One of my Students asked me the following question:
What is the Buddhist View of Suicide and how can we deal with the Suicide of a friend or our own suicidal tendencies?
Here is my answer:
MY PERSPECTIVE AS A BUDDHIST PRACTITIONER
I should state right away that these are my own personal views and not the views of any Buddhist lineage. The teachings included on the Karmic effects of suicide are a direct understanding of the Karmic process based on instruction from my own Lamas.
Buddhism in general values life, especially because, while we are alive, we have the opportunity to advance spiritually. The process of death and rebirth slows down that advancement. If we haven’t reach an adequate stage of development, we may even have to start at or near the beginning in our next lifetime. So, from the Buddhist point of view, being alive presents a tremendous opportunity that is not to be taken lightly. Throwing that opportunity away is frowned upon. At the same time, under certain conditions, suicide has been mentioned in Buddhist teachings. The Buddhist teachings also recognize that everything involves individual choice and an examination of immediate circumstances.
The rest of the ideas presented are my own views and ideas on the difficulties that people undergo that might lead them to suicide and what possibilities there might be to help avoid these difficulties. They are based on my experiences in talking to friends about suicide and the understandings that I have gained through my years of Buddhist practice about the workings of the mind and the nature of the reality that we live in.
Many people go through an intense amount of suffering and unfortunately they reach the conclusion that they don’t have any other options to get out of their suffering but to take their own life. One of the biggest options that they dismiss in this decision is the idea of talking to someone else about their problems and their temptation to commit suicide. I lost 2 friends in high school to suicide and I had to talk several others out of it at that time. My Buddhist practice has help me to understand a bit better what they were going through and why, and what types of thinking can get us into this kind of trouble. It’s still a shame and there often isn’t much that we can do unless the person themselves is willing to talk about it and look for other choices.
LACK OF CONFIDENCE
One of the biggest things that can influence the temptation for suicide is a lack of confidence. There is a Lack of confidence that the answers that we are looking for are out there, and a lack of confidence in our own ability to find those answers and overcome our problems. Someone has to be around to give us back some of that confidence and help point us in a good direction. We also have to seek out someone who can help us remind ourselves of what our value is and what we already have so that we can regain that confidence.
When we succumb to these negative feelings, it is often because we have lost sight of the positive sides of our circumstances. In each situation there is always good, bad, and neutral as well as an element of abundance in some things, lack in other areas, and a balance in other things. This is the result of living in a relative and conditional world. When we find ourselves overwhelmed by the negative or lacking side of our lives, it can be good to widen our perspective and look at the things we have in abundance and the positive side of our situation. This more balanced view and wider perspective can improve our confidence.
It is also helpful for us to remember that, if good things can happen to others, they can happen to us too. There are certain attitudes that others have and actions that they do that help them experience good circumstances. By trying these things out for ourselves, we also have the possibility to experience good things too.
At the same time, we need to remember that we have to invest time and energy into attaining the things that we want. If we haven’t yet achieved what we want to achieve or obtained what we want to obtain, it either means that we’re not doing everything that needs to be done to obtain what we want, or we’re missing a piece of the puzzle of conditions that need to be set up in order for us to get what we want.
In many ways, we lose confidence in ourselves by identifying ourselves too strongly with the feelings that we have in certain circumstances. Feelings of dissatisfaction are signals that something is missing to allow us to achieve our goals. The same with feelings of frustration. If we recognize that we are larger than these feelings and that these feelings are only signals of the relationship between our goals and our reality, then we will be less likely to take these feelings as signs that we are no good or that our situation is will stay the same forever.
I often teach that the mistake that we make is that we think we are the waves, when we are really the ocean. The waves are just what happens when the wind and the ocean meet. Our reality is the wind and our minds are the ocean. Thoughts and feelings are just the waves that happen when reality and our minds come in contact with each other. Having this type of notion in our minds prevents these negative feelings from diminishing our sense of confidence in ourselves and in our circumstances. It also prevents us from getting too caught up and carried away by positive feelings or positive situations too which can end up making us make mistakes due to over-confidence, pride, and self-absorption or overly high expectations.
So we are constantly getting signals from the rest of reality. Feelings of sadness, frustration, loss, and fear are part of those signals. So are happiness, joy, abundance, and confidence. These signals prove that we have an underlying intelligence and skill which allows us to know the difference between our desires and our reality.
This is also an aspect of recognizing our wholeness or our incompleteness. It also is an indication of our potential for even greater wholeness. We are all a work in progress and, as part of a process of becoming more whole, we are always improving in some areas, and maybe getting worse in others. We can always change things around so that we are making improvements in most areas. The advantage of the idea of impermanence is that it means that, as much as things can always get worse, things can always get better too.
