SuttaCentral

Suicide Cases in the Suttas and the "authenticity"(early/late etc) of the texts


#1

Suicide can be a thorny topic for monastics and it’s been one that has come up in questions to me lately. Obviously suicide is harming a being(yourself) and therefore to be avoided if at all possible, but it’s hard to not come across as harsh saying that in a case where compassion is needed and where for many people there is a great divide in the view between murder and suicide.

This especially becomes thorny when people know of the one or two cases where monks have killed themselves in the canon(either being arahants or becoming arahants in the process). In trying to explore this topic the thought came to me to explore the texts themselves and see if Bhante Sujato and Ajahn Brahmali have explored these texts and what their views are on the “authenticity” of these texts are.

  1. Vakkali - https://suttacentral.net/en/sn22.87 [SN22.87]

  2. Channa - https://suttacentral.net/en/sn35.87 [SN35.87]

I’m not familiar with any other suttas where a monk “used the knife” but if there are everyone feel free to add them. Interesting enough both of these Suttas where monks use the knife take place when the Buddha was staying at Rajagaha in the Bamboo Grove, the Squirrel Sanctuary. Both monks are gravely ill and both have fellow monks who go to check in on them with the stock sick phrases " are you bearing up", " I hope your painful feelings are subsiding etc". Both monks are questioned as to their insight and then left to their devices, where they use the knife. The only major difference I see is that Vakkali is visited by Devatas. Then the monks go to the Buddha both times and he declares their blamelessness in using the knife.

So am I reading too deeply into this? or is it just a simple cut and dry thing that as long as you are an arahant or close enough to it then suicide is blameless, but is harmful otherwise? What of the “authenticity” of these texts, the fact that in thousands of pages there is only one or two cases etc? I’m certainly no scholar, nor do I plan to be one, so I rarely post on here, but I’d like to get some more expert opinions.


#2

@Jayantha

there’s also the Godhika Sutta SN 4.23

You might be interested in the following articles:

I think Ven Anālayo has written more on the subject but I do not find them available on the web at the moment (though I only did quick search, so they may be)

PS Also there’s SN 54.9, a rather difficult story about the mass suicide of monks during a time when the Buddha was on retreat and these monks had apparently misunderstood the asubha practice the Buddha had spoken about, and hence became so disgusted with their bodies that "they used the knife’.


#3

Just for reference, this topic was somewhat discussed in this thread:


#4

I do not know of any reasons to think these suttas are inauthentic, but then I haven’t studied them with this in mind. If I were you, I would follow Linda’s advice and have a look at Ven. Analayo’s research. He is generally a very reliable scholar.

In general, as with all action (kamma), it is the motivation behind it that gives it its ethical significance. In other words, the act of suicide is itself ethically neutral. If someone commits suicide as an act of revenge, then this is obviously bad kamma. If, however, you are doing it because you are terminally ill and in great pain, and you are motivated by compassion for yourself (and perhaps also for others who have to deal with your situation), then I cannot see how the kamma could be bad.

There are clearly a lot of grey areas here, and I think it is better to see kamma in terms of shades of grey than as either black or white - and there is sutta support for this. So in the case of suicide, as with any action really, one should avoid the darker shades of grey and only act on the lighter ones. Total purity of action is very rare, but something to aim for as the path matures.


#5

SN 35.87 looks exactly like MN 144 Channovaada sutta. I haven’t checked each word though, so maybe it’s just a partial match.


#6

Ajahn Brahmali

I have a personal question relating to intention of ending life. I have a rare disease and almost wanted to commit suicide or ending my life. My health been up and down. My intention of ending life is not the fear of death but fearing my wife suffer in taking care of me. Fortunately, both of us read Sutta and realize ending ones life is wrong. Because I accepted my health condition, we used it to see the truth. But upon reading your reply, it seems that I can consider ending my life if intention is good and based on situation. Is that right? I am sorry for asking this questions because I do have rare disease and my health been up and down. I know one day very soon I might need to consider ending my life or not. :pray:


#7

My sense of this question is that, as Ajahn Brahmali stated, is that kamma is practiced across a broad spectrum of grey. The quality of the kamma is measured by the intention behind it. With questions of suicide, for many the quality of their thinking and reasoning may be distorted. Some people that have severe illnesses perceive their lives to be of lesser worth, and their caretaking a burden on others. Yet, some illnesses are accompanied by depression, and depression can be a condition that truly distorts and clouds one’s thinking.

