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.
Social scientists often celebrate the diversity of cultures and languages in the world, because taken overall/comparatively, this diversity resists the negative aspects of globalization (e.g., corporate conglomeration and monopolization, the colonialistic imposition of wealthier or larger cultures on smaller or poorer ones, etc.) and offers a wide variety of ways of thinking about life.
However, most people are not social scientists; for most people, culture means ignorance. Most people don’t travel very far from home except perhaps for a very brief vacation or pilgrimage, just do a socially acceptable job, marry within their ethnic group and possibly social class, watch their people’s TV and movies, listen to their people’s music, speak their people’s language (thinking in terms of only one worldview, using words other groups can’t understand, etc.), eat their people’s food… and generally ignore or resist other societies and the natural world beyond their people’s territory.
People’s lives are small and brief, languages and cultures are complex and time-consuming to learn (sticking with the one you were raised with is easiest), and culture and language are tied up with people’s senses of self/identity. Culture+language is perhaps humanity’s most basic echo chamber, and most people seem trapped within one or two cultures, unable or unwilling to view their own existence differently.
Stephen Hawking, one of the most brilliant physicists ever to have lived, used to publicly say this every year or two, because it is perhaps the most important thing humanity should be doing but is only barely/slowly doing. Now that he is gone, I’ll repeat it: for the survival of our species, humans really need to leave this tiny, fragile little planet as quickly as possible. At national and global levels, instead of putting resources into fighting with each other and building things on this planet, we should be focusing on building space stations, fast ships, and colonies on other planets and in other solar systems. Currently, our entire species could be wiped out by global warming, over-population, nuclear war, one large epidemic, asteroid, solar flare, and on and on. We need to go and spread out, now.
Here are several things I’ve learned over the years about living with animals and insects in rural areas:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 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.
“Mind precedes all mental states. Mind is their chief; they are all mind-wrought” (Dhammapada 1, Acharya Buddharakkhita translation).
“Phenomena are preceded by the heart, ruled by the heart, made of the heart” (Dhammapada 1, Thanissaro Bhikkhu translation).
Here are three different ways of interpreting that famous first line of the Dhammapada:
- (A possibly animist or creationist interpretation:) There apparently exists an outside world independent of my mind, and the arrangements or configurations of most/all things in that world apparently result from the activities of human and non-human minds. For example, my house exists because many people in the past have thought that humans should live in houses for various reasons (protection from weather, animals, thieves, etc.); thought of ways to construct and sell a house in the climate, society, etc. where I live; and then constructed it. How far out/back you want to abstract this idea to nature or the universe is up to you. The Buddha didn’t offer a view about the origins of the universe.
- (A constructivist/phenomenological interpretation popular among Western Theravadists today:) Though there probably exists an outside world independent of our minds, no one can see it directly; we can each see only our own mind. Everything we see is a mind-state, a construction of our body-mind complex – mental output based on sensory input. When you think you’re seeing yourself or a world out there, all you’re really seeing are poorly measured, heavily subjectively biased mental constructs/fabrications of how the self or world might be. The only way to maybe see absolute reality is to remove one’s subjective biases through meditation and simple/ethical living, going deeper and deeper into the mind, until one can see reality clearly.
- (A later-Buddhism, possibly Vedanta-influenced interpretation:) The external world is literally made of/by mind, and has no existence except to the degree that our minds create it. In reality, there is only a single, monistic, cosmic Mind (e.g., Buddha-nature), which manifests itself as this dualistic world because it has somehow forgotten its true nature and/or developed dualistic cravings. When people realize/remember that true nature, they can wake up from this delusional dream we’re all living in.
Experiences of thoughts, feelings, and actions, even when pleasurable, usually require some energy, involve some stress, and arise in response to stressful situations: talking or playing music to fill socially awkward silences or to avoid unpleasant feelings; eating, sleeping, etc. to satiate biological needs or seek pleasure; working to make a living, pay for education, buy entertainments, etc.; feeling anxiety from social or natural pressures; feeling depression from hopelessness or weariness; and so on.
Though one can try to avoid or minimize stressful situations, one can also minimize stress by refusing to create more thoughts, feelings, or actions than necessary. For example, if one must, one can speak only softly and in an emotionally monotone way, drive or walk as slowly and calmly as possible, eat simple foods without seasoning, do other biological things in a routine way as little as necessary to stay healthy, and minimize expenses so that you can minimize how much you have to work. If one embraces them, peace and quiet can be perhaps the purest forms of happiness.
Many times in my life, in myself and others, I have seen how inaccurate, incomplete, often negative views can be reinforced by brooding or brainwashing — by a person going into some kind of echo chamber (in their head, on the Internet, only spending time with similar people in the real world, etc.) for a long time and repeating certain thoughts or feelings over and over until they become more and more extreme. The same was apparently true in the Buddha’s time, about 2,600 years ago: “‘He insulted me, he hit me, he beat me, he robbed me’ — anger will never cease in those who dwell on such thoughts” (Dhammapada, 3).
But real people are small and complicated. Everyone finds themselves born into a certain body, family, country, etc., which can be hard to escape. Everyone has had many unique past experiences that informed them. No one can see or learn everything. The only way to understand the complexity of life or people is to get out of your comfort zone (either mentally or physically) and have strange, new, different experiences. Brooding or brainwashing in isolation usually only makes one’s views more xenophobic, unrealistic, inaccurate, and incomplete; having difficult, new conversations and experiences usually makes one’s views more connected, realistic, accurate, and complete.
Here is a nice Ted talk, which says pretty much the same thing: