Friday, June 3, 2011

Dr. Death Dies: Euthanasia and Suicide?

Amber Dorrian, Seven Dharmachari, Ashley Wells Wisdom Quarterly
Advocate, enabler, possible murderer Dr. Kevorkian with suicide device he invented

Dr. Jack Kevorkian -- famed fighter for suicide "rights" -- has passed away overnight. His tireless efforts to change laws not only in Michigan but throughout the United States led him to prison for assisting in a suicide and being charged with murder in the process.

As American who feel entitled not only to our rights but to medical help to do everything from ruin our health, kill pain, transplant our organs, to kill ourselves. It's the American way.

But it is not the Buddhist way. As unpopular as this position has to seem to many "freedom" loving Western Buddhists, it must be said that suicide is not neutral karma. Euthanasia is not neutral karma. They are decidedly unprofitable. And this is why.

The reason is very simple and uncontroversial. It doesn't even get "religious." Because certainly let everyone and anyone do whatever s/he wants. No one is attempting to dictate or legislate what anyone else does.

Buddhism is not about how to judge others. It is about how to evaluate ourselves and our actions (karma) to maximize the good, eliminate the harmful, and bring about happiness for ourselves, others, and both (which we could think of as society or humanity in general).

All bad karma has only three roots. In fact, one can decide if something is skillful or unskillful (profitable or unprofitable) by honestly and insightfully examining the motivation (cetana, intention) prompting. Of course, karma is not just physical action but verbal and mental action as well.

What are the roots of the unwholesome?
If one's action is rooted (motivated, prompted, impelled, driven, caused, engendered...) by greed, hatred, or delusion then it is impossible for it to have a beneficial (pleasant, welcome, wished for result).

That's a strong statement. And the arguments against it are so painfully obvious that they do not need uttering. All of the confusion is based on details that people simply gloss over because they do not know or because they want to win arguments.

What motivates euthanasia? On the one hand, it would obviously seem to be compassion: "I can't bear to see you suffer. Let me put you out of your misery."

A careful examination of this motive reveals the hate (dosa). First of all "greed, hatred, and delusion" are, of course, not words the Buddha ever used. His words were lobha, dosa, moha (Pali, Prakrit, Magadhi terms). We translate them as with unsatisfactory and misleading English stand ins and then argue about what we know they mean in English. And it's as if we could not careless what they mean in Pali or Sanskrit or Magadhi, the language they were spoken in.

Greed (liking and preferring), hatred (aversion and fear), and delusion (wrong view and ignorance).

Of course, Dr. Kevorkian and euthanasia fans and supporters are not motivated by "hate." They are, however, often motivated by aversion (dosa). These terms differ from the English in one important respect that cannot be overstated. The ancient terms equally mean the entire range of the word. "Hate" (dosa) includes all shades of aversion.

And when someone is suffering (because of illness, because it is assumed they are about to die, because of loss of dignity or capacity, suffering because they are suffering), we think it is our compassion that would motivate us to kill them. But it is not. And the same is true for suicide or enabling suicide. In order to kill, in order to enable, in order to commend death, right at the crucial moment of acting (whether by flicking a switch, speaking a word, or approving in mind) the motivation is AVERSION.

What are we, or what is the person killing whether in the case of suicide or "mercy killing," expressing an aversion towards? That pain we observe. Our own empathy produces an unpleasant, uneasy, sometimes unbearable feeling. (Mirror cells in our brains are now implicated in this process).

It is not possible to kill without this aversion, which itself is rooted in delusion (because we neither understand the enormous value of human life nor the danger in death) and greed (preferring relief from our own empathic or sympathetic suffering).

We have died countless times. We will die countless more. We have been reborn just as many times. This is nothing new. Normally, our aversion does not have major consequences. We leave the room, leave the relationship, leave the situation. People themselves worsen what has happened by dwelling and reacting. That is their karma. What is ours?

Our kindness, our sympathy, our love will always be rewarded -- BUT it will almost never be rewarded on the spot or anytime soon.

