Saturday, January 31, 2009
Friday, January 30, 2009
A Sad Situation
This was rather sad to hear but I would have to admit that, if it's true, it conforms to a pattern I have often observed throughout Buddhist Asia. I know of many Buddhist charitable projects started with genuinely good intentions but that soon either stagnated, became ineffectual or, if they attracted generous financial support, degenerated into money-making rackets. When the latter happens, well-meaning but naive donors never asks for receipts for their donations, never ask for details or checks to make sure the place is being run properly. They just keep giving. Charity in Buddhist lands is still pretty much medieval - throw a coin at a beggar and keep walking. The Buddha said that we should give 'thinking about the results' (agamana ditthako, A.III,172) i.e. whether the money donated is being used properly and effectively so that it actually makes a difference. Such considerations rarely seem to occur to anyone and if the person requesting the donation or receiving it is a monk, it never does. The Sunday Times has published a highly unflattering article on Wat Phra Baht Nam Phu. It is a very disappointing story but I suspect most of it is true. Have a look at
http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/world/asia/article3721675.ece?token=null&offset=0 To read the Wat's account of its activities see www.aidstemple.th.org . None of this is particularly inspiring reading. But if we Buddhists just keep smiling and pretending everything is okay, then things are unlikely to ever improve. If any of my readers have visited or volunteered at Wat Phra Baht Nam Phu, please give us your impressions.
Thursday, January 29, 2009
Doing Metta Differently
Sometimes it would be easy to get the impression that Theravadin practice atrophied centuries ago. But every now and then you meet people who are able to practice Dhamma in more thoughtful and creative ways. Hearing my friend’s way of ‘doing’ metta was more than a pleasant surprise, it was moving and inspiring too. And I could see that it was ‘working’ as well. He was soft-spoken, modest, unassuming and centered. Later, I gave some thought to the implications of what he told me. My friends act of kindness may well have encouraged the old lady he had helped to be less selfish, less cynical, more thankful and kindly. I could imagine that she had told her family about it and that it had inspired them to be more kindly and thoughtful towards others. Certainly it inspired me. Perhaps this could be seen as another way of 'radiating' metta.
Wednesday, January 28, 2009
Animals In Heaven
Jake from Perth very kindly sent me the details of where to hear Les Crane's Desiderata. It's at http://au.youtube.com/watch?v=_kPzJWuG9RM&feature=related and it's good to hear it again after all those years. AQJB tells me you can hear the Deteriorata on iTunes and while your at it have a listen to the sound advice and gentle humor of Wear Sunscreen at http://homepage.ntlworld.com/gary.hart/lyricsl/luhrmann Thanks for that Minotaurus.
From the 2nd of next month I will be looking at the claim that Jesus visited India. I hope you will find my observations interesting.
Tuesday, January 27, 2009
The Elephant Man
Monday, January 26, 2009
Happy New Year
It's interesting to see what the Buddha and his contemporaries thought about bulls (usabha). To call someone a bull of a man (purisusabha) meant that he was virile (Vin.III,39). But to the Buddha the bull conjured up the idea of nobility, courage, psychological strength and leadership. A monk who attained enlightenment was compared with the 'bulls, the fathers and leaders of the herd' (usabha gopitaro goparinayaka) who lead the other animals across the river (M.I,226). In the Anguttara Nikaya he said, 'When the cows are crossing, if the bull swerves they follow his lead and swerve too. If he who is considered the leader amongst humans does not live correctly neither do others. If the leader is immoral the whole group will be so too. When the cows are crossing, if the bull goes straight they will go straight following his lead. If he who is considered the leader amongst humans has integrity others will have too. The whole group will be happy if their leader is good' (A.II,70-1).
When King Asoka had one of his pillars erected at Rampurva he chose a sculpture of a bull for the capital. It is one of the masterpieces of early Indian sculpture. Unfortunately, this magnificent object is housed in Rastrapati Bhavan and six attempts by me to get in and see it have ended in an avalanche of forms, slips and permits, 400 k of journeys to offices, 3 passports worn out by being examined, 34 hours of being stared at with slit-eyed suspicion and no results. Maybe one day.
