Thursday, July 02, 2009

Suicide In Bhutan: Suicide In Buddhism

From BBC comes disturbing news that the suicide rate is increasing in Bhutan. I don't know if this is factually correct, or just another instance of the British government's new policy of covert action directed against the institution of Buddhism in the Himalayan region.

Still, in all fairness, it would appear that BBC merely picked up an item from Kuensel -- which sometimes tries so awfully hard to be au courant that they act against their own interests.

I'll watch and wait on this aspect of the story, as for some time, many have been seeing evidence of a clever hand seeking to destabilize the Buddhist Kingdom of Bhutan.

Note to King: Western-style journalism makes everybody want to kill themselves.

In any event, upon hearing this story, the first thing everybody says is, "But, how can this be? Bhutan is a Buddhist country!"

So, not only is the story of the putative suicide rate increase in Bhutan impacting the involved parties, and the nation as a whole, but also the world's perception of Buddhism.

Like everything else, this story needs to be carefully examined.

Upon such careful examination, we find that out of a total population of 658,000, in 2001, 58 people killed themselves, whereas in 2006, 34 killed themselves. The assertion that suicide is on the increase therefore seems rather difficult to defend. Further, and as a statistical issue, this may be among the lowest suicide rates in the world.

O.K., so the BBC and Kuensel have quite probably published crap -- looking to stir up trouble before it actually exists -- but the issue of suicide is a serious issue, and the secondary matter of Buddhism's view of suicide might be instructive.

Lama Stories

One has to differentiate the "official" Buddhist view of suicide from lama stories, which are a study unto themselves. Suicide is a complicated tension of some subtlety. With respect to the social, intellectual, and emotional components of suicide, lama stories don't do very much good. They are typically designed to scare, or bully people out of killing themselves, i.e. "if you commit suicide, you'll never again be reborn a human," or the even more dangerous version, "if you kill yourself, you'll be reborn 500 times as a suicide." I once had a lama of my acquaintance spin that approach on a suicidal girl we both knew, and she promptly replied, "Well, maybe I killed myself in the past, and this is my 500th time. Let me get it over with."

Laying Down One Body and Picking Up Another

If Buddhism may be said to have an "official" view of suicide, it would presumably be that suicide can proceed from either (1) malfunctioning emotion, or (2) a superior state of being, Regardless, and under the strictest possible interpretation, suicide would be permissible only if (1) you could lay down one body without picking up another, or (2) the act proceeded in the gravest extreme, for the express purpose of benefiting others, and others actually received such benefit.

Nowhere in this do you see anything about killing yourself because you got loaded on grappa, or your girlfriend/boyfriend doesn't love you, or you're fat and ugly, or you lost your job, or you've failed in school, or nobody loves you, or you've failed at life, or any one of the numerous other, common, egocentric operas of self-pity.

So, it comes down to being a jerk or a bodhisattva. That shouldn't surprise any of us. Most everything does.

There is a third, and possibly surprising category: self-destruction in the face of extreme pain. We have the canonical example of the monk, Channa the Elder, who unable to bear the pain wrought by his medical condition, kills himself with a knife. Here is what the Buddha has to say:

"Whosoever, Sariputta, lays down one body and takes up another body, of him I say, 'He is to blame.' But it is not so with the brother Channa. Without reproach was the knife used by the brother Channa."

Some things cannot be evaluated by conventional means.

Here, it is a highly individualized situation. What applies in Channa's case applies only to Channa.

My best friend killed himself for the same reason, when suffering from an extremely painful terminal illness: so painful that even the morphine just stopped helping. He did not use a knife; rather, he used a lethal injection to stop his heart. He did this while he was on the telephone with me, and I was trying to talk him out of it. I even offered to come over with a pistol and shoot him, rather than have him load his own karma in that fashion. He replied, "I believe you will, but I can't let you put yourself at risk," and gave himself the injection right there and then. I cannot say that the hypodermic needle used by my friend was without reproach, but I can say that he died with an altruistic thought.

So, it seems there is a certain ambiguity about suicide in Buddhism; a certain amount of room for doubt.

Let us talk about room for doubt.

Does Buddhism Condone Suicide?

Channa, and one or two other examples to the seeming contrary appearance, Buddhism strictly prohibits suicide. This is not necessarily on moral grounds; instead, it is founded on reason. Buddhist commentators believe that in 999,999.9999 out of 1 million cases, suicide proceeds from mental affliction.

All pain occurs in the mind. If you hit your finger with a hammer, it is not the finger that experiences the pain; rather, it is the mind that says, "I am experiencing pain." You can get so damn drunk that you could hit all ten fingers and never a feel a thing until the morning after. Maybe then, the pain you might feel wouldn't be your fingers but your head, from all that bad booze. Regardless, it would still be your mind making the decision, "I feel pain."