Some diseases may be managed better, or may have treatments that come available within years that are worth waiting for. It seems to me that in many cases, the people that care for a loved one with a disease do so out of love and compassion, and the loss of that person to the family would bring about great harm. Suicide can be akusala in that there can be a lot of collateral damage when someone takes their own life, even if in the midst of their depression they feel (incorrectly) that these loved ones would be “better off” if they were gone. I feel it’s important that if someone has a significant illness, that they have access to mental health care, as well, so that the illness of the body does not trigger too much illness of the mind, or if the depression and anxiety is there, that it is manageable.

I don’t speak of this in a vacuum. My Mom, who is 82 but has been as healthy as a horse her entire life, was diagnosed with cancer this year, and the chemo is absolutely poisonous, and she is, per my sister, eating anxiety meds (tossed at her by her doctor without advice or follow up) like candy. Stubbornly, she doesn’t want to listen to others, and I can see how this illness has overtaken her thinking, and has compromised her. She would benefit from some psychological care, but being “old school,” doesn’t want this.

I support assisted suicide, for those whose doctors, psychologists and family members as a panel, all agree with the patient that the quality of life has passed, and that no medical progress can be made. There’s no reason for someone whose body has ended its useful life to struggle on with artificial means, either comatose or in pain. The great LP Chah may be an exception to this idea; he chose to live another approx. 10 years after his body failed and he lost the ability to speak and was paralyzed. He stayed in this world for the sake of his Sangha. His Sangha cared for him and derived great merit from this; and many of them have stories of LP Chah’s positive influence even after his body gave way. Yet, for many, it must be meditated on with a clear mind, with insight gained as to the effect that a suicide might have, both on the patient and on beloved members of family and friends. For many with a serious or terminal disease, suicide is not the best option. Any decisions this way must be carefully analysed. Failing that, the act, the kamma, darkens, in my view. The intention is less than pure and wise and heartfelt, and the decision less than skillful.


#8

You might find references in the Vinaya commentary as well as suttas.

In this document the section on page 74…75 begins …

Should any bhikkhu intentionally deprive a human being of life, or search for an
assassin for him, or praise the advantages of death, or incite him to die (saying): “My
good man, what use is this evil, miserable life to you? Death would be better for you than
life,” or with such an idea in mind, such a purpose in mind, should in various ways
praise the advantages of death or incite him to die, he also is defeated and no longer in
affiliation.

… i.e. it says that “praising the advantages of death” – with the intention of causing death – is tantamount to killing … so that’s the worst advice a monk could give.

Anyway, a little further down from there it says,

The question arises as to whether one’s own life would qualify as “object”
under this rule—in other words, the extent to which attempted suicides are
covered here. The Vibhaºga to this rule mentions three types of suicide, treating
each of them differently.
a) In the origin story, bhikkhus search for assassins, i.e., get other people to
take their lives. That action is directly mentioned in the rule and explained in the
Vibhaºga, so it does come under the rule.
b) The Vinita-vatthu includes a case in which a bhikkhu tries to commit
suicide by throwing himself over a cliff, and the Buddha formulates a separate
rule to cover that case. The penalty assigned by the rule, however, does not fit
the pattern for derived offenses under this rule, which shows that an attempted
suicide of that sort would not be treated here.
c) The origin story also tells of bhikkhus who take their own lives, but the
main rule here does not mention that action, nor does the Vibhanga discuss it.
The Commentary extrapolates from the rule in case (b) to cover almost all
attempts at suicide, but there are reasons for questioning the Commentary’s
reasoning on this issue. For a discussion, see “Special cases,” below.

In theory there’s e.g. a Jataka tale in which the Boddhisattva jumps off a cliff to feed a tigress – according to the story that was to protect the tigress’ sila, mind you, i.e. to stop her killing her own cubs.

In fact I tend to advise that suicide seems to be motivated by craving – e.g. vibhavataṇhā – which Buddhists are explicitly warned against, aren’t they, in SN 56.11


#9

This is a topic I feel should probably not be discussed on a forum open for anyone to read.


#10

Hello!

Welcome to the forum, although I’m saddened to know that this question related to your illness is likely the reason you joined.

In a purely technical sense, this would be the appropriate place to ask a question regarding the EBT take on suicide. As it is for you a deeply personal question, I can’t encourage you strongly enough to seek advice from an advisor in your community who knows you and can provide the support you need.

May you find happiness and freedom from suffering. :anjal:


#11

I think that we Buddhists have to be more discerning than this. We humans are far too good at wrapping our baser motivations in flags of virtue. In this case, I would say that what you’re calling “compassion” here is almost certainly just aversion.

Aversion to pain, guilt at what “we’re” putting “our” family through… This is at best delusion: the tendancy to run away and hide from old age and sickness — the delusion that death is somehow an “escape,” as if pain ends with the death of the body.

