Monday, January 5, 2009

Comments On Euthanasia

I would like to address some of the comments and observations made on my four previous posts on euthanasia. Konchog said that his teacher would disagree with my assertion that euthanasia could sometimes be in the best interest of the pain-wracked terminal patient. His teacher would take the position that we 'do not know if that being has exhausted the dominate kammas to be in that form and condition.' By this I assume that Konchog's teacher believes that the pain a terminal patient is feeling must be due to some negative past kamma and by ending their life or assisting them in ending their life we would be doing nothing more than postponing their negative kamma until the next life. This is a common Buddhist argument against euthanasia. I cannot speak for the Mahayana/Vajrayana position on this matter, but early Buddhism most strongly asserts that the belief that everything we experience in this life (pleasant, painful or neutral) is due to something done in the past, is one of the three false and pernicious misunderstandings. And one would not have to be Einstein to see why. It implies absolute determinism. Following from this the Buddha says that the diseases and sicknesses we may fall prey to have a variety of causes, only one of which is kamma. Common sense and empirical observation would tell us that someone with liver cancer is experiencing pain because the tumor is disrupting the healthy functioning of their liver, not because of any morally negative act they did previously.
Related to this is, Indigoblue's comment, 'How can you be sure that an individual's intentions are compassionate or not?' Perhaps we cannot be 100% sure that this is the case but I think any relatively self-aware person knows when they are feeling at any one time. I cannot be 100% sure that a doctor contemplating euthanatizing a terminal patient is doing so out of compassion but inquiries may make things more clear. I think we can be sure of a doctors good intentions in such cases as we can be in other cases. But there is one thing we can have little doubt about - that a patient writhing in agony and begging for release knows what they want.
Dyanne related how a friend experiencing unbearable mental suffering committed suicide ,which is always a tragedy and often has a devastating effect on those they leave behind. However, I do feel that suicide in such cases is somewhat different and less acceptable than in the case of a terminal patient. In the case of the first, things could (in most cases) always change and improve. This is not so with a terminal patient.
Both Paulo and Vasile drew my (our) attention to the Channovada Sutta (M.III,264-66). In this sutta Venerable Chamma is sick, in pain and wants to 'use the knife.' Sariputta urges him not to. We are not told whether Channa's condition was terminal or not. Whatever the case, he did later commit suicide. Sariputta informed the Buddha of this and asked what would be his destiny in his next life. The Buddha replied, 'When one lays down this body and clings to a new body, then I say that one is blameworthy. But this was not so with Channa and therefore he used the knife blamelessly.' It would appear from this that Channa was a highly developed person and that between the time he 'used the knife' (i.e. cut his wrists or his throat) and he died he was able to be totally detached and therefore attain enlightenment. If this is was so, it's hard to understand why he could not have been equally detached from the pain caused by his sickness. Either way, the story suggests that killing (suicide or euthanasia) need not necessarily have negative results.
For more on kammic determinism and the causes of diseases go to and have a look at 'Determinism' and 'Sickness and Health.' See also my post of 24, 10, 2008.


Vasile Andreica said...

Thank you, Venerable.

Konchog said...

LOL. Well, he may not be Einstein, but here's the Dalai Lama skillfully supporting both of our points of view:

You may have counter-examples, but I see in the Culakammavibangha Sutta, sec. 7, the Buddha giving a very broad-brush example of those given to injuring beings in a previous life: "...if instead he comes back to the human state, then wherever he is reborn he is sickly." So karma may not be the dominant or contributing cause every time, but it certainly is sometimes. And if we only have the tools of our senses, and not the clairvoyance of meditative realization (still fallible up to the full enlightenment of a Buddha), how do we know? Most of the responses seem only to be taking into account this one life, while the Buddha stated there are powerful karmas that can form the dominant cause for multiple lifetimes. The difference in perspective of a Buddhist, it seems to me, is that no other tradition has our particular view of the cyclical nature of rebirth and interdependent origination. I don't think you'll hear many Buddhists say, "Well, he's in a better place now."

That said, I didn't mean to come off as dogmatic; I was just wanted to bring up an aspect that hadn't been discussed. True compassion is the guiding spirit of our path always, and I can imagine cases in which I would come to the decision to end the life of another in good conscience.

yamizi said...

Good evening Bhante,

As you had mentioned, Channa might have appeared to be a highly developed person and therefore, he could genuinely had his mind to detach from his body when he used the knife.

But how could this be proved so for the every other terminally ill patient? Is it by some default that when a person is terminally ill and suffers very intensed pain, he/she would have 'appeared to be highly developed' to have done what Channa had done?

Is a terminally ill patient considered to have the right state of mind to choose to end his life? Under such circumstances, can he be consider as able to detach from his body? Or is it more like a strong desire to detach from his physical pain?

Sheridan said...


I believe that, in regards to the case of Channa, this article may prove interesting fodder for discussion:

It seems that the author does not think that this case is indicative of a normative view on suicide in the case of pain of sickness. The Buddha said that Channa's act was "Blameless", but it does warrant a look as to why Sariputta, one of the Cheif Disciples, urges him not to. Well, take it only as usefull as it is.

Thank you for the interesting information!


Shravasti Dhammika said...

Dear Konchog
You have actually said it more clearly and succinctly than I have - 'kamma (is not) the dominant or contributing cause every time but it is sometimes.' Therefore, we should act with care and mindfulness but at the same time not allow ourselves to do nothing in the belief that a terminal patient's pain must necessarily be negative vipaka. 'True compassion(should be) the guiding spirit of our path always' not the desire to avoid 'bad kamma' the fear that we are going to make 'bad kamma' or the wrong view that 'it must be his bad kamma.'
And once again, thank you all for your comments, observations and feedback.

Soe Min said...

My mind keeps recalling the first 2 verses of the Dhammapada, which we usually chant at the end of our dhamma sessions.

"Mind is the forerunner of all (evil condition) - Mind is chief ; and they are mind - made. If, with an impure mind, one speaks or acts, then pain follows one even as the wheel, the hoof of the Ox"
".... If, with a pure mind, one speaks or acts, then happiness follows one even as the shadow that never leaves"

I would agree that a compassionate and wise person would work toward alleviating negative mental states for another being and encouraging them to gradually replace them with wholesome ones. I can imagine knowing that you will be allowed to die and believing it will end your tormenting state can be a great relief too.

The buddha skillfully helped those suffering to pause for a moment to see a glimpse of reality. e.g. the case of Kisa Gotami, a mother who lost her only child. Her negative mental state was probably alleviated, maybe even replaced by hope/joy the moment she believed she was on the right track to end her suffering by looking for the mustard seed from a household untouched by death. This allowed her mind to have the clarity to eventually realise her foolish quest and give it up, not in despair but probably realistic detachment. This detachment probably calmed her just right for hearing the dhamma.

The inclination of one's mind being a potent factor on whether the mind will be able to let go of negative states, we can only try to provide the most comforting conditions those suffering to the best our means.

"Though one should live a hundred years
without seeing the Deathless State,
yet better indeed, is a single day's life
of one who sees the Deathless State"

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