Euthanasia and Buddhism




What does Buddhism teach about euthanasia?

In Buddhism, ethics are rooted in concerns related to virtue, karma, and liberation rather than the views of a divine being. This different perspective makes the issue no less complex and difficult, however. The following article explores the related issues of suicide and euthanasia in Buddhist scriptures, Buddhist history, and modern Buddhist views.

Euthanasia in The Pali Canon

The Pali Canon, or Tripitaka, is the primary sacred text in Buddhism, especially the Theravada tradition. There are three instances of suicide in the Pali Canon: those of the monks Channa, Godhika, and Vakkali. All three monks are seriously and painfully ill and appear to have ultimately taken their own lives.

It seems that none of them were arhats before their death, although they my have attained enlightenment at the moment of their death. {1} This is an important factor for Buddhists in deciding whether the actions of these monks ought to be seen as virtuous.





In the case of Channa, the suffering monk describes his pain and deteriorating condition to Sairputta, a monk who has come to visit him. The following exchange then takes place:

Channa: "I shall use the knife, friend Sāriputta, I have no desire to live."

Sariputta: "Let the venerable Channa not use the knife! Let the venerable Channa live-- we want the venerable Channa to live! If he lacks suitable food, I will go in search of suitable food for him. If he lacks suitable medicine, I will go in search of suitable medicine for him. If he lacks a proper attendant, I will attend on him. Let the venerable Channa not use the knife! Let the venerable Channa live-- we want the venerable Channa to live!"

Channa: "Friend Sāriputta, it is not that I have no suitable food and medicine or no proper attendant. But rather, friend Sāriputta, the Teacher has long been served by me with love, not without love; for it is proper for the disciple to serve the Teacher with love, not without love. Friend Sāriputta, remember this: the monk Channa will use the knife blamelessly." {2}

After Sariputta leaves, Channa "takes the knife." Sariputta later tells the Buddha of Channa's demise and asks about Channa's afterlife, and the Buddha responds:

But surely, Sāriputta, the monk Channa told you in person of his blamelessness … For whoso, Sāriputta, lays down one body and takes up another body, of him I say "He is to blame." But it is not so with the brother Channa. Without reproach was the knife used by the brother Channa.

Some have interpreted this passage as showing that the Buddha condoned suicide, or perhaps condoned it only for arhats (enlightened ones). Others, however, argue that the Buddha merely exonerated Channa for his action due to his circumstances but did not condone Channa's action. {3}

The monk Godhika also suffered from a serious illness, but it appears his suicide was actually a result of frustration at his repeated gain and loss of a temporary state of liberation. Finding himself in this liberated state for the sixth time and not wanting to lose it before his death, he said, "What if I take the knife?" and did so. The Buddha's comment on Godhika's action is:

Such indeed is how the steadfast act: They are not attached to life. Having drawn out craving at its root, Godhika has attained final Nirvana. {4}

The third monk, Vakkali, suffered from acute and unbearable pain, and the Buddha goes to counsel him. The Buddha asks the monk if the body, the consciousness, feelings, etc. are impermanent or permanent, and Vakkali correctly answers, "Impermanent, Lord." After these and other questions, the Buddha concludes, "Fear not Vakkali, your death would not be deemed sinful [pàpika, i.e. fruitless]." Vakkali does then take his own life, after saying "I do not doubt that in regard to what is impermanent, suffering, and subject to change, I have no more desire, lust, or affection." As in the case of Godhika, the Buddha confirms that the monk will not experience any further rebirth, but has attained liberation. {5}

One Buddhist scholar interprets the cases of the three monks this way:

Our assessment of the act of suicide in these cases is from a highly sophisticated religious angle. It applies only to the totally accomplished disciples, namely arahants. This would not be applicable even to the lower grades of monks. Much less in the case of ordinary laymen. It is also to be appreciated in this context that Buddhism accommodates a dimension of its own with regard to the concept of life and death. To all those who are not liberated here in this very life from their life process of samsàra there is to be a life after death in conformity to the present, with its quality determined by the life style of the present one.

