Studies Review 4, 1987

3.    De Silva, Padmasiri, ‘Buddhism, Ethics and Society, The conflicts and dilemmas of our times’, Monash Asia Institute, 2002

4.    Gnanarama, Pategama, Ven., ‘An Approach to Buddhist Social Philosophy’, Ti-sarana Buddhist Association, Singapore, 1996

5.    Keown, Damien, ‘Buddhism and Bioethics’, 1995

6.    Ratnapala, Nandasena, ‘Buddhist Sociology’, Sri Satguru Publications, 1993

7.    All canonical references are that of the PTS edition

1. Vajjasutta, Dukanipata, A

2. Kiccho manussapa?il?bho, Dhp. verse no. 182              

3. Catuka nip?ta of A.

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