Should the death penalty ever be used (if yes, in which cases) and why?

There’s a really powerful comment on the use of the death penalty that’s just appeared on Quora.

The comment is by Quora user Rick Bruno, who describes himself as “Retired cop, marathoner, husband/father/grandfather, wonderer”.

Warning – Graphic Content

Many years ago, when I was still early in my career as a police officer, I attended a training class that was taught by the FBI. The class was about forensics, and about what the state of the art was at that time. Everyone in the class was a police officer with evidence technician responsibilities.

The instructor showed us slides of a multiple homicide, and I have never forgotten those pictures.

It bothers me to relate this, but you need to know the depth of my feeling if you want my opinion.

Here was what happened. A grandfather had made plans to take his daughter and her two children to the zoo. He arrived at their house to pick them up, but the daughter (mom) was still getting ready. So grandpa waited in the living room with the oldest child (a girl of about 7) while the baby (about 18 months) slept in her crib and mom finished getting ready in the washroom.

The father/son/husband of the family found this scene upon his return home from work that afternoon.

At some point a stranger with a machete forced his way into the residence and immediately killed the grandfather. The seven year old was next, she was decapitated. The mother heard the screams, and came running out of the washroom and saw a scene from Hell. He then savagely raped her, and then disemboweled her with the machete. There were blood stains in the baby’s crib, but the baby was missing. There was an electric blender in the kitchen with blood and gore in it. The baby’s body parts were found the next day, partially cannibalized. She had been dumped at a roadside a few miles from her home.

The instructor calmly walked us through the slides, showing the splintered front door jamb, pointing out blood splatter patterns, showing the wounds sustained by the victims, describing defensive wounds on the grandfather and the mother’s hands. Bloody footwear impressions, assorted makeup in the washroom that mom had been applying to herself before she was distracted, toys, baby bottles, a diaper bag ready to go.

You could have heard a pin drop in that classroom. We sat there in the dark, listening to this matter-of-fact lecture, and I wondered if anyone else was experiencing the same rage as I felt building up inside me.

After a while, the instructor asked if there were any questions. Someone asked if the murderer had been caught, as this case was a few years old at the time. The instructor told us the father/husband/son was quickly dismissed as a suspect. Local law enforcement developed a lead and a man who lived a couple blocks away from this family had been arrested a day or two after the crime. The suspect hung himself in his cell before his trial began.

As I said, it still bothers me to relive the slides I saw that day. I have been to many homicide scenes in my career, many accidental deaths involving children. This case was always a yardstick in my opinion of the death penalty.

As a young police officer, this was my first exposure to pure evil. I knew people could be bad to each other, I was not that naive. But I could not help putting my own family into that family’s situation, and seeing their faces. I honestly do not know how the father was able to go on with his life after this. Or if he did.

I hated that monster with every fiber of my being. I still do. I would have volunteered to kill him after his trial. If anyone deserved to die for their crimes, it was this beast.

And so, years went by. The job and life and wisdom and faith too, all changed me. I saw flaws in the system I was sworn to uphold. I saw judges who knew less about the law than a rolled up newspaper. Corrupt judges, inept police officers, dishonest attorneys, mistakes at every level.

One of my law professors told me, “A courtroom is the last place in the world where you will find the truth.” I believe him.

And so, no. The death penalty should not be a part of any criminal justice system. There are too many possibilities that we could screw up justice.

There is real evil in the world. Believe it. But we should not fight it with evil.

It is a sad thing that a Buddhist king, Ashoka, was the first major ruler in history to abolish the death penalty, over 2000 years ago, and yet in the majority of so-called Buddhist countries today the death penalty still exists. It is, however, applied rarely in most Buddhist countries, so surely it can’t be that hard to take the next step and get rid of it altogether.

Seekers

When the young Siddhattha left home, he wandered south, leaving his ancestral home of Sakya, and eventually entering the kingdom of Magadha. Legend has it that great king, Bimbisara, saw him wandering, and, struck by his appearance, asked where he was from. When he learned that he was a son of the Sakyan clan, he gladly received him into his realm. Even Bimbisara’s son, Ajatasattu, though less honorable than his father, accepted the ancient duty of kings to provide protection and shelter for all those in his realm.

Siddhattha was lucky that he didn’t come to Australia by boat. As a homeless wanderer, displaced not by war or necessity, but by simple choice, he would be treated as an “illegal”. He would be scorned by Australians, who would regard him as a queue-jumper, a bludger, and probably a terrorist in disguise. He would be locked up in a mandatory detention center in some lost, forsaken place. There he would be stripped of basic human rights, overcrowded, with not enough water to drink, inedible, worm-infested food, inadequate medical services, no shoes, in an atmosphere of brutality and hopelessness where people could hardly sleep out of fear and discomfort. From time to time there would be violence and riots; and in that culture of despair, people would be so traumatized they would resort to cutting themselves, hunger strikes, stitching their lips together, or trying to kill or immolate themselves. This would be enabled by a culture of secrecy, with the government cutting off communications when things got bad. Popular representations would be full of hate and suspicion, while the voices of those who suffer go unheard.

Buddhism is known worldwide as a religion of compassion. And we like to think of ourselves as a compassionate people. But compassion is not just an ideal, it manifests in acts of kindness; and kindness is nothing if it does not respect first of all the powerless or less fortunate.

One of the most fundamental expressions of kindness is the duties one owes to a guest or a traveller. In Greek myth, this task is apportioned to no less a deity than Zeus himself. In the Buddhist monastic code (Vinaya), there are elaborate duties prescribed when a wandering monk arrives. One is to greet them, offer water for washing their feet, wipe down their dusty sandals; offer water and show them where the bathroom is, then ensure that they are allocated suitable lodgings. This is not some special holy duty, it is merely the everyday kindness of basic human decency.

When guests arrive on our shores, we should treat them with the same kindness and respect. They are human beings, who have come a long way from home, and are weary, fearful, and distressed. Our duty is to put them at ease, to reassure them that they are among friends and will come to no harm. They should be provided with decent lodgings, food, medicine, clothing, and appropriate legal and other support, just like any other human being. Our legal system is built on the presumption of innocence, so all those who arrive on our shores are, in the eyes of the law, innocent.

It is natural and inevitable that some people will wish to move from one place to another. It’s not a temporary aberration, it is inherent in the act of drawing a boundary around a nation. You don’t draw a boundary unless you expect someone will want to cross it. So: the manner in which you maintain your boundary defines your nation. If that is characterized by heartlessness and selfishness, as it is now, that becomes the place you live, a place that requires cruelty for its self-definition. But this is not our only choice. There are many, many different ways in which the situation can be managed, all of which are kinder, cheaper, and would make us all better citizens of the world. The fact that we have ended up with the most hardline option available is not a political necessity, but is an expression of a lack of compassion.

We don’t own this land, and have no special right to it. We are guests on this planet, borrowing for a time the air, the water, and the soil. The Buddha regarded it as a sign of the decline of society that we draw lines on the earth, saying that “this is mine”. Such conduct is nothing other than greed. In Australia in particular, we often forget that we are all descendants of illegal boat people, who arrived at this land, butchered the local people and desecrated their culture, and drew lines of the earth so we could apportion ownership, a thing unknown to the first peoples.

In ancient India, while the boundaries between nations were acknowledged, people moved freely between them, without visas, passports, or border controls. This is the traditional model of Buddhist culture.

In the colonial era, western nations developed a system of bureaucratic control over the movement of peoples. The basis of this is inequality: we have lots, and we want to stop others from getting it. The more inequality there is, the more tension there is around borders. Hence the shift in the past few decades, as the level of inequality has shot to historically unprecedented levels, towards an irrational obsession with border control. We know we have it good, and we really don’t want to share it.