Outside this frame, the Buddhist has to view terminating of life in suicide, no matter under what circumstances, as amounting to destruction of human life. Many mitigating factors could possibly be put forward and the offense could be sub-graded to man-slaughter, culpable homicide not amounting to murder etc. In any case, destruction being by oneself, what is destroyed is believed to be one's own life. To the Buddhist, this position is untenable. What is destroyed is life, whether claimed as one's own or differentiated as that of another. In Buddhism, the very first precept of admonition for good living [i.e. sãla] is the abstinence from destruction of life [pàõàtipàtà veramaõã]. This applies to life of all grades, both human and animal [sabba-pàõa-bhåta-hitànukampã]. And the precept is equally binding on both monks and nuns, laymen and laywomen. {6}

Another Buddhist writes:

I approached this subject expecting to find clear statements against suicide but, perhaps surprisingly, it is not possible, from a study of various instances in the Pali Canon, to come to any hard and fast conclusion regarding suicide. There appear to be times when suicide in that context at least does no harm, though these must surely be very rare. {7}

Suicide in Buddhist History

Worthy of mention in the context of euthanasia and suicide is the samurai tradition of seppuku, a form of ritual suicide. Most samurais were Zen Buddhists, and their general philosophy was one in which length of life was regarded as far less important than honor. Seppuku was practiced by samurai "to avoid the dishonour of capture, show loyalty to one's lord by following him into death, protest against some policy of a superior, or atone for failure." Involuntary seppuku was also the means of capital punishment for the Samurai class. {8}

To commit seppuku, the samurai would first quiet his mind, then slit his stomach open from right to left with a ritual knife. This violent method served to demonstrate the samurai's strength and courage, but would lead to a long, painful death. Thus the ritual seppuku usually included a second samurai, an attendant, who would mercifully behead the one practicing seppuku shortly after he had slit open his own stomach (or sometimes even as he reached for the knife).

Not only the merciful actions of the second samurai, but the practice of seppuku itself has been compared to the modern-day practice of euthanasia:

The reasons for a samurai's suicide were either (1) to avoid an inevitable death at the hands of others, or (2) to escape a longer period of unbearable pain or psychological misery, without being an active, fruitful member of society. These are exactly the sorts of situations when euthanasia is desired today. {9}

The samurai ritual of seppuku came very close to euthanasia indeed - an assistant would behead the suicide after the suicide had fatally stabbed themselves in order to bring death swiftly and reduce the time the suicide was in pain. The samurai motivation for suicide was similar to that of the person seeking euthanasia: either they had lost a battle and would be killed by their enemies (the analogy is that the patient has lost their battle against the disease, and it will kill them) or they had been so badly wounded that they could no longer be useful members of society (the patient could be in a similar position). In line with Buddhist thinking, the seppuku ritual laid great emphasis on the suicide having a peaceful mind during the action. {10}

In the Heian and Kamakura periods, it became popular among certain groups of Japanese Pure Land Buddhists to commit suicide in order to gain rebirth in the Pure Land. It was of utmost importance that the suicide have the right state of mind at the moment of death, especially to concentrate on the Amida Buddha. The ritual suicide was usually undertaken by walking into the water and drowning. Thus, the would-be suicide would walk into the water to drown himself, but if he found himself unable to keep a peaceful mind or focus properly on Amida, his assistants were to pull him out of the water to prevent him from dying in an unfavorable state of mind, using a rope that had been tied around the would-be suicide's waist for this purpose. {11}

Also worthy of brief mention in the Buddhist context is the Japanese use, in World War II, of suicide bombers known as kamikaze ("divine wind"). Kamikaze were military pilots who deliberately crashed their airplanes (loaded with bombs or extra gasoline) into ships. Kamikaze attacks sank 34 Allied ships, damaged many others, and killed over 5,000 people at Okinawa. {12}

Another significant case of self-killing in Buddhism occurred in 1960s Vietnam. On June 11, 1963, in response to the anti-Buddhist practices of the Catholic government, an aged Buddhist monk named Thich Quang Duc got out of a car in the middle of a Saigon street, assumed the lotus position, poured gasoline over himself, and lit himself on fire. Witnesses report that he never moved or made a sound. Meanwhile, monks and nuns handed out pamphlets calling for the government to treat all religions with charity and compassion. Several other monks also burned themselves to death shortly after this event. {13}

The Vietnamese government remained stubborn, even offering to provide gasoline to Buddhists who wished to protest in this way, but Quang Duc's actions received widespread treatment in American newspapers. In November 1963, President Ngo Dinh Diem was assassinated by South Vietnamese military officers. {14}

Modern Buddhist Views of Suicide

Euthanasia is legal in modern Japan. On December 22, 1962, the Nagoya High Court defined the conditions under which euthanasia could legally be administered:

