Buddhism and euthanasia
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Both "the Vakkali Sutta" and "the Channa Sutta" (Samyutta Nikaya) describe situations in which monks take their own lives to end the physical suffering of terminal illness.
The Vakkali Sutta
In the "Vakkali Sutta" of the Samyutta Nikaya the monk Vakkali, who is "sick, afflicted, gravely ill," tells other monks of his intention to use a knife to commit suicide. Upon learning of Vakkali's intention, the Buddha personally visits Vakkali to speak with him. In the course of their discussion, it becomes apparent that Vakkali is well progressed on the path to enlightenment--having already gained direct and genuine insight into the impermanent, self-less, and ultimately unsatisfactory nature of existence. After the Buddha parts company with Vakkali, he goes to the nearby Mount Vulture Peak to dwell for the rest of the day and night, and that night he is visited by "two devatas of stunning beauty" who remark to him that Vakkali is "intent on deliverance" and that "he will be liberated as one well liberated." The next day the Buddha has monks deliver a message to Vakkali recounting the devatas' auspicious visit and assuring Vakkali that his death will be a good one: "Do not be afraid, Vakkali, do not be afraid! Your death will not be a bad one. Your demise will not be a bad one." After Vakkali receives this message from the Buddha, he "uses the knife," as planned, and kills himself. Upon receiving word of Vakkali's suicide, the Buddha leads a group of monks to the Black Rock on the Isigili Slope, where Vakkali's corpse can be seen:
"Then the Blessed One, together with a number of bhikkhus, went to the Black Rock on the Isigili Slope. The Blessed One saw in the distance the Venerable Vakkali lying on the bed with his shoulder turned. Now on that occasion a cloud of smoke, a swirl of darkness, was moving to the east, then to the west, to the north, to the south, upwards, downwards, and to the intermediate quarters. The Blessed One then addressed the bhikkhus thus: 'Do you see, bhikkhus, that cloud of smoke, that swirl of darkness, moving to the east, then to the west, to the north, to the south, upwards, downwards, and to the intermediate quarters?' 'Yes, venerable sir.' 'That, bhikkhus, is Mara the Evil One searching for the consciousness of the clansman Vakkali, wondering: 'Where now has the consciousness of the clansman Vakkali been established?' However, bhikkhus, with consciousness unestablished, the clansman Vakkali has attained final Nibbāna.'"
It is clear in this sutta that Vakkali's decision to kill himself, with the motivation of ending unnecessary pain associated with his own terminal illness, neither brought reproach from the Buddha nor interfered with Vakkali's personal attainment of total liberation (Nibbana).
The Channa Sutta
In the “Channa Sutta” of the Salayatanasamyutta (Samyutta Nikaya: 35: 87; pp.1164-1167 of the Bodhi translation), the monk Channa, who is suffering intensely due to sickness, tells the monks Sariputta and Mahacunda that his condition is worsening and that he intends to kill himself using a knife:
"Friend Sariputta, I am not bearing up, I am not getting better. Strong painful feelings are increasing in me, not subsiding, and their increase, not their subsiding, is to be discerned. Just as if a strong man were to split my head open with a sharp sword, so too violent winds cut through my head. I am not bearing up… Just as if a strong man were to tighten a tough leather strap around my head as a headband, so too there are violent pains in my head. I am not bearing up....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. I am not bearing up....Just as if two strong men were to seize a weaker man by both arms and roast him over a pit of hot coals, so too there is a violent burning in my body. I am not bearing up, I am not getting better. Strong painful feelings are increasing in me, not subsiding, and their increase, not their subsiding, is to be discerned."
Sariputta and Mahacunda exhort Channa not to kill himself but he decides to do so anyway, asserting that he has led a “blameless” life. Sariputta, believing that Channa may have broken precepts of the Patimokkha (the strict moral code observed by monks) by having inappropriately close relationships with laity—and assuming that Channa would not attain Nibbana upon death as a result—approaches the Buddha to inquire about the nature of Channa's rebirth. The Buddha replies that Channa has done nothing wrong and that he has, in fact, attained freedom from the round of birth and death (Nibbana):
"The Venerable Channa did indeed have these friendly families, Sariputta, intimate families, hospitable families; but I do not say that to this extent one is blameworthy. Sariputta, when one lays down this body and takes up another body, then I say one is blameworthy. This did not happen in the case of the bhikkhu Channa. The bhikkhu Channa used the knife blamelessly. Thus, Sariputta, should you remember it."
It is noteworthy that Channa’s suicide appears to be something of a non-issue in his case, and we may reasonably conclude from this sutta that suicide—when carried out to avoid unbearable physical pain associated with terminal illness—was considered, by the Buddha himself, to be an acceptable course of action.
Views expressed by the Dalai Lama
The Dalai Lama condoned euthanasia for "those in a coma with no possibility of recovery" in an article by the Canada Tibet Committee in the World Tibet Network News, published on 18 September 1996.
- Asked his view on euthanasia, the Dalai Lama said Buddhists believed every life was precious and none more so than human life, adding: 'I think it's better to avoid it.'
- 'But at the same time I think with abortion, (which) Buddhism considers an act of killing ... the Buddhist way is to judge the right and wrong or the pros and cons.'
- He cited the case of a person in a coma with no possibility of recovery or a woman whose pregnancy threatened her life or that of the child or both where the harm caused by not taking action might be greater.
- "These are, I think from the Buddhist viewpoint, exceptional cases," he said. "So it's best to be judged on a case by case basis."
- "Vakkali Sutta" of the Samyutta Nikaya
- “Channa Sutta” of the Salayatanasamyutta (Samyutta Nikaya: 35: 87, pp.1164-1167 of the Bodhi translation)
- SN 22.87
- Bodhi, Bhikkhu (2000). The Connected Discourses of the Buddha. Boston: Wisdom Publications. pp. 1164–1167. ISBN 0861713311.
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