What would the Buddha make of general anesthesia?

I do not believe that general anesthesia existed in the time of the Buddha so I am curious what he would make of it with regard to doctrine. One way to test your understanding of something is to apply it to something new so I think this is worthwhile.

I would like to share one experience I had that really challenged my beliefs at the time. I was waiting outside the operating room on a gurney when my anesthesiologist injected me with anesthesia. Ten minutes later a nurse stopped by to ask how I was doing. I asked her how much longer do I have to wait before they take me to the OR. She told me that my surgery ended 3 hours ago and that I was in the post op room.

I experienced this whole thing as 10 continuous minutes. What would the Buddha say of the gap?

Was this extinguishing of experience nibbana?

Was this just proof of the impermanence of consciousness?

Would he say I experienced something, but memories were just not laid down?

If you want to discuss out of body experiences, what conditions those experiences if not the body?


The Military gives full wipes to people who have encountered space combat and stuff like that. Just because you don’t remember stuff and because you don’t think about it doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. What is physical reality? Operation ouchies are like combat ouchies which include zoom, zoom, zoom. It’s better to not think of just because you wake up happy that you certainly came from somewhere good. I think it’s good to focus on Nibbana as Buddha taught, and respect the Mind.

Hi @Raftafarian,

Thanks for sharing your experience with general anaesthetic. I underwent general anaesthesia for the first time a couple of years ago for a minor procedure and it was also a slightly challenging experience for me conceptually. At least in the sense that I had never been voluntarily knocked out before & it’s a kind of counter intuitive thing to undergo.

I have some comments.

  1. It’s not nibbana, if by nibbana you mean the cessation of greed, hatred and delusion.

It’s not the cessation of perception and feeling either. People emerging from this state are described as radiant in the suttas, and I gather this would also require the cessation of breathing and heart-rate. I experienced none of these things under general and was actually pretty groggy coming out.

  1. I think general anaesthetic does have lessons for us in terms of conditioned consciousness (i
    e. all consciousness) and impermanence. It is a basic fact that bodily consciousness requires a physical base, and that in the absence of suitable base, there will not be consciousness. For me, being unconscious was a good chance to reflect on this afterwards as what is conditioned is also non-self!

  2. My understanding is that each of our bodily senses also has a mental or psychic counterpart (the mind-made body) which explains how people see and hear things (more profoundly!) while disembodied e.g. during an OBE. But normally these mental senses are conjoined with the physical senses so we don’t notice the mental counterpart, which runs up to 100% on the limited physical bandwidth. Which gives people the mistaken impression that we are just physical beings.

  3. But this does raise a question, which is why don’t we automatically just switch over to the psychic or mental sense bases every time the physical bases are obstructed? Why do we go unconscious rather than OBE’ing under anaesthesia?

I understand the answer to this to also be the fact that consciousness is conditioned. Due to the kamma which determines our lifespan, we don’t die or lose our connection with the sense world, we just temporarily lose consciousness and continue our normal sense consciousness afterwards in accordance with our kammic affinity with the sensory world. Because the physical base was just obstructed, not destroyed, the memories can come back later.

Even though it is a bit weird to think about, this is exactly how it should be: we don’t go around in daily life having OBEs all the time or when we sleep, so why should we automatically have them under anaesthetic? Our ties to the sense world are too strong. An OBE basically requires the profound destruction of the physical base/potential for sense experience and would more typically be associated with lack of breathing and heartrate, none of which occur under general anaesthetic.

For comparison…inducing an OBE-like experience through meditation via a mind-made body without destruction of the physical base would require 4th jhana (no breathing and heartrate among other things). This is actually quite dissimilar to what is going on under anaesthetic, so no surprises at all that OBE doesn’t occur, just unconsciousness. :grinning:

→ Just my own reflections on general anaesthesia. P.S. I think the basic explanation for not perceiving time is being unconscious.


I have struggled with this puzzle for 25 years. I really do not know. I think that, until we understand consciousness better, we’re guessing.

That said, what would the Buddha say?

I think it depends on how the Buddha saw consciousness. Did the Buddha think that consciousness depended on the body for its existence and shape like a flame on a candle or did he see it depending on the body for its shape only like water in a glass. Some shapes being associated with typical day-to-day states of mind and some being wholly without form.

I think the former would imply consciousness just ceased to exist and the latter would imply that I had experiences of some shape that were just not laid down in the brain.

I think the metaphor of fire being extinguished applies only to greed, hatred, and delusion and are consistent with both the former and latter possibilities.

My take on the Buddha not declaring whether the body and Jiva were the same or different makes me think he never let his position on this detail to be known.

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It is strange that Sariputra describe cessation of perception and feeling as having very clear faculties. General anaesthesia certainly don’t meet this criteria.

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