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What Are Buddhist Perspectives on Euthanasia and Physician-Assisted Suicide?


General Reference (not clearly pro or con)
The Dalai Lama, PhD, Tibetan head of state and spiritual leader, was cited by Agence-France Presse in a Sep. 18, 1996 article titled "Dalai Lama Backs Euthanasia in Exceptional Circumstances":

"The Dalai Lama boosted the spirits of supporters of legalised euthanasia here Wednesday [Sep. 18, 2009], saying mercy killing was permissible in certain exceptional circumstances under Buddhist philosophy...

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.'"

Sep. 18, 1996 - Dalai Lama, PhD 

Ankur Barua, MD, former Assistant Professor of the Sikkim-Marnipal Institute of Medical Sciences, wrote in a 2009 paper titled "Buddhist Bioethics on Euthanasia Practice" available on the Buddhist Door website:

"Trying to make plausible general descriptive claims about Buddhism's attitudes to euthanasia presents us with a number of difficulties. Firstly, there is the relative paucity of explicit Buddhist discussions of this or other bioethical issues. Accordingly, most of the burgeoning secondary literature in this area is reconstructive or speculative to varying degrees. Secondly, there are many schools of Buddhism and no central authority on matters of precept or practice… Buddhists (like most bioethicists, secular and religious) probably generally oppose involuntary euthanasia. But there are Buddhist traditions sympathetic to both voluntary and non-voluntary euthanasia, under certain conditions.

Since voluntary euthanasia often amounts to assisted suicide, it is important to recognise that Buddhist attitudes to suicide have always been much less harsh than Christian ones. Suicide from despair has been seen in Buddhism as a prudential error since, given their unresolved karma, suicides will just be reborn in situations similar to those they were seeking to escape from."

2009 - Ankur Barua, MD 

Dhammavihari, Director of the International Buddhist Research and Information Center in Sri Lanka, wrote in a Oct. 20, 1996 paper titled "Euthanasia: A Study in Relation to Original Theravada Buddhist Thinking" for the Y2000 Global Conference on Buddhism: In the Face of the Third Millennium:

"Here alone [with legalized voluntary euthanasia] the patient claims full responsibility for the termination of his life. It is equally well ascertained that the patient does it with a full awareness of what he is doing. As far as basic Buddhist teachings of the Theravada are concerned this has to be viewed as an error of judgement. This is certainly in violation of the pledge by every Buddhist to abstain from destruction of life...

At the level of the full-fledged monk, considerations regarding destruction of human life, whether one's own or that of another, acquire legal status with the necessary provision for prosecution and punishment. It involves a disciplinary rule of the highest grade [Pàràjikà No.3], requiring total expulsion from monastic life. In the case of voluntary euthanasia, legalized or otherwise, the doctor's share lies only in setting up the involuntary process of execution of getting the lethal dose into the patient's body at his request. In compliance with a patient's request, the doctor is only 'aiding and abetting' a patient who, for whatever reason, chooses to terminate his life. As far as a monk is concerned, this is as serious an offense as murder or man slaughter."

Oct. 20, 1996 - Dhammavihari 

The BBC wrote in "Religions: Euthanasia and Suicide," dated Nov. 23, 2009:

"Buddhists are not unanimous in their view of euthanasia, and the teachings of the Buddha don't explicitly deal with it.

Most Buddhists (like almost everyone else) are against involuntary euthanasia. Their position on voluntary euthanasia is less clear.

States of mind

The most common position is that voluntary euthanasia is wrong, because it demonstrates that one's mind is in a bad state and that one has allowed physical suffering to cause mental suffering.

Meditation and the proper use of pain killing drugs should enable a person to attain a state where they are not in mental pain, and so no longer contemplate euthanasia or suicide.

Buddhists might also argue that helping to end someone's life is likely to put the helper into a bad mental state, and this too should be avoided.

Avoiding harm

Buddhism places great stress on non-harm, and on avoiding the ending of life. The reference is to life - any life - so the intentional ending of life seems against Buddhist teaching and voluntary euthanasia should be forbidden. Certain codes of Buddhist monastic law explicitly forbid it.

Lay-people do not have a code of Buddhist law, so the strongest that can be said of a lay person who takes part in euthanasia is that they have made an error of judgement...

Euthanasia as suicide

Another difficulty comes if we look at voluntary euthanasia as a form of suicide.

The Buddha himself showed tolerance of suicide by monks in two cases. The Japanese Buddhist tradition includes many stories of suicide by monks, and suicide was used as a political weapon by Buddhist monks during the Vietnam war.

But these were monks, and that makes a difference. In Buddhism, the way life ends has a profound impact on the way the new life will begin.

So a person's state of mind at the time of death is important - their thoughts should be selfless and enlightened, free of anger, hate or fear.

This suggests that suicide (and so euthanasia) is only approved for people who have achieved enlightenment and that the rest of us should avoid it."

Nov. 23, 2009 - BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) 

Religion Facts wrote the following in an article titled "Euthanasia and Buddhism: Suicide in Buddhist History" (accessed Nov. 30, 2009):

"Worthy of mention in the context of euthanasia and suicide is the samurai tradition of seppuku, a form of ritual suicide. Most samurais were Zen Buddhists, and their general philosophy was one in which length of life was regarded as far less important than honor. Seppuku was practiced by samurai 'to avoid the dishonour of capture, show loyalty to one's lord by following him into death, protest against some policy of a superior, or atone for failure.' Involuntary seppuku was also the means of capital punishment for the Samurai class.

To commit seppuku, the samurai would first quiet his mind, then slit his stomach open from right to left with a ritual knife. This violent method served to demonstrate the samurai's strength and courage, but would lead to a long, painful death. Thus the ritual seppuku usually included a second samurai, an attendant, who would mercifully behead the one practicing seppuku shortly after he had slit open his own stomach (or sometimes even as he reached for the knife)...

Not only the merciful actions of the second samurai, but the practice of seppuku itself has been compared to the modern-day practice of euthanasia:

The reasons for a samurai's suicide were either (1) to avoid an inevitable death at the hands of others, or (2) to escape a longer period of unbearable pain or psychological misery, without being an active, fruitful member of society. These are exactly the sorts of situations when euthanasia is desired today.

The samurai ritual of seppuku came very close to euthanasia indeed - an assistant would behead the suicide after the suicide had fatally stabbed themselves in order to bring death swiftly and reduce the time the suicide was in pain. The samurai motivation for suicide was similar to that of the person seeking euthanasia: either they had lost a battle and would be killed by their enemies (the analogy is that the patient has lost their battle against the disease, and it will kill them) or they had been so badly wounded that they could no longer be useful members of society (the patient could be in a similar position). In line with Buddhist thinking, the seppuku ritual laid great emphasis on the suicide having a peaceful mind during the action."

Nov. 30, 2009 - ReligionFacts.com