Recognizing that these feelings prove that we have the ability to understand the world around us can be viewed as proof of our own intelligence and ability and recognizing this can boost our confidence. If we look at our experiences as our wisdom and skillfulness talking to us, then our experiences become our Guru and our thoughts and feelings become messages from our own innate wisdom or Buddha Nature.
There are 5 wisdom aspects that are a part of our Buddha Nature. The first is to recognize the inclusiveness of all things in the world. This is called All-Encompassing Wisdom. Next is recognizing what’s missing or what needs to be done within a situation. This is called All-Accomplishing Wisdom. Next is recognizing all of the positive qualities in a given situation. This is called Discriminating Wisdom. Then there is recognizing the similarities and sameness of everything. This is called the Wisdom of Equanimity. Finally there is recognizing what’s wrong or what’s different in a situation. This is called All-Seeing Wisdom or Analytical Wisdom.
Our goal in Buddhism is to perfect all of these wisdoms and to be able to switch from one to the other as we wish. Getting stuck in any one side can create an imbalance and the wisdoms can stop being wisdom and turn into confusion and suffering. Ignorance then becomes real ignorance – ignoring one or several aspects to the whole situation.
In this light, it is important to incorporate our analytical mind when we are experiencing thoughts and feelings. With any thought or feeling that we experience, it is important to get into the habit of analyzing their validity. If we develop a fear of spiders, we need to analyze the precise degree to which a spider is harmful to us and a threat. If we feel a sense of incapability, we need to analyze the degree to which this feeling is accurate and we need to measure our exact degree of incapability. We will often find that, within that feeling of incapability, there are some capabilities that we may not have realized before. If we feel a sense of alone-ness, we need to see how true this is and look at what is happening that is giving us this feeling. We need to get into the habit of doing this analysis with all of our thoughts and feelings.
It falls in line with having Complete thought which is part of the Eightfold Path of the Buddha. Complete thought means not expressing our feelings as soon as we feel them, but to look at the complete environment in which the feeling arises. So, at first, it may feel like analyzing, but actually it eventually becomes clear seeing or detailed seeing. That too will prevent these thoughts and feelings from becoming larger than life, larger than ourselves, and thereby undermining our confidence and our capacity to deal with our lives.
Therefore, it is important to remember that the truth that things change means that things can always improve, that success or failure depends on the causes and conditions that we create, and to remember that we have this innate Buddha Nature, this innate understanding and skillfulness. These ideas can help us overcome our lack of confidence and take a more realistic and all-inclusive view of our circumstances.
A SENSE OF ALONE-NESS:
We can often feel isolated and separate from everyone around us. We can feel like an alien amongst beings of another species altogether. We can feel like no one understands our situation. We can feel like we are the only ones in the universe going through what we’re going through. We can feel like there is no one that we can turn to for help. These feelings can push us closer and closer to attempting suicide.
Though we can feel that no one in the world can understand us and what we’re going through, and no one in the world can help us with our problems, in a world of 7 billion plus people, the odds of this being true is very small. In a world of 7 billion plus people, it is very likely that there are people who are going through something similar to us and there are people who can help us. If the people around us don’t understand or can’t help, then that just means that we need to keep looking for those who can.
Also, because we are sentient beings – that is, beings with conciousness and self-awareness, and because we are human beings, we share many characteristics with everyone. Our quest for happiness and to avoid suffering is the same as everyone else’s. Our tendency to develop longing, attachment, fear, anger, doubt, and confusion is the same. Our feelings of dissatisfaction, frustration, and confusion are experienced by all beings. So is our underlying ability to experience true reality and experience innate wisdom. One of my pet sayings is that we think we live in the same world and are reacting differently, but in truth, we are living in different worlds and acting in similar ways. Because we have all of these similarities with others, including the tendency to sometimes feel all alone, it is a further sign that we are not alone because others experience similar things to us at least some time in their lives.
Part of this problem of not seeking others help is the notion that we are somehow weak if we need help, or if we are having these types of problems. Unfortunately much of what our society teaches leaves little or no room for signs of weakness. However, in reality, most of us have a very high degree of weaknesses and very little real strength. For all the media hooplah, there are actually very few really strong and accomplished people in the world. From the Buddhist point of view, we are all weak, deluded, and confused to varying degrees until we have reached Buddhahood. In truth, recognizing our weaknesses is a sign of intelligence and wisdom. Buddhism also emphasizes that our life is a process of developing higher and higher degrees of strength and gradually overcoming more and more of our weaknesses.
Also, most really accomplished people get that way because they have learned to recognize, accept, and work with their weaknesses. They even regard their weaknesses as a challenge and even have enthusiasm towards working on improving the areas of their weaknesses. So most of the time, what we’re being fed about the down side of weaknesses and the “sin” of having a weakness is false and harmful.
A lot has to do with our willingness to admit how we are and how our situation is. That is what confession is really for in Buddhism and in other religions. We need to admit our failings, at the very least to ourselves. In Buddhism, there is also the practices of admitting our faults to the Buddhas and Bodhisattvas, to our Guru, and even, usually once a month, to the whole Buddhist community (in an Upasatha day ceremony (ceremony of the new moon to restore vows). The ultimate practice in this vein in Buddhism is to continually expose our faults and profess others virtues at all times.
Related to this is our need to admit our sense of alone-ness, again, at least to ourselves. The nature or reality is that we are completely alone and completely inseparable from others at the very same time. It is also why we are each completely unique, like a snowflake. Admitting our aloneness is also recognizing our uniqueness and the unique aspects of our situations AT THIS MOMENT. Admitting our sadness is recognizing our vulnerability and the tenuous nature of our circumstances. Admitting and Recognizing our needs and goals helps us see the role of our obstacles.
Admitting our aloneness, admitting our sadness, admitting our obstacles that cause our frustrations, while at the same time recognizing that they are only part of the picture is an important level of spiritual progress to accomplish for everyone.
Another area that can cause us enough sadness to propel us into suicide is when we experience a major loss or, especially, a series of major losses one right after the other. It is often not one single event that causes this despair, but a series of misfortunes, obstacles and losses the push us to the breaking point.
Our reaction to loss has a lot to do with our sense of possessiveness. The strength of our feeling that we own something, or that it belongs to us, increases the despair and grief that we feel when something is lost. Again, we have not been taught how to deal with loss and the sadness of loss and, more importantly, we have been misguided and misinformed about the workings of the world around us. Interestingly, a lot of this has to do with our denial of and avoidance of the idea of death.
The truth is that we don’t even own our own bodies and have to give our bodies up at the time of death. This means that owning anything else in the world is even less true. Not owning something means that none of these things will stay with us forever. We don’t own other people or their relationships. We don’t own our jobs. We don’t even own our houses, even though we’ve paid for them. At the maximum, we have to give all of this up at death. It is important to learn to live, feel, and experience life, while realizing that we can never really posess anything. It is in realizing this that we work to develop non-attachment to the world, giving up our sense that we can own anything.
Spiritual practitioners can then make the mistake of becoming indifferent to things, in an attempt to be detached. The Buddha actually taught that this is a main part of the problem of how we create suffering. We solidify the situations that bring us joy and become attached. We resist the situations that our intelligence sees as obstacles or threats and develop hatred and aversion. We develop indifference to the things that we perceive as neutral or that we are not attached to. These attachments, aversions, and indifference causes us to over-react or under-react to what we’re experiencing. These reaction then create or perpetuate our suffering.
It is normal to feel a sense of loss and sadness at our loss. We mistakenly feel that we have to be happy all of the time. But, again, because we’re living in a relative world, we are going to experience ups and downs, gain and loss, arising and passing away, coming together and separating. If we can accept that we can have these feelings of loss, as well as feelings of happiness, then we can begin to realize that these feelings are just indicators of our degree of vulnerableness and strengths and reflections of the vulnerableness and strength of our lives. The step after that is to learn to live with this sense of loss and vulnerableness while also not being afraid of it.
No one has taught us that Spiritual feelings are beyond worldly feelings. They are also what’s behind worldly feelings. Worldly love and worldly joy cannot compare with Spiritual love and Spiritual joy. Most of the time, from what I’ve seen, spiritual practitioners are trying to increase the worldly love and joy in their lives and then wonder why they have problems doing so. The main message of the Buddha’s teaching in my view is that attachment to worldly form and feeling, because we view them as ultimate and permanent is the main cause of our suffering. Recognizing the ups and downs and gain and loss that we will experience while living in the world and learning to detach ourselves (our selves) from this experience will help reduce the intensity of our suffering and grief and reduce our sense of being overwhelmed by it.
Another aspect of loss relates to how much we identify ourselves with a lost posession, a lost person, or any role or status that we might lose. This also relates to understanding what things we actually can and do own or possess.
If we feel that we are nothing without another person or that we would be lost without them, then we are intensifying the suffering of having lost them. If we define ourselves by the role we are playing AT THAT MOMENT, then we experience suffering when the role disappears or shows signs of disappearing.
The Buddhist concept of impermanence is not just about things ending. It states that everything is transitory. Everything is in a constant state of change. From that perspective nothing really is created and nothing ends. The elements of air, rain, soil chemicals, and sun combine with a seed to create a tree. When the tree dies, gases are released into the air, the water in the wood evaporates, and the tree wood rots, dissolving into its chemical elements which then return to the soil to be taken up by other plants. The seed disappeared, but was transformed into the tree. That particular tree has disappeared, but all of the elements that made up that tree were returned to the rest of reality.
Each one of us posesses a Body and a Mind. Each one of us is made up of a collection of forms, a collection of feelings, a collection of perceptions, a collection of motivations, and a collection of levels of Awareness. These collections are in a constant state of change just like everything else. The friends and circumstances around us are a part of those collections. Even though these friends or circumstances may come and go, they will re-appear in some other form to affect our lives or the lives of others with whom they have a connection.
Becoming too attached to a particular manifestation of these collections increases our suffering beyond what is necessary. It is true that Love without attachment is more powerful, but also Sadness or a sense of Loss without attachment are also powerful. This sadness without attachment becomes a part of our compassion and the sense of Loss without attachment becomes a part of our own openness, humility, and interconnection with the universe.
Many religions talk about surrender in some form. There is surrender to the Guru. There is the idea of surrendering to God’s Will. There is also the idea of surrendering Ego. Ultimately this is about surrendering to the true nature of relative reality. It’s about surrendering to the truth of relative reality’s impermanence, its inability to provide lasting satisfaction, its interdependence, and its lack of substantiality. By allowing ourselves to experience Loss and the sadness of Loss without attachment, we begin to connect and live in this state of surrender. This state of surrender can be very powerful and it can be the beginning of being able to create tremendous things, because of our openness, humility, and willingness to experience, and then understand, instead of fighting against, the true nature of the world.
SHATTERED HOPES AND DREAMS
Until we learn about the workings of the world, we can often create hopes and dreams that end up not coming true. We often fail to realize that, when working to fulfull our dreams, we need to take our actual reality into account too.
We feel the sadness, desperation, and frustration when our hopes are dashed and when we see the signs that our dreams are not likely to be fulfilled. Rather than trying to get rid of these feelings by killing ourselves or harming ourselves or even trying to blot them out through drugs and alcohol, it would be better, and less harmful, to recognize these feelings as a sign that our actions or our expectations were not close enough to our reality to make these dreams come true.
Part of this is learning to allow ourselves to experience these feelings fully and not trying to avoid the sensations of the experience. No one has taught us how to do this. It is important at this point to state that there is a difference between completely experiencing a feeling and expressing it. Completely feeling a feeling of frustration means to feel the entire circumstance surrounding it. When we learn to do this, the frustration tends to disappear because it heads towards resolution within the experience itself. Getting angry actually cuts short the complete experience of the feeling of frustration. This is true with sadness, grief, alone-ness, as well as joy, happiness, and pleasure too.
We do the same thing with our hopes and dreams. We develop a dream or a hope and then we mishandle our reaction to it. Our expectations increase as we review our dreams and aspirations, but this also lines us up for experiencing frustration when these hopes and dreams become thwarted. As our sense of expectation increases, we can end up increasing our attachment to a certain kind of a result. Then when that result doesn’t materialize, we experience sadness, frustration, dejection, and loss.
It helps to remember that feelings are just feedback between our body and minds and our outside reality. They are always changing and don’t need to overwhelm us. Feelings can overwhelm us when we make them more important than they really are or when we try to resist them and fight or deny their existence, or when we relive them over and over again without working on changing the circumstances that caused them to arise in the first place.
We often fail to remember that one of the best ways to alleviate the negative feelings that arise from expectations is to change the expectation itself. It doesn’t even mean that we have to give up a particular hope or dream. It often means that things will take more time or that there are other things that need to be worked on in order for our dream to come true.
There are also expectations that cannot be fulfilled. For example, we can’t avoid death forever once we have been born. At some time in our lives we will experience old age and sickness no matter what we do. We can only get temporary satisfaction from the temporary things of this world and so to expect permanent happiness from worldly acquisitions is doomed to failure. The Buddha said that for every meeting, there is parting; for every accumulation, there is dispersal; for every rising, there is falling; and for every birth, there is death. Expecting something different is to set ourselves up for sadness, frustration, and misery.
Permanent Happiness comes from our state of mind. Even with love, we may not have a certain person around to love all of the time, but by having a loving mind or a mind that has the tendency to love all beings, then that is one of the mind-states that adds to permanent happiness.
We can also have confidence if we recognize that by gradually creating the causes and conditions for our desired circumstances, they will eventually appear. If we keep travelling in the direction of Vancouver, we will eventually get there. Even if we are walking, it may take longer, but we WILL get there. We can stop for a long time in one place or take a whole lot of detours, but, if we keep returning to the right direction after each detour, we will eventually get there. However, this also involves recognizing that, until all the causes and circumstances are right, our desires will not be fulfilled, and we will not get to our destination. Recognizing and accepting that obtaining anything requires setting up the proper causes and conditions creates confidence in our minds. This confidence is a part of that permanent happiness.
