About euthanasia

Even for (famously compassionate) Buddhists, euthanasia (killing someone or something to stop it from suffering) is a complicated topic. Here are the issues I have encountered when talking to Buddhists and reading Buddhist philosophies over the years:

  • Intentional killing is bad karma for the killer, breaks the first precept, etc. It could cause the killer to have an unpleasant future life(s). On the other hand, euthanasia is probably about as harmless of an act of intentional killing as is possible, because one is doing it mainly with the intention to avoid or stop suffering. On the other hand, the Abhidhamma (the philosophical section of the Buddhist canon) says that life is a series of instantaneous moments, which condition each other in a series. Any action takes many moments (e.g., killing or dying usually takes a few minutes), so it is probably possible for an action to create instances of both good and bad karmas in a complex mixture (i.e., one moment might be dominated by your compassion and another moment by your willingness to kill). Also, the last moments of one life conditions the first moments of the next life, so one should be in as peaceful or positive of a state of mind as possible when dying. (Side note: In Buddhism, there is no clear difference between humans and nonhumans. Humans have merely reached or evolved to a level of complexity where they are capable of complex thoughts and attaining enlightenment. Human mindstreams can supposedly be reborn in animal or other nonhuman bodies, if their mind is best suited to that kind of life. Unlike in the Abrahamic religions, there is no exception made for killing animals. Intentionally killing any sentient being is bad to some degree, and where exactly sentience begins is unclear.)
  • Life’s problems, including death, are considered to have been caused by that being’s karma (past intentional feelings/thoughts, words, and deeds), which conditioned that being to be born, and continues to condition everything that happens to them throughout their life. Everyone’s suffering is largely their own fault (the Buddha heavily emphasized the effects of karma, but later commentators also acknowledged the effects of the five niyama: genetics, the seasons, karma, that the mind is a stream of thought-moments, and the actions of powerful beings). The only way to stop making new karma is to meditate enough to become enlightened. As I understand, Buddhists think that it is no one else’s responsibility to stop another person or animal’s pain or suffering, though if someone wanted to ensure that they (themselves) continue to have nice rebirths, others’ suffering is an opportunity to behave generously, compassionately, etc. toward others, in order to accumulate merit for oneself. One is not abusing someone by not helping them through some natural situation, including illness or dying; their karma caused/conditioned that situation for them, and as karma is a natural law, it is an impartial, objective, just, etc. reaction to someone’s past action (i.e., nature has a built-in criminal justice system where people eventually automatically get exactly what they deserve). However, one must be careful about how one feels about others’ suffering. If one feels cruelly/sadistically happy that someone else is suffering, that is probably a negative karma for oneself. Neutral or peaceful karma leads to Nirvana or a middling/boring human life; positive, compassionate, loving, etc. karma leads to Heaven, wealth, beauty, etc.
  • Similarly, killing someone or something does not necessarily spare them/it from having to face its karma in a future life. However, Buddhists often believe that one could make merit for that being by doing good things and then transferring that merit to that being, to try to negate some of that being’s negative karma and spare it from suffering in the future. Without such an intervention, one must face one’s karma eventually.
  • Death and mortal pain offer important opportunities for the mind to watch the body fail. They provide important spiritual lessons, namely to clearly see the impermanence of life, that one should not become too attached to the body or one’s current lifestyle, and to see that a part of the mind (the “mindstream” or citta-santanaa) is separate from the body and survives death (though is not an immortal soul or spirit like in the Abrahamic religions).
  • Strong neurological drugs, like narcotic or opioid painkillers, the drugs used for anesthesia and euthanasia, intoxicants, etc. hinder or destroy one’s clarity of mind, making it difficult or impossible for what is left of the brain and body to clealy see what is happening, and maybe preventing the mindstream from knowing what to do, where to go, etc. for a good rebirth.

Instead, Buddhists usually advocate the following:

  • Offer palliative/comfort care to the terminally ill (mild painkillers that don’t disrupt mental clarity (like NSAIDs), a comfortable bed or chair, good food and liquids, help them to use the toilet and to bathe, etc.), and sit with them as they die (meditating, chanting, or praying with or over them; encouraging them; holding their hand; helping them stay calm and clear-headed; etc.). In the case of dying animals, I understand that it is difficult to communicate such things to them, and they may not have the cognitive ability or education to understand what is happening to them (interestingly, nature/God doesn’t seem to care about this). Nevertheless, I have seen how touching or holding an animal and making sympathetic or soothing sounds can be calming to them.
  • The Buddha initially recommended that people meditate on death, sitting in cemetaries, mortuaries, etc., watching bodies decay, and contemplating how one’s own body would eventually become like that. However, that was too depressing for some monks, so the Buddha switched to teaching breathing meditation (Pali: anapanasati), which is more mentally neutral. Some Buddhist monks encourage people to wait a few seconds before breathing in, to contemplate the feeling of breathlessness. I have also seen elderly people practice dying by stopping breathing for a minute, so that they might feel less traumatized when they actually die. And I have seen various animals encounter dead members of their own species, with various reactions: ants sometimes carry a dead ant back to the hive, and female dolphins and gorillas sometimes mourn (carry around, hold, contemplate, etc.) their own dead babies for days or weeks. I am not sure whether seeing a dead animal would help another animal of the same species learn to cope with death or would traumatize it. Like human children, animals do not seem to have as many socially learned filters, taboos, etc. about natural things (e.g., nudity, sex, and violence) as do adult humans.
  • If a person is in a coma, vegetative state, etc., I understand that Buddhists are encouraged to care for them in the hope that they might one day regain consciousness. The Buddha similarly encouraged healthy monks in a monastery to take care of sick monks. Caring compassionately and selflessly for others purifies one’s own mind, reduces one’s self delusion, and is good karma. If this continues for a long time, hopefully there will be some kind of government or other institutional facility and funds for the person’s long-term sustenance, so that their family is not burdened.
  • If a person is being kept barely alive by machines, I understand that Buddhists are encouraged to take care of them for a reasonable amount of time (the length of time is ambiguous) in the hope that they might recover and regain consciousness, but if they do not regain consciousness, to unplug the machines and let them die naturally in peaceful surroundings, with as much clarity of mind as possible.
  • In the case of stray animals, I understand that perhaps they should be neutered or spayed (if adequate veterinary facilities exist), and that they should either be allowed to roam freely or be taken in as pets, living off of people’s generosity. I have never seen an animal shelter in a Buddhist-majority country. The cacophony of stray dogs barking and howling at night can be quite loud in Buddhist-majority countries; people don’t like it, but they tolerate it. It is also considered wrong by some Buddhists to deprive an animal of its freedom by keeping it as a pet, though some wealthy Buddhists do have pets, including purebred animals. More common is that there are neighborhood or village animals that roam from house to house getting food, medicine, shelter, etc. from generous people or living as they wish in nature.

Heavy metal Buddhism

There is an interesting overlap in the US between dark countercultures (heavy metal, goth, etc.) and Buddhist ideas of emptiness, suffering, delusion/illusion, no-self or self-conquest, patisotagamin (going against the mainstream), meditating on death, introspection, etc. As when the Buddha replaced meditating on death with anapanasati (meditating on the breath), after a few monks became suicidal after meditating on death, I always hope that people who embrace the dark side of Buddhism don’t get lost by dwelling too much in dark becoming/karma, hellish rebirths, etc. It is important to stay in the middle of the Middle Way — neither pleasure nor pain. The Buddha used negativity only as a temporary technique to counter things like the delusion of self.

For example, I’m not sure if Kirk Hammett, their lead guitarist who I’ve read is a Buddhist, wrote all of these, but here are some very Buddhist-sounding lyrics from Metallica, from newer to older:

“All reflections look the same, in the shine of a midnight revolver” (“Just a Bullet Away”).

“How can I be lost, if I’ve got nowhere to go?
Search for seas of gold, how come it’s got so cold?
How can I be lost, in remembrance I relive?
And how can I blame you, when it’s me I can’t forgive” (“Unforgiven III”)?

“If I could have my wasted days back,
would I use them to get back on track?
Stop to warm at karma’s burning,
or look ahead but keep on turning.
Do I have the strength to know how I’ll go?
Can I find it inside to deal with what I shouldn’t know?
I’ve worn out always being afraid,
an endless stream of fear that I’ve made. …
My lifestyle (birth/death is pain) determines by death style,
a rising tide (life is pain / it’s all the same) that pushes to the other side. …
Keep searchin…” (“Frantic”).

“Then the unnamed feeling, it comes alive … it takes me away” (“Unnamed Feeling”).

“Can’t you help me purify you and I…” (“Purify”).

“Careful what you wish… careful what you say.
Careful what you wish, you may regret it.
Careful what you wish, you just might get it.
Then it all crashes down, you break your crown,
and you point your finger, but there’s no one around.
Just want one thing, just to play the king,
but the castle’s crumbled, and you’re left with just a name.
Where’s your crown, King Nothing” (“King Nothing”)?

The swarm of self

According to early-to-medieval Buddhism, as I understand, the self and (probably) world are like swarms/flocks of bees, birds, or fish: each particle more-or-less doing its part for some larger purpose with more-or-less thought, each particle itself a swarm of smaller particles — momentary configurations of some basic, common-to-everything, connected-but-separate flashes (not stable points) of energy, with the swarm’s complexity having slowly aggregated/evolved over billions of years. A feeling of a stable self emerges from the swarm, but it is an illusion. Swarms of food, water, air, thoughts from other people or objects, etc. are constantly affecting or replacing parts of oneself. These are several ways in which ancient Buddhism was/is similar to modern physics, biology, and complex adaptive system theories.

“All composite things are impermanent. Strive for liberation [from this state of existence] with diligence” (the Buddha’s final words, my translation from Pali).

Anatta is difficult to accept

Looking at the very ethnically, linguistically, nationally, and philosophically fractured state of Buddhist peoples around the world today, as well as at the continued popularity of later-Buddhism philosophies like Buddha-nature, it strikes me that, even (approximately) 2,560 years after the Buddha’s parinibbana, many people still have difficulty accepting the Buddha’s teaching of Anattā and letting go of attachment to self identities.