Channa was feeling pain in his body. He was ready to gamble his ability to gain enlightenment at the moment of his death against one more minute of the intense suffering he experienced. He had served the Buddha with love, and he felt that this was sufficient to vouchsafe his enlightenment.

The pains of an afflicted mental state are no less than those transmitted pains of the body. We may usefully consider them worse than the transmitted pains of the body. We cannot bring to bear even a whisper of reason because our minds are running hot and wild.

The Man In the Tunnel

I used to live in Colorado. There is a long tunnel on one of the roads there, and on a particular occasion, a man jumped out of his pickup truck in the middle of the tunnel and was immediately killed. His passenger was questioned at some length, and revealed that when they came to the center of the tunnel, people in other vehicles began honking their horns -- the way people often do. The driver of the truck thought that they were trying to warn him of some impending disaster, so he jumped thinking it the prudent thing.

Well, that is suicide. We convince ourselves -- through a process of ideation -- that we have a reasonable solution to a problem that doesn't really exist.

It is an act of conditioned impatience.

Jumping On Grenades

That man didn't just suddenly decide to jump in response to flawed perception. No, he had been self-deceiving himself for years: flawed from the cradle. He had been building and running scenarios, and watching endlessly grinding movies written by himself and other bewildered screenwriters. Face the facts. John Wayne jumps on grenades. Any half-way decent sergeant will tell you that it makes more sense to grab for the grenade and try to throw it back, but all over this mad, mad world, guys who should know better will still jump on a grenade, just because they saw it in the movies.

This can extend to altruistic impulses -- it can happen exactly the same way. All those well-known paving stones on the road to you know where.

I once decided to ruin my own life because I thought it the only way to save somebody else from ruining theirs. In the space of a moment, really, I just threw everything away. I did this quite deliberately.

It was an act of conditioned impatience.

I don't regret this. I did what I did because I loved the person. I did not want to see them come to ruin, and I thought... well, I thought better me than them, because I have already experienced great privilege and benefit -- the moon of good fortune -- whereas this person's dreams might never come true if I don't take this hit for them. What do I really care about fame or blame? Nevertheless, I have thought about this in light of the years that have passed, and I have decided that it was imperfect: too great a sacrifice for too small a result.

Ergo, not all suicides involve taking one's own life in the final, physical sense.

Don't Become the Victim of Your False Friend

You can decide to stay trapped in situations that you know are absolutely dead-end. That is a suicide. You can decide to continue with behaviors that you know lead to destruction. That is a suicide. You can fail to learn from your mistakes. That is a suicide. You can go on flirting with the things to avoid, thinking the consequences somehow don't apply to you. That is a suicide. You can keep on believing that because you are some kind of a mumbo-jumbo Buddhist, then you've really done enough. That is a suicide.

The message I am trying to bring to you is that suicides don't "just happen." They are the product of a long series of flawed decisions, habitual misperceptions, and your false friend -- your "self."

You can use whatever excuse comes in handy, but the cake you bake is made of the same ingredients as everybody else's cake.

Cowardly Lions

As I wander this wide world, over and over again, I come to the conclusion that most lamas and priests are cowards. They are generally afraid to tell you what it means to them, whatever "it" happens to be. Lately, I have been thinking that when you give somebody the benefit of your experiences, without sharing what went into those experiences, you are really engaging in an authoritarian gesture. Maybe I am right, maybe I am wrong, and probably it is an idle exercise to even think this way. Still, since I am trying to talk you out of killing yourself, it might be useful for you to understand that I have already looked into the matter very, very carefully, for a long, long time, from many, many angles.

I am telling you what suicide means to me.

So, I fold these very dirty hands, and I implore you, don't be foolishly impatient. This whole situation is just one great, big, lying projection that is glittering and shimmering with impermanence, you and me are both crazy, and if all we do is just wait it out, the whole situation will change into something else. We won't have to lift a finger. It will all happen naturally, and effortlessly.

This has nothing to do with morality, with cowardice or bravery, with devils or angels, with sadness or suffering, or even with pain.

Suicide is the only mistake you could ever make that you won't be able to learn from in any immediately useful way. You think you'll learn what feels like to die? Tick-tock. You already know what that feels like, so what is there to learn?

You don't trust yourself?

That's already a good beginning.

Keywords: suicide, buddhism, what does buddhism say about suicide, buddhist suicide, suicide prevention, hand grenades and marriage, suicide kings, pommy british journalists, trendy bhutanese journalists, bhutan, destabilization of bhutan, wicked witch of the west

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1 reader comments:

Jan said...

Why lamas have to fear people ? i thought it's about bringing wisdow to people not by fear but with undestanding ... not every gold that shines like gold is gold .. ))