Another is contentment. This is a mind that tends to be happy regardless of our external circumstances. Even while working on improving our outside situation, we can still be accepting of it and experience contentment. This is reflected in the quality of our patience. Developing patience is also a mind-state that is a part of having permanent happiness.
This leads to another aspect of why we might tend to commit suicide. If we tend to expect or long for things to happen at a specific time or under specific circumstances, then when these things continually fail to happen on our preconceived timetable, our accumulated sadness and frustration can cause us to contemplate suicide.
We can develop a high degree of expectation. We have a tendency to think that we can have things just by wishing for them. It may be a modern society/western societal trait, but we tend to want things right away and are unwilling to wait or make effort to get what we want. We expect things to come to us easily and instantly. Unfortunately reality doesn’t always work that way. In actuality, reality doesn’t work that way at all. We have created a society where other people have done a lot of the preparatory work which then allows us to have things more quickly. Failing to recognize that a lot of work has already been done, causes us to be impatient when we end up being the ones who have to do most of the work ourselves.
We have fast food, where the food is pre-processed and frozen and the can be quickly cooked by ourselves or someone else. We have prepackaged meals, frozen dinners, instant this and instant that. We have also invented many devices that do things more quickly and do most of the work for us. We have dishwashers to do our dishes for us, calculators to calculate for us, we have planes and trains and cars to move us around quickly. We have elevators so we don’t have to use stairs. Now we have the internet where we can quickly see, buy, and order from anywhere around the world instantly. Because there are so many things where someone or something else does the bulk of the work for us, we become impatient if we can’t get things right away or if we have to work too hard ourselves, or if it takes too long. The result is that we are too easily frustrated. In this type of society, patience and perseverance need special attention in order to be developed and yet the effects of a lack of patience and perseverance, tolerance, and commitment are very visible in today’s world. Developing these qualities would go a long way in solving many of today’s problems.
There are many Buddhist books called Lam Rim, or “Stages of the Path”, as well as translations of Shantideva’s “Guide to the Bodhisattva way of Life” which have detailed instruction on how to develop Patience and Perseverance.
LONGING TO ESCAPE THE SUFFERING
Much of these type of motivations for suicide boil down to an effort to escape our suffering. Ironically, it is more likely to be mental grief than physical pain that we are trying to avoid. I say ironically because physical pain can be very painful and long lasting. Thoughts and emotions are a lot more momentary, but we can generate them and become caught up with them very quickly and intensely. They can be like flypaper. Once we get stuck in them it’s hard to get them to let go. Actually the real problem is that we have a hard time letting go of them. Part of the reason for this is not understanding how emotions work. Another part of the reason, as stated before, is that we identify ourselves too strongly with the emotions that we are feeling and we take the thoughts that we experience to be more real than they actually are. We define ourselves too much by our thoughts and feelings.
A lot of the desperation that comes with this longing to escape suffering comes from continuousness of our suffering. Days and Days with little or no sleep or being in constant physical pain or being unable to shake a feeling of sadness or lethargy can all wear on our ability and desire to keep functioning.
In many of these types of situations, we need to differentiate the physical component and the mental one. The majority of the physical component and some of the physical symptoms of mental illness will probably need to be treated with some type of medication. However there may be some problems where there is nothing to do but put up with them. We would be wise to investigate and find out exactly what can be done, though, in order to avoid any unnecessary misery. The mental aspect of these difficulties can also be worked on to allow us to cope better with our physical condition and some of our physical and mental symptoms. It is with these chronic physical and mental illnesses that getting help is particularly important. The longer we wait to get help, the more difficult it becomes to learn how to cope and the more difficult the process of healing becomes.
There are still a lot of things that we can do from our own side to aid in coping and maybe even healing. One of these things is, in looking for and getting help, to be persistent and keep looking until we get the help that we need. We may not find it right away and we may not find it amongst our regular medical professionals. It may be difficult, because most of the time we already don’t have a lot of energy in these circumstances. This is one area where patience and perseverance is really called for.
Another thing that we can look for is the ebb and flow that’s found even in regular suffering. Even with continuous pain, the intensity varies and there are gaps in the suffering. Focussing on the gaps and relaxing as much as we can with the degrees of intensity and noticing the moments of lessening suffering can help us be more patient with our pain. Another trick from within the Buddhist teaching is to imagine that, through the suffering that we are experiencing, others are becoming free of their suffering. Visualizing taking on others’ suffering and sending them happiness and peace while we are undergoing suffering can give our suffering purpose and help us to feel better about what we have to go through.