Karma Works (out) in Mysterious Ways
The second terrible mistake we make, if the first is failing to comprehend what the Buddha taught by ignoring the actual terms he used, is failing to understand the result or reaction of our action.
  • It is completely mistaken, and it bears emphasizing because it is so popular a misconception, that a suitable definition for karma runs: "Every action has an equal and opposite reaction."
This is true for Newton and Newtonian physics. It may or may not hold up in quantum mechanics. But it certainly fails to hold water in Buddhist terms. The reason is very simple. The actions we perform do not usually bear their result anytime soon. We naturally and naively rationalize when something "bad" happens to us that it is because we did something like that.

The Buddha forcefully rejected this naive view, which was prevalent in Vedic brahmin's ideas about karma (Vedic Brahmanism influenced Hinduism, but they are not the same; there was no Hinduism at the time of the Buddha but was only later developed and then traced itself back to before Buddhism to the time of the Vedas). The truth is the reaction is exponentially disproportionate to the action.

For example, toss a steel bearing at a large rubber mat on the ceiling at 10 MPH, and it will bounce back in the opposite direction at a little less than 10 MPH (some of the energy being dissipated as noise, heat, resistance, overcoming gravity, etc.) But toss it at a sheet of glass, and it will rupture and shatter that glass creating a massive crescendo of noise and shards falling and wounding and possibly gravely injuring the thrower.

For example, killing a human being is just killing -- just doing a simple but significant thing like flicking a switch on one of Dr. Jack Kevorkian's suicide devices. A family may or may not get hurt, society may or may not be negatively impacted, we usually have no idea about the unintended consequences of our killing. But whether or not the dead, the collateral damage victims, or society is harmed, the killer certainly will be. For that action, as simple as it was (maybe taking a pill, pulling a trigger, misusing a razor), brought about a karmically significant action. And that action has the capacity to bring about an exponentially disproportionate result.
  • Since most Americans intuit that there is more to life than this life, acknowledging a future beyond it, most would probably not state that publicly. We are forced to say we hope so but don't know. Did the Buddha know? Did he say? Should we believe it? There's no reason to "believe." We can check. We ourselves can see. But we don't make that effort. We reason we'll just wait and find out. That's our choice; that's our karma. Meditation is the way to know. And for those who don't believe that "seeing is believing," there is empirical evidence and lots of it. Testimonials, hypnosis, legends, religious lore, we reject all of that and assume that's all there is. How many of us look into the scientific evidence for "reincarnation." (Scientists are not Buddhists and usually do not see the distinction between reincarnation and rebirth). The lines of evidence include prodigies, confirmed past life memories and identities, past life body markings, and so on. Having rejected spiritual tradition and science, we didn't know to even look for empirical evidence. Had we, we could have found it. If it runs counter to our view of the world, we'll reject it anyway. It is simply not a part of our experience. It doesn't fit. And until it becomes cool, fashionable, and part of the consensus-reality (zeitgeist), we'll have nothing to do with it, publicly.
As a result of killing (not the ripening of this karma but just societally), we may fall into disrepute, go to court, go to jail, are harmed by others, and may even be killed (death penalty, revenge, or vigilantism). So we suffer greatly, and yet our killing-karma (the deed's reaction) has NOT been met with.

When we, as a result of this karma bearing its results (as rebirth-linking karma, frustrating karma, or any of the many other types and categorizations of karma) meet with those results, it is woeful. It is unwished for. It is unwelcome. It is hard to bear.

If that karma ripens as we are passing away, it will produce rebirth in one of the "unfortunate destinations," the countless worlds categorized for simplicity by the Buddha as four general planes of existence loosely translated as: animal, hungry ghost, demon, and hellion.

(To prevent misunderstanding, these should not be confounded with Judeo-Christian conceptions and categories from which they differ. Those conceptions typically lead to absurdities that causes most of to reject them out of hand as nonsense, and few Christians have the capacity to correct our dismissals without resorting to blind faith. In Buddhism, these categories make sense and are internally consistent. A simple example is that the hells, of which there are eight major realms and countless individual experiences of it, are not populated by "demons" but by hellions and wardens, and while none of them are "eternal" damnation, they certainly seem interminable and agonizing and it is uncertain when one will ever find a way out).

Not satisfied with being a doctor or ex-convict, Dr. Kevorkian wanted to join Congress.

With these two points in mind -- the thorny problem of language and the near impossibility of knowing what karma (from our storehouse compiled in countless past lives) is ripening at any moment or with regard to any event we are experiencing -- all we can say is that karma is action conditioned by intention.

