Hermeneutic circle

Just because you say, write, or do something doesn’t mean that others understand it in the same way that you do (called your authorial intent). “Understanding” means that two or more people’s worldviews (your worldview is all of your views about how yourself and the world/universe are organized and work), mental models (a mental model is how you imagine something in your mind), and intuitive feelings about something match, which often requires considerable back-and-forth communication or study about both people’s ideas, societies, cultures, past experiences, feelings, beliefs, etc. This process of negotiating a common understanding with a person, book, etc. using a back-and-forth process is called the hermeneutic circle.

Whenever you read or hear something important, try to learn about the author and understand their perspective. If you read things only from your own perspective, you will often misunderstand others.

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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.

Don’t let karmic fruits run your life

Thoughts and feelings that arise automatically just are what they are. What matters is what new thoughts, feelings, words, and deeds we choose to make or not make.

As I understand, a fruit or result of karma (Pali: phala) is any experience that arises automatically in a person. For example, if someone insults or attacks you, the fear, anger, etc. that most people automatically feel is a result of past karmic seeds (Pali: bija) you have planted in your mind by choosing to feel that way under similar circumstances. Karma is intention (or mental energy), like setting or preference or default about how your mind should react in the future. Buddhists think that every automatic human experience (sights, sounds, moods, cravings, habits, cognition, etc.) is a karmic fruit — complex results from many past choices. Unless one practices making intentions more consciously, it is very easy for the fruits of past karma to run one’s life, and to keep perpetuating themselves if you keep giving them mental energy. It’s like a song stuck in your head that never stops as long as you keep singing it.

So, in terms of personal development, one has two good options: either try to have a happier future by learning to create happier, healthier, etc. karmic seeds (i.e., the path to a pleasurable, heavenly life), or learn not to make new karmic seeds and to destroy the seeds that already exist in the mind (i.e., the path to a peaceful, nirvanic life). For instance, for a more heavenly life, if a person attacks you, practice feeling pity, sympathy, or empathy for them instead of fear or anger, try to understand why they are attacking you and how you can reach some compromise with them or how you can help them out of whatever problem is prompting them to attack you. The brahmaviharas/divine-attitudes (metta/loving-kindness, karuna/compassion, mudita/sympathetic-joy, and upekkha/equanimity) are supposedly the mental states of heavenly beings. For a more nirvanic life, if a person attacks you, practice remaining calm and cool-headed, and make no responses, either mentally or physically, like a statue — even if a statue is destroyed by an attack, it does not respond. Nirvanic beings supposedly do not make any actions in this world, no matter what happens here. Here is an example of a (comedic, over-the-top) nirvanic response from a Vietnamese Buddhist man in the film Good Morning, Vietnam. The context is that Robin Williams’ character was teaching a funny English class about cursing.

“[Adrian (Robin Williams):] Let’s try a very special situation.
Wilkie, somethin’ special, okay?
You go into a restaurant okay?
A waitress comes up to you. You’re, eh–
You’re wearing your best new suit.
She comes up, she spills soup
all over you, looks at you like…
“Eh, I’m sorry.
What are you gonna do about it,
asshole?” What do you say to her?
What would you say? They spilled
something on your pants. What would
they do? What would you do?
[Wilkie (the Vietnamese man):] I do nothing.
[Adrian:] Come on, Wilkie. It’s cursing class.
You’re gettin’ a little pissed off.
What would you do?
[Wilkie:] I just remain reticent.
[Adrian:] Okay, she goes in the kitchen, she gets
a knife, she starts stabbing you.
She’s stabbing you.
She’s putting forks in you.
She’s got spoons in your eyes, Wil.
They’re startin’ to cut you with knives.
They’re puttin’ spoons in your eyes.
What would you do, Wil?
– What would you do?
[Wilkie:] I’m waiting to die! [everyone laughs]”
(transcript from Script-o-rama).

Negligent karma

If karma is intention, how is it karmically pure to intentionally allow others to do your dirty work for you (e.g., to kill or be selfish to obtain your food or money, to kill people or steal things to defend your home or country, to kill germs or bugs in your home or office, to raise children so you don’t have to, etc.)? Aren’t you intentionally neglecting what is karmically best for the person who is serving you?