To all my Chinese readers Kung See Fa Choi or better Shen Tee Jen Kang Long Ma Zing Sern.
Sunday, January 25, 2009
Saturday, January 24, 2009
The Vinaya says that when nuns are menstruating they are allowed to wear either a samvelliya or a katisutta, apparently to hold a pad in place (Vin.II,271). Samvelli means something like 'that wrapped around' and katisutta comes from kata = hip + sutta = string, and was probably something like what we call a G-string (The string I understand. The G?). It seems likely that katisutta was the literary form for kopina, an undergarment worn by lay men and women. Yesterday's post mentioned the Buddha's comment about the tart lifting her kopina for the sake of a miserable coin (Vin.II,111). The Jataka describes a cook wearing a kopina squatting down washing the dishes (Ja.V,306). One of the disadvantages of getting drunk, the Buddha said, is that a man may expose his kopina (D.III,183). I think it's also one of the disadvantages of being David Beckham and signing a contract with Calvin Kline. Now in Hindi the kaupina is the G-string sort of thing worn by some yogis, by men doing messy work and in Indian wrestling (kusthi). In wrestling it is called langota, probably related to the Pali langati, 'to bind' or 'to tie'. This garment consists of a triangular piece of cloth with strings on each corner (hence the sutta in katisutta) two being tied around the waist and one pulled between the legs. The great Ramana Maharishi always wore one of these. Sometimes instead of strings there are ribbons which are wrapped around the waist, pulled between the legs and tucked in at the back and I suspect the Pali for this variation of the garment is samvelliya. According to the Vinaya, monks are not allowed to wear a samvelliya (Vin.II,137). This is interesting because today Hindu yogis and wrestlers wear G-strings in the belief that confining the genitals and pressing them against the body it minimize sexual desire.
I recall that Sankaracariya composed a five verse poem in praise of the G-string. I think it's called Kaupina Pancakam.
Friday, January 23, 2009
Floating Buddhist Monk Woman
'Wonderful' he replied. 'We went to that famous temple in Kanchanaburi and saw those women who can levitate.'
'Yes Bhante. They are mai chis and they levitate in water.'
'Do you mean float?'
'That’s it Bhante. They float.'
I was silent for a minute while I tried to think what interest or significance there could be in floating. Human fat is lighter than water and the Dhamma is…No. Air-filled lungs are lighter than water so one-pointedness of mind is…Nope. No connection there either. Now this place is a temple and in temples monks do…Nothing there. Finally I gave up.
'Well, they use the supernormal powers they have developed through meditation to float in a swimming pool-like thing.'
'Eh, um. Well, um, I suppose to show how highly developed they are.'
'Why would they want to display such powers? I would have thought that a highly developed meditator would want to avoid celebrity, crowds and self-promotion. Let me guess. Do you have to pay to see these floating ladies?'
'Yes, lots of people come. There are seats around the swimming pool. You have to pay extra to video it.'
By this time I remembered that I had better things to do like tidy the kitchen or something and I drew the conversation to a close. That evening he rung me and told me that the floating women of Wat Tham Mungkornthong are on YouTube. As I happened to be on line at the time I had a look at it. Its called Floating Buddhist Monk Woman of Kanchanaburi, Thailand. If you have nothing better to do, have a look at it. But believe me, you do have something better to do - like reading this passage from the Tipitaka.
Thursday, January 22, 2009
Old Books Free Books
From the 2nd of February I am going to share with you some of my thoughts on the now well-known claim that Jesus spent his 'lost years' learning Buddhism in India.