From a Buddhist perspective, it is a duty of the rich to share their wealth. Traditionally, it is said that we should give a quarter of our wealth to those in need. Now, we in Australia are the rich; and though we have much, much more than ever before, we give maybe 1% or so.

Like all controversial subjects, those in power exert themselves to obfuscate the issue, so that what is, in fact, a simple ethical principle, becomes confused and intractable. Power is maintained by fear, and when there is nothing to fear, it must be manufactured. And sad to say, it seems that for many people, these efforts have been successful, as there seems little ability to clearly think about this issue at all. We are distracted by furphies, while the powerless suffer.

We hear, for example, that we can’t afford to resettle these people. This is nonsense. Australia has plenty of money, so where has it gone? Drive around the streets of Perth or Sydney, and look at the huge boats and houses, and the answer is not hard to see: the rich took it. If we follow the ancient Buddhist principle that those with much should share with those with little, then we would not have a problem.

The current situation is, moreover, probably the most wasteful and expensive solution possible. Due to the secrecy with which our government cloaks its activities—which is of course totally counter to not only the principles of modern democracy, but also the Buddha’s advice to “open up a covered thing”—it is not possible to know exactly how much it costs. However, according to Amnesty, we spend over half a million dollars per person per year. It is completely, utterly absurd.

This money is mostly paid to a corporation, Serco, which is currently under investigation for defrauding the UK government to the tune of tens of millions of pounds. A former employee alleges, among other things, that Serco hires unqualified people, who receive little or no training and are taught to run the camps like prisons, ignoring the suffering of the detainees.

Next we hear that the people coming are not real refugees, but “economic migrants”. These are people who moved from one place to another place because they want to make a better living for themselves. They are not evil, and they have committed no crime. They may be guilty of being foolish and greedy, but that is no excuse to treat them with anything but dignity and kindness.

Personally I would love to live in a world where anyone could simply move where they wanted, as we do within a country, since we all belong to this one planet and cannot claim ownership.

But we don’t live in that world. In the world we do live in, there are procedures that are accepted by the international community, and enshrined in Australian law, that decide whether a person is a “genuine refugee” and should be resettled or not.

So those who arrive should be looked after as honored guests until their status is determined. If it is found that they do not qualify for resettlement, they should be returned to their country, or other arrangements made. Of course there are practical difficulties, as there are with any situation, but this doesn’t affect our moral obligations.

There is a genuine problem with people smugglers. These people are international criminals, and we should work with the international community to disband these networks. If we were to close the absurd, horrific detention centers, we would free up billions of dollars which could be used to disrupt the people smugglers. Instead, the smugglers ply their trade and we punish their victims.

There is a further genuine problem with terrorists. In Sri Lanka, for example, after the crushing of the Tamil Tigers, it is to be expected that the Sinhalese authorities will want to pursue those guilty of terrorist acts. Of course, not all those it pursues are terrorists; but some are. No-one wants such people in its borders, and it is understandable that the Australian authorities should be careful and thorough. Nevertheless, this is only a tiny percentage of those arriving in Australia. The bulk of those fleeing the aftermath of the war are either displaced internally or are in India. The fact that some of those arriving are criminals does not justify treating all of them as criminals. Some of the people who read this blog are criminals; are we to punish everyone who reads it?

Another common furphy is that we fear the introduction of un-Australian values. This is, of course, nothing other than the fear of the Other that has demeaned Australian civic life since the days of the White Australia Policy. Fine: anyone who is settled in Australia should be taught about Australian laws and values, and as with people everywhere, they should respect that. I have spoken of the duty that a host owes to the guest; similarly, the guest owes a duty to the host. And if anyone is not abiding by those laws, they need to be dealt with. Australian law does not, and should not, tolerate uncivilized practices such as female genital mutilation, slavery, sharia law, discrimination based on gender or sexuality, or the caste system.

But there is no inherent connection between these things and people arriving by boat. However they come, whether as immigrants or refugees, people bring their own baggage. And while mostly this baggage is positive and helps enrich our culture, some of it is toxic. Equating such harmful practices with maritime arrival is nothing more than rhetorical sleight of hand.

People who are newly arrived will have certain issues, while those who have been here for a long time will have others. The real issue is how to prevent people from harming each other, while educating all people, whether newly arrived or here for a long time, to be more compassionate and wise.

Those who are so concerned with defending Australian values seem to be wilfully blind to the ways that values are actually created in societies. People don’t embrace values because they are forced to, but because they see positive models.

If people arrive as weary wanderers, and are immediately treated with heartlessness and suspicion, what will they think of Australian society? Can we expect those who have undergone such an experience to respect Australian culture and Australian Government? Australians have persistently voted in governments with relentlessly hardline policies on maritime arrivals. New arrivals know this; they feel like outsiders, and will learn to trust only slowly.

If, however, peoples’ initial encounter with Australia is an experience of kindness and friendliness; if they are treated with the openness and the fairness that we like to pride ourselves on, they will gain a natural respect for Australian culture and values. This is the starting point for real harmony in any culture.

The Buddha’s ethics is based firmly on his love and compassion, which is without exception or limit. Constantly we find the phrase sabbe satta, “all beings”. We are still catching up to this ethos. We have a long way to go before we see ourselves as first and foremost sentient beings, temporary tenants who share our beautiful planet together, and fully surmount the limitations of race, nation, caste, gender, and religion. In our time, in our Australian home, this is how we are being tested. And the test is this: as Australians and as those inspired by the Buddha’s path, to use this opportunity to grow in love; to show the world that the Buddha’s teachings are not merely nice ideals, but eminently practical tools for building a healthy and harmonious society.

No Early Buddhism course 2014

Dear friends,

We had a great response to our early Buddhism course last year, and we were really looking forward to doing something similar next year. We had a number of discussions about it, and there were some excellent ideas.

However, after discussion, Ajahn Brahmali and myself have decided not to run the course or a similar course next year. Not out of lack of interest, but simply out of lack of time. I will be almost constantly travelling from the end of the vassa until March, while Ajahn Brahmali will be starting building new kutis at Bodhinyana. In addition, I am wanting to put my main
energies for the next year or so into SuttaCentral; and as part of that, Ven Brahmali has undertaken a complete revision of the translation of the Pali Vinaya.

Hopefully we will be able to do something the following year, 2015.

I know that many of your were looking forward to the course, so please accept our apologies!

Should we ban live sheep exports?

In 1986 I was an active member of Animal Liberation. Due to some quirk of regulations, the Government issued us with special passes that allowed us to enter and inspect without notification any place where animals were kept for commercial purposes. At the time, live sheep export was a key animal rights issue in WA. So we made a point to visit the various places involved in this trade: sale-yards, holding facilities, ships, and the abattoir (for those that weren’t exported). We were granted access to all these places except the ship, and we had quite extensive and frank conversations with the workers on site.

What is it like for the sheep?

The entire process is one of great suffering. From their mostly-adequate sheeply existence on a farm, they are herded on the trucks in crowded conditions, driven over noisy and confusing roads to a saleyard, where they are repeatedly moved and shuffled around, prodded by powerful electric prods. Then back on to more trucks, into unfamiliar fields, then on trucks again to the shipyards. More herding and prodding, then weeks on a crowded, unfamiliar ship, with the smells of oil, metal, and sea. Then to port, through the whole procedure a few more times, only to end up in a killing field having their throat cut. It is a barbarous and cruel business.

There are those who will argue that we should not anthropomorphize the sheep. They like being crowded together. We can’t just assume that they would feel as we would feel.

