Journal of Buddhist Ethics

An online journal of Buddhist scholarship related to ethics.

Buddhism and Capital Punishment: A Revisitation

ISSN 1076-9005
Volume 26, 2019

Buddhism and Capital Punishment: A Revisitation

Martin Kovan
University of Melbourne

The first Buddhist precept prohibits the intentional, even sanctioned, taking of life. However, capital punishment remains legal, and even increasingly applied, in some culturally Buddhist polities and beyond them. The classical Buddhist norm of unconditional compassion as a counterforce to such punishment thus appears insufficient to oppose it. This paper engages classical Buddhist and Western argument for and against capital punishment, locating a Buddhist refutation of deterrent and Kantian retributivist grounds for it not only in Nāgārjunian appeals to compassion, but also the metaphysical and moral constitution of the agent of lethal crime, and thereby the object of its moral consequences. Read article

Capital Punishment: a Buddhist Critique

ISSN 1076-9005
Volume 24, 2017

Capital Punishment: a Buddhist Critique

Martin Kovan
University of Melbourne

Capital punishment is practiced in many nation-states, secular and religious alike. It is also historically a feature of some Buddhist polities, even though it defies the first Buddhist precept (pāṇatipātā) prohibiting lethal harm. This essay considers a neo-Kantian theorization of capital punishment (Sorell) and examines the reasons underwriting its claims (with their roots in Bentham and Mill) with respect to the prevention of and retribution for crime. The contextualization of this argument with Buddhist-metaphysical and epistemological concerns around the normativization of value, demonstrates that such a retributivist conception of capital punishment constitutively undermines its own rational and normative discourse. With this conclusion, the paper upholds and justifies the first Buddhist precept prohibiting lethal action in the case of capital punishment.

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Buddhist Self-immolation and Mahāyānist Absolute Altruism, Part Two

ISSN 1076-9005
Volume 21, 2014

Thresholds of Transcendence: Buddhist Self-immolation and Mahāyānist Absolute Altruism, Part Two

Martin Kovan
University of Melbourne

In China and Tibet, and under the gaze of the global media, the five-year period from February 2009 to February 2014 saw the self-immolations of at least 127 Tibetan Buddhist monks, nuns, and lay-people. An English Tibetan Buddhist monk, then resident in France, joined this number in November 2012, though his self-immolation has been excluded from all accounts of the exile Tibetan and other documenters of the ongoing Tibetan crisis. Underlying the phenomenon of Buddhist self-immolation is a real and interpretive ambiguity between personal, religious (or ritual-transcendental), altruistic, and political suicide, as well as political suicide within the Buddhist sangha specifically. These theoretical distinctions appear opaque not only to (aligned and non-aligned, Tibetan and non-Tibetan) observers, but potentially also to self-immolators themselves, despite their deeply motivated conviction.

Such ambiguity is reflected in the varying historical and current assessments of the practice, also represented by globally significant Buddhist leaders such as His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama and the Vietnamese monk and activist Thích Nhất Hạnh. This essay analyses the symbolic ontology of suicide in these Tibetan Buddhist cases, and offers metaethical and normative accounts of self-immolation as an altruistic-political act in the “global repertoire of contention” in order to clarify its claims for what is a critically urgent issue in Buddhist ethics.

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Buddhist Self-immolation and Mahāyānist Absolute Altruism

ISSN 1076-9005
Volume 20, 2013

Thresholds of Transcendence: Buddhist Self-immolation and Mahāyānist Absolute Altruism, Part One

Martin Kovan
University of Melbourne

In China and Tibet, and under the gaze of the global media, the four-year period from February 2009 to February 2013 saw the self-immolations of at least 110 Tibetan Buddhist monks, nuns and lay-people. Underlying the phenomenon of Buddhist self-immolation is a real and interpretive ambiguity between personal, religious, altruistic and political suicide, and political suicide within the Buddhist saṅgha specifically, itself reflected in the varying historical assessments of the practice and currently given by global Buddhist leaders such as His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama and the Vietnamese monk and activist Thích Nhất Hạnh.

Part One of this essay surveys the textual and theoretical background to the canonical record and commentarial reception of suicide in Pāli Buddhist texts, and the background to self-immolation in the Mahāyāna, and considers how the current Tibetan Buddhist self-immolations relate ethically to that textual tradition. This forms the basis for, in Part Two, understanding them as altruistic-political acts in the global repertoire of contention.

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The Burmese Alms-Boycott

ISSN 1076-9005
Volume 19, 2012

The Burmese Alms-Boycott: Theory and Practice of the Pattanikujjana in Buddhist Non-Violent Resistance

Martin Kovan
University of Melbourne

This essay presents a general and critical historical survey of the Burmese Buddhist alms-boycott (pattanikujjana) between 1990 and 2007. It details the Pāli textual and ethical constitution of the boycott and its instantiation in modern Burmese history, particularly the Saffron Revolution of 2007. It also suggests a metaethical reading that considers Buddhist metaphysics as constitutive of that conflict. Non-violent resistance is contextualized as a soteriologically transcendent (“nibbanic”) project in the common life of believing Buddhists—even those who, military regime and martyred monastics alike, defend a fidelity to Theravāda Buddhism from dual divides of a political and humanistic fence.

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Buddhist Ahimsā and its Existential Aporias

ISSN 1076-9005
Volume 16, 2009

Violence and (Non-)resistance: Buddhist Ahiṃsā and its Existential Aporias

Martin Kovan
University of Queensland

This essay considers a paradigmatic example in Buddhist ethics of the injunction (in the five precepts and five heinous crimes) against killing. It also considers Western ethical concerns in the post-phenomenological thinking of Derrida and Levinas, particularly the latter’s “ethics of responsibility.” It goes on to analyze in-depth an episode drawn from Alan Clements’s experience in 1990 as a Buddhist non-violent, non-combatant in war-torn Burma. It explores Clements’s ethical predicament as he faced an imminent need to act, perhaps even kill and thereby repudiate his Buddhist inculcation. It finds a wealth of common (yet divergent) ground in Levinasian and Mahāyāna ethics, a site pregnant for Buddhist ethical self-interrogation.

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