Euthanasia, taken from a Greek word meaning a good death, refers to the practice of intentionally ending a life to relieve pain and suffering. There are two different types of euthanasia, namely voluntary and involuntary. Voluntary euthanasia is when death is hastened with the consent of the dying person, and involuntary is when no consent is possible because the dying person is brain dead or in a long term coma. It can be further divided into active and passive euthanasia. Active is when something is done to end life, such as a lethal injection, and passive is when treatment is withdrawn and nature is left to take its course. Laws on euthanasia are different from country to country, so here I am only looking at the moral implications of euthanasia and not the legal.
Buddhism places great emphasise on not killing living beings, in fact, it is the first of the five precepts. So at first glance you would think euthanasia is wrong within Buddhism. However, it has to be noted that the precepts are not hard and fast rules, and were giving as training rules and not commandments. Also in Buddhism great emphasis is giving to Compassion. So if someone is dying in terrible agony, wouldn’t it be an act of compassion to hasten their death, with their consent or after consulting a doctor?
As with all contentious issues, there are countless different view points. Here I have selected three that I feel give a good cross section of opinions from within the Buddhist community. Firstly, Dalai Lama stated that all life is precious and so it is better to avoid euthanasia. However, he further stated that there are exceptional cases and so each case should be judged on an individual basis. This seems to leave room for euthanasia in certain circumstances.
Secondly, Thanssaro Bhikkhu, a Buddhist monk and scholar, stated that Gautama Buddha did not try and ease the patient’s transition to death, but concentrated on insight into suffering and its end. So, from Gautama Buddha’s perspective, encouraging a sick person to relax their grip on life or to give up the will to live would not count as an act of compassion. It seems Thanssaro Bhikkhu believes it is more compassionate to watch a loved one die in agony.
Thirdly, Lama Zopa Rinpoche stated he was more concerned with the outcome of the person’s next life. He said that people think performing euthanasia is an act of compassion, but he believed it also has to be carried out with wisdom. If the person will have more peace and happiness in their next life, the act will be good, however it may mean the person is reborn in a lower realm and their suffering will be a million times worse.
He went on to say that if a person is going to stay in a coma for many years, rather than spending thousands of dollars keeping them alive, support should be withdrawn and the money used to purify their negative karma, which may cause them to suffer in future lives. This approach is fine if there is a next life, but I cannot honestly be sure of that fact, can you?
So in Buddhism it seems to boil down to these three factors; the precept of not killing, compassion and wisdom.
Gautama Buddha taught the precepts so we do not cause harm to ourselves and others. If we turn them into rules we run the risk of them becoming detached from human suffering. This in turn will lead us down the wrong path and could cause us to harm others in the name of Buddhism. Compassion should be educated and informed. It should stem from our own experiences and understanding of the world. It should not be an act of sympathy, but should be empathic. If it is carried out in this way, it is coming from wisdom.
My own personal view is that euthanasia should be viewed on a case by case basis. It has to be a three way decision, if possible, between the patient, the family and the medical team. If the patient is not able to be involved, then the other two parties have to do what they believe is correct and kind. Of course life is precious, but if someone has totally lost their quality of life and will never recover from their illness, it seems euthanasia is the kindest approach.
If your loved one was lying in excruciating pain with a terminal illness, what do you think is the compassionate and wise thing to do? Should you let them suffer in this life, hoping that their next life will be better, or should you relieve them of their agony in the here and now? These are not easy questions to answer and I pray that I never have to, but if I do, I hope I would act out of compassion and not hide behind ancient texts or what someone thought Gautama Buddha said or didn’t say.
If you find yourself in this awful situation at the moment, my heart goes out to you and I hope you are able to find some inner strength.
As this is such a personal issue, I believe we should talk about it to our relatives and loved ones. This way they will know your opinion should anything happen.
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This article was first posted in March 2014.