Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Suicide and Rebirth

Ven. Robina Courtin
I recently had a troubling conversation about rebirth and suicide. I mentioned to a friend of mine that I’d seen Australian Tibetan Buddhist nun Robina Courtin on Judith Lucy’s tv show Spiritual Journey. The comedian told the nun that she was attracted by Buddhism and convinced by a lot of what it has to say, but just couldn’t get her head around rebirth. Venerable Courtin took this in her stride. “Darling, that’s fine. Just take what works for you right now, practice with that, and then see where it leads you.” This seemed like pretty good advice to me.

Judith Lucy
My friend, on the other hand, thought it was problematic. She said that if you accept the Buddha’s teachings, but reject rebirth, then there’d be no reason not to commit suicide. Why? Because the Buddha teaches that all worldly experience is suffering. If you take this seriously, you’ll gradually recognize that all your experiences, even the ones you used to value as pleasurable and desirable, are unsatisfactory. Anyone can tell that being in intense pain from an incurable disease is suffering. It takes a Buddhist to recognize that having to decide which of two delectable dishes to eat while surrounded by charming company in a beautiful restaurant is also suffering. Suicide would seem like a good way to get out of this pervasive web of dukkha (suffering, unsatisfactoriness) if only it weren’t for the prospect of being reborn into an even worse situation.

This argument upset me. I was depressed by this vision of Buddhism as a religion that convinces people that life is suffering, to the point where even if their lives are full of abundance and opportunity, they’d prefer to be dead, if only they could be sure they wouldn’t get reborn. My own interpretation of Prince Siddharta’s rejection of life in the palace was that he left because he wanted more of life, not less. I like to think he wanted to experience the full gamut of what life had to offer, suffering and joy, and the deep peace and bliss that lies beyond these dichotomies. Far from wanting to kill himself over an exquisitely painful choice between two desserts, he was ready to give up such luxuries in order to live more fully.

But then I started to wonder, what does the Buddha have to say about suicide? I discovered a sutta in which a monk called Channa kills himself, and the Buddha endorses his action as blameless (MN 144).  Channa is gravely ill and is not getting well, even though he has suitable food and medicine and a proper attendant. His painful feelings resemble those described in other suttas as willfully cultivated by ascetics: “just as if a skilled butcher or his apprentice were to carve up an ox’s belly with a sharp butcher’s knife, so too, violent winds are carving up my belly…” He has lost his desire to live. Venerable monks (Sariputta and Maha Cunda) offer him assistance, tell him they want him to live and give him wise teachings, but none of the practical, emotional and spiritual support he receives relieves his pain, or changes his decision to “use the knife.” 

The commentary on this sutta focuses on the idea that Channa must be an arahant, a fully enlightened being, meaning that he will not be reborn – this is why suicide is blameless in his case: the doctrine of rebirth no longer applies to him. This argument follows the same logic employed by my friend: rebirth makes suicide stupid (and blameworthy), absence of rebirth makes it smart (and blameless). But in the sutta itself, Channa’s status as arahant is only indicated, somewhat obliquely, at the end of the text. First we hear about the dire state of his health and the fact that none of the many types of support he is given can relieve his pain. It is also shown that Channa is not clinging to his self-identity in any way: he sees clearly in regard to all sensations and thoughts, “This is not mine, this I am not, this is not my self.” Only after his death do we additionally learn that he was not one who “lays down this body and takes up a new body.”

There is no hint here that just any old (or new) kind of dukkha could have motivated Channa’s suicide, or that the extreme pain he experienced can be compared to the suffering occasioned by a frustrated desire to eat every dish on offer, or a nervous inability to appreciate the one you’ve chosen. The sutta makes it very clear that Channa’s pain was not self-inflicted, and nor could it be relieved despite the abundant attention and care of his fellow monks, and his own loving devotion to the Buddha and the way of practice. His decision to “use the knife” was not motivated by self-centred distress or despair; it was an act of kindness and last resort - less a rejection of life than a measured, peaceful acceptance of death as a counterpart to life. It seems to me that this was why his act was blameless, something that makes sense whether or not you believe in rebirth, or arahantship.


Peter said...

Interesting ... This reminds me of the debate over the ethics of self-immolation when a number of Buddhists and Quakers did so in protest at the Vietnam war.

As one Buddhist woman, who was looking after her aged mother, said at the time (she didn't go on to kill herself): "I know that I would commit the sin of impiety towards my mother by killing myself, but if my death could help shorten the war and save lives, I would be willing to pay for the sin of impiety in another life."

This sort of "suicide" makes sense to me in way, but I'm still ambivalent about whether killing oneself in this way can be regarded as an ultimate act of nonviolent resistance ... or whether it is in reality just violence aimed inwards at the self.

But there does seem something very profound about Phuong's recognition that the price of negative karma and perhaps a less than ideal rebirth is one worth paying ..