Motivated by wholesome intentions (nongreed, nonhatred, nondelusion, all of which are very wide categories), deeds yield profitable (pleasant, wished for, welcome, beneficial) results when they ripen, which is not likely to be soon.

In meditation it becomes possible to know why something happened. But it is no easy feat. The Abhidharma ("Higher-Dharma," a collection of technical works forming one third of Buddhism) explains how to discern this to some extent.

Only a supremely enlightened buddha actually has the capacity to know the circuitous and otherwise incomprehensibly tangled route karma will take as it works itself out. Yet it is possible for an ordinary person of ordinary capacity to gain absorption (profound meditative concentration) and use it as a foundation for insight practices (vipassana). Going back from the event or circumstance asking the question, "How did this come to be" one cannot directly trace the mind impression back to the significant karma that originated it. It will almost certainly take the help of a qualified teacher who has done it to accomplish, or facility that has been previously developed, but it is possible.

Euthanasia is not necessary
There is a difference between pain and suffering. Pain is a part of life. "Suffering" is optional. (Here it is very important to understand that English and not Pali/Sanskrit is being spoken). Most of our suffering is the result of "mental karma" -- that is, our mental reaction to pain or things we do not like even if it is pleasurable to most.

Dying can be painful. Often it is not. The body has mechanisms for dealing with physical pain. These are automatic and onlookers are almost certainly not aware of them. The mind leaves, the "spirit" (an energy inherent in breath that produces or sustains subtler bodies) leaves. Even if pain or the causes of pain are in the body, they may not be in the mind. Likewise, much suffering may be in the mind that is not first in the body.

Help the dying be in peace and have quiet, relieving their pain, worry, or misgivings. This is compassion. There is no reason to kill them. Their otherwise good result from whatever karma might ripen can be replaced with the unwholesome, unprofitable karma of killing if they kill themselves prematurely. "Anything can happen." Any and many things do happen that we could not have expected. When we are control freaks trying to control the outcome, we almost always make a mess of it. Trust in karma, or produce good (mental and verbal karma) at the time of dying. For whatever ripens at these junctions (these countless transitions from one state to another) conditions the next state.
  • Wishing someone harm will always bring harm (when it ripens, which is not immediate) to the wisher, rarely to the person upon which harm is wished.
  • Wishing someone well will always bring good (when it ripens) to the well wisher, only rarely to the person whom we wish well.
  • Speaking words motivated by greed/hate/delusion (lobha/dosa/moha) will always hurt the speaker, and lots of times the spoken to, too.
  • Speaking words motivated by nongreed/nonhate/nondelusion (alobha/adosa/amoha) will always help the speaker, and lots of times the spoken to as well.
Finally, if there are any misgivings, an important line of evidence comes from the Vinaya ("Monastic Rules," another collection that comprises a third of Buddhism, with the Abhidharma and the Sutras being the other other two thirds). If killing were only the physical act of killing, the Buddha would not have made a rule against the verbal karma of killing.

The rule states that any monastic who kills a human being is "defeated," that is to say, is immediately and irrevocably no longer a monastic and cannot reordain in this lifetime. Loss of this status is not the karmic-result of killing but rather the consequence of violating this disciplinary rule. The karmic result is yet to be met with!

The Monastic Rules goes into more detail. Any monk or nun who encourages or persuades or speaks in praise of another committing suicide (or euthanasia or abortion) will have violated this rule if that person subsequently commits the act. Some words can be as or more harmful than deeds. What motivates such words other than unprofitable mental-karma (motivated by greed, hate or, most likely, delusion)? Such is the power of karma that traps us and that can free us.

Good actions have exponentially disproportionate results. Even a small good act can bear incredible and seemingly undeserved rewards and happiness. Abstaining from killing (in thought, word, or deed) is just such a good act.

We know Dr. Kevorkian was a good and high minded person. His intention was not to harm. Nevertheless, overcome by delusion, he was not helping his karma and ended up doing more harm than good for society. Progress depends on mavericks, rebels, and trailblazers. He certainly opened up conversations about medical treatment, privacy, and choice, but by bringing legitimacy to the unprofitable act of killing, he seems to have further muddied the waters and legitimized the perverse allopathic medical model.

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