Showing posts with label Death. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Death. Show all posts

19 September 2014

Cemetery Practice

The city of Cambridge is old. The University of Cambridge was founded in 1208, but the town dates from centuries earlier. We have the remains of a motte & bailey castle overlooking the town. It was built in 1068 just two years after the Norman conquest. But in fact there are Iron Age settlements in the neighbourhood that are around 3500 years old. This is around the time the earliest Indian texts were composed. Romans and Saxons also lived here at different times. Cambridge was under the Danelaw in the 9th century. 

I grew up in New Zealand where human occupation is thought to have begun ca 1000 CE with the arrival of the first Pacific Islanders, probably from what are now known as the Cook Islands. European's began arriving some centuries later beginning with Abel Tasman from Zeeland, Holland (hence the name), and followed by James Cook from Britain. Most of the evidence of human occupation of New Zealand is only a century or two old. Down the road from me in Cambridge is a church built when the Māori were washing up on the shores of New Zealand. 

In New Zealand we think 100 years is a long time. In Britain we live with much longer roots into the past. But we also have reminders of transiency. Some of the most evocative of these are the various cemeteries dotted around. In Britain each church parish had their own cemetery, though some, like the one I'm going to discuss, were shared between parishes. Many of these are now closed, full of the dead, and are slowly being turned into parks. Even headstones moulder given centuries. I particularly enjoy Mill Rd Cemetery. It's quite large and in a quiet part of town so that one can sit there and have a sense of being isolated from the busyness and business of the city. There are many mature trees and smaller trees, shrubs, brambles (if you will eat berries that grow in a cemetery they are juicy and ripe at this time of year). 

grave markers of that time
are rather ostentatious
Mill Rd Cemetery was consecrated in 1848 and closed in 1949 and thus neatly spans the last century of the British Empire. By 1848 Britain was starting to become seriously wealthy on the back of the Empire, so many of the grave markers from that time are rather ostentatious by today's standards. And yet some stones are now so weathered that the names are unreadable. Acid-rain due to fumes from industry and motorised transport has ablated the sandstone headstones, though marble fairs better. A couple of events of savage vandalism damaged many gravestones. The cemetery is slowly giving way to nature. In fact the management of the cemetery are helping nature out by planting trees.

There are a number of paths through the cemetery. However, after some thought I realised that not all of them are official. Some of them are simply shortcuts that have been worn down by use. In fact in some cases the shortcuts go right over graves. When it rains all the paths flood. If there's a lot of rain people go around the puddles and walk new paths into the grass. Again these frequently go over and across graves with apparently no hesitation. These old graves are not as sacred as new graves, if they are sacred at all. I find this aspect of the cemetery troubling. But then after a few hundred years we treat graves as curiosities to dig up and examine. Where is that line in time?

Another aspect for contemplation is that the cemetery regularly attracts groups of homeless people and/or alcoholics. In dry weather it's a pleasant place to spend time. And often-times people sleep out under the bushes in out of the way places. At one point a regular colony became established. But this is Cambridge and such things are not tolerated here, so they were moved on. Watching these people, whose lives and health are wrecked by drugs, alcohol, or fate, is salutary. I dare not stare for fear of inviting confrontation, but I do think that I could so easily have ended up amongst them. I gave up alcohol more than 20 years ago, before it wrecked my life, but had I waited a little longer it might have done a great deal more damage than it did. Both my grandfathers and at least one of my great-grandfathers were alcoholics. One of my uncles died of an accidental morphine overdose, another was a junky who died from a stab wound to his cirrhotic liver that a healthy man would have survived. There are other addicts in the family. I'm not so different from the dishevelled and unwashed street-people drinking their cheap, ultra-strong beer for breakfast. Having shouted conversations, not comprehending or caring. 

Descendants have
forgotten their ancestors.
But what really strikes me about the graves in Mill Rd Cemetery is that except for one or two, none are tended, kept clear of weeds or offered flowers. Descendants have forgotten their ancestors. And this in a town with more than averagely memorable people. Even holding relatively high office in the town is no guarantee of being remembered. Two or three generations after we die we'll, most of us, be forgotten. We think all the stuff we're doing today is so important. But most of it leaves no lasting impact on the universe. Even if we do manage to pass on our genes, our families forget us. We cease to exist even in memory. History has a very bad memory. Most of what we think of as important today is entirely inconsequential in the long view. All those decisions we agonise over for hours, days and months, they won't be given a moments thought in fifty years. Even if we have kids, our graves will go untended. Our cemetery will eventually be closed and turned into a park. Vandals or acid rain will destroy our modest headstones. People will casually walk over our graves to save a few minutes or avoid a rain-filled puddle.

So the question I find myself asking is this. "What will be my legacy?" OK I've written some books and they are in libraries. But they're printed on acid paper and won't last more than a century. And there were only ever a few dozen copies of each. Perhaps Google will leave this blog to stand for years after I die and stop updating it? Who knows? Maybe they'll start deleting cob-websites after a period of inactivity to save a little bit of money? In fifty years it's not going to matter much. Maybe my academic publications will have a longer life (if I ever get my Heart Sutra material published it might last a century). 

