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.

Beauty is not health

Though people often confuse/conflate them, beauty and health are not the same. It is entirely possible that a very beautiful person has some health problem (e.g., high cholesterol, osteoporosis, etc.) that gives them chronic or extreme pain, shortens their life, etc., which they hide from the world.

Being too thin can be as dangerous as being too fat

Several medical doctors over the years have told me that, though it is unhealthy to be very overweight or obese, it is a good idea to be a little overweight (i.e., on the high end of the healthy BMI range for your height), because if you ever become very sick and can’t eat for a week or two, your body will survive on whatever fat and muscle mass you have. They have also told me that being very thin can worsen osteoporosis, because it takes more bone strength to resist the pull of gravity on a heavier body, and the body automatically adjusts for this.

After having once asked a nutritionist and done my own research about how to healthfully maintain enough weight, here are the conclusions I reached:

  1. Protein hurts the heart the least, is easiest to burn off through exercise, and low-fat protein (e.g., from lean meats like chicken and fish, nuts, beans, etc.) is healthiest for the heart and arteries.
  2. The body needs a certain amount of fat, and unsaturated fat (e.g., from nuts, vegetable oils, soy milk, etc.) is usually healthier than saturated fat (e.g., from dairy, beef, or pork).
  3. In order to gain or maintain weight, one must have a surplus of calories. It’s usually easier to eat a lot, if one eats slowly or frequently, though this can be hard on the teeth.

Living with wild things

Here are several things I’ve learned over the years about living with animals and insects in rural areas:

Mosquitos:

  • Wear thick or loose-fitting clothing and tuck it into your shoes and belt if possible.
  • Mosquito nets, citronella oil, and catching and releasing (e.g., using a bowl and a piece of cardboard) the occasional mosquito that gets past your defenses are very effective, usually harmless to mosquitos, and more eco-friendly and possibly healthy than pesticidal sprays (e.g., DEET). Smoke might work, but also might harm your lungs and pollute the air.
  • Moving around, using fans, and swatting near mosquitos (but not killing them) are also effective ways to deter mosquitos.
  • Mosquitos that might carry dengue fever are usually small-to-medium sized and have lots of white spots, like this: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Aedes_aegypti.
  • Remaining motionless while a mosquito bites you might minimize the bite’s size and itchiness, but you still might get infected by any viruses it’s carrying (e.g., dengue, malaria, etc.). It’s better to avoid bites altogether.
  • To make a bite less itchy and possibly heal faster, puncture it with a sterilized pin or needle, and squeeze out the fluid inside, most of which comes from the mosquito’s stomach. Then dress it like a wound (soap and water, antibiotic ointment, petroleum jelly or bee’s wax, a bandage, etc.).
  • Mosquitos are diurnal animals (like rabbits and deer), meaning they are most awake around dawn and dusk, probably because that is when it’s hardest for humans and other animals to see them. So maximize your protection during those times.
  • Mosquitos breed in stagnant water, so put any cans, cups, or buckets stored outside upside down, and avoid stagnant ponds, wells, gutters, etc. Flush toilets daily.
  • Stay current on any relevant vaccines you’re comfortable taking (e.g., dengue, malaria, Japanese encephalitis, yellow fever, etc.). Their effectiveness, side effects, and prices vary.
  • Most insects die if put in the refrigerator (their metabolism slows, they become paralyzed, and they starve or freeze to death), but of course, I don’t recommend killing things. If you follow the first precept, be careful not to let bugs get into a refrigerator.

Flies, bees, wasps, etc.:

  • Mosquito nets work just as well for stopping most types of flying insects, not only mosquitos.
  • If you ever accidentally step on a wasp nest/hive, run like hell. Whereas bees can sting you only once per insect, wasps can sting repeatedly and can be deadly. Never intentionally hit a bee or wasp nest.

Spiders:

  • If bitten by a spider — especially if the bite is very red, has a dark center that looks like dead skin, or has streaks — get to a hospital quickly and bring either the spider or a picture of it with you if you can (so they know what type of anti-venom to give you).
  • In North America, I believe the black widow, brown recluse, and Chilean recluse spiders are the most dangerous.

Leeches:

  • They usually jump on one’s foot or ankle when walking through/near tall grass or water.
  • It can be better to let them jump on your bare feet or ankles than to wear a lot of clothes, because they can climb up clothes until they reach more sensitive skin (e.g., between the legs).
  • If bitten, remove it with your hands, throw it a good distance away, and sanitize the area with soap and water, antibiotic ointment, a bandage, etc. If it doesn’t heal quickly, see a doctor.

Cats, dogs, rats, mice, cockroaches, geckos, & ants:

  • usually just go wherever food and fresh water is. If you keep food covered with pots, in sealed containers that these animals can’t chew through, or in the refrigerator, keep countertops clean, and fix leaky water pipes, they usually stay away.
  • Ants swarm for awhile in the area where they are laying eggs, but they usually go elsewhere in a day or two after the eggs have hatched.