Juzzeau said...

Hi Peter, I didn't find anything in the Buddha's teachings about this kind of politically motivated suicide - the issues raised by the case of the monk Channa seem more relevant to situations where euthanasia might be appropriate (or not).

Peter said...

Is there a sense in the story that Channa proved he was a fully enlightened being precisely through his acceptance and embrace of death (which in turn manifested itself in his suicide)? Or would that be reading too much in to the story ?

Juzzeau said...

Yes, possibly, but in this case full enlightenment corresponds pretty closely with ordinary kindness and common sense. Channa's death wasn't a heroic act. He wasn't protesting against anything, or trying to use his death to influence other people's actions. I think that's important, since the desire to commit suicide can often come from a place of anger, or a desire to force others to behave differently. I don't see the Buddha endorsing this.

Juzzeau said...

On second thoughts, maybe I should have said that threats to commit suicide often come from a space of anger etc. Perhaps a real desire to commit suicide always comes from a place where pain has become unbearable. In this situation, I think the sutta points to the importance of seeking and accepting (or offering) all the help available - practical, emotional and spiritual - before acting on this desire. It also encourages us to see such an act as blameless if it does finally occur. Overall, I think the approach to suicide taken in the sutta takes a lot of the drama and potential for moralising out of the topic.

Rowan. said...


I tend to think that that point regarding rebirth and suicide has some validity, but also that it's not the end of the story. We don't really know what happens after death, even if we strongly believe that consciousness just winks out, so suicide is always a gamble in that regard. Meanwhile, while the Buddha's way does bring us closer into contact with suffering (this is something I've particularly noticed on retreat), it also offers a way out of that suffering which isn't a gamble in the same way (although we always have to take it to some extent on faith, but can gradually see it for ourselves). So even if you believe in awakening but not rebirth, to try for awakening or at least a lessening of suffering seems like less of a gamble. And we're all going to die anyway, at some point, obviously... But also this might be different for Mahayanists and Vajrayanists, who as I understand have Nirvana-as-bliss rather than dukkha as one of the marks of existence.

The existentialists were interesting on this too, on the question, why not commit suicide in a godless world full of suffering? I'm not particularly well-versed in classic existentialist philosophy, but it seems like they mostly came to conclusions regarding reasons to go on living.

I guess on the flip side, without a belief in rebirth, there's the question of whether suicide can actually be a rational and moral decision - if one's suffering is overwhelming and rationality informs us that it will go on being that way, then must suicide be wrong? (Of course, people with clinical depression aren't necessarily in a position to think rationally, but experts seem to think that not everyone who commits suicide has depression, by any means...)

There's an interesting paper discussing some of these issues here:
(it's also part of an ongoing debate about the possibility of suicide as a 'good death')

On the note of monks self-immolating, I think Thich Nhat Hanh said that the Vietnamese monks who self-immolated shouldn't be seen as commiting suicide (and he invoked the Bodhisattva ideal) - there's a discussion here:

I don't know if you saw, I posted a link to Santi's FB about Tibetan monks currently self-immolating, and different responses to it:

Thought provoking!

With metta,

Juzzeau said...

Hi Rowan, thanks so much for your comments and the great links. I found the discussion by Russell McCutcheon from his book, Manufacturing Religion, particularly rich and thought-provoking.

Thich Nhat Hanh's comment that he wouldn't want to describe the self-immolations in Vietnam in the 60s as suicide or even as sacrifice was very interesting (Peter, I think you will find this interesting, too). His suggestion that these monks and nuns may have considered their acts as very natural, like breathing, seems in harmony with the way Channa's act of "using the knife" is treated in the sutta - as a natural and blameless response to the extreme pain of his situation, not as an act of sacrifice, which connotes heroism, or of suicide, which can connote desperation of an irrational or immoral kind.

This way of seeing the act - as natural under the circumstances - takes the focus of inquiry off the person who kills him or herself, and shifts it to the circumstances which have made life unbearable for him or her. When those circumstances are political and involve sustained oppression, as in the current case of the Tibetan monastics in China (thanks for alerting me to this), the question of whether the actions of oppression are justifiable seems much more pressing than that of how the acts of self-immolation should be judged. Regardless of whether it's considered rational or moral, the fact is that people taking their own lives is something that can be expected to occur where a community is treated oppressively and unjustly for long enough.

More abstractly, McCutcheon's discussion of how religion is treated "sui generis" in much scholarship, and cordoned off from politics was fascinating, especially in respect to the way time is invoked to achieve this - ie religion is regarded as belonging to the realm of the purely eternal, whereas politics takes place in linear, historical time - which militates against seeing the two as interlinked.

Thanks again for these thoughts, Rowan - and also to Peter for getting the discussion onto this track.

With metta,