Euthanasia in Early Indian Buddhist Thought

Richard P. Hayes
February 1998

Introductory remarks

The main goals of this article will be

  1. to describe the attitudes towards death in general and towards suicide in particular in the early literature of Indian Buddhism, and
  2. to examine how the principles found there might be applied to modern discussions of voluntary active euthanasia.

The sections into which the article is divided are:

General Buddhist attitudes towards death

No study of Buddhist attitudes towards suicide would be complete without some comments about Buddhist attitudes towards death in general. And no account of Buddhist attitudes towards death would be complete without some indication of Buddhist attitudes towards life.

  1. The central problem that Buddhist teaching addresses is the universal presence of either actual pain or potential pain. The Buddha observed that actual pain attends every phase of life: pregnancy causes pain and discomfort for both the mother and the foetus, and birth is painful for both mother and child. Throughout life, one is faced with the constant anxiety of sickness, injury, loss of property and loss of autonomy. From at least the time of adolescence onward, most people are aware of the inevitability of their own death, and this awareness is attended most of the time by anxiety, fear and worry. From early childhood onwards, most people are worried about their social status and the extent to which they have the approval of their peers. Beginning in adulthood, people become increasingly worried about their vanishing youth and the encroachment of old age. Inevitably, life ends in death, and this event brings anxiety to the person who is dying and grief to those who lose their loved ones. Not only is every aspect of life unpleasant, but the cycle is repeated time and again, for after living beings die, they are reborn in some other form. This whole cycle of birth and death had no beginning, and it has no purpose and no deeper meaning.
  2. The only way to bring pain to an end for oneself is to stop participating in the process of life and death itself. Since rebirth is caused by the desire for continued survival, this final cessation (called nirvana) is possible only for those who succeed in giving up the very desire to continue living in any form whatsoever.
  3. A person who has become completely free of the desire for further existence is called an arhant. This person is one who has achieved the highest goal of nirvana through a combination of cultivating good character and a knowledge of the real nature of things.

The arhant is described in Buddhist literature as one who has no longing for life and also no longing for death. The following verses, attributed to the arhant Sariputta (one of the Buddha's closest personal friends and most trusted disciples), are fairly typical of the tone of poetry written by arhants of both genders:

Having attained to non-reasoning, the disciple of the fully awakened one is straightway possessed of noble silence. Just as a rocky mountain is unmoving and well-grounded, a monk, like a mountain, does not tremble after the annihilation of delusion.

To one who is without vice, always seeking purity, a speck of evil the size of the tip of a hair looms as large as a thundercloud. I do not long for death. I do not long for life. I shall lay down this body attentively and mindfully. I do not long for death. I do not long for life. I just await my time, as a servant awaits his wages.

On both sides of life there is only death. There is nothing but death either before life or afterwards. So enter the path. Do not perish. Don't let this opportunity pass you by. (ThG 1002-1004)

According to Buddhist values, every moment of one's life that is not spent in the pursuit of becoming permanently free from the snare of beginningless existence is a moment wasted. And so Sariputta could declare at the end of his long poem on the joy's of attaining nirvana:

I have served my teacher; I have followed the Buddha's teachings. My heavy burden has been put down. That which leads to continued existence has been rooted out.
My advice is this: Strive with vigilance. Now my thirst is quenched. I am completely liberated in every way.

Death, then, in which there is no further consciousness of any kind, no further birth in any realm from hell to paradise, is the ultimate goal towards which the ancient Buddhist strove. For those who understood this, death could never be a matter of sorrow.

The Buddhist attitude towards death is most dramatically portrayed in the account of the Buddha's own death. According to tradition, he died at the age of about 80 and was in great pain in the last several months of his life. Eventually he died, apparently of food poisoning after eating a tainted piece of pork. The texts record three kinds of reaction to news of the Buddha's death:

The dispassionate arhants, who were unmoved by the Buddha's death, were following the spirit of what the Buddha himself is supposed to have said in his poem on death.

Life is unpredictable and uncertain in this world. Life here is difficult, short and bound up with suffering.

Once a being is born, it is bound to die, and there is no way to avoid this. When old age or some other cause arrives, then death occurs. This is the way it is with living beings.

Both the young and the old, whether they are foolish or wise, are caught in the trap of death. All living beings are moving towards death.

Look, as their relatives are watching and wailing greatly, each one of the mortals is led away like a cow to slaughter.

Thus are people tormented by death and aging. Therefore the wise, knowing the way of the world, do not grieve.

In the same way that he might use water to extinguish a shelter that has caught on fire, the wise, learned and skilled man extinguishes grief as quickly as it arises, as the wind blows away a tuft of cotton.

The attitudes toward death expressed in early Buddhist literature is similar in tone to many of the discussions of death that occur in the dialogues of Plato. In the Phaedo, for example, Socrates is reported to say this:

Ordinary people are not likely to realize that those who pursue philosophy correctly study nothing but dying and being dead. Given this, it would be absurd to be eager for nothing but death all their lives, and then to be troubled when that for which they had all along been preparing finally came. (Phaedo 64a)

Both Socrates and the Buddhist texts make a distinction between ordinary people (often called the foolish masses in Buddhist texts) and the few who have cultivated wisdom or a truly philosophical outlook. Most of the apparent inconsistencies in Buddhist discussions of death can be resolved if one bears in mind that some comments are intended for the wise, while others pertain to the ordinary foolish masses.

The monastic code on suicide

Love of life is most commonly focused on the physical body and the pleasures of the senses. In order to help his disciples break their attachment to physical pleasures, the Buddha prescribed meditative exercises consisting of dwelling on the distasteful and disgusting aspects of the physical body.

