Justice or Punishment? A Buddhist’s Thoughts
If someone poisons the Earth do they deserve punishment? Buddhist Venerable Yifa offers wisdom about why the Buddhists say that justice will be meted out regardless:
Many of us have a desire to bring about justice when bad things happen. We want the innocent to be given their chance to see the guilty punished for what they’ve done. If, as I say, Buddhism operates over great stretches of time, then what does it mean to bring someone to justice? Is not this simply complacency and fatalism to sit back and wait for the laws of the universe to bring an individual to justice for what they’ve done?
Justice is a function of natural law, and, like karma, works both in the past, present, and the future. In the Buddhist context, neither a divinity nor the Buddha himself passes judgment on us or punishes us. It is our own karma that will perform that function.
Put simply if an action comes from good intentions then there will be a good reaction. If the action comes from bad intentions then there will be a bad reaction. The universe acts as justice itself, and the universe is never compromised.
For instance, if we damage the Earth’s ecosystems, we will suffer the consequences. Some people may get rich in the process, but their descendants will suffer as a result of what they have done. In this regard, the operation of the world is the operation of justice. It is not a function of human justice, because human justice is conditioned. This is why justice needs to be thought of as separate from punishment.
Punishment as justice merely perpetuates a cycle of more punishment as justice. But true justice is not about punishment; it is about being aware of cause and effect.
Justice is absolutely impartial–it is merely the sum of good and bad actions operating within the universe. However, we can model human laws so that more good is generated than bad. This is why one of the principle ideas of Buddhism is nonviolence. Non-violence means not doing anything to make bad situations worse as well as not creating bad situations.
By creating conditions that enhance the possibility of performing good deeds, rather than simply creating laws to stop people doing bad things, we create situations where less violence is needed because there are fewer situations where violence is generated. Justice in this situation, therefore, is prospective rather than retrospective. We create a just situation before the crime has been committed, because less likely that a crime will be committed.
Adapted from The Tender Heart: A Buddhist Response to Suffering, by Venerable Yifa (Lantern Books, 2007).