But this is what I saw at the sale-yards on the outskirts of Perth. At the back, out of public eye, behind the sheds, is a pile of dying sheep. Most are not dead yet; they kick, bleat, and quiver from time to time. They are there every day that sales are on. And every day someone from the RSPCA, whose job is to minimize animal suffering, kills them and removes their carcases.

Why are they there? According to the workers we spoke to, these are animals who were too feeble to survive the truck journey. They are old, or weak, or ill. They said that the farmers should really have killed them themselves, but it is cheaper and easier to put them on a truck, so that they are someone else’s problem. And who knows, maybe some will survive and actually fetch a price.

This is, let us remember, just the first stage of the journey. At each stage, there are similar stresses and sufferings for the animals, and at each stage some animals simply cannot stand it and collapse or die. Imagine if, whenever you caught a train, the conditions were so bad that a dozen or more elderly and unwell people died of stress, and this was considered a normal part of train travel. That is comparable to the situation for sheep in the live export trade.

In consequence of this grievous and gratuitous suffering, the live sheep export trade, among the countless atrocities perpetrated on animals by we civilized humans, has consistently been singled out by animal rights activists as particularly heinous.

What has changed?

In the last year or so, as Australian readers will be aware, this has become a hot-button political issue in Australia. A number of high-profile reports on the ABC (the national broadcaster) have depicted the gruesome conditions which the sheep are subjected to in Indonesia and the Middle East. This has sparked an astonishing public response, temporary bans, and new conditions imposed on our trading partners.

To an old animal rights activist like myself, this is all very curious. We have been saying these things for decades, and no-one was interested. Why now? What has changed?

I can only think of one thing that has changed, and that must be at the root of the public’s emotional response: Islamophobia. The ostensible purpose of the trade is, of course, so that the sheep can be slaughtered halal. It is a religious thing, and if one thing has changed in Australian, and more generally Western society, in recent years, it is a growing distrust and dislike of all things Islam. This is why the scenes of mistreatment of sheep in foreign, dusty countries of dark-skinned people cause such outrage, while no-one knows or cares about the dying sheep that are daily tossed on to the pile at the back of a shed in Perth.

This makes the whole issue much more ambiguous. If the trade is such a source of suffering, then is it not justified to leverage the public’s Islamophobia to create a better outcome for the animals? Dubious at best; hypocritical, manipulative, and dangerous at worst.

The best of bad choices

For me the renewed interest in the issue has had one benefit, though. I have thought more carefully about the ethical issues, and I am no longer convinced that we should ban the live sheep export. In fact, strange as it may seem, I think it may well be ethically the best practical outcome for the sheep’s welfare.

I arrived at this counter-intuitive conclusion by simply applying the Golden Rule: do unto others. Consider the options, and ask yourself which you would prefer.

On the one hand, you have the option of being sold for the live export trade, with all its inherent suffering.

On the other hand, you could be slaughtered locally. Doing so you miss out on all the weeks of suffering. But, and here is the crux of the matter, your life would be cut short by several weeks. Sure, several weeks of cruel, suffering, undignified, pointless life; but life nonetheless.

And at the core of all our ethical intuitions is one simple fact: beings love life. They will cling to it even in the most adverse of circumstances. We can all imagine cases where we would prefer death to life. But they are extreme circumstances indeed, and I pray that none of you have to make such a choice.

What would you do if faced with such a choice? Several weeks of uncomfortable, cruel travel towards an inevitable death, or an immediate death? I suspect most of us would choose the longer, more painful journey. Perhaps some would choose to end life quickly. But in either case, there is no clear-cut case that one alternative or the other is really better.

If we are so unsure about our ethical choices for ourselves, how much more uncertain we are in evaluating the sheep’s welfare. We can say, with high confidence, that the sheep suffer on their journey. But can we say that they are worse off than if they had been killed here in Australia? I don’t think so. Perhaps, in truth, we prefer the idea of a quicker kill so that we don’t have to witness their suffering.

Neither option is good. Neither would obtain if we lived in a world that truly valued the happiness and welfare of all sentient beings. But of the two, it seems to me that the extra weeks of life are likely to be of more value for the sheep than the avoidance of the suffering encountered in these weeks.

What, then, are we to do?

Regardless of what one might think of this, however, the main point is this: there is no clear case that one alternative or the other is significantly better for the sheep.

For this reason, I think that we should not waste our efforts trying to have the trade banned. There are plenty of clear, unambiguous ethical issues where our energies are better directed.

None of this is in any way a justification for the trade. I am not saying it is right or good. On the contrary, I believe, as I have for all my adult years, that all commercial use of animals is wrong. In an ideal world, it would be illegal to use another sentient being as a commercial product, full stop. Animals are, like people, ends in themselves, and should not be reduced to merely a means for profit or pleasure.

But this ideal world is a long way from our world. Ethics must, if they are to be anything, be practical. And the practical options in this case are to ban the export, or regulate it to minimize suffering. The latter seems to be the approach taken by the Australian Government so far, and on balance, I think it’s the right thing to do.

Same sex marriage – the govt. consults with religious leaders

On the morning of Thursday 12 April, I attended a session of the Parliamentary hearings into the propsed same-sex marriage Bills currently under consideration in the Federal House of Representatives (http://www.aph.gov.au/Parliamentary_Business/Committees/House_of_Representatives_Committees?url=spla/bill%20marriage/hearings.htm). There are two Bills under consideration, both of which provide for same sex marriage in somewhat different ways. We didn’t go into the differences between the Bills.

Present were representatives of the Lutheran Church, Australian Catholic Bishops Conference (Bishop Julian Porteus), Salvation Army, Anglican Church Diocese of Sydney, Sikh Council of Australia, Hindu Council of Australia, Seventh-day Adventist Church, and Progressive Judaism. The Musilm community was conspicuous in its absence; presumably because they didn’t respond to the invitation, rather than that they were not invited. Of those present, the Buddhists, Hindus, and Jews supported the marriage equality Bills, while the remainder opposed.

The discussion is part of a series of community consultations held by the House Standing Committee on Social Policy and Legal Affairs. The Committee acknowledged that they had their own opinions on the matter—one of them had proposed one of the Bills, whereas another member stated he was a Catholic who opposed the Bills—but their job was to enquire as to community views and report to parliament, not to decide the matter themselves. They set the course of the discussion by insisting that we speak only when asked a question. If we interrupted, we would be asked to leave. Right, then.

The basic question the panel asked of us all was: what is our position, and what is the basic theological or scriptural reason for that. Each of us had submitted papers prior to the hearing, so we did not need to go into details. The anti- positions were based on readings of the Bible, insisting that the story of Adam and Eve, whether read literally (as per the 7th Day Adventists) or metaphorically, set up the basic paradigm for human relationships. We heard time and again that God had ordained the timeless, eternal institution of marriage. We also heard—and this was a cornerstone of the argument from both the Catholics and Anglicans—that their normative form of marriage—one man, one woman, and children—was fixed in biology. Of course, they did not want to reduce marriage to biology, but nevertheless, there was a powerful sense in which having children by sexual union was fundamental to their conception of marriage.

This begs the fairly obvious question, does this mean that all marriages must produce, or at least have the potential to produce, children? When the pollies asked this of the Catholics and Anglicans, we heard a fair bit of what the suttas call eel-wriggling. When asked whether they would marry, say, a couple of seventy year olds, Bishop Porteus said he would. There was a subtle not quite suggestion that there was maybe some possibility of such a union producing children.

