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.
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The freedom to be manipulative

Sex, drugs, and rock ‘n roll are all/each often used by companies and individuals to manipulate others. For example: people who society considers “attractive” (or the marketing companies that employ them) can use their bodies to entice, entrap, or shame others; intoxicated people usually cannot think as clearly as sober people; and music can encourage people to be in a certain mood. Whenever I see people wanting more (than equal) freedoms regarding sexuality, intoxicants, or music, in addition to their hedonism, I see people who might want to manipulate others.

Mature animals

What is so “adult” or “mature” about intoxication and violence (in all their many forms)? Why doesn’t growing up involve stopping behaving like an animal?

The subtlety of dukkha

Buddhist bhikkhu(ni)s sometimes make the point that suffering, which is an imprecise/incomplete translation of dukkha, is more subtle than just obvious things like sickness, a broken heart, and so forth. The word dukkha’s etymology comes from having a poorly fitting axle on a cart, resulting in a bumpy ride. Dukkha is the nuisance, irritation, struggle, wasted effort/energy/heat, friction, inefficiency, or broken-ness in everyday life, and everything in life involves at least some small amount of dukkha. Here are a few everyday things that people often take for granted as being easy or pleasurable, and how they involve at least some amount of dukkha.

  • Breathing or beating one’s heart requires work by the unconscious aspects of the brain and nervous system, as well as the work of the heart and lungs.
  • Maintaining consciousness requires absorbing and burning energy from food, absorbing and transporting oxygen and blood sugars, getting enough rest, etc. Brains burn a large amount of calories.
  • Sitting or standing upright places a strain on the heart, and causes people’s bones to compress/shrink a little everyday from the force exerted on them by gravity. Healthy bones repair themselves during the night, when the force of gravity is perpendicular to the body. When unhealthy or elderly people’s bones can’t repair themselves enough, such people gradually shrink.
  • Sex requires physical exertion comparable to climbing a flight of stairs, work by the various reproductive organs in the body, and immune and tissue-repair responses by the body.
  • Even very delicate desserts or drugs require bodily swallowing or inhaling, digesting, absorbing, reacting, filtering by the liver and/or kidneys, expulsion of the waste, etc.

My love, let’s go eat some dressed-up corpses, then get drug-addicted together

Food and sex are much less interesting, if you remove the dressed-up, very charged/evocative, taboo, and drug/addiction-like popular cultures that surround them. They are just bodily functions than can be pleasurable, painful, or neutral. The idea of “making love” through something that is addictive seems rather twisted to me, as is decorating or heavily seasoning food, which involves dressing up dead plants or animals.

Global moral decline

I see many trends in societies around the world towards greater indulgence, lasciviousness, crassness, and violence. Everyday clothing is slowly tending towards nudity (e.g., women’s leggings being worn as pants), even for people in monogamous relationships/marriages. Mass media is slowly including more cursing, sex, violence, lavish materialism, and dysfunctional families — do you remember when Bart Simpson’s saying “I’m Bart Simpson, who the hell are you?” was considered edgy? Cable TV channels and blockbuster films often insert f-bombs, nudity, and gore into shows for no reason that serves the story. Hardcore porn sites are among the most popular on the Web, and are running softer things like Playboy out of the porn business. Governments are slowly legalizing stronger intoxicants (e.g., pot). Beautiful natural places are turning into high-traffic theme parks to such an extent that some countries are having to shut down tropical islands to let them recover. Child-sex tourism and human trafficking, along with indentured servitude and slavery, are becoming more common. Religions are having to relax their rules or practices, or risk losing membership. People increasingly waste food or over-eat to the point of obesity and diabetes, quickly buy and throw away non-biodegradable plastics, drive giant cars, live in giant houses, use inorganic pesticides and rearrange genetics for higher crop yields without regard for the long-term consequences… and on and on.

Before the industrialization of the 1800s, this planet was able to sustain up to a few hundred million humans for many thousands of years. Now, it has over 7.4 billion, and is rising with no end/control in sight.

Experiment idea: monks vs. microscopes

In my experience, Buddhist monks often say that modern externalities (technologies, drugs, etc.) are unnecessary for seeing absolute reality and for healing or improving oneself, that they can have negative side-effects, and that meditation contains natural safeguards (e.g., progress in meditation depends on one becoming increasingly loving/harmless and sober of mind and body, and meditators can maintain control of themselves throughout the process) which technologies and drugs lack. They also sometimes claim that the most advanced meditation masters can see atomic-scale phenomena directly with their minds in jhana meditation. Wouldn’t it be interesting, and possibly validating of meditation for billions of non-Buddhists around the world, to find a rigorous way to compare what such people can see vs. what microscopes can see?

For example, have a CPU manufacturer produce metal plates with microscopic pictures etched onto them at scales from millimeter to nanometer. Deliver highly reputable meditation masters to an isolated facility, so they can’t be accused of cheating. Perhaps they should make the trip secretly, so there is no humiliation if they fail. In a controlled environment, give them the plates, without telling them what pictures they should see, and give them as much time and comfort as they need. Have them draw or describe (on record) whatever they could see, and then let them see the images for themselves with their eyes in a microscope, so that they know they were not deceived, before taking them home. Incentives for their participation might be that, the smaller of pictures they can accurately see, the more money will be donated to their home monastery or village, and the more positive international publicity and funding there could be for their branch of Buddhism. If any masters are found to be reliably capable of competing with powerful microscopes, perhaps the experiments could be demonstrated more publicly.