February 12, 2004 Founder's Letter

by Norman Fischer | February 12, 2004 at 7:52 PM

Muir Beach, CA. February 12, 2004

Dear friends,

On Capital Punishment:

(At midnight of February 9, 2004, Kevin Cooper was to be executed executed at San Quentin Prison. A few hours before the execution the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals issued a stay of execution).

Dharma is always uplifting. Even when we are contemplating difficult suffering, when we remember the Dharma it brings some relief, some happiness. So we don't need to avoid suffering. As practitioners we are committed to looking suffering in the face - not only our own suffering, but the suffering of the world, which is after all also ours.

In California, all legal executions are carried out at San Quentin- a place just down the road from where I live. It is impossible for me not to notice and not to be involved whenever there is an execution. Kevin Cooper is going to be allowed to live a while longer. Perhaps by the time you read this he will already be dead.

It is possible that Kevin Cooper committed the crimes for which he will likely be killed. It is also possible that he did not commit them. Whether he did or not, I hope that we will reflect on this sad and terrible action that is being taken in our name. The intentional taking of a human life is never justifiable

In most of the world capital punishment is considered barbarous. It used to be considered barbarous here too, but this view was reversed some years ago when people began to feel that criminals were getting off too easily, that justice should be meted out more severely. I think that the proponents of capital punishment make an important point worth our paying attention to: that we are all responsible for our own actions. Even if bad social conditions have made our lives difficult, even we have suffered and are ignorant, still, in the end, we have to accept responsibility for what we have done. Only when we do this will transformation occur. This was also the Buddha's insight, and we should respect and appreciate the proponents of capital punishment for bringing this point so starkly into view.

From a Buddhist perspective, however, taking a life can never be a good action. If you would make the moral or practical argument, as even a Buddhist might, that killing one to ensure the safety of many is justified, still capital punishment is not right. Because capital punishment is meted out not by an ideal state, but by an imperfect and in many ways corrupt judicial system. They say that the execution of a prisoner is very rare- as rare as a lightning strike. That's true. Most murderers do not receive the death penalty. But how can we account for the fact that the death penalty lightning bolt, unlike the kind that comes out of the skies, disproportionately strikes people of color? Statistics take us out of the realm of theory into actual injustice that destroys human lives.

Also, we know that our judicial system makes a lot of plain mistakes. The public wants crimes to be solved, the police are pressured to solve them, and they do solve them- even if it sometimes means convicting the innocent. Unfortunately, despite what you see on television it is very hard to solve crimes. Until society becomes more just, there will always be many more crimes than we can possibly solve. We need to accept that this is so and give up our need for closure. Time and time again we have seen the bad results of our insistence on too rigorous crime busting — the person who serves one or two or ten or twenty years in prison for a crime he or she did not commit is commonplace. Of course some people who are executed are innocent! It is inevitable. We will never know how many because after an execution takes place a case is closed for good.

No life is beyond redemption. This is central to the Buddha's message. No matter how terrible a person's misdeeds, there is always a chance, however slim it may be, that he or she can take responsibility for them, and change. This is good news for all of us. There is the famous case in Buddha's time of Angulimala, the serial killer, who deeply suffered, repented, and became an arhat. When the state kills someone it kills hope for all of us. It leaves a sick feeling in our hearts. We shouldn't ignore that feeling.

Yours, Zoketsu Norman Fischer


Norman Fischer