At this point I really wanted to interrupt, but managed to restrain myself. For the Christian tradition does indeed have a powerful precedent for such a situation. Genesis 17-18 tells of how Sarah, though 90 years old, was granted a child by God with her centenarian husband Abraham. Even more striking is the case of Mary, who Catholics believe had a child without having had intercourse at all. It strikes me that a God who is powerful enough to perform such miracles should have no problem in blessing a gay or lesbian couple with children. But perhaps miracles don’t work today as well as they should…

The Progressive Jewish representative also based his case on the Bible. But rather than arguing that Adam and Eve must be the archetype for all marriages, he pointed out that Adam and Eve were not married at all; and that the Bible in fact lays down no normative marriage ceremonies. This reminded me of the old Pali text the Kathavatthu, where Buddhists from different schools argued over fine points of doctrine, always agreeing on what the basic scriptures were, but always disagreeing about how to interpret them.

I heard a lot of talk about what ‘God had ordained’, a lot of talk about how things were and always had been and always must be: but I heard no talk of compassion. So I stuck my hand up and pointed this out. From a Buddhist perspectice, we look at what actually causes harm. We look at how people suffer. And our ethical guidelines are informed by the realities of peoples lives, not by some abstract notion of how things are.

And the simple reality is that gay and lesbian people suffer a lot. All manner of discrimination and social stigma still surrounds this issue, despite the very real progress that has been made. There are multiple lines of evidence that suggest that the effect of legalizing same sex marriage is to reduce the incidence of anxiety and stress in the gay community. It’s also been reported that, contrary to the predictations of the alarmists, the incidence of AIDS declines; which should be obvious, as marriage equality is not about encouraging homosexuality, it’s about encouraging commitment.

It seems I may have struck a nerve, for after the event when the press was interviewing us I heard Bishop Porteus speaking quite heatedly about the compassionate work of the Catholic Church for LGBT community in the fields of HIV and the like. No doubt this is true, but it misses the point. I wasn’t arguing that the Catholics (and other groups) weren’t compassionate towards the LGBT community. That’s a different point altogether, which was not the topic of the conversation. I was arguing that the reasons they had given to oppose same sex marriage were not compassionate. That’s not controversial, it was a simple observation about what had actually been said at the meeting.

When the faith leaders were asked why they opposed same sex marriage, not a single one of them expressed any compassion for the LGBT community. Not one. They might be the most compassionate people in the world, but compassion does not underlie their policy on same sex marriage.

Why Buddhists Should Support Marriage Equality

Marriage equality is one of the key social and legal issues of our time. I’d like to offer a Buddhist perspective.

As with so many ethical and social questions, especially those that involve sexuality, we find that religion wants to be at the core of things. The conservative Christian churches are leading the opposition to marriage equality. We can’t generalise on the basis of religion, though. Many Christians believe that Christ’s message of compassion and love, and the fact that he never made any statement on homosexuality, provide a basis for support of marriage equality.

In Australia there was an interesting exchange between the highly conservative Catholic leader Cardinal George Pell and the group Australian Marriage Equality. The AME asked to meet Cardinal Pell, and he consented to do so as long as the AME agreed that not all opposition to same-sex marriage was a result of homophobia or discrimination. The AME agreed, and came out with the following statement:

‘Just as we acknowledge that it is possible to oppose marriage equality without hating homosexuals, so we ask those who differ with us on this important issue to acknowledge that it is possible to support marriage equality without seeking to undermine, marriage, family, or religion.’

That’s a great starting point, and an all-too-rare example of dialogue as it should be.

But what of Buddhism? As with any issue, you’ll find a variety of positions; and as with any issue – and I apologise if this sounds cynical – most of those positions have little to do with anything the Buddha himself said or did.

In some cases we find Buddhist leaders who state the ethical case plainly. Ajahn Brahm has been very forward in supporting the gay community for many years, both in Australia and overseas. Master Hsin Yun, the leader of the international Fo Guang Shan order, said:

‘People often ask me what I think about homosexuality. They wonder, is it right, is it wrong? The answer is, it is neither right nor wrong. It is just something that people do. If people are not harming each other, their private lives are their own business; we should be tolerant of them and not reject them.’

On the other hand, the Dalai Lama has repeatedly maintained that homosexual acts are a violation against the precepts. At the same time, he insists on compassion and full human rights for all. His stance is solely concerned with what is appropriate behaviour for a Buddhist practitioner, not what should be made law.

His argument is that the sexual organs are designed for procreation and should be used solely for that purpose. So any form of sex that is not for procreation is out.

This is, to my mind, an extreme and unrealistic position. The Dalai Lama says it is based on certain medieval Indian scholars (Vasubandhu, Asanga – but I have never seen the passages myself). It certainly has no basis in the Suttas. On the contrary, the Suttas freely acknowledge that sex is for pleasure, and they never make a problem out of that. Buddhism is not a fertility religion, so why we should insist that sex be for procreation is beyond me.

The precept as found in the early Buddhist texts mentions nothing about whether sex is for procreation or not. What it talks about, solely, is whether the sexual relation involves the betrayal of a social contract. Here’s the text. It’s a stock passage, found for example in Majjhima Nikaya 41, and Anguttara Nikaya 10.176 and 10.211:

‘One is a person who misconducts himself in sexual pleasures. One has intercourse with a woman who is protected by mother, father, mother and father, brother, sister, family, clan, law (or custom, ‘dhamma’), or one who has a husband, who is punishable, or even with one garlanded for betrothal.’

Kāmesu micchācārī hoti, yā tā māturakkhitā piturakkhitā mātāpiturakkhitā bhāturakkhitā bhaginirakkhitā ñātirakkhitā gottarakkhitā dhammarakkhitā sasāmikā saparidaṇḍā antamaso mālāguḷaparikkhittāpi, tathārūpāsu cārittaṃ āpajjitā hoti.

Most of these are straightforward. They refer to women who are not ‘independent’ women in our modern sense, but who live under the authority of others. Typically, of course, this would have been young girls living at home, then in a family with a husband. There are significant variations, though, so arrangements were flexible.

It’s noteworthy that, while the Hindu texts say that a woman must always be under the authority of a man, here we find that living under the authority of a mother is next to father, and a sister is next to brother, with no implication that one of the other is preferable.

In some cases, it seems, women lived under the protection of the wider family. The one ‘guarded by dhamma’ is probably adopted, orphaned, or in some other way taken care of. The one who is ‘punishable’ is ambiguous: does it mean that the woman is to be punished (as a criminal)? Or does it mean that having intercourse with her is punishable? The text doesn’t make it clear. The woman ‘garlanded for betrothal’ refers to a woman who is, in our modern sense, ‘engaged’ but not yet married.

Obviously, the passage as stated above only refers to the man as agent. That doesn’t mean that women can’t break this precept! Like so many of the Buddhist texts, it is phrased from a male point of view (andocentric), and would apply equally to both genders. The assumption of the passage is that it is women who are under protection. This reflects the social reality of the Buddha’s time; it doesn’t endorse this situation, nor does it say that women can’t or shouldn’t live independently. It just says that if a woman (and presumably a man) is living in a committed relationship then one should not betray that.

This much is clear: the precept against sexual misconduct has nothing to do with homosexuality (or any other form of sexual activity as such.) It is concerned with breaking the bonds of trust with those that we love, and nothing else. While the specifics of the social relations in the Buddha’s time are different than today, it is not problematic to work out how to apply this in our own context, at least in most cases.

So if the precept does not concern homosexuality, what did the Buddha say on the topic? We are very lucky in Buddhism to have thousands of discourses, with the Buddha making observations or criticisms regarding many kinds of ethical issues. Rape, paedophilia, adultery: these and many other problems are clearly mentioned in the early texts, and the Buddha made it clear that he didn’t approve of them.

In the case of homosexuality, however, we have nothing in the Suttas. In all the thousands of discourses, not a single one regarded homosexuality as a significant issue.