It can also help to notice the details of our pain. What kind of pain is it? When does it arise? Under what circumstances is it more and what circumstances is it less? We can delve into the feeling completely; developing complete acceptance of the painful feeling. We can breath into the pain and relax as much of our body and mind as is possible under the circumstances. We can look at the circumstances surrounding our pain and look at the causes. Objectively analyzing our pain and totally accepting it emotionally by viewing it as a curiousity can help us cope a little better. There are lots of pains though that only medication can help, but practicing patience with our suffering and trying to remove our emotional resistance to it can help reduce the intensity.
Emotional pain is usually called grief in Buddhism. It’s an interesting choice of words because the word grief subtley implies a loss. It seems to be true that emotional pain is about some kind of a loss and it is intensified by the degree to which we are unable to let go of the feeling, our viewpoint, our expectations and desires, or the circumstances surrounding them.
Another large part of our difficulty in dealing with emotional pain is dealing with our sense of hoplessness . Again, there is a tendency to feel that we are experiencing only negative emotions, sadness, loss, confusion, frustration. We are tending to look for the big feelings. Because of that, we miss the little feelings of joy, serenity, happiness, and contentment. We miss the little moments of happiness and clarity within the overall sadness, frustration, and confusion. That’s why, in moments of grief it can be helpful to occupy ourselves for a while with some hobby, or small activity that brings us peace or happiness.
A big part of this problem is thinking that we have to be either happy or sad, feeling that we can’t be both or that we have to choose between being constantly happy or being constantly sad. But no matter what anyone says, it’s impossible for happiness and sadness related to worldly things or worldly relationships to be permanent.
This is where recognizing that the thoughts and emotions related to temporary things are themselves temporary. Calm-Awareness meditation allows us to experience these things and learn not to hold on to them so tightly. Because of that, and by reminding ourselves of the temporariness of these thoughts and feelings as well as their dependence on the circumstances that they arose in, we can begin to see the thoughts and feelings that exist beyond these momentary feelings. It is within these feelings that are NOT related to our temporary world that we can find a real sanctuary from the sufferings that we experience.
Therefore a major part of the remedy to our suffering is to become convinced and accept that the ultimate remedy does not exist within any aspect of our relative world. When we stop thinking that posessions, sensual pleasure, position, wealth, or status can make us happy and begin to realize that it is possible to look outside of these things for happiness, then we can actually begin to be free from suffering. Until then we are like someone who hits their head against a wall looking for relief.
People often refuse to believe it, but only through focussing on spiritual development can we really and permanently escape our suffering. We need to be clear though that spiritual development does not mean any particular belief or set of beliefs. From the Buddhist point of view, it means developing the qualities that are free of the potential for suffering. This involves developing contentment and non-attachment. It means learning to use patience and Compassion when dealing with the world. Most importantly, it means gaining an Understanding of, and gaining Confidence in working with, our own nature and the nature of our reality.
This understanding means recognizing and accepting the temporary nature of this world. It means recognizing that by succumbing to attachment, aversion, or indifference in regards to our circumstances, we can turn them into suffering. It means that we need to remind ourselves that everything is made up of interdependent parts that are established through a set of causes and conditions. Finally, we need to remember that beyond this relative world, there is nothing ultimate and no underlying essence.
From the Buddhist point of view, the only way to escape our suffering is to begin to live from within this understanding. By lining up our thought, speech, action, and livelihood with this understanding, we can become freer and freer from misery or the potential for misery. The Buddhist way of doing this is by developing and using mindfulness, concentration, and effort.
Sometimes with suicide there is the notion that we wish to spare others the difficulties of dealing with us or our situation. This type of idea should raise alarm bells however and great care is needed when thinking about these notions. A lot of suicide has to do with a negative view of our circumstances or a negative view of ourselves.
From within that negative view, we tend to ignore or diminish the importance, the value, and the contribution that we have on others and their lives. It is important to talk about these feelings with the people concerned, and hopefully they will communicate to us our value and importance. Of course, this also means that we have to then believe them when they tell us these things. This is another aspect of suicidal thoughts. We’re ready to believe the worst and not ready to believe something good, especially concerning our selves and our situation.
THE KARMIC CONSEQUENCES OF SUICIDE
Suicide, like everything else in Buddhism, is handled from a Karmic point of view. Committing suicide is a sign of having forgotten our BuddhaNature. It’s a sign of a loss of confidence and a loss of a sense of perseverance in the knowledge that we CAN achieve anything, but it requires setting up the right causes and conditions. It also comes from having expectations that don’t match our reality. Sometimes this takes a lot of time and effort and no amount of wishing for something different, or wishing for speedier results will help. We always need to remember that we have that inherent wisdom and skillfulness of a Buddha within us and we need to remember patience and perseverance in the setting up of the right conditions.