It is recorded in the monastic code of discipline of the Theravada school that some monks undertook the meditations on physical impurity and became so disgusted with and ashamed of their own bodies that they desired to commit suicide. Some of the monks apparently took their own lives, but others approached another monk named Migalaṇá¸ika and asked him to take their lives. Migalaṇá¸ika honoured their request and killed the monks with a knife.

After killing the monks, Migalaṇá¸ika was over come with remorse and felt that he had earned much demerit by taking the lives of virtuous and well-behaved monks. When he felt this remorse, however, a divine spirit approached him and told him that he had in fact done the right thing and earned much merit by helping monks pass beyond this evil life. Upon being encouraged by the divine spirit, Migalaṇá¸ika then made the rounds of the monasteries and began taking the lives of monks in order to help them pass beyond this evil life. The text that records this event reports that some monks, who had not yet given up their passions, were terrified by this inspired monk, but dispassionate monks faced him calmly and without fear.

Eventually the Buddha noticed that the number of his disciples was rapidly declining, and he inquired into what was the cause. He was told that the reason was that monks had become ashamed of their own bodies through contemplation of the disgusting aspects of the body. So the Buddha taught his monks a new practice, namely, the mindfulness of breathing. He also set down a new rule for his disciples:

Whatever monk should intentionally deprive a human being of life, or should look about so as to be his knife-bringer, he is also one who is defeated, he is not in communion.(The Book of the Discipline (Vinaya-pitaka}. Vol. 1. Translated by I. B. Horner. London: Pali Text Society, 1949. P. 123.)

What this formula has been interpreted to mean is that any monk who deliberately takes the life of another human being, or who provides the means for another human being to take his or her own life, is expelled from the community of monks for life. Eventually this rule was expanded to include a ban on encouraging anyone to commit suicide in order to gain a better rebirth. The final form of the rule became

Whatever monk should intentionally deprive a human being of life, or should look about so as to be his knife-bringer, or should praise the beauty of death or should incite anyone to death by suggesting that this evil and difficult life is of no use, or who should purposefully praise the beauty of death in any number of ways; he is also one who is defeated, he is not in communion. (Cf. The Discipline Vol. 1, p. 126)

Eventually this rule was understood to mean that a monk or nun could lose monastic status for any of the following actions:

Note that being expelled from the monastic community does not imply that a person is not qualified to achieve nirvana. Rather, it means that the person

  1. is no longer considered an example to lay people of Buddhist virtue,
  2. no longer has the right to offer formal instruction in Buddhist doctrines,
  3. no longer is entitled to receive alms from the laity as a religious mendicant, and
  4. may no longer participate in meetings restricted to monks or be part of a quorum for ordination ceremonies.

Note also that these rules pertain explicitly to monks. We shall examine later what the implications of these rules were for members of society at large.

The suicide of an arhant

The story of the suicide of the monk Channa is described in detail in the Majjhima-nikaya, a canonical text for the Theravada school of Buddhism. The most important points of this report for our purposes are the Buddha's reasons for declaring that the suicide of Channa was not 'blameworthy' (that is, it was not something to be disapproved.) The text makes it clear that Channa was not simply laying aside his life in the hopes of gaining another more pleasant form of existence. Evidence that Channa was not simply seeking an escape into something more pleasant was given by three observations:

It is noteworthy that in this narrative, the monks Mahacunda and Sariputta took Channa's word for his own state of mind. Once they had his self-assessment of his own mentality, they neither tried to discourage his suicide nor gave their blessing to it. Rather, Mahacunda simply gave one final reminder of the teachings of the Buddha:

For him who clings there is wavering; for him who does not cling there is no wavering; if there is no wavering, there is impassibility (imperturbability); if there is impassibility, there is no desire; if there is no desire, there is neither coming nor going, neither birth nor death; if there is neither birth nor death, there is no distinction between this world and the next world nor is there anything in between the two. This itself is the end of suffering.

It is also noteworthy that in another account of this same narrative, Channa's estimate of his own mental state was inaccurate. He believed that he was completely dispassionate, but when he actually cut his own throat, he experienced fear of dying, proving that he was not dispassionate after all. Nevertheless, it was his own sincere self-estimate of his mental state that determined the purity of his intentions and made his decision not blameworthy.

Applying classical texts to modern ethical problems

At the outset, it should be noted that the issues under discussion in the Buddhist texts are not quite parallel to the issues associated with active euthanasia that are presently being debated in many modern nations. The issue being discussed at present is whether the laws concerning homicide ought to be changed such that administering a lethal intervention to a terminally ill person who has requested to die no longer constitutes a criminal action. The issues for the classical Buddhists, on the other hand, were:

  1. whether a person spoils his or her chances of attaining nirvana as a result of committing suicide, and
  2. whether a monk or nun loses status in the monastic community as a result of deliberately bringing about the death of another person, even at that person's request.

The answers to these questions (in the Theravada canon) are:

  1. A person who is an arhant does not endanger that status simply by committing suicide, and
  2. a monk or nun loses monastic status as a result of helping any other person achieve death, even when that person has requested help. (It is not at all clear whether the second decision would be different if the person making the request were an arhant.)

The question that faces us today is: what can we infer from the classical Buddhist texts as to what a Buddhist stance on the advisability of legalizing active euthanasia might be? This question is not at all easy to answer. The reasons a conclusive answer cannot be drawn are:

It is impossible to imagine that any criminal code in a modern country would try to enshrine or give any credence to these presuppositions. At the very most, a legal code might try to protect the rights of people who do give credence to those presuppositions.

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