There is one passage in the Cakkavattisihanada Sutta, which is sometimes cited by those who are trying to prove that the Buddha was anti-gay. The text discusses various examples of moral decay in society. One of the practices it mentions is, in the Pali, micchā-dhamma. This is about the most generic term for wrong doing that it’s possible to make in Pali. You could translate it as ‘wrong teachings’, ‘bad practices’, ‘misguided actions’, and so on. The commentary, compiled nearly 1000 years later in Sri Lanka, however, says it means, ‘Lustful desire of men for men, and women for women.’ (Micchādhammoti purisānaṃ purisesu itthīnañca itthīsu chandarāgo.) Since this has no basis in the text, it stands as a record of the attitude of a medieval commentator. There’s no evidence, so far as I am aware, that this attitude was representative of ancient Theravadin or Sri Lankan culture in general.

The Suttas essentially ignore any issues around homosexuality. Now, arguments from absence are always difficult. But the presence of thousands of discourses detailing lists of many kinds of ethical violations, strongly suggests that the Buddha tried to be reasonably comprehensive in addressing ethical concerns, and homosexuality was not one of them.

The picture in the Vinaya is a little different. The Vinaya is a legal code for monastics, and since it regulates the conduct of a celibate order, it deals with all kinds of possible sexual behaviours. It does so with a degree of frankness and candour that so shocked the early European translators that they simply omitted large chunks of text, or, with a quaint regard for the delicate sensibilities of young readers, translated them into Latin.

Homosexual acts, like just about any other imaginable sexual act, are depicted many times in the Vinaya, both among monks and nuns. In each case, the Buddha is shown as responding in his usual direct and common sense manner. Obviously, homosexual behaviour, like any sexual behaviour, is inappropriate among the celibate monastic community, so the Buddha prohibits it. However, this is done in a straight, matter-of-fact tone, and there is never a suggestion that there is anything wrong with gay sex per se.

In several cases the penalty is actually less in the case of homosexual behaviour. For example, for a monk to erotically touch another man is a less serious offence than the same act with a woman. Sex between women, likewise, is treated less seriously than between a woman and a man. There is one passage where the Buddha’s chief disciple, Venerable Sariputta, is said to have had two novices as students. But they had sex with each other. The Buddha laid down a rule that one should not take two novices as students at the same time! (This rule, like many others, was later relaxed.)

However, it would be a mistake to read this as implying that the Buddha regarded same-sex sexuality as somehow more permissible in the Sangha. The Vinaya, as a legal code, frequently makes judgements for various technical reasons, and there is no strong correlation between the moral weight of an act and the severity with which it is treated in the Vinaya. For example, building an overly-large hut is a serious offence, while bashing someone within an inch of their life is a minor offence.

So we shouldn’t read too much into the relative leniency of how some homosexual acts are treated in the Vinaya. The main point is simply that homosexuality is treated in pretty much the same way as any other expression of sexuality.

In these accounts there is nothing that really corresponds with our modern notion of sexual orientation. For the most part, same-sex acts are just that, acts. There’s no idea of a person who solely or primarily is attracted to people of the same sex.

The texts do speak of a certain kind of person, called a paṇḍaka. These are typically male, but there were females too (itthīpaṇḍikā). A paṇḍaka is forbidden to ordain, and is regularly associated with unbridled sexuality. It is, however, unclear exactly what paṇḍaka means. The descriptions of the paṇḍaka are few, and not always consistent, but there seems to have been some physical attribute involved, as well as a set of cultural behaviours. Perhaps they were some form of eunuchs who performed sexual services. In any case, the paṇḍaka is clearly not a homosexual in the modern sense of the word. They may be connected with the modern classes of Hijras and the like, who are considered a ‘third sex’ in India, including transsexuals, hermaphrodites, and eunuchs.

To sum up, early Buddhism is well aware of homosexual acts, and never treats them as an ethical problem. Homosexuality as a sexual orientation is not found.

This is completely in line with the Buddha’s take on ethics. The Buddha did not ethically judge persons, he judged deeds. People are simply people, who do various kinds of things, some good, some bad. If a person does a deed that causes harm, this is what the Buddha considered ‘unskilful’. If the deed causes no harm, it is not unskilful.

The basic problem in sexual ethics, addressed in the third precept, is betrayal. ‘Sexual misconduct’ is sexual behaviour that causes harm by breaking the trust that a loved one has placed in us. The Buddha was compassionate, and he never laid down ethical rules that caused harm or distress. Making a moral proscription against homosexuality marginalises and harms people who have done no wrong, and it is against the basic principles of Buddhist ethics.

It’s so important to keep this essential ethical question in mind. In discussions on homosexuality, as with just about any other controversial ethical issue, there is a pervasive tendency to confuse the issue. Why do we find it so difficult to look at an ethical question rationally? It is true, there are some issues that are complex and the details can be difficult to work out. But this is not one of them.

Countless times we are told, for example, that homosexuality is ‘unnatural’. Surely a moment’s reflection should show us this is not true, because there’s plenty of homosexuality in the animal world. And anyway, how is gay sex more unnatural than, say, typing on a keyboard, or wrapping food in plastic? But this is all beside the point. Being ‘unnatural’ is not an ethical issue. The issue is whether it causes harm, not whether it is natural or not. That is no more an ethical issue than is the choice, say, to eat organic or non-organic vegetables.

Homosexuality is also regularly linked with sexual ‘decadence’ in general. Homosexuals are said to be paedophiles, or promiscuous, or to cause diseases such as AIDS. Allowing homosexual relations is to licence all manner of debaucheries. This objection, too, is not valid: gays behave in all sorts of ways, just as do straight people.

Blaming gays for AIDS is one of the most cruel arguments possible. We feel compelled to look for examples that show the absurdity of these views. What of babies born with AIDS? What of those who get AIDS via blood transfusion? Incidence of malaria is much greater among poor people – are we to blame them, too? And why is incidence of AIDS among lesbians so very low – is lesbianism kammically preferable?

But we shouldn’t have to look for such examples. Like the arguments mentioned above, the whole thing is missing the point. Take the ‘worst case’ scenario, the cliché of the promiscuous, irresponsible, drug-taking, careless gay man. We might not think his behaviour is praiseworthy or wise, but does it deserve a slow, lingering, and painful death? Are we really comfortable to righteously proclaim the justice of destroying a human life, because we think that the way they have sought pleasure is irresponsible? This whole argument is inhuman and unworthy.

If there are behaviours that gay people do that increase transmission of HIV, for example, then we can try to change those behaviours, just as we would try to help any people who were inadvertently causing harm. What the marriage equality movement wants is to enable people of various sexual orientations to live in an accepted, recognised, and legal framework which supports the development of loving, committed relationships. Banning gay marriage is the very best way to ensure gays remain marginalised.

Another red herring, in my view, is the ‘born this way’ argument, which is often used by those who support marriage equality. Homosexuality, so the argument goes, is not a choice, some people are just like that and can’t change. While this is an important, if contested, fact, it misses the ethical issue. What if some gay people don’t feel like they were ‘born this way’? What if they feel like they have made a conscious choice? Whether this is the case or not, or whether there are in fact hidden biological factors involved, so what? Having sex with someone of the same gender is not a harmful deed, nor is marrying someone of the same gender. Whether it’s by biological determinism or free will, nothing harmful is done, so there’s no ethical problem.

Perhaps the single most fallacious argument against gay marriage is simply that it upsets the customs of society. Marriage has always been between a man and a woman, therefore it will damage society to do it any other way.

This argument, favoured by conservatives, once again completely misses the point. The damage is already here. Violence, trauma, and abuse is a part of the living reality of millions of perfectly good people all over the world, simply because the have, or want to have, sex with persons of their own gender. Part of society is broken, and it needs fixing.

This is the same argument that was used to oppose abolishing slavery, votes for women, property rights for all, and so on. In each case, those in the position of privilege strive to keep others from getting the same rights. And since the cost of inequality is borne by the ‘others’, it does not exist for the privileged.

When we introduce compassion into the equation, however, we recognise that society has always been imperfect. Just because something was done in the past does not make it right. Perhaps it was the case that in certain times and places our marriage customs made more sense than they do now. But that’s not the point. The point is, what is the right thing to do now? To continue to exclude, marginalise, and discriminate? Or to broaden our moral horizons, to fully accept and include all people?

If homosexuality as such is not a problem, what then of same-sex marriages? In this area we find that the Buddha had even less to say. In fact, there is no such thing as a Buddhist marriage. Buddhists have simply adopted the marriage customs of the culture they find themselves in. The most basic model, therefore, was the customs of ancient India. These have been the basis for Buddhist family customs, adapted in each society that Buddhism has gone to.

In ancient India, there were several forms of marriage. As with all things Indian, there is no insistence on one true, correct way of doing things. Some Hindu texts list a whole range of marriage possibilities, which are correlated with the levels of Indian cosmology. The highest form of marriage is the ‘Brahma wedding’, where the bride and groom, each pure in lineage and caste, is united in the most perfect of ceremonies. If the marriage is lacking in some perfections of detail, it is reckoned as pertaining to the lower classes of deities. The lowest of the auspicious weddings is the gandharva wedding, where the bride and groom simply elope. Then there are the various inauspicious unions, those of the yakkhas or rakkhasas, where, for example, the woman is abducted by force.

Along with this diversity in wedding style, there were different marital arrangements. Monogamy seems to have been common, and of course these were often arranged marriages – but ancient Buddhist texts also record a strong struggle by women for autonomy in the marriage choices. Polygamy is also common, and was the norm for kings. Polyandry is less common, but is central to the most famous of all Hindu texts, the Mahabharata. Apparently polyandry is common in Tibet.

I’m not trying to uphold the Indian marriage system as superior to that in the West. It has its own problems with inter-caste marriages, arranged marriages, domestic violence, and so on. I’m merely making the point that there has traditionally been an adaptive diversity of living arrangements that were considered to be valid forms of marriage, and that this can be seen in some ways as a precedent for the modern idea of same-sex marriages.

So there has always been a flexibility and diversity in marriage customs in the Indian sphere that stands in clear contrast with the ‘one and only’ correct form of marriage that is, in the main, endorsed by the contemporary monotheistic religions. Same-sex marriages were not, so far as I’m aware, historically acknowledged within the Indian cultural sphere. Nor am I aware of any laws against them, such as we find in the modern day. Given the wide variations in marriage customs, including many forms of marriage that would not be considered valid in modern times, it would seem that the typical Indian approach was that of tolerance and inclusion. Accordingly, when the British law that made gay sex a crime was repealed in India in 2009, some Hindu authorities applauded the move, saying homosexuality was part of the divine order.

Unfortunately, this tolerant attitude is not always the case today. One sometimes finds Hindutva polemics against homosexuality. Such discourse, sadly enough, often rails against the supposed debauched influence of ‘Western’ morals, oblivious to the fact that anti-gay attitudes were themselves imported into India by the monotheistic religions. This ambiguity has been expressed by the highest authorities in India. Goolam Vahanvati, then solicitor-general and current attorney-general, stated to the UN Human Rights Council:

‘Around the early 19th Century, you probably know that in England they frowned on homosexuality, and therefore there are historical reports that various people came to India to take advantage of its more liberal atmosphere with regard to different kinds of sexual conduct.

‘As a result, in 1860 when we got the Indian Penal Code, which was drafted by Lord Macaulay, they inserted Section 377 which brought in the concept of “sexual offences against the order of nature”.

‘Now in India we didn’t have this concept of something being “against the order of nature”. It was essentially a Western concept, which has remained over the years. Now homosexuality as such is not defined in the IPC, and it will be a matter of great argument whether it is “against the order of nature”.’

A similar situation prevails in other Buddhist countries, too. In Japan, China, and elsewhere, the early generations of Christian missionaries were shocked at the casual acceptance of homosexual behaviour among the Buddhists. They immediately set about trying to persuade the world that their own version of sexual propriety was the right one for everyone.

Sadly enough, modern generations of Buddhists and Hindus are now doing this work for them, oblivious to their own more accepting and compassionate past. When a Thai monk like Thattajiwo, one of the leaders of Dhammakaya, rails against the ‘sexual perverts’, who have called down the kammic justice of AIDS (‘the executioner of the sex-mad’) upon them, oblivious of the pit of sin they have fallen into, and the even greater sufferings that await them in future disease-ridden hells of torment, he is merely parroting the frothing excesses of Christian and Islamic fundamentalists. (Phra Thattajiwo Bhikku. Waksiin Porng-kan Rook Eet (A Vaccine to Protect Against AIDS). Pathumthani: Thammakay Foundation.) Such apocalyptic and condemnatory ‘ethics’ have no basis in the Buddha’s teaching.

So in today’s climate, what are we to do? For the Buddha, homosexuality was clearly not an issue. Nor was making laws proscribing valid forms of marriage. What was an issue, on the other hand, was compassion. The very essence of compassion is to reach out to those who are suffering, those who are marginalised. and persecuted. People whose sexual orientation varies from the majority suffer discrimination, bullying at school, violence, and emotional trauma. As Buddhists we should recognise a clear moral imperative to help wherever we can.

One might object that since the Buddha made no statement on the legalities of gay marriage, we should do the same. But the problem is a little more subtle than that. We are living in a culture where, based on certain religious and cultural ideas, certain ways of living one’s life have been made illegal. This is an artefact of the conditioned and always arbitrary course of history, not a timeless feature of the human landscape. In Australia, for example, there was no clear Federal law that prohibited same-sex marriage until 2004.

Supporting marriage equality is not to introduce something new, but simply to abolish laws that discriminate. The injustice is already in place. The harm is being done. The change is merely to remove the harmful influence of discriminatory laws, which should never have been there in the first place.

People are people, regardless of their gender, colour, nationality, or sexual orientation. The Buddha taught ‘for one who feels’. That’s the only requirement for Buddhist practice: one who feels. In the past our society decreed that marriage should not be between people of a different race, or a different colour, or a different religion, or a different nationality. Over time, we decided that these rules were harmful, and we abolished them.

Catastrophes were predicted: they didn’t come true.

What has happened, rather, is that we have become a little more open minded, and a little more aware of the suffering of others. The test of our generation is whether we can continue this move towards a more accepting and loving way of living, or whether we are to regress to a meaner, hard-hearted place.

My society, my culture, the one that I’m proud of and want to belong to, is this one. The society that is kind, questioning, accepting. Let us take up the best aspects of our own cultures, whether they be Buddhist or modern cultures, and discard all that is unjust, discriminatory, and harmful. Let us give our full support for marriage equality, for if we do not we are betraying the best part of our humanity.

On Climate Change and Dumbology

My thanks to Bhante Brahmali who recommended that I read The Australian, apparently to moderate my excessively liberal views. I warned him that it was likely to have the opposite effect than desired, and alas I was proven correct.

Perusing our national broadsheet in the plane back from my recent trip to Perth (on which more when I get some time), I came across two articles on climate change, both skeptical (of course). One was so silly I immediately consigned it to the rubbish bin of my unconscious, in fear that it would infect my brain.

The other, in wonderfully serious tone, really looked as if it was making a serious ‘argument’. Global temperatures hit their peak in 1997, it said, and this is a fact of deep concern for proponents of the global warming ‘theory’. I was struck with existential doubt: perhaps my advocacy for, you know, using less and helping the environment, had been misguided all along!

