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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Use of overstimulation in meditation

In many ways, music is the opposite of a meditative state of mind — it invokes strong emotion very energetically, and packages emotion in a way that makes it easy for the brain to repeat over and over like an addiction or obsession. When music is heard in a quiet way, it becomes a subtle thought or feeling, which can be difficult to notice amidst the other noises of daily life, so is difficult to mindfully get rid of. However, heard in a loud way, its crassness makes what it is trying to do to the mind more obvious and easier for the mind to reject and be peaceful.

As art forms go, I have the most attachment to music, so this approach has worked well to help me get songs unstuck from my head. If someone was more attached to visual arts (fashion, painting, sculpture, etc.) or cooking, I imagine they might find similar mental relief by briefly exposing themselves to obviously crass, strong, etc. examples of their art, so that their minds might easily reject those things and find peacefulness.

Mindfulness exercise: Don’t scratch

One of the simplest, and quite difficult, mindfulness exercises I have seen bhikkhus recommend is not to scratch when you have an itch. Most itches go away on their own in a minute or two. If it’s caused by something more persistent, like a bacterial or fungal infection, scratching can worsen or spread the infection, and might wipe away any medicated cream/ointment you may be using. Of course, you still might want to look at the itch, in case it’s caused by something like heavy sweat or an insect on your body, which perhaps you should remove.

Similarly about coughing… both otolaryngologist (ear, nose, and throat (ENT)) and internist doctors have told me that coughing is hard on the throat, and that it’s usually better to drink liquids to clear the throat.

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).

Buddhism is not nirvana

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.).

Negating negativity: thinking critically about critical thinking

In the name of “critical thinking,” I have noticed a tendency in the West for intellectuals to become not only reflective and deconstructive, but to frequently live in mentally aggressive/hostile, cynical, pessimistic, etc. states of mind. Although I would agree that being overly positive can bias one in various ways (e.g., to see only what you want to see and miss/ignore challenges, obstacles, etc.), being overly negative can bias one in opposite ways (e.g., to see only obstacles or challenges and miss/ignore what might be possible). So I think it is important to turn critical thinking against itself, and to be critical of becoming too negative of a person. To me, the main value of critical thinking is to acknowledge and let go of biases and assumptions, to become mentally detached and aware, to try to see and think clearly. Mental detachment is perhaps the primary activity/aspect of mindfulness meditation, as is awareness of vipassana meditation.

Anti-thought

Cramming your head full of knowledge or thinking as quickly as possible (i.e., becoming as robotically intelligent as possible), is not the same as mental development (e.g., practicing self-control, concentration, mindfulness/awareness, virtuous thoughts, etc.). Meditation (in Buddhism) means working to stop or to control thoughts and feelings, to become a better person.