Wednesday, January 21, 2009
Go placidly amidst the noise and waste and remember what comfort there may be in owning a piece thereof. Avoid quiet and passive persons, unless you are in need of sleep. Rotate your tires. Speak glowingly of those greater than yourself; and heed well their advice, even though they be turkeys. Know what to kiss - and when. Consider that two wrongs never make a right, but that three do. Wherever possible, put people on hold. Be comforted, that in the face of all aridity and disillusionment, and despite the changing fortunes of time, there is always a big future in computer maintenance. Remember the Pueblo. Strive at all times to bend, fold, spindle, and mutilate. Know yourself. If you need help, call the FBI. Exercise caution in your daily affairs, especially with those persons closest to you...that lemon on your left, for instance. Be assured that a walk through the seas of most souls would scarcely get your feet wet. Fall not in love, therefore, it will stick to your face. Gracefully surrender the things of youth: the birds, clean air, tuna, Taiwan - and let not the sands of time get in your lunch. Hire people with hooks. For a good time, call 606-4311 and ask for Ken. Take heart in the deepening gloom that your dog is finally getting enough cheese. And reflect that whatever misfortune may be your lot, it could only be worse in Milwaukee. You are a fluke of the universe. You have no right to be here. Whether you can hear it or not, the universe is laughing behind your back. Therefore, make peace with your god, whatever you perceive him to be: hairy thunderer or cosmic muffin. With all its hopes, dreams, promises and urban renewal, the world continues to deteriorate. GIVE UP!
Tuesday, January 20, 2009
Monday, January 19, 2009
Centuries before the Buddha the brahmans, the hereditary priests of Hinduism, had perfected ways of committing the Vedas, the sacred scriptures, to memory so they could be passed on to the next generation. The earliest Vedas date from about 1500 BCE and did not start being written until at least the 11th or 12th century CE. This means that they were orally transmitted for at least 2500 years. Despite this, all historians and Indologists agree that the Vedas reflect daily life, beliefs and language of the time they were composed, i.e. that they have been faithfully handed down. How was this done? A brahman’s whole life was dedicated to becoming a living receptacle for the Vedas. From an early age they chanted them until they had committed them to memory, great attention was given to getting pronunciation and intonation correct. Many of the Buddha’s disciples who became monks were brahmans and they brought with them the mnemonic skills they had been educated in. These same skills were used to preserve the Buddha’s suttas, his sermons, talks and sayings. Like the Vedas, the suttas are clearly designed to be chanted. They are full of mnemonic devices – rhyming verses, repetitions, numbered lists, stereotyped phrases, etc. Even before the Buddha’s passing, monks and nuns would regularly chant the suttas in congregation (D.III,207). This made it difficult to add, delete or change anything once a sutta had been settled and committed to the memory of the monastic community. It is also important to realize that lay men and women had a role to play in orally transmitting the suttas too. The Vinaya says that if a monk hears that a lay person who knows a sutta that he doesn’t is dying, the monk should go and learn it from them before they pass away. Inscriptions from Sanchi mention lay men and women who knew (i.e. by heart) suttas and sometimes whole collections of suttas. The Buddha said he wanted not just his ordained disciples but also his lay men and women disciples to be ‘knowers of the Dhamma’ so that they could ‘pass on’ what they had learned to others (D.II,105). The oral transmission of the Tipitaka for two or even three hundred years was kids stuff compared to the 2500 years during which the Vedas were orally transmitted. It is interesting to know that long after writing came into vogue in India Buddhists continued to transmit the Tipitaka orally, believing, probably correctly, that it was more accurate than writing. When the Chinese pilgrim Fa-hsien was in Patna in the first decade of the 5th century he noted that although the Vinaya was written down the monks preferred to commit it to memory.
Sunday, January 18, 2009
Metta For Sri Lanka
Saturday, January 17, 2009
Dhamma In Darwin
Friday, January 16, 2009
The Joy Of Sects
The samanas on the other hand, rejected the Vedas and most Brahmanical beliefs and practices and were considered unorthodox, even heretical, by the brahmans. This brahman disapproval of samanas is well illustrated by Ambattha’s comment that the Buddha and his disciples were ‘petty, shaven menial samanas, the black scum of Brahma’s foot’ (D.I,90). The last part of this insult refers to the Hindu belief that low caste people were created by Brahma, the supreme god, from his feet. Because most samanas ignored caste rules this put them on a par with low castes and outcastes in the eyes of the brahmans. They ignored social norms and expectations, they were usually celibate and in spiritual matters gave precedence to experience rather than scriptural authority. They experimented with meditation, self-mortification, yogic breathing, fasts and sensory deprivation. When, as a result of such practices, an individual had some kind of mystical experience which led him to believe he had attained enlightenment or liberation, he would attract disciples and this would lead to the founding of a sect.
