Most Buddhists-by-birth I have met, if they practice at all, focus on gaining merit to have a pleasant future life. Very few meditate, renounce the world, etc., in order to attain nirvana.
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.
The pop-cultural, public “sugary coating” of Buddhism is so flashy (elaborate statues, chants, jewelry, bright orange robes, etc.) that it’s easy to forget that one of the fetters people must abandon in order to be stream-enterers is attachment to rites and rituals.
Though such things can serve to get people in a religious/spiritual mood, or to draw people to Buddhism, people can become overly attached to them, and such things come with negative costs. For example, one usually must kill flowers and fruit to put them on an altar, the herbs and spices in incense come from plants that must be killed, burning incense and candles pollutes the air and can hurt people’s lungs, burning candles can start larger fires, and monks chanting over loudspeakers for hours can intrude upon the peaceful silence of a space.
Buddhism is a worldly phenomenon that points to nirvana; it itself isn’t nirvana. Though doing meritorious rites and rituals might give one good karma for a better rebirth, or help one communicate with devas, if people actually want nirvana, as I understand, they shouldn’t neglect the practices that make a person more like the Buddha (e.g., renouncing worldly things, being virtuous, mindful, calm, aware, kind, compassionate, etc.).
Developing virtues/merits for selfish reasons (e.g., for the karmic, physical, or social benefits) still contains a degree of unvirtuousness (i.e., a delusion of self). In my opinion, the point of being virtuous (and of Buddhism in general) is to completely cleanse this samsaric mind-body complex of whatever is obstructing it from becoming nirvanic, not to seek a nice future/rebirth in samsara.
Heaven might be so luxurious and pleasurable that beings there never think about nirvana or about making more merit, and, according to the seed-and-fruit concept from early Buddhism (i.e., that one instance of karma causes/conditions only one outcome), once the merit that is supporting a heavenly life runs out, one’s next rebirth may not be heavenly.
Q: As you understand it, from an early/Theravada Buddhist perspective, what is karma (Pali: kamma) and how does it work?
A: First, some history and definitions.
The Buddha’s apparent innovation on the Vedic concept of karma was that it is not only physical action/deeds, but it begins with the most basic mental action possible. “Intention, I tell you, is kamma. Intending, one does kamma by way of body, speech, & intellect” (AN, 6.63). This is in line with Buddhism’s very phenomenological character. “Phenomena [i.e., everything one experiences] are preceded by the heart, ruled by the heart, made of the heart” (Dhammapada 1, Thanissaro Bhikkhu’s translation). “Heart,” in that famous sentence, is the Pali word “mano,” which is “the intellectual functioning of consciousness, while viñnāṇa represents the field of sense and sense — reaction (“perception”), and citta the subjective aspect of consciousness … it [mano] ranges as the 6th sense in the classification of the senses and their respective spheres (the āyatanāni or relations of subject and object…). These are: (1) cakkhu (eye) which deals with the sight of form (rūpa); (2) sota (ear) … (6) mano, with the sensing (viññāya) of rational objects or cognisables (dhamma). Thus it is the sensus communis (Mrs. Rh. D. Buddh. Psych. 140, 163) which recognises the world as a “mundus sensibilis” (dhamma). Both sides are an inseparable unity: the mind fits the world as the eye fits the light, or in other words: mano is the counterpart of dhammā, the subjective dh. Dhamma in this sense is the rationality or lawfulness of the Universe (see dhamma B. 1), Cosmic Order, Natural Law. It may even be taken quite generally as the “empirical. world” … i. e. the material world), as the world of “things,” of phenomena in general without specification as regards sound, sight, smell, etc. — Dhamma as counterpart of mano is rather an abstract (pluralistic) representation of the world, i. e. the phenomena as such with a certain inherent rationality; manas is the receiver of these phenomena in their abstract meaning, it is the abstract sense, so to speak. … As regards the relation of manas to citta, it may be stated, that citta is more substantial (as indicated by translation “heart”), more elemental as the seat of emotion, whereas manas is the finer element, a subtler feeling or thinking as such. … In the more popular opinion and general phraseology however manas is almost synonymous with citta as opposed to body…. So in the triad “thought (i. e. intention) speech and action” manas interchanges with citta” (from the Pali Text Society’s Pali dictionary’s definition of mano/manas).