From a Karmic point of view, if we have created causes for certain sufferings then we can only alleviate those sufferings by eliminating the causes. Until the causes are eliminated, those sufferings will continue to arise. So, even if we commit suicide, we will be reborn and the problem will arise again, because the causes are still there. So suicide doesn’t solve the problem it only delays our experience of it. There is also the possibility that, with each delay, the suffering gets worse because the force of the causes increases. So from that point of view, suicide does not solve even a small part of our problems.
Another problem with suicide as well is that we end up with the tendency to think of suicide when we have difficulty in getting what we want. Each time we commit suicide, the tendency to view it as a way out of our problems increases and the tendency to use suicide to solve even smaller problems becomes more likely.
Therefore it is important to recognize that suicide doesn’t really make our problems disappear, it actually makes things worse and harder to deal with AND we need to remember that, with patience, a real investigation of the details of our problems, and perseverance, we can use our natural intelligence and skillfulness to overcome our obstacles.
Those who have only an intellectual knowledge of Karma might use the line “they bring it on themselves”, but anyone who has actually tried to work with their own Karma understands how insidious it is and how caught up we actually are in our image of ourselves and in our attachments and attached even to our confusion.
Working with our individual karma is not easy at all and anyone who has experienced that can only be sympathetic to those who get so completely lost that they can’t find their way back. That’s what helps generate compassion towards others, because, knowing ourselves how difficult our own liberation is, we can empathize with the struggles of others. People chose suicide as a way out of their suffering, which is their own choice and a mistake, because it doesn’t deal with the causes of their suffering, but that means that they did not see another way out and felt that there was no one that they could turn to and nowhere to go in order to find a way out – which just adds to the sadness of the situation.
WHAT CAN WE DO TO HELP BEFORE AND AFTER A SUICIDE
Before some one commits suicide, if we can help them gain confidence and have a wider perspective, then we can perhaps help them overcome the urge to take their own life. Usually they have to approach us though, because, otherwise, they are not really ready to listen. This can be a difficulty because, they can be so far gone as to negate any positive ideas or any suggestions that they have their own capacity to improve their circumstances. We need to recognize that, even if we try our best, they might still not listen or believe what we say.
A lot of these types of situations can be avoided if we make sure on a daily basis that we thank the people around us for what they do or that we show appreciation for what they contribute to our lives. We need to compliment those around us and recognize their contribution. We need to feel, and express our gratitude. An important part of that is to reflect on all of the things that we can be grateful for in our own lives. If everyone reflected on the things they have to be grateful for, that would also reduce the amount of suicide in the world. If those around us feel appreciated, their accomplishments recognized, and their feelings and ideas valued, then they are less likely to have suicidal thoughts or, even if they do think of suicide, it can more easily be dismissed.
When it comes to helping when they have already died, there are things that we can do in Buddhist beliefs. In Buddhist countries, there is a practice, when another person dies, to perform virtues immediately after their death, and sometimes even for 49 days afterwards, and to then dedicate the merit from those deeds to the deceased person so that they may have a higher and more suffering-free existence in their next lifetime. This is one way that we can help someone who has committed suicide. In the case of someone who has killed themselves, these merits can also be dedicated to counteracting the sufferings that these people experienced which lead them to taking their own life, so that suicide will be less likely a solution for them the next time.
Tibetan Buddhism teaches that there is an intermediate state between our death and our next lifetime. They call this the Bardo. This Bardo can last up to 49 days. Tibetan Buddhists believe that, especially during that time, it is possible to communicate with the dead person and to provide them with teachings, guidance in the afterlife, and encouragement to look for a better future existence. This is the aim of the Bardo prayers in the Tibetan Book of the Dead. They summon the dead person and then talk to them and guide them. We can do the same with anyone who has died, and, if we believe this is possible, then this is when we can send the dead person any message we wish.
Speaking of normal, it’s normal to feel angry when someone we know commits suicide. We wonder why they didn’t come to us for help. We wonder why we didn’t pick up any signs. We curse them for leaving and we curse ourselves for not being able to intervene. It helps to look at exactly what we’re upset about and then either put it in the context of seeing the circumstances clearly (most suicides are very good at hiding their suffering and their intentions) or promising ourselves to learn from the experience and try to do better in future similar situations.
We are also angry at them because we have also now experienced our own loss and we become angry as a first response as we head towards feelings of sadness at that loss. They stole something precious from us with their act – them and our friendship and relationship. The important thing is to recognize that these are just feelings related to this situation and none of them are permanent. Our feelings of sadness and frustration are just because we recognize the value and importance of what we lost. We can focus on the loss or we can focus on our appreciation for the benefits that we gained from that relationship and feel grateful that we had the chance for such an experience altogether.