Similarly, even if someone didn’t intend to do a particular act of violence (e.g., to hit someone with their car), mustn’t there have been a intentional decision/willingness to create the circumstances that might give rise to that particular act of violence (e.g., to drive a car instead of taking another mode of transportation, to drive too fast, not to pay very close attention to the road, etc.)?

Some might argue that the act of generosity in serving another person cancels-out the impurity of the bad action, but the early Buddhist seed-and-fruit metaphor seems to say that each karmic seed bears one karmic fruit, meaning that both the bad deed and the good deed will bear separate fruits.

The Skill of Meditation

“As we meditate, we’re working on a skill, and the skill is to bring the mind to a state of stillness, with as much alertness and awareness as possible, because this skill lies at the basis of all other skills. If you want to be skillful in how you act, how you speak, how you think… you need to be aware of what you’re doing, and you have to be in the present moment, to watch your intentions, because your intentions shape everything” (Thanissaro Bhikkhu, “The Skill of Meditation“, 11/29/2016).

A Theravada view of abortion

Given the current US presidential debate environment (about sexism, abortion, etc.), here is my understanding of a Theravada Buddhist view of abortion, which does not seem to be represented by any candidate running for US president. This description will be skewed towards a Sri Lankan perspective, because I am most familiar with that.

“Monks, the descent of the embryo occurs with the union of three things. … when there is a union of the mother & father, the mother is in her season, and a gandhabba is present, then with this union of three things the descent of the embryo occurs” (MN 38). From Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s introduction to that sutta: “Usually in the Canon, the term gandhabba means a being on the lowest level of the celestial devas — devas who are often represented as obsessed with lust. However, the Commentary notes that gandhabba in this context means a being whose kamma enables it to take birth on that occasion, an interpretation supported by a discussion in MN 93” (ibid).

Therefore, perhaps the only way in which a fetus might not possess a gandhabba, and be just a physical shell/husk, is if the fetus dies for some reason during the course of pregnancy (e.g., from a congenital defect), such that the gandhabba leaves that body naturally and seeks a different body. If the fetus is not already dead, a gandhabba probably is still there, at any stage of pregnancy, and killing the fetal body that is supporting the gandhabba probably is the same as killing any living human (i.e., murder, if the killing is intentional, which might cause the killer to be reborn in some type of hell). This prompts a number of questions:

  • Should women have the right to choose abortion? Should any human have the right to choose to murder another human? If it comes down to a decision between saving the life of the mother or the life of the baby, who has a greater “right to life”? As I understand it, the law in Sri Lanka, which is a Theravada Buddhist-majority country, is that abortion is legal only if a medical doctor believes/certifies that abortion is necessary to save the life of the mother. Otherwise, the baby has a right to life.
  • What if doctors know that the baby will be severely handicapped and/or have a very difficult or painful life? As I understand it, the Buddhist view is that that is the baby’s karma — a natural result of its past intentions and actions. Wherever that mind is born, it must face its karma, so sparing it a life here and now would just send it somewhere else to suffer similarly.
  • Women did not consciously choose to be the child-bearers in our species. Is it fair to ask them to sacrifice themselves? As I understand it, women’s gandhabbas did unconsciously choose to be born as women, though it is questionable how much a gandhabba can know about the body it is choosing.
  • Is that sacrifice a kind of suicide or self-murder? Many parents (including fathers) love their children more than themselves, and would willingly sacrifice themselves to save their children (e.g., undertake risky travel to help their children, would jump in front of a bus or train to push their child to safety, etc.). Is it selfish of a mother not to be willing to sacrifice herself for her child? It seems to be a “damned if you, damned if you don’t” scenario (i.e., having to choose between killing a child or allowing oneself to die). Hell is not eternal in Buddhism, like it is in the Abrahamic religions, but, still, it is probably not somewhere one wants to go. There is a jataka story (a story about the Buddha’s past lives), where the Buddha, in a past life, before he was fully enlightened (so he could not avoid rebirth in hell) but when he was still quite spiritually accomplished, came upon a family of tigers that were starving. He went to the top of a nearby cliff and jumped off, sacrificing himself so that the family of tigers could have something to eat. He supposedly paid for that suicide with a rebirth in some kind of hell, but was willing to do it because of his great love for all living beings, who were not even his own immediate children.