There was a great deal of religious switching at the Buddha’s time. Early in the Buddha’s career three famous brothers, the Kassapas, who were the leaders of a band of Jatilas became his disciples bringing all their followers with them (Vin.I,). It was this incident more than any other that drew widespread attention to the Buddha so soon after he started teaching. The two men who later became Buddha’s senior disciples, Sariputta and Moggallana, had both been Ajivakas before becoming Buddhists. Occasionally those who had been the Buddha’s disciples joined other sects, Sunakkhatta being an example of this (D.III,2).
Thursday, January 15, 2009
Wednesday, January 14, 2009
Like Father Like Son
Tuesday, January 13, 2009
Cut And Thrust
To practice the first Precept, the Buddha said, required one to ‘refrain from taking life, to lay aside the stick and the sword and live with care, kindness and compassion for all living creatures’ (D.I,4). Sometimes he used the word ‘weapon’ to mean threats, coercion and violence and killing. Probably using an idiom of the time, he said of people engaged in violent argument that they were ‘wounding each other with the weapon of the tongue’ (M.I,320). On another occasion he said that a person with a heart full of love cannot be harmed by, fire, poison or weapons (A.V,342).
People often expressed surprise at how well the Buddha's disciples were trained without pressure or threats. King Pasenedi once said, ‘I am a noble anointed king with the power to execute, fine or exile whoever deserves it. And yet when I am in council people will often interrupt me. Even if I tell them to wait until I have finished speaking, still they interrupt me. But here I notice that when the Buddha is teaching to several hundred people there is not even the sound of someone coughing or clearing their throat. Once, when the Buddha was teaching the Dhamma to several hundred people someone did clear their throat. And one of his companions in the holy life nudged him with his knee as said, “Quiet, sir, make no noise. The Lord is teaching us Dhamma.” Then I thought, “It is wonderful, truly marvelous, how an assembly could be so well disciplined without stick or sword.” In fact, I know of no other assembly so well disciplined’ (M.II,122).
The Buddha has never been depicted holding a weapon, a few Mahayana bodhisattvas are, many Tantric deities are, although these are only symbolic.
Monday, January 12, 2009
Sunday, January 11, 2009
Saturday, January 10, 2009
An Honor For The BDMS
Friday, January 9, 2009
Today however, tattoos have risen above the underworld and become fashionable amongst ordinary people, although I suspect they still has a slightly 'naughty' air, a hint of danger or rebelliousness about them, and perhaps this is a part of its attraction to some people. As a fashion statement I can't see much difference between having a tattoo and wearing lipstick, makeup or earrings - except for one thing. Tattoos are difficulty and irksome to remove. The Buddha said, 'I know nothing that changes as quickly as the mind' (A.I,8). Therefore, before deciding to have a tattoo it might be good to consider these words. You may think it looks fashionable and 'cool' now, but what will you think ten years time? The fact that there is a thriving tattoo removal business suggests that many who had them before want to get rid of them now.
The picture is a 19th century photo of a tattooed Burmese boy. He has the face of an angel but the sword a bandit.
Thursday, January 8, 2009
Wednesday, January 7, 2009
More On Hair
Tuesday, January 6, 2009
The Buddha was not ‘into’ hair. He asked his monks and nuns to shave their hair every two months or when it was two finger-breadth long (Vin.II,207). Nuns were expected to shave their pubic hair which apparently all respectable women did (Vin.III,260). Monks were also asked to cut the hair in their noses if it got too long (Vin.II,134). Statues of the Buddha always show him with hair but of course he shaved his head like all other monks.