Snakes:

  • Snakes don’t have ears, but they can feel you coming, if you stomp on the ground. When walking through high grasses, always stomp.
  • Snakes often blend in well with their surroundings, so walk slowly and scan the ground 5-10 feet ahead. Cold-blooded animals like to lie in the sun to warm up, so be careful of sunny areas and exposed rocks.
  • If you encounter a snake that isn’t moving, keep your eyes on it and slowly back away. If it moves toward you, run.
  • Snakes sometimes come through plumbing pipes, especially in rural areas. If using a toilet (Asian or Western) in a rural area, either make sure it has a screen for preventing things from coming up out of the drain pipe, or don’t sit/squat very low over it and keep your eye on the drain while using it.
  • If you are ever held by a large constrictor-type snake, don’t exhale all the way, because it will tighten its grip. You have to get free (e.g., by hitting its head, breaking its back, biting it, etc.) before you pass out.
  • If you are ever bitten by a snake, get to a hospital as quickly as possible, and bring the snake or take a picture of it if you can (so they know what type of anti-venom to use).

Rabid animals (bats, dogs, raccoons, etc.):

  • I believe there does exist a vaccine for rabies (taken before getting bitten), but if bitten, one still must rush to a hospital for an immunoglobulin shot.

Primates and other large animals:

  • As a primate yourself, and because you can’t reason with them, meeting a monkey or ape in the woods basically becomes a battle of who is the bigger, stronger primate. Running away often isn’t an option, because they can often chase you and climb trees much better than humans.
  • If you’re bigger than them, try stomping, shouting, growling, waving a stick around, or throwing large rocks.
  • If you can tell that they want a certain possession of yours (e.g., a bag with food in it), either give them what they want or, after escaping, hide it in another bag.
  • If you’re the smaller one (e.g., great apes can be 300+ pounds), I’ve heard ape researchers say that it’s safest to be very submissive and let the ape do whatever it wants to you, because it could easily kill you if you offend it. There should be minimal risk of rape from apes, because they have much smaller genitals than humans, they can’t get human women pregnant (because they’re a different species than we are), and they usually quickly lose interest in humans (because we don’t look much like them).
  • The same approach of being calm and submissive, fighting only if/as necessary, and carefully escaping as soon as you have an opportunity, is usually best for interacting with large animals.

Valuing a quiet mind and minimalistic lifestyle

The easiest way that I find to quiet the mind is to want to have a quiet mind, to value the ease and openness of it, and to choose to make only as few thoughts and feelings as necessary. Making thoughts and feelings, running around doing things, etc. requires energy and struggle. To feel less tired and stressed, minimize the things you have to consider or make/do; consider and do things more reluctantly. Having a quiet mind also allows one to see more details in the world, in a less filtered way.

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.

10 tenets of global citizenship

As a social scientist, here are 10 things that I think should be basic tenets of global citizenship:

  1. Physical requisites: either a universal income stipend or a safe-enough job, on which one is periodically tested and found to be capable of performing, which provides enough income for access to the following: clean air and water, adequate and medically appropriate food, adequate shelter for one’s geographical location, basic privacy and security in one’s home, basic hygiene products (soap, toothpaste, etc.), basic healthcare services, and a basic portable computer or smartphone with unlimited (but possibly slow) Internet service
  2. Mental requisites: universal access to the following basic mental requisites: a high school-level education, free online higher education courses, and merit-based scholarships for in-person higher education
  3. Freedom of identity, with respect: the freedom of all people to affiliate themselves with and/or to practice any identity (cultural, ethnic, gender, religious, etc.) and/or language, as long as their behaviors are respectful of others, including of the majority culture in a given region
  4. Preservation and sustainability: preserving and protecting adequate natural habitats for the world’s non-human species, and seeking to counteract every environmentally destructive thing that one does, in order to live with no overall environmental footprint
  5. Affordable global transit: the ability to travel between any major city on Earth using only low-cost (possibly slow) public transit systems
  6. Sex and/or marriage by consent: that sex and/or marriage should involve mutual, written consent; that any two people over 18 years old can legally have sex or marry; and that any person who is in a sexual or marriage relationship can end their participation in the relationship for any reason
  7. One lingua franca: online collaboration in producing a single, international auxiliary language by and for all of humanity, and a working knowledge of its use
  8. Generosity: individuals with assets or savings worth more than USD $1 million, or corporations with assets or savings worth more than USD $1 billion, should donate the excess to underfunded social or environmental causes of their choosing.
  9. Universal arbitration: any dispute between people in any nation may be settled through low-cost, legally binding arbitration by an international consortium of arbitrators who follow common guidelines.
  10. Standards based on international consensus, in order to foster communication and ease travel: measurements, date and time formats, telephone number formats, electricity plugs and voltages, driving conventions and rules, college entrance exams, what to include (and how things are presented) in high school textbooks, business and financial conventions, etc. should be determined through national participation in international consensus organizations, like the ISO.