  • The disease is considered terminal and incurable by present medicine.
  • The pain is unbearable--both for the patient and those around him.
  • The death is for the purpose of his peaceful passing.
  • The person himself has requested the death, while conscious and sane.
  • The killing is done by a doctor.
  • The method of killing is humane. {15}

Professor Bhikkhu Dhammavihari, Director of the International Buddhist Research and Information Center in Sri Lanka, concludes his study of euthanasia and Buddhism as follows:

...legalized voluntary euthanasia seems to be the only one on behalf of which the Buddhists may claim any legitimacy. Here alone the patient claims full responsibility for the termination of his life. It is equally well ascertained that the patient does it with a full awareness of what he is doing. As far as basic Buddhist teachings of the Theravada are concerned this has to be viewed as an error of judgement. This is certainly in violation of the pledge by every Buddhist to abstain from destruction of life. For lay persons it remains at the level of an ethical injunction, no more than a precept [ pàõàtipàtà vramaõã sikkhàpadaü ], without any legal implications or punishments involved. But it is at the same time a socio-ethical wrong-doing of the highest order. ...

From the Buddhist point of view, one would here question the correctness of the patient's decision [for euthanasia]. It is to be remembered that except in the case of the liberated ones, i.e. those in Nirvana who are not destined to be born again, death begets life anew for everyone. Death does not terminate life, or more precisely the life process. Hence it cannot terminate pain and unhappiness. They are linked up with new life wherever it begins. Suicide or destruction of life being viewed as an evil act in itself, such a termination of life to terminate pain and suffering at this end would entail payment for it hereafter with interest compounded to it. Hence a sufferer's desire to terminate pain in this life through suicide has to be unequivocally declared an error of judgement. As for the desire to relieve the burden on others, it would as much be a serious error of judgement. Such sympathy would be no more than misguided charity. Suicide would show itself up as an attempt to cheat pain in life, forgetting the possibility of its recurrence in a life after. Attempts to dodge threatening instances of shame and insults, to erase off memories of defeat and frustration, seem to drive both men and women, young and old, to extremely lamentable acts of suicide. Except in very special cases of hopeful life restoration, resorting to life-supporting systems like a respirator to prolong life would appear to be a futile attempt to cheat death.

All other attempts, under the dignified name of euthanasia, to terminate human life by persons other than the patient himself, on (i.) compassionate grounds of pain relieving , (ii.) bringing about dignified dying for those abandoned as terminally ill, or (iii.) clearing spots of social eyesore by ridding society of its 'unwanted members' who are judged 'not fit to live' would be clear reflections of egoistic high-handedness, both individual and collective, justified in the name of sympathetic and humane considerations as well as veiled notions of social grooming. The possible unethical turns on these blind alleys are bound to be invariably unavoidable. {16}

"Euthanasia: The Buddhist View." BBC Religion & Ethics summarizes Buddhist views of euthanasia as follows:

The Buddha himself showed tolerance of suicide by monks in two cases. The Japanese Buddhist tradition includes many stories of suicide by monks, and suicide was used as a political weapon by Buddhist monks during the Vietnam war.

But these were monks, and that makes a difference. In Buddhism, the way life ends has a profound impact on the way the new life will begin.

So a person's state of mind at the time of death is important - their thoughts should be selfless and enlightened, free of anger, hate or fear.

This suggests that suicide (and so euthanasia) is only approved for people who have achieved enlightenment and that the rest of us should avoid it. {17}

Scholar of Buddhism Damien Keown lists the following reasons why Buddhism might be opposed to suicide:

1) It is an act of violence and thus contrary to the principle of ahimsā.
2) It is against the First Precept.
3) It is contrary to the third pārājika (Cf. Miln. 195).
4) It is stated that "Arahants do not cut short their lives" (na . . . apakkaṃ pātenti) Miln. 44, cf. D.ī.32/DA.810 cited by Horner (Milinda's Questions, I.61n.). Sāriputta says that an Arhat neither wishes for death not wishes not to die: it will come when it comes (Thag. vv.1002-3).
5) Suicide destroys something of great value in the case of a virtuous human life and prevents such a person acting in the service of others (Miln. 195f.) Wiltshire states that altruism is also cited in the Pāyāsi Sutta as a reason for not taking one's life (1983:131). With reference to the discussion here (D.ī.330-2) he comments "This is the only passage in the Sutta Piṭaka in which the subje! ct of suicide is considered in the abstract, and even then obliquely" (1983:130). Kassapa states that the virtuous should not kill themselves to obtain the results of their good kar ma as this deprives the world of their good influence (D.ī.330f).
6) Suicide brings life to a premature end. As Poussin expresses it: (op cit) "A man must live his alloted span of life... To that effect Buddha employs to Pāyāsi the simile of the woman who cuts open her body in order to see whether her child is a boy or a girl" (D.ī.331).
7) Self-annihilation is a form of vibhava-taṇhā.
8) Self-destruction is associated with ascetic practices which are rejected since "Buddhism had better methods of crushing lust and destroying sin" (Poussin, op cit).
9) There is empirical evidence provided by I Tsing. Poussin notes: "The Pilgrim I-tsing says that Indian Buddhists abstain from suicide and, in general, from self-torture" (op cit).
10) As noted above, Sāriputta's immediate reaction is to dissuade Channa in the strongest terms from taking his life. Sāriputta's reaction suggests that suicide was not regarded among the Buddha's senior disciples as an option even meriting discussion. {18}