Unless you’re enlightened, you’re throwing off one body just to pick up another, and the Buddha was quite clear that that is blameworthy.


#12

Bhante, these are difficult questions. We are the heirs of our thoughts and actions, and it’s difficult to say what is the correct course in these matters. Once this body has seen its course, is terminally ill, and destined only for a painful, messy death …there’s a real wisdom and compassion in accepting that fact ( as we do with our death contemplations and asubha practices). If we are truly accepting of this conditionality of the body, then it seems to me that there is wisdom in accepting when it has run its course in this lifetime.

Even as we note the Buddha’s last words, that validation that all things that arise will pass away, we must reflect some measure of wisdom in this acknowledgement that at a certain point, our bodies are finished. We can practice compassion for ourselves and others at that point by accepting with grace and equanimity, as the Buddha did, our last days.

This isn’t aversive; in fact, it seems to me an acceptance head on. Unnecessary suffering is to be avoided, and it seems to me that there is a wisdom in facing what science and reason now can tell us; that at a given point, our natural days in this meat sock are done. Why inflict the delusion, attachment, and suffering of extending this withering flame that is alight only on vapors, for ourselves and our loved ones, further?


#13

Let me be clear: there is a world of difference between a DNR or discontinuing life support, and actively killing yourself. I am only arguing against suicide, not for “extending life at any cost.”


#14

Thank you Bhante. I will cherish this human form regardless of my health conditions. I’ll use every opportunity I have to understand the Dhamma and practice it. :pray:


#15

:slightly_smiling_face: Please do! It’s such a precious opportunity, this short human life :heart:


#16

I felt we should discuss about it. The reason is because all my life I thought taking own’s life is wrong and now there is this thing call compassionate death. I am lost. If not because of my Sutta study and teachers support I would end my life based on view of compassionate death. This issue affects me personally and seeing my dad’s death due to cancer. Hope you understand :pray: :heart:


#17

I think the first precept is more relevant to this issue than the two suttas in relation to Arahant’s suicide.

The first precept made no exceptions. If you agree that the closest modern ethical system to Buddhist morality is consequentialism, then the idea of slippery slope becomes relevant, and the potential harm of allowing room for exceptions outweighs the benefit.

We accept the blamelessness of those who took the knife from the central authority of the lord Buddha to us as Buddhists. Considering that the Buddha is no longer physically present to confirm or dis-confirm the blamelessness of certain acts, suicide becomes immoral and unskillful under all circumstances, at least as an official stance.

All in my opinion.


#18

There is no compassionate death according to Buddha’s teachings .
The individual interpretation certainly not equal to Lord Buddha wisdom .
If one is talking about Buddha’s teachings then one has to differentiate it from one’s own thinking and feelings . Yours or any individual interpretation is not the Buddha’s teachings .
I read some advanced monks whom are able to immerse deep in samadhi left their body in oldage and serious sickness but not in other circumstances .


#19

Suicide is not a way to end suffering. If it were, the dhamma would be unnecessary. The two cases cited are arahants, people who are already perfected and who will not get reborn, who end their life due to excruciating pain. The Buddha specifically states that the only ones who can end their life this way blamelessly are arahants. They are the only ones who can lay down their life and not take another.

For the rest of us, who are not arahants, the way to end suffering is eightfold, and this human existence is a very precious opportunity to practice. Were I to end my life today, I would have no way of knowing where I would be reborn. I could gamble that the Buddha was wrong and nibbana is the fate of everyone who dies, but I would have no way of knowing this for sure.

The reason why I feel discussing this here may be problematic, has to do with right speech. One should not merely be certain that what one says is true, but also that it is beneficial, and should this thread lead anyone to think that suicide is a legitimate way out suffering, it will have caused great harm. Also, palliative care has progressed to the point where the idea of the patient suffering horrendously before death is largely mythical. The vast majority of people who ask for doctor assisted suicide do so because they are afraid of future suffering, or because they are depressed and feel life has become empty/meaningless, not because they are undergoing unbearable suffering and pain management has stopped working.

I have also lost a loved one to cancer recently, and there was never any fear from the doctors that pain could not be managed, if necessary even by inducing a coma.


#20

If managing pain, and depression is so advanced that it can be done so that well, that those things won’t become the reason for suicide, in circumstances that those things are readily available then I can’t think of a situation where one would carry out suicidal attempts. However if such treatment wasn’t available, some might still have sever pain and emotional abuse and trauma, which might lead them to do that, right? If it were up to me I wouldn’t leave out that option, because frankly sila isn’t the end all and be all, in this situation.