In the real world, I was struck with an existential anxiety, a sort of fear mixed with pity mixed with horror, at the stupidity of the dialogue. Is it not completely obvious that if you compare things with the extreme peak, they will be less? How can it be that anyone takes this seriously? Fortunately, as a master of the erudite and complex research tools Google and Wikipedia, I accomplished a sophisticated study of the data (known among rocket scientists as a ‘google search’) and came up with the following graph:

The temperatures peaked in 97/98, but the temperatures overall in the last decade have been near this peak, making the decade clearly the warmest on record.

Why is it that such elementary knowledge is beyond us? A recent study has made a strong case that people who hold conservative social values are less intelligent and more fearful. (And, by the way, congratulations to the authors for increasing global intelligence by making their work freely available.) Cognitive ability is linked with compassion, allowing one to empathize and imagine the suffering of others.

This has been covered in the Daily Mail, which as Charlie Brooker points out, is a wonderful piece of irony.

George Monbiot‘s more sober analysis raises the important point that liberals have been too polite in allowing the ultra-conservative viewpoint to steamroller reason. Did I hear someone say, ‘Bhikkhuni ordination will never be accepted by any Theravadin monks!’ Sometimes reason has to stand up for itself.

Why Buddhists Should be Vegetarian

The Buddha ate meat. This is a fairly well attested fact. The issue of vegetarianism is addressed a few times in the Suttas, notably the Jivaka Sutta of the Majjhima Nikaya. The Buddha consistently affirmed that monastics were permitted to eat meat, as long as it was not killed intentionally for them. There are numerous passages in the Vinaya that refer to the Buddha or the monastics eating meat, and meat is regularly mentioned as one of the standard foods.

For these reasons, the standard position in Theravada Buddhism is that there is no ethical problem with eating meat. If you want to be vegetarian, that is a purely optional choice. Most Theravadins, whether lay or monastic, eat meat, and claim to be acting within the ethical guidelines of the Buddha’s teachings.

This position sits squarely within a straightforward application of the law of kamma, understood as intention. Eating meat involves no intention to do harm. As there is no intention, there is no kamma. As there is no kamma, there is no ethical problem.

The situation in Mahayana is more complicated. Mahayanists, especially in East Asia, embrace vegetarianism, often as a temporary measure for religious events, although the monastics are typically vegetarian all the time. The motivation is, at least in part, an expression of the greater emphasis on compassion in Mahayana. In practice, however, Mahayanists often adopt vegetarianism (as do Hindus) as a rite of purification. This is despite such texts as the Amagandha Sutta of the Sutta Nipata, where the Buddha insists that eating meat is not a source of spiritual impurity. Tibetan monastics, on the other hand, usually eat meat.

Despite the apparently straightforward situation in Theravada, the problem does not go away. For obvious reasons: eating meat requires the killing of animals, and this directly violates the first precept. Eating meat is the direct cause of an immense quantity of suffering for sentient beings. Many people, myself included, struggle with the notion that a religion as categorically opposed to violence as Buddhism can so blithely wave away the suffering inherent in eating meat.

Let’s have a closer look and see if we can discern the roots of this problem. There are a few considerations that I would like to begin with. We live in a very different world today than the Buddha lived in, and Buddhist ethics, whatever else they may be, must always be a pragmatic response to real world conditions.

Animals suffer much more today than they did 2500 years ago. In the Buddha’s time, and indeed everywhere up until the invention of modern farming, animals had a much better life. Chickens would wander round the village, or were kept in a coop. Cows roamed the fields. The invention of the factory farm changed all this. Today, the life of most meat animals is unimaginable suffering. I won’t go into this in detail, but if you are not aware of the conditions in factory farms, you should be. Factory farms get away with it, not because they are actually humane, but because they are so mind-bendingly horrific that most people just don’t want to know. We turn away, and our inattention allows the horror to continue.

The other huge change since the Buddha’s time is the destruction of the environment. We are all aware of the damage caused by energy production and wasteful consumerism. But one of the largest, yet least known, contributors to global warming and environmental destruction generally is eating meat. The basic problem is that meat is higher on the food chain as compared with plants, so more resources are required to produce nutrition in the form of meat. In the past this was not an issue, as food animals typically ate things that were not food for humans, like grass. Today, however, most food animals live on grains and other resource-intensive products. This means that meat requires more energy, water, space, and all other resources. In addition to the general burden on the environment, this creates a range of localised problems, due to the use of fertilisers, the disposal of vast amounts of animal waste, and so on.

One entirely predictable outcome of factory farming is the emergence of virulent new diseases. We have all heard of ‘swine flu’ and ‘bird flu’; but the media rarely raises the question: why are these two new threats derived from the two types of animals that are most used in factory farming? The answer is obvious, and has been predicted by opponents of factory farming for decades. In order to force animals to live together in such overcrowded, unnatural conditions, they must be fed a regular diet of antibiotics, as any disease is immediately spread through the whole facility. The outcome of this, as inevitable as the immutable principles of natural selection, is the emergence of virulent new strains of antibiotic resistant diseases. In coming years, as the limited varieties of antibiotics gradually lose their efficacy, this threat will recur in more and more devastating forms.

So, as compared with the Buddha’s day, eating meat involves far more cruelty, it damages the environment, and it creates diseases. If we approach this question as one of weights and balance, then the scales have tipped drastically to the side of not eating meat.

Sometimes in Theravada vegetarianism is slighted, as it is traditionally associated with the ‘5 points’ of Devadatta. Devadatta wanted to prove he was better than the Buddha, so he asked the Buddha to enforce five ascetic practices, such as only accepting alms food, live all their lives in the forest, and so on. These practices are regarded as praiseworthy, and Devadatta’s fault was not in promoting these as such, but in seeking to make them compulsory. Stories of the Buddha’s childhood emphasize how compassionate he was compared to Devadatta’s cruelty to animals, perhaps because of Devadatta’s asscoiation with vegetarianism. So rather than deprecating the vegetarians as ‘followers of Devadatta’, one could infer from this passage that vegetarianism, like the other practices, was praiseworthy, but the Buddha did not wish to make it compulsory.

To argue in such a way, however, is clutching at straws. There is a wider problem, and I think the discussions of the issue among Buddhists generally avoid this. And the wider issue is this: meat eating is clearly harmful. That harm is a direct but unintended consequence of eating meat. Since there is no intention to cause harm, eating meat is not bad kamma. There are therefore two logical possibilities: eating meat is ethical; or kamma is not a complete account of ethics.

Let us look more closely at this second possibility. The notion that actions should not be done, even when they involve no harmful intention, is found constantly in the Vinaya. For example, a monk is criticised for baking bricks that have small creatures in them, even though he was unaware of them and did not intend any harm. The Buddha laid down a rule forbidding this.

In another case, the Buddha laid down a rule that a monastic must inquire about the source of meat before accepting it. The context of this rule was that someone had offered human flesh (their own – it’s a long story!) and this rule is usually said to only apply if one has doubts as to whether the food is human flesh. But that is not what the rule states – it simply says that one should inquire as the the source of the meat, and that it is an offence to eat meat without doing so. Needless to say, this rule is ignored throughout Theravada.

These are a couple of examples in the context of causing harm to beings. There are many others. Indeed, there are several Vinaya rules that were laid down in response to the actions of arahants. An arahant cannot act in an intentionally harmful manner, so these rules cannot be taken to imply that the motivation behind the acts was wrong. The acts have unintended harmful consequences, and this is why they are prohibited.

In this sense, if the Vinaya pertains to sila, or ethics, then the scope of sila is broader than the scope of kamma. This is, when you think about it, common sense. Kamma deals only with intention and the consequences of intentional action. This is critical because of its place in the path to liberation. We can change our intentions, and thereby purify our minds and eventually find release from rebirth. That is the significance of kamma to us as individuals.

But ethics is not just a matter of individual personal development. It is also a social question, or even wider, an environmental question in the broad sense. How do we relate to our human and natural context in the most positive and constructive way?

I am suggesting that, while kamma deals with the personal, ethics includes both the personal and the environmental.

As well as broadening ethics in this way, I would suggest we should deepen it. Ethics is not just what is allowable. Sure, you can argue that eating meat is allowable. You can get away with it. That doesn’t mean that it’s a good thing. What if we ask, not what can I get away with, but what can I aspire to?

When we recite the first precept, we say, ‘I undertake the training to refrain from killing living beings’. This is a challenge, and in itself is a powerful ethics. Yet it is merely a short summary of a principle. It was never meant to fully describe the virtue of harmlessness. When the Buddha spoke of this precept in more detail, this is what he had to say:

Having abandoned the taking of life, refraining from the taking of life, one dwells without violence, with the knife laid down, scrupulous, full of mercy, trembling with compassion for all sentient beings.

This is not just an ethic of allowability. It doesn’t merely set a minimum standard. It calls us out, asking us to aspire to a higher sense of compassion, an ethic that deeply feels for the welfare of all beings. More than just asking, ‘Does this act come from an intention to harm’, we ask ourselves, ‘Is this act the best I can possibly do to promote the welfare of all?’ Rather than simply escaping bad kamma, we create good kamma.

One obvious criticism of this approach is that being vegetarian does not mean you don’t cause harm. We hurt beings in many unintentional way, driving cars, buying products, almost everything we do. If we follow this principle to its logical conclusion, we end up with Jainism, and will have to walk everywhere with a cloth over our mouth to keep the flies from dying, and a soft broom to brush the creatures away. (Note, though, that even the Jains have a complex relationship with vegetarianism.) It is simply arbitrary to identify meat eating as the cause of harm. This is, after all, the point of the well-known (though apocryphal) story of Siddhattha as a young boy, seeing the plough turning up the soil, killing some worms, and leaving the others to be picked off by the crows. Even eating rice involves the unintentional destruction of life. The only solution is to get off the wheel.

The problem with this argument is that it confuses the existential with the ethical. On an existential level, quite right, any form of life, even the most scrupulous, will inevitably cause harm to some beings. This is one of the reasons why the only final solution is escape from rebirth altogether. Yet meanwhile, we are still here. Ethics is not concerned with the ultimate escape from all suffering, but with minimising the harm and maximising the benefit we can do right here. It is relative and contextual. Sure, being vegetarian or vegan we will still cause harm. And sure, there are boundary issues as to what is really vegetarian (Honey? Bees are killed. Sugar? Animal bones are used for the purification process… )

But the fact that we can’t do everything does not imply that we shouldn’t do this thing. The simple fact is that eating meat cause massive and direct harm to many creatures. That harm is, almost always, easily avoidable. Becoming vegetarian does not involve any huge sacrifices or moral courage. It just takes a little restraint and care. This is even more so today, when there is a wide range of delicious, cheap, nutritious vegetarian foods available. The choice of becoming vegetarian is, of all moral choices we can make, one of the most beneficial, at the smallest cost to ourselves.

To return to the basic problem. As Buddhists, we expect that the Buddha kept the highest possible ethical conduct. And for the most part, he did. So if the Buddha allowed something, we feel there can’t be anything wrong with it. There is nothing dogmatic or unreasonable about such an expectation. When we read the Suttas and the Vinaya, we find again and again that the Buddha’s conduct was, indeed, of the highest order.

How then, if meat eating is an inferior ethical standard, can it be that the Buddha did it? This is the crux of the matter. And I don’t have an easy answer.

Part of it is to do with the nature of the mendicant life. The Buddha and his disciples wandered from house to house, simply accepting whatever was offered. It’s hard to refuse offerings given in such a spirit. Yet this answer is incomplete, as there are many foods, including several types of meat, that are prohibited in the Vinaya. Clearly the monastics were expected to have some say over what went into their bowls.

There are other considerations I could raise. But I don’t want to press the textual argument too far. In the end, we have a partial, and partially understood record of the Buddha’s life and teachings. For those of us who have been blessed enough to have encountered the Dhamma, we have found it to be an uplifting and wise guide to life.

And yet: we cannot let our ethical choices be dictated by ancient texts. Right and wrong are too important. The scriptures do not contain everything, and do not answer every question. As Buddhists, we take the texts seriously, and do not lightly discard their lessons. Yet there is a difference between learning from scripture and submitting to it.

There are some things that the scriptures simply get wrong. The Suttas make no critique of slavery, for example, and yet for us this is one of the most heinous of all crimes.

Why are these things as they are? I don’t know. I have devoted a considerable portion of my life to studying and understanding the Buddhist scriptures, and in almost all things of importance I find them to be impeccable. But my study has also shown me the limits of study. We cannot access the truth through scripture. We can only access certain ideas. Our understanding and application of those ideas is of necessity imperfect. There is always something left over.

This being so, it is unethical to cite scripture as a justification for doing harm. If eating meat is harmful and unnecessary, it remains so whatever the texts say. Our sacred texts are sacred, not because they determine what is right and wrong, but because they inform our choices and help us to do better.

The principle of harmlessness underlies the very fabric of the Dhamma, and if its application in this context is problematic, the principle itself is not in question. It simply means our scriptures are imperfect, and the practice of ethics is complex and messy. But we knew that already. It is not out of disrespect that we make our choice, but out of respect for the deeper principles of compassion and harmlessness.

UK Murder rate rose 5% last year?

So says the Guardian, normally one of the more reliable sources of news around.

But, adds the subheading, overall crimes are stable, or even falling despite the August riots. Of course, since many people won’t get as far as the subheading, they’ll miss this point.

And the 5% increase in murder rate? It’s actually a 5% increase in the number of murders in the year. The murder rate is the number of murders in a year per population. So what is happening to the murder rate?

Here’s Wikipedia’s data on the murder rates in the UK from 2000-2009: (This data is convenient to copy here, but note that it is not identical with the Home Office’s figures, available here.

1.71 1.79 2.1 1.75 1.60 1.38 1.42 1.46 1.26 1.17

So the murder rate has been falling for a decade. And the ‘5% increase’ is compared with 2009/2010, which had the lowest number of murders in 11 years, according to the Guardian; but according to the Home Office’s own figures, 2010 was the lowest since 1990. In fact the UK murder rate has been pretty much stable, apart from an increase for a few years around 2002, since the 1960s. The Home Office analysis discusses the trends in homicide:

One can assess from this analysis that the number of homicide incidents recorded in 2010/11 was not statistically significantly different to the number of homicide incidents in 2009/10 or 2008/09, despite the actual number of incidents having risen by three per cent since 2009/10. However, the number of homicide incidents recorded in 2010/11 was statistically significantly lower than the number of incidents recorded in 2006/07 and 2007/08, and those recorded between 2000/01 and 2004/05. This means the risk of becoming a victim of homicide was, in fact, lower for 2010/11 compared with those earlier years.

In other words, there’s no statistical significance to the increase. Oh, and this also clarifies that actual increase in murder rates, as opposed to number of murders, was 3%, not 5%.

So the Guardian’s heading was both factually wrong and misleading. The actual situation is that crime levels are fairly stable in the long term. But even for a respectable media outlet like the Guardian, that doesn’t make much of a headline.

All this is just one example of a trend in the (mis)reporting of violence and crime. We are constantly being told how the world is getting more violent – but the statistics tell a different story.

Do you have any other examples?