A dear friend contacted me. Her ex-husband and father of her child had taken his own life. She was feeling isolated and wanted someone to talk to her a bit about the issues she was dealing with. Her now-husband was not relating to her since she was estranged from the ex-husband. We talked strategies for coping, for connecting, for healing. Then she asked me what the Buddhist view of suicide is.
There are few faiths that endorse the act of suicide. Buddhism is not an acceptation, but I think that those who are teaching the words of the Buddha often have difficulty relating with the concept of suicide unless we have been properly trained. In this quote from H.H. Dalai Lama, you can see that he response to the question in a very intellectual way—
“Some people commit suicide; they seem to think that there is suffering simply because there is the human life, and that by cutting off the life there will be nothing… But, according to the Buddhist viewpoint, that’s not the case; your consciousness will continue. Even if you take your own life, this life, you will have to take another body that again will be the basis of suffering. If you really want to get rid of all your suffering, all the difficulties you experience in your life, you have to get rid of the fundamental cause (greed, hatred and delusion) that gives rise to the aggregates that are the basis of all suffering. Killing yourself isn’t going to solve your problems.” – His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama
But instead of looking at the Pali Canon and the Sanskrit Suttas, we look at the experience of those who often commit suicide, the doctrines are never so clear.
Panattipata Veramani sekapadam samadhami— The first precept is to take on the practice to refrain from the taking of life. Certainly, suicide breaks this rule. But the other side of this precept is to take on the practice to promote compassion. Something in the act of the person contemplating suicide is motivated by what they believe is “good.” There is an act of compassion happening—even if it is misguided.
WHY PEOPLE COMMIT SUICIDE
“Taking one’s own life under any circumstances is morally and spiritually wrong. Taking one’s own life owing to frustration or disappointment only causes greater suffering. Suicide is a cowardly way to end one’s problems of life. A person cannot commit suicide if his mind is pure and tranquil. If one leaves this world with a confused and frustrated mind, it is most unlikely that he would be born again in a better condition. Suicide is an unwholesome or unskilful act since it is encouraged by a mind filled with greed, hatred and delusion. Those who commit suicide have not learnt how to face their problems, how to face the facts of life, and how to use their mind in a proper manner. Such people have not been able to understand the nature of life and worldly conditions.” – Venerable K. Sri Dhammananda
It is true to my mind that a person who commits suicide is not leaving this world with a tranquil mind. But I disagree with almost everything else in this quote. It assumes that suicide is a selfish act of an avoidant person. This paints a picture of a suicidal person as one who is lacking the character to be successful in life and blames them incapable.
The nature of suicide is not a failing of character, success, or lack of understanding. It is a mental state of suffering. As human beings, we have developed a pre-frontal cortex that allows us to do something truly unique in the animal kingdom—we can imagine. This imagination allows for us to create permanence (the ability to extrapolate what is there when it is no longer visible, like a lion in the brush), and it allows us to simulate (the ability to mentally create reality in our heads to experience what has not happened yet so that we can best plan for survival. Example: imagine tasting peanut butter and toothpaste together. You don’t have to actually do it to experience the simulation of it). People who contemplate suicide experience extreme suffering (either physical, mental or both). Suicide is almost never an act of defiance and ignorance. It is almost never a desire to want to be dead. It is normally a desire to stop a pain that in our simulations will never end.
When a mind reaches a state that suicide is contemplation. It is creating a hell within a person that seems unending and unbearable. Every year millions of people around the world try to kill themselves—and nearly one million of them succeed. Suicide is the 11th biggest killer of Americans and the third-leading killer of 15- to 24-year-olds. The U.S. suicide rate is increasing for the first time in a decade, primarily as a result of the rise in the practice among whites aged 40 to 64, according to a new report covering the years 1999 to 2005 from the Center for Injury Research and Policy at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. (citation)
To the mind of someone committing suicide, the act is an act of compassion. And while that thinking is flawed by every person who is left behind logically and emotionally—it changes the dynamic of how we view, understand and process the act of suicide.
There are three suttas in which the Buddha (in extreme circumstances) did not condemn a person who committed suicide. In each case the acts were those he had determined were of true compassion and within the teachings of the Buddha. I am not sure this could be said with most suicide cases—but it demonstrates that we live in a world without absolutes. We cannot say any act is 100% wholesome or unwholesome.
Suicide is a decision that can be born from logic, mental illness, overwhelming situational stress, etc. Every ideation and discussion of suicide should be taken very seriously and professional help should be sought out. These are moments of crisis that need immediate attention. It is not a time to intellectually argue the theological or philosophical merits, hoping reasoned argument will compel someone to choose to continue to live.
Mors certa — hora incerta, “Death is certain — the hour is uncertain.
Survivors of suicide also suffer. They are left in the aftermath wake of tragedy. Often gifted with the guilt of wondering if they could have done more, if they played some part in the choosing, if they have some responsibility to the departed: the pain has ended for the suicide victim and passed on to the survivors.
It is during this time, that we must acknowledge that we are all mortal and here only for a short time. It is why, as Buddhists, we are encouraged to always be mindful of death as an ultimate destination: not to fear it, but appreciate the preciousness of the time we have. And even though the departed has chosen to leave this life so dramatic and tragically, we are blessed to have had the time we shared with that person. We carry them for the rest of our lives as part of us. When we deal with others, we impart who we are, which was partially created by their experience with us. We honor them by honoring ourselves and the preciousness of our lives.
It is also important to honor the traditions and rituals that were shared with those who have left us (regardless if it is by natural or unnatural means). Do not let a holiday go by, or anniversary without being mindful of it. Do something to honor it. Make new traditions to process the value of the experience those people have had on our lives.
This article is not to endorse the act of suicide or euthanasia. It is only a humble attempt at a Buddhist view that we need to be compassionate towards those who suffer with the idea or the act of committing suicide. Suicide is an act to end suffering that the victims feels is overwhelming and neverending. If you have suicidal ideations or a plan; please, do not be afraid to seek professional behavioral and spiritual help. Do not be afraid to deal with the emotional pain of absence mindfully and with compassion. Suicide is, to a society, an unwholesome act, because to encourage suicide deprives so many from people we love, valued members of our community, and the loss of a part of ourselves. Nevertheless, while we can do what we can to try and prevent suicides, we can also offer compassion for those who are suffering and learn to value the time they have had with us. We can be the best “us” we can be to honor the gifts they gave us.
§ 1. “There are some cases in which a person overcome with pain, his mind exhausted, grieves, mourns, laments, beats his breast, & becomes bewildered. Or one overcome with pain, his mind exhausted, comes to search outside, ‘Who knows a way or two to stop this pain?’ I tell you, monks, that stress results either in bewilderment or in search.” — AN 6.63