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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Common grounds between Buddhism and Judaism

Since there is a Jewish Buddhist movement, here is a list of ways in which (Theravada or early) Buddhism and Judaism are, as I understand, more similar to each other than either is to Christianity:

  • In both, though there are things on which most members of each religion agree, there is no firm dogma, because the spiritual goal (experiencing God or Nirvana) is thought to be beyond mundane human thought. Individuals are free to explore their own spiritual feelings and beliefs, and to develop their own understandings. Prophets, Messiahs, the Buddha, and monks are people who may have had an especially clear or rich spiritual experience, but they are not God(s) themselves. Said another way: both religions are more orthopraxic than orthodoxic (i.e., less faith-based, more focused on what people do and experience than on what they believe).
  • Absolute reality, God, etc. is usually thought to be some kind of unity or single substance, not a trinity, a hypostatic union (hybrid God-man), etc.
  • Both are/were largely aniconic (Buddhism was in the early days) and prohibit giving anything a higher status than God or nirvanic beings.
  • Like devas in Buddhism, early Judaism seems to have acknowledged polytheism (e.g., El becoming YHWH, “You shall have no other gods before me,” etc.), but neither made polytheism central to their religion.
  • Hell is not forever. In Judaism, hell is more like Catholic purgatory and lasts only a short time, so that God can teach sinners a lesson. Those souls who are too bad to be redeemed are either destroyed by God, which seems much more compassionate to me than eternal torment, or continue to exist in a remorseful state. In Buddhism, the length and depth/badness of a hellish life varies based on one’s karma, with the worst hell being called avici. Both also find rebirth/reincarnation possible.
  • Both generally lack a notion of original sin, though in Buddhism, the mind that is reborn has typically had many past lives and has accumulated many both good and bad traits. Both see people as a mixture of good/selfless and bad/selfish impulses, and see a Middle Way-type balance to be necessary for successfully living in the world (e.g., a person has to be a little selfish in order to have food to eat, to do a job, etc.).
  • Less focus is placed on external forces (e.g., the devil, praying to angels or saints, God(s) taking physical form, etc.), which are usually considered to be metaphorical. Unlike how Christians often interpret it literally, the oft-quoted line from Genesis 1:27, that man was made in the image of God, is usually taken in Judaism to mean that a human’s nature, essence, or capacities for things like reason and intuition are similar to God’s, not that God literally has a human-like (or any corporeal) form.
  • Both Buddhism’s precepts, the Brahmaviharas, etc. as well as Judaism’s kosher rules are concerned with how to kill animals as sparingly and humanely as possible. In both, the brief five-to-ten precepts/commandments are just a categorization or introduction to a much longer set of vinaya/commandments about many aspects of life.
  • Both Buddhists and Jews do merit-making activities, especially as regards dead family members: https://ohr.edu/explore_judaism/ask_the_rabbi/ask_the_rabbi/1065

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.).

How do you know who you’re talking to?

A few questions for theists: How do you know to whom/what you pray? Even if you feel that some kind of God exists, how do you know He/She/It isn’t a malicious, malevolent being misrepresenting Itself as a kind, benevolent being? If everything is left to faith in traditions, institutions, prophets, etc., how can you confirm the identity, nature, agenda, extent, etc. of what you call “God(s)”? If there is an all-powerful creator God, shouldn’t that being be able to make all humans clearly understand Her/Him/It, and what might it say about God that all humans haven’t been made to clearly understand Her/Him/It (e.g., is God not all-powerful, not always loving, etc.)? If God changes (i.e., takes actions to create or affect this world or people), to what extent can God be eternal?

O ye religious studies scholar, to what degree is Buddhism a religion?

First, what is “religion”? The word has many meanings around the world, far beyond how Americans often equate it with the three largest Abrahamic religions. People usually mean some kind of everyday/mundane expressions or representations of faith in, or past experience of, “numinous” (i.e., somehow going beyond everyday experience) things. The expressions often include traditional concepts, stories, institutions, rules, practices, rituals, relics, statues, images, talismans, etc. To the degree that one actually experiences numinous states of consciousness, it usually is not called religion, but instead is called spirituality, attainments, visions, feelings, trips (if drugs are involved), exploration, or just experience. Religious expressions often have as much to do with mundane things (nationality, culture, history, politics, etc.) as they do with numinous things, and experiences that people call numinous sometimes feature mundane religious elements (e.g., Christians sometimes see visions of Jesus or angels, Buddhists sometimes see visions of the Buddha, etc.). To what degree that back-and-forth is accurate, or is people’s brains/minds constructing what they want to see to some degree, is hard to say. Arguably, like much of science, the mundane vs. numinous distinction assumes a conventionally “normal” or “healthy” human perspective. Some people’s everyday experiences may include what others would consider numinous. Also, what humans call everyday experiences are the result of specific evolutionary processes in land-based environments only on this planet, so other species might consider different experiences normal.