Struan Hellier writes:

The point here is that there is evidence to suggest that no arhat has committed suicide and that those who point to Channa are mislead if they use his death to substantiate such a claim. Therefore although an enlightened person may be able to commit suicide in an ‘a priori’ sense we have no empirical evidence to support the view that he or she might do so. The argument is therefore no more substantial than a claim that an arhat can blamelessly murder, or blamelessly use a nuclear device on an innocent population. This may be true as his greater insight into nature could allow him such a course of action, but I suspect that no Buddhist would claim that this is the case.

This interpretation is consistent with Buddhist doctrine in a way that others are not. Indeed the First Precept shows that the taking of any human life is the gravest offence a Buddhist can commit (Saddhatissa 1970 pg87-88). Further the third parajika (Nakasone 1990 pg67-68) is clearly against suicide, abetting suicide and commending death by suicide and the principle of ahimsa (non-injury) is clearly shattered by any act of violence, including suicide.

Therefore it seems reasonable to conclude that rather than the morality of suicide being subjective there is a great deal of evidence to support the contrary view, namely that there is some feature of the act itself which marks it out as morally suspect.

Buddhism sees death not as an end to life, but merely as a transition to another life. Anyone who thinks of death as an end to suffering has misunderstood the First Noble Truth which clearly states that death itself is one of the most basic aspects of suffering and that in this way it is the problem, not the solution. An arhat will not commit suicide because he cannot wish for death (or life). When death comes, it comes and can only be met with indifference otherwise the arhat has revealed himself to be less than enlightened. {19}


References

  1. Damien Keown, "Buddhism and Suicide: The Case of Channa." Journal of Buddhist Ethics, University of London, 1996.
  2. Importantly, there is some doubt about the translation of this last phrase – it could mean, "not be reborn." See Keown.
  3. Damien Keown, "Buddhism and Suicide: The Case of Channa." Journal of Buddhist Ethics, University of London, 1996.
  4. The Connected Discourses of the Buddha, A Translation of the Samyutta Nikaaya, trans. Bikkhu Bodhi, Wisdom Publications, Boston, 2000, p. 214
  5. The Connected Discourses of the Buddha, A Translation of the Samyutta Nikaaya, trans. Bikkhu Bodhi, Wisdom Publications, Boston, 2000, pp. 938–41.
  6. Bhikku Professor Dhammavihari, "Euthanasia: A Study in Relation to Original Theravaden Thinking" Year 2000 Global Conference.
  7. "Suicide as a Response to Suffering" by Michael Atwood, Western Buddhist Review.
  8. "seppuku." Encyclopædia Britannica. 2004. Encyclopædia Britannica Premium Service.
  9. Carl B. Becker, "Buddhist Views of Suicide and Euthanasia."
  10. "Euthanasia: The Buddhist View." BBC Religion & Ethics
  11. Becker, "Buddhist Views."
  12. "kamikaze." Encyclopædia Britannica. 2004. Encyclopædia Britannica Premium Service.
  13. "The Self-Immolation of Thich Quang Duc"
  14. "This Day in History – June 11," History Channel.
  15. Becker, "Buddhist Views."
  16. Bhikku Professor Dhammavihari, "Euthanasia: A Study in Relation to Original Theravaden Thinking" Year 2000 Global Conference.
  17. "Euthanasia: The Buddhist View." BBC Religion & Ethics
  18. Damien Keown, "Buddhism and Suicide: The Case of Channa." Journal of Buddhist Ethics, University of London, 1996, note 55.
  19. Wiltshire 1983, 134, cited in Struan Hellier, "Suicide and Buddhism," 2003.