We have quite a lot of information about the hair styles of the time and this is supplemented by archaeological evidence. Certain ascetics wore jatas, what we call dreadlocks, i.e. the hair was matted into long braids and then allowed to either hang down or be tied together into various shapes. When the braids were tied into a bun on the top of the head it was called jatanduva (S.I,117). Centuries later Siva and Avalokitesvara were always depicted with their hair like this. Brahman men probably shaved their heads except for a small part at the back which was left to keep growing, just as they still do. Topknots or buns on the back or top of the head were also popular. Another type of topknot was the culaka. Boys would wear five of these (Ja.V,250) and women would sometimes have a jeweled diadem attached to theirs (Ja.I,65). Sikhabandha seems to have meant twisting long hair and a long cloth together and then tying it around the head into a turban (D.I,7). Women favored parting their hair in the middle (dvedhasira vibhatta) as they still do, wearing plats (veni, Ja.II,185) and applying sandal oil to their hair both to perfume it and make it glisten (Ja.V,156). The high-class prostitute Ambapali used to wear her hair glossy-black, curled at the ends, with flowers in it, well-parted with a comb, decorated with gold ornaments and adorned with plats (Thi.252-5). When Nanda left to become a monk, he looked back and saw his girlfriend with her ‘hair half combed’ (upaddhullikhitehi kesehi), an image that later he couldn’t get out of his mind (Ud.22). Perhaps it was something like in those shampoo ads where you see the woman’s hair blowing in the wind.
Bees’ wax was applied to slick the hair down (Vin.II,207) and later Indian works mention that the sap of the banyan tree was used as a sort of hair gel. Men trimmed their beards, grew them long, grew goatees (golomikam karapenti), and shaped them into four ends. They would sometimes shave shapes into the hair on their chest and abdomen or even have all their body hair removed (Vin.II,134). There were hairdressers (kappaka) and barbers (nahapita) to do all his coffering and the second of these usually doubled as bath attendants and masseurs. Just as today, both professions attracted homosexuals, as the Kama Sutra makes clear. The barber’s equipment (khurabandana) would include a razor (khura), scissors (kattarika), tweezers (sandasa), comb (koccha) and mirror (dasa).
The two pictures below, both of sculptures from Bharhut (150-100 BCE) throw more light on ancient Indian hairstyles. In the first the two women with their backs to the viewer showing their hair platted into numerous braids and then all of them tied into a single knot. The bottom picture shows a man arranging his turban (and hair?).
Monday, January 5, 2009
Comments On Euthanasia
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 http://www.buddhismatoz.com/ and have a look at 'Determinism' and 'Sickness and Health.' See also my post of 24, 10, 2008.
Sunday, January 4, 2009
Just to sum up the main points I made or tried to make -
From the perspective of Buddhism, what gives any behavior its ethical quality is primarily the intention (cetana) behind it and also the effect it will have on oneself and the other.
Under most circumstances, killing is morally wrong because it requires strongly negative intentions on the part of the killer and it goes so much against the victim most cherished desires, thus causing great terror, distress, etc. and such suffering is intrinsically evil.
Killing oneself in order to save the lives of others could be motivated by compassion and thus not have negative vipaka.
If killing oneself could be done out of positive intentions it is conceivable that killing another (at their request and to save them from great pain) could be done with the same or similar intentions.
This last point is reinforced by the universalizability principle – applying to others one’s own wishes. I would not like to spend my last days suffering great pain so I will (when requested to do so) relieve the pain of someone in that position.
The theistic faiths’ objection to any type of euthanasia is based on the myth of a life-giving, life-taking deity. Speaking with Buddhists on this issue, it seems that their objections to it (when they do object to it and by no means all do) are derived from the idea that killing is wrong because it is wrong in itself, it is intrinsically wrong. But my understanding is that this is not what the Buddha taught. For example to unintentionally and unknowingly kill something has no kammic consequences (vipaka) because it is not intentional. It is intention that makes an act moral or immoral. It is this point that needs to be kept in mind when thinking about euthanasia. I am undecided on the pros and cons of euthanasia but I do think the issue is much more complex and nuanced that the usual ‘it’s wrong’ stance. What do you think?