EUTHANASIA AND ASSISTED SUICIDE
As I’ve mentioned before, human life is regarded in Buddhism as the best opportunity of all types of rebirth for being introduced, starting, and advancing in Spiritual practice. It contains adequate misery to keep us motivated to practice, but it also contains many opportunities and resources required for many different types of Spiritual Practice. So, from a Buddhist point of view, this human birth is like a precious jewel.
At the same time Buddhism recognizes that everything is an individual choice and that there may be circumstances where there is no longer a possibility of using our human existence for development. An example may be if we are on artificial life support or that our minds are so far gone as to no longer be able to function. Even in this instance, the Buddhist focus on individual control and choice in terms of our life and death means that euthanasia would be more acceptable if it was known that the person on life support or unable to decide for themselves had already made their wishes clear regarding these types of situations. Buddhist beliefs in not taking life would make it difficult for a Buddhist to make that decision for someone else. The Buddhist emphasis on personal choice and on not taking life, makes euthanasia a very extreme measure and not likely to be used in a Buddhist culture or society. However, under extreme conditions, such as taking someone off of life support, it may be considered acceptable.
Buddhism in general lays down its rules and then allows each person to make their own choices about the degree to which these rules are followed. Buddhism teaches about the spiritual and worldly results of our choices and recognizes that situations are of an infinite variety. Therefore Buddhism asks its followers to examine the consequences for themselves recognizing that the best actions are those that benefit ourselves and others both now and in future lives. Because of this, there is very little dogma in Buddhism. Buddhism asks us to examine the results, make our own choices, and be prepared to live with the spiritual and worldly results of those choices.
In talking to our disabled friends, all of them would not have wanted to be euthanized, aborted or any such thing. They all want people to focus on their abilities and not on their disabilities. Many people who have experienced Cancer and its pains and difficulties have viewed their experience with cancer as a tremendous learning experience and a trigger for getting them to focus on more of the truly important things in life. In the same way, even though some lives may contain a lot of external misery, not all of their existence is miserable and there can be many internal benefits, and even external ones, as well. These things need to be considered when contemplating Euthanasia or Assisted Suicide.
Assisted suicide, because of the role of individual choice, is a little more acceptable. However, the Buddhist value on human existence, means that a Buddhist would take a great deal of care and examination of what would be lost and what would be gained in agreeing to assist in suicide. A Buddhist would probably not take the person’s life themselves, but, if they did agree to help, would help with the environment etc. A Buddhist would probably spend a lot of time working with the person to re-examine their decision to end their life prematurely. The Buddhist tendency is to feel that only those who have a very high degree of Enlightenment have the skill and understanding needed to take their own life without it having a harmful spiritual effect for their future. A Buddhist may finally agree that the person is justified in using suicide, but would be very reluctant to assist in the process themselves.
In Tibetan Buddhism, there is a practice called Powa or transference of Consciousness, which a skilled practitioner can perform on themselves or, if very skilled, they can help others perform on themselves. This is usually done at the time of death to help guarantee a higher rebirth in the next life. It involves an understanding of what happens to our consciousness and energy when it leaves the body at death. This can end up speeding up death in case of those who may be having trouble in the dying process. Again, it is normally used when death is definite and with the participation or cooperation of the dying person.
So Suicide results from being overwhelmed by a sense of hopelessness, a lack of confidence, a feeling of aloneness when combined with loss, shattered hopes and dreams, a longing for relief from our suffering and impatience with our ability to get that relief. All of these things seem to feed off of each other and propel us closer and closer to the idea to use suicide as a way out. But, as stated before, and especially from a Buddhist point of view, it doesn’t really solve the problem and creates all sorts of difficulties for ourselves in the long run (beyond this lifetime). Also, it fails to acknowledge our importance to others and the value that we bring to their lives. As a result they end up sad, angry, and hurt because we didn’t come to them for help and because, by killing ourselves, we stole something that they considered precious in their lives, US.
Much more can be said about each of these issues and about suicide in general and how we react to being overwhelmed by suffering. Hopefully this will start a reflection on these issues and some more analysis and discussion of how we can help heal some of these wounds. If the ideas that I’ve presented in this note on suicide, its causes, and its results helps prevent one person from taking their own life, or helps one person better understand the pain and hopelessness that can cause someone to commit suicide, then I feel it was worthwhile. I sincerely hope that whoever reads this benefits and is encouraged by these words.
LINKS TO OTHER DISCUSSIONS OF BUDDHIST VIEWS ON SUICIDE