In the centuries following the Second Buddhist Council in approximately 334 BCE, the Sarvāstivāda and Sautrāntika early Buddhist schools tried to reconcile the idea of karma with the idea that people’s minds and bodies are a continuum of momentary particles/atoms/energies (for more on humans’ so-called “mindstreams,” see my 2016-06-12 post), specifically how an intention in one moment could lead to an effect in another moment. “Sarvastivadins argued that there exists a dharma of “possession” (prapti), which functions with all karmic acts, so that each act or thought, though immediately passing away, creates the “possession” of that act in the continuum of instants we experience as a person. This possession itself is momentary, but continually reproduces a similar possession in the succeeding instant, even though the original act lies in the past. Through such continual regeneration, the act is “possessed” until the actualization of the result” (Hirota, 2004; p. 5100). The Sautrāntika school developed the metaphor of karmic seeds (bija) and fruits (phala), or perfuming, to indicate that intentions in one moment leave some kind of impression on future moments, so that the seed eventually comes to fruition. Later Mahayana schools developed yet more elaborate ideas, such as the Yogācāra school’s concept of a store-house consciousness (Sanskrit: ālayavijñāna).
However it happens, the idea is that, in each moment, the self-other world we experience is an automatic/unconscious result of karmic seeds that our more-or-less conscious intentions planted in the past. In every moment, we are presented with these fruits, and we plant new seeds for future becoming. It is a one-to-one process; one intention plants one seed, which leads to one fruit, but people continuously plant karmic seeds. Hence, what we experience in the present is heavily biased by the intentions we have made in the past. For example, those who often cultivated anger in the past might now perceive a more hostile world than really exists.
There also is a debate about to what degree a person’s feelings about their body and surroundings are karmic fruits, and to what degree there might be other forces (Pali: niyama) at play, such as a natural environment, genetics, etc. Even if there are other forces at play, there also is an argument that the contents of one’s mindstream cause one automatically to seek rebirth in a certain place, with certain parents, etc. And there are arguments that mindstreams might be limited in how far they can (or are likely to) travel between lives, which might constrain their options, and that it is unclear how the process of unconsciously or automatically matching minds with bodies occurs (e.g., does it happen according to physical laws, or can the mind between lives (called a gandhabba) see/know something about its options?). This leads some Buddhists to avoid traveling to places where they would not want to be reborn.
Q: Must one always only have faith in karma, or can one ever see it directly?
A: Supposedly one can see it directly, beginning at the fourth level of jhana. As I understand, the Buddha asked people to have provisional faith/trust in only two things, before they attain enlightenment or a high level of meditation: that karma exists, and that the Buddha’s teachings and techniques can/might lead one to liberation.
Q: To what degree might the universe have a kind of built-in criminal justice system? What might that mean for police officers, court judges, soldiers, etc.? What about merit?
A: As a part of nature, karma is instantaneous and automatic, and the outcome is causally connected to the action that prompted it. How fair, or proportionate to the action, that outcome is seems unclear. Karmic fruits arise as they can, given the sensory input that the mind receives. It is hard to say whether the heavenly or hellish world that someone might perceive as a result of some intention/action would be as vivid or affecting as the original action. It might be possible that a karmic seed lays dormant for a very long time, such that, when it comes to fruition, the circumstances hardly resemble the original circumstances.
Karma probably is specific to individuals; it probably can’t be deferred up a chain of command. If one person even wishes to harm or punish another, that individual must live with the karmic fruit of that intention/action. In this way, a soldier who kills to defend their country, or a judge who punishes people in order to protect society, might make a kind of personal karmic sacrifice — accepting an unpleasant future for themselves, in order to serve what they think is a greater good.