Saturday, January 3, 2009
It should be noted that in only one of the 548 Pali Jatakas does the Bodhisattva give his life for someone else. However, the Buddha does say (approvingly) that a friend may be devoted to another enough to give his or her life for them (D.II,187) more evidence that killing, in this case killing oneself, need not always be negative. Incidentally, this same point is made in the Bible; 'No greater love has he than that he give his life for his friend.' How does this square with Archbishop Chia's idea of 'false compassion'?
Now, to return to the question of euthanasia - could someone kill themselves or asked to be killed and do so without negative intentions? Let's say that a woman has terminal liver cancer, she has been in terrible pain for the last month and it gets worst every day, the stench coming from her body is sickning, her veins have collapsed so that the nurses have to stab her six or seven times with the needle before they can administer morphine and the doctor has said that she has a week, perhaps two or three left. Lets say she decides she has endured enough and asks the doctor to (1) give her a lethal dose of morphine or (2) give her an injection containing a lethal done of morphine so she can administer it herself. What would be going through her mind at this time? The dominant ones would probably be (a) resentment and fear of the present pain, and others would be (b) desire to avoid the future pain, (c) revolution with the body. Now I maintain that a and b would have to be classed as kammicly negative but also that they will both continue and almost certainly increase if this patient decides not to end her life. As for c, it is exactly this outlook that the Buddha hoped to evoke when he encouraged his disciples to do the meditation on the unpleasant aspects of the body. So while a terminal patient who desires to end their life may have some negative intentions (and thus some negative vipaka) they are likely to have them anyway. Perhaps a highly developed meditator may be able to free themselves from such thoughts and intentions, but not the average person. And if the care-giver decided to leave a lethal injection besides her bed so that she can administer it to herself, what could their intentions be? Respect for the patients wishes, sympathy and compassion, desire to see them free from pain? Quite possible.
Friday, January 2, 2009
As a Buddhist, I have a few problems with this perspective. All monotheistic religions, the Catholic Church and most Protestant churches, have long upheld capital punishment, which seems to contradict the idea that only the deity has the right to take a life. A friend who knows the Bible much better than I informs me that there are 87 offences mentioned in the Bible which God says a person can and should be executed for, some of them extraordinarily minor. One could also ask this question. If it is acceptable to prevent life coming into being (using birth control), to artificially prolong life (using life-support machines), to require people to endanger their lives and take the lives of others (sending soldiers into battle), then why is it wrong to shorten life? It seems that the reproach 'Your playing God' is only used when the question of euthanasia comes up. I find this contradictory.
There is another aspect to the mythological argument that could be examined. According to Christian mythology Jesus gave his life for others. He could have avoided this fate but he willingly chose to be tortured and killed so that his death would allow other to be saved. Many early Christians likewise chose to be killed when it could easily been avoided by simply bowing to an image of the emperor or a non-existent god. Such people were lauded as martyrs and held up as examples. Now there is a difference between courting death or willingly allowing oneself to be killed when there is an alternative, and killing someone else. But there is a similarity between courting death or willingly allowing oneself to be killed and asking to be killed, as in the case of a terminally ill patient. For reasons that are not clear to me the self-killing of martyrs and of Jesus are acceptable but euthanasia and assisted suicide are not.
And of course the other problem with the mythological argument is that not everyone believes in God and even some who do, consider euthanasia to be justifiable. Biblical teachings can and are interpreted in many very different ways. The monotheistic faiths should of course have the right to instruct their followers in what they believe to be moral and immoral, and the followers should have the right to decide for themselves or for their loved ones concerning the issue of euthanasia. But should the monotheistic faiths impose their views on everyone else and should their point of view be the main one taken into account? I do not think they should.
In an article in the Straits Times (24,12,2008), Jennifer Yeo and Madan Mohan highlight the possible dangers of euthanasia and argue against changing the law in Singapore. This article is thoughtfully written and carefully argued - until the last few lines. After mentioning that the late Pope John Paul II followed the example of Jesus by dying in pain and without trying to avoid it, the authors conclude by saying, 'It is at this point, as we enter the spiritual and metaphysical realm, that all debate on euthanasia must stop.' This statement highlights better than I ever could another problem with the God-centered perspective. For the believer, once God has spoken he or she must suspend all debate, inquiry and judgment. It should be of concern that people who think like this have such influence in deciding issues of importance to the general community and in a secular society like Singapore.
