06 May 2006

Suicide as a response to suffering

Ophelia drowns herself
When you dig into the the subject, you find that suicide is regarded with some ambivalence, and even confusion, by the Buddhist tradition. On one hand the principle of ahimsa, or non-violence, would seem to rule out suicide for Buddhists. On the other hand there are at least three cases of suicide in the Pali Canon where men commit suicide with no evil consequnences (they attain final nibbana and are not reborn). In Buddhaghosha's commentary to the vinaya it is said that a bhikkhu may stop taking food and die under certain circumstances. And at the extreme end of the scale we have the 1960's image of a Vietnamese monk immolating himself in order to gain religious freedom for his fellows.

A couple of years back I wrote a long essay on suicide and Buddhism. A version of this, which focuses on suicide in the Pali Canon, was published in the Western Buddhist Review. It's couched in the pseudo-objective language expected in an academic journal which is a shame in a way because I've realised that most of the people to whom I might wish to communicate on this subject won't read that kind of thing.

The apparent ambivalance with regard to suicide seems to stem from a belief that any act done with awareness, with kindness, and especially with non-attachment, is a skilful act that will not cause suffering. It seems pretty clear however that few of us are phlegmatic enough to contemplate taking our own lives with detachment.

I've seen death. My father died in 1990, all of my grandparents are dead, two uncles are dead, and a few friends and aquaintences too. I saw some of their corpses. I've watched bodies being burned on the ghats in Varanasi, and one friend cremated the same way in New Zealand. I've watched a sheep have it's throat cut and bleed to death. But death is still a mystery to me, and despite all the Buddhist rhetoric about it, I find I still fear it. I don't want to die. What sort of state would I need to be in to overturn this fear, to over-ride this powerful urge for continuation? The sacred texts recall several men cutting their throats in supremely positive states. I've contemplated suicide only when in a very negative states.

Looking at the whole thing pragmatically, that is to say not referring to doctrine but to experience, I'd have to say that suicide is, contrary to that old song, not painless. When I think about this I bring to mind Kent, a friend of my brother's, who killed himself out of despair in his twenties. It was very painful for me, and I only knew him a little. For my brother is was a devastating blow. We are all still mourning Kent's death which seemed such a waste. So whatever happened to Kent after he died, I can be sure that his actions resulted in pain for those who loved him.

My thoughts have been turning in this direction because recently several people I know have either been suicidal or have deliberately harmed themselves in some way. And in response I find myself echoing the words of that great hero of the Dharma, Sariputta, to Channa:

"Let the venerable channa not use the knife. Let the venerable Channa live. We want the venerable Channa to live! If venerable Channa 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 him. Let the venerable channa not use the knife. Let the venerable Channa live. We want the venerable Channa to live!"
- Samyutta Nikaya III.2.4.8.
In my WBR article I noted that scholar Damien Keown, editor of the Journal of Buddhist Ethics, seemed to fudge the conclusion of his article on the subject: The Case of Channa. It's quite clear, from the text that he focuses on, that suicide by someone with no attachment to their body is not a cause of more suffering because Channa is not reborn, ie attains Nibbana. And yet Keown draws the general conclusion that suicide is unskilful. Having surveyed a much wider range of texts, many of which were if anything more open to suicide, I also found myself baulking at concluding that suicide is justified in some cases, even though the textual evidence supports such a conclusion.

The basic problem is that the vast majority of suicides and cases of self-harm are not carried out in state of love, generosity, calm, dettachment. They are carried out in despair, fear, and hatred. It seems likely that if you are in the fourth formless jhana, then it might just be possible to die with equanimity, but that in constricted states of suffering from which we want to escape, then suicide is unlikely to be a positive response.

All of this can be hard to get across to someone in despair. Despair is associated with a vastly reduced perspective. Often when we are down we cannot imagine that there is a way out, we don't see that things change. At the moment I'm exploring the way that awareness can change this. We naturally flinch from pain, and in the case where physical harm will result this is definitely a good thing. Emotional pain is something else though. We flinch from it, we don't want to experience strong and/or painful emotions, and there is some short term benefit from this. There are times when putting our emotions on hold can be useful or even necessary. But long term we cannot function that way. Bringing awareness to pain, especially emotional pain, does seem to help, especially in terms of creating a broader horizon and an awareness of how things change. I hope to be able to say more about this in time, but for now if you are in despair and contemplating suicide, then please seek help.


See also

Rottman J, Kelemen D, Young L. (2014). 'Purity matters more than harm in moral judgments of suicide: Response to Gray (2014).' Cognition. 2014, Jul 10. pii: S0010-0277(14)00118-8. doi: 10.1016/j.cognition.2014.06.008. [Epub ahead of print]
"Many people judge suicide to be immoral. We have found evidence that these moral judgments are primarily predicted by people's belief that suicide taints the soul and by independent concerns about purity. This finding is inconsistent with accounts that define morality as fundamentally based upon harm considerations."

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