The concept of merit — that positive karma can be accumulated, can counteract negative karma, or that positive karma can be transferred to other people — is popular in Asia. Like with empty vs. emptiness, there appears to have been a noun-ification of its meaning from earlier to later Buddhism, where it initially seems to have meant just the positive effects on a person of living a virtuous life, but it came to mean a kind of spiritual/karmic currency. My understanding of the early Buddhist notion of karma is that it is momentary, it is tied to an individual’s mind, and it just is what it is (i.e., it itself is not good or bad, positive or negative). For example, a soldier who is willing to kill because they love their country can plant karmic seeds of both the willingness to kill and the love for their country in two separate, but perhaps closely combined, moments. It is unclear to me whether one seed can affect another seed, and it seems unlikely to me that people could share seeds.
Q: If karma is intention, what might that imply about the entertainments (music, TV, movies, etc.) that people watch? For example, would Buddhism say that listening to violent music, or playing violent video games, can cause physical violence?
A: The Buddha warned people about becoming too involved in the strong emotions one often finds in entertainments. “Any beings who are not devoid of passion [or aversion or delusion] to begin with, who are bound by the bond of passion [or aversion or delusion], focus with even more passion [or aversion or delusion] on things inspiring passion [or aversion or delusion] presented by an actor on stage in the midst of a festival. … Thus the actor — himself intoxicated & heedless, having made others intoxicated & heedless — with the breakup of the body, after death, is reborn in what is called the hell of laughter. But if he holds such a view as this: ‘When an actor on the stage, in the midst of a festival, makes people laugh & gives them delight with his imitation of reality, then with the breakup of the body, after death, he is reborn in the company of the laughing devas,’ that is his wrong view. Now, there are two destinations for a person with wrong view, I tell you: either hell or the animal womb” (SN 42.2).
One’s intentions set the stage for how one will experience the future. Listening to a lot of violent music may not actually cause one to use harsh language, to join a gang, or to do physical violence, but it sets the tone of one’s future states of mind, so that using harsh language and making violent choices will seem more natural, correct, necessary, not so bad, etc. in the future. Similar things are true for any kind of media, from greedy, lustful, or fearful media to loving, peaceful, etc. media. As I understand the Buddhist notion of karma, how one keeps one’s mind in the present sets the stage for how one will experience the future.
Q: Can karmic seeds be destroyed before they come to fruition?
A: Enlightened people supposedly can see how to destroy karmic seeds, and can choose not to make any new seeds, so that they will not be reborn again into samsara. They supposedly can do this either suddenly or gradually: they can choose to cut their karmic/mental stream completely and immediately stop existing in samsara (i.e., through force of will, stop their hearts from beating, their brains from even unconsciously thinking, etc.), or they taper off the stream slowly, perhaps in order to stay around awhile to teach or to say goodbye to people in samsara. Supposedly, only fully enlightened people can commit suicide without negative consequences, because only they can completely stop their karma/mindstream.
Q: Is it fair that enlightened people can destroy their karma? Does that mean that they are not held accountable for negative intentions/actions they did in the past?
A: Only a very pure mind — free of anger/hatred, greed/lust, selfishness, etc. — can attain the meditative states necessary to attain enlightenment. The karma that is left in such a mind probably is quite minimal and harmless, such as attachment to the body and to family and friends.
Q: Might the orderliness, fairness, morality, etc. of the law/system of karma suggest that it was designed by some being outside of samsara (e.g., a non-interactive God)?
A: Maybe. The beginnings and boundaries of space, time, and life as we know them are among the 14 unanswered questions. Whether the Buddha did not know the answers to those questions (e.g., how could even a very old mind that arose in this universe know what came before this universe?), or whether he merely thought they were not worth spending one’s short human life pondering (e.g., see the Parable of the Poisoned Arrow), is unclear to me.