Thursday, January 1, 2009
I will use the word euthanasia here to mean intentionally killing a terminally ill patient by performing or withholding medical procedures. Euthanasia can be either active, e.g. administering a lethal injection, or passive, e.g. no longer feeding an unconscious patient. It can also be either voluntary, e.g. requested by the patient, or non-voluntary, e.g. where the patient is unconscious and a legally competent person makes the decision. Thus there are four types of euthanasia – active voluntary (AVE), passive voluntary (PVE), active non-voluntary (ANE) and passive non-voluntary (PNE). There is also what is now called voluntary suicide (VS), where the care-giver provides the patient with the means of killing himself or herself but has no involvement beyond that.
There are three main arguments in favour of euthanasia -
The Compassion Argument. If someone is in extreme pain and going to die soon anyway, or if they are brain dead, it is compassionate to both them and their family to end their life.
The Choice Argument. Our life is our own and no one has the right to tell us what to do with it if we are not interfering with the welfare of others. If I choose to end my life I should have the right to do so.
The Economic Argument. The cost of keeping terminally ill patients or brain dead patients alive for as long as possible is driving up the health care costs for those who are only curably ill.
To my mind the first of these arguments is the strongest and the last one the weakest.
The Moral Argument. Killing for any reasons is wrong. It is just another type of murder.
The Unprofessional Argument. The whole rationale of the medical profession for centuries has been and is to enhance and preserve life. In asking or allowing doctors or nurses to kill patients we are compromising the most fundamental ideal of the medical profession.
The 'How Can We Know?' Argument. We cannot know for sure that a terminal patient is going to die as quickly as the doctors predict. Doctors are sometimes wrong. We cannot know for sure that a brain dead or long-term unconscious patient is going to remain in that state. They sometimes suddenly wake up. When a terminal patient asked to have their life ended we cannot know for sure that they are making a truly free choice. Perhaps they feel guilty that their medical expenses are becoming a burden for their family.
The Slippery Slope Argument. If we allow euthanasia, where will it stop? Then there might be calls to kill the elderly or physically and mentally disabled people.
The Mythological Argument. Life was created by God and is therefore sacred and no one has the right to take it except God.
I have arranges these arguments from most to least valid. The last two are equally unconvincing in my mind.
Is there anything in the Buddha's Dhamma that could help come to some conclusion on the admittedly very complex issue of euthanasia? The usual Buddhist argument used in the euthanasia debate is that it is always negative to take a life - full stop. One text that is often used in such discussions is this one from the Vinaya which seems to directly address the question of euthanasia. 'Should any monk (or nun) intentionally deprive a human being of life, or search for a killer for them, or praise the advantages of death, or incite them to die saying, "What use is this wretched and miserable life to you? Death would be better for you than life", or with a similar idea, a similar purpose in mind, should in various ways praise the advantages of death or incite them to die, he also is excommunicated and no longer within the monastic community' (Vin.III,71-2). However, seen within its context, I feel that this text does not really contribute much to the euthanasia debate. Firstly, the origin story of this rule tells us that some monks encouraged a sick man to kill himself so that they could get up to mischief with his wife (Good God! That’s what some of the recruits to the Sangha were like then). Secondly, there is no suggestion that the man was terminally ill, that he had expressed the desire to end his life and the monks intentions in getting him to do so were clearly negative and without concern for the sick man. Thirdly, there are several passages in the Vinaya that stipulate clearly what a monastic's role is and making it clear that monks and nuns should stick to that role and not stray into other roles. So the question of counseling a patient on the pros and cons of euthanasia or any medical questions is not a monastic's job and he or she should have nothing to do with it. But what about doctors, care-givers, terminally ill patients and their loved ones who are not monks or nuns? I will continue this discussion tomorrow.