Buddhism is often said by Western scholars to have a philosophical or psychological monastic core, which is similar to (and much more developed than) phenomenology in the West, as well as a more religious pop-culture periphery. People usually encounter the pop-culture periphery first, so get the impression that Buddhism is quite religious. Buddhist bhikkhu(ni)s (monks and nuns) are the people who most often and seriously study, engage, and experiment with the Buddha’s theories and methods in empirical or intellectual ways. Lay (non-monastic) people can be anywhere on the spectrum of more experience- or knowledge-oriented to more faith-oriented. Whereas a monk might only deeply revere the Buddha, a lay person might worship and pray to the Buddha. Like many religions, the pop-culture periphery probably has become increasingly embellished with dramatic folklore, ornate artwork, etc., as non-monastic people have elaborated upon Buddhism over more than 2,500 years. There can be quite a stark difference between a spartan forest monastery, which can feel more like a psychology laboratory, and an ornate city temple, which can feel like a shrine or art gallery. Later forms of Buddhism (Mahayana, Vajrayana, Pure Land, Zen, etc.) seem to have drifted the monastic core in more religious of directions, with the Buddha(s) being made more god-like and salvation-oriented.

People don’t just speak a language…

… they think in terms of a language. Judeo-Christian and Greco-Roman ideas and histories are so intricately a part of the thought-world(s) of English speakers that it is usually imperceptible to them. Even atheistic scientists often unwittingly use such concepts and words when speaking and thinking in English. Societies form as internally coherent bubbles, based on old ideas and events, expanding over time to incorporate new things. To really understand a society, one must learn its history from its perspective and think/speak/live as an insider. For example…

Ancient Greek and Latin still are often taught in British and some American schools, because many English words and grammar constructions derive from them. “An entire mythology is stored within our language” (Wittgenstein, Remarks on Frazer’s Golden Bough). “If a lion [or even humans with different thought-worlds] could talk, we could not understand him” (Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations).

The notion that human thought (e.g., in mathematics) and experience are capable of accessing or fathoming absolute/universal reason, logic, truth, and reality may come from the Eleatic, Plotinan/Neo-platonic, and physicalist mainstreams of ancient Greece and post-Greco-Roman Christian civilizations. These ideas have been mainstream during most of Europe’s history, and continue to be a core part of many contemporary Western institutions (governments, laws, non-profits/NGOs, science, etc.).

The monistic and essentialistic views of those schools of philosophy often tend Western seekers/explorers of world religions towards other monistic and essentialistic traditions (e.g., Islam; Bahá’í; Vedanta, Vaishnava, and Tantra Hinduism; Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhism; etc.).

Words like spirituality, animism, numinous, gaia, etc. usually suggest that people/things have spirits, souls, or essences and that non-mundane experiences must involve a soul/spirit/essence, though there are non-essentialist traditions around the world.

The word “creatures” appears often in science and science fiction to describe living beings in general, and it apparently implies that which was creat-ed (by God, presumably).

Judeo-Christians often refer to people of other “faiths.” Non-theistic traditions often emphasize personal development or experimentation (e.g., lifestyle modifications, meditation, or scientific experiments) over faith in divine mysteries and either do not have concepts of theos/God(s); limit those concepts to beings who are not all-powerful, omniscient, always loving, creators of everything, etc; or argue that people often invoke God(s) out of convenience, fear, or avoidance. For example, it’s easier to put a word on a complex and variable phenomenon (e.g., “depression”) and give the impression that one understands it than it is to actually explore and understand the phenomenon. Also, it can be easier to invoke God(s) in order to deny one’s own capabilities, or to defer responsibility, for solving hard problems (e.g., for controlling basic human instincts, or for living a quiet/secluded life and attaining a deep level of self-knowledge) than it is to make the effort necessary to solve the hard problems oneself.

Finally, Judeo-Christians often assume that other traditions involve prayer or worship. In much of Asia, holding the palms of one’s hands together (anjali) means a greeting/salutation, not necessarily prayer to God(s), and bowing/prostration can mean a deep respect or personal exercise of humility or selflessness, not necessarily worship (in the sense of devotion to, or dependence on, a deity). Jews can be Theravada Buddhists without giving up Judaism (see the Jewish Buddhist movement), because that tradition considers the Buddha to have been only a human who accomplished something great (i.e., who stopped karma/becoming and converted his mind from having an impermanent kind of matter as its base to having a permanent kind of matter as its base), and who is deeply revered but is not worshiped. Of course, there are people in Asia who are praying to God(s) when they hold their hands together, or who do worship the Buddha or monks as God(s) (especially Mahayana and Vajrayana Buddhists, and occasionally the pop-culture side of Theravada), but anjali and prostrations don’t necessarily have those meanings.