|Ven. Robina Courtin|
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.