Does it make sense to even think in terms of legacy in this light? And if not legacy, then on what standard do we assess the value of our lives. One can see how life after death holds it's appeal for the majority of people. Or should we adopt the YOLO "live in the moment" maxim? In its hedonistic or contemplative aspects. My experience suggests that moments are only bearable if we know they're going to end. One has to have a longer perspective than just one moment in order for any given moment to be tolerable. In the moment, one is utterly alone. In perspective one is intimately connected. If in the long term we don't make a difference or matter, then perhaps in the short term we matter to the extent we experience our connectivity? Being in a dynamic web of relations is fundamental to being human, perhaps it is the ultimate source of meaning also? 

I don't have answers to these questions and I've become distrustful of people who have easy answers. It seems to me that perhaps contemplating such things is a value in itself without ever coming to an end point. If I ask myself these questions then at least I'm not stumbling blindly through my life with no sense what why I do anything. And one gets the sense that so many people are blind. 

So I continue to visit the cemetery. I sit and enjoy the environment, read, drink ginger beer, watch the people, think about the dead, and wonder about my place in the universe. It's hardly the ancient cremation ground practice, but it seems much better than a church or temple as a place for contemplation (weather permitting).


Pics from Mill Rd, Cemetery.
I enjoy Fentimans and Fever Tree ginger beer. Ginger beer, especially these fairly dry varieties, is a great alternative to alcoholic drinks for those who still like the feel of a bottle in their hand. If more of us drink it, the shops & pubs will stock it. Give it a go.

30 May 2014

Crossing the Line Between Death and Life

In discussing Vitalism and science I mentioned the threshold between living and dead matter. I've already written at some length about the idea of life after death. I've argued that we need to consider Buddhist afterlife beliefs in the context of other afterlife beliefs and to see the structural similarities that make it very similar to other afterlife believes. I've also discussed the problem of transmitting information from one like to another and how pratītyasamutpāda was modified to try to preserve the Buddhist doctrine of karma.

In this essay I want to explore the threshold between death and life, and particularly in this direction, more closely. It seems to me that our perception cannot help but be biased on this subject because of the way we experience life and death. I also want to touch on the state of the field of abiogensis, the study of how living cells might have been created from a combination of non-living components. Of we still don't have all the answers to this question, but we haven't been looking for very long, just a few decades. For most of human history we believed that God, in one form or another, animated dead matter to make living things. Note that the issue of an interim state (antarabhāva) between death and life will be dealt with in a forthcoming essay.

The Quick and the Dead

Our usual perspective on the distinction between living and dead matter arises out of seeing living beings die.  Often if we're with someone who dies and it's calm enough to make observations, we will see that they simply breathe out and never breath in - they expire. Perhaps this is why life is associated with the breath? With no more in-breath the functions of life swiftly stop. I will deal with the issue of the breath and vitalism in a separate essay.

We do not directly witness a "new life" starting in the sense of conception or embryos developing and until very recently did not even know about gendered gametes fusing for form a new zygote. Certainly most of us never see so-called "dead" matter turn into "living" matter since it happens out of sight. We eat food in the form of once living but now dead living things, but we don't see the process of how that "dead" matter is incorporated into our living bodies. We don't see iron being encapsulated in a haem and becoming haemoglobin and transporting oxygen around our bloodstream We might even understand that this does happen, but we never witness it.

Any explanation for life must not only account for large scale beings like humans, but also for microscopic life and even for single celled organisms. The amoeba is clearly a living thing. If matter can enter and leave a living organism continually without ever affecting the status of the organism vis-à-vis' living, then we can explain this in two ways. 

On one hand we might say that as a cell absorbs, say, a molecule of oxygen that has been transported in the blood by haemoglobin, that individual molecule is endowed with jīva, becomes alive, and participates in the collective life of the being. But this sounds a little implausible since oxygen does the same chemistry outside living cells. If every molecule has it's own nano-jīva or some infinitesimal portion of a cosmic jīva then all matter is alive (to some extent). And if all matter is alive then the transition of a living being from alive to dead is just a matter of perspective, since the matter doesn't die when the person dies. The idea of a single life force, splinters into billions of trillions of tiny life forces that add up to a living being. The question is how we would distinguish jīva from ordinary physical energy. Here jīva and energy both do something similar, i.e. animate matter. The argument here is that individual molecules or even subatomic particles must have some animating force. Even so, since matter can appear dead we're still left wondering what is different between a handful of clay and a mouse. We haven't solved the problem of the distinction between life and death at all.

On the other hand we can see life as a property of the cell and see the matter, which comes and goes, as just a building block or a container for a singular jīva. This view is compatible with Vitalism and (more or less) Materialism. But it does mean there is no real distinction between living matter and dead matter; there's just matter and the distinction only applies to larger conglomerations of matter. For the vitalism something non-material (i.e. not made of matter) is added to the cell to make it live whereas to the materialist what is added is energy in various forms particularly heat and stored in chemical bonds.

Either way it seems that matter itself cannot be alive or dead. Matter is just matter. There's no such thing as living matter and dead matter. However there living organisms and dead organisms. So life is not a property of matter per se, but only of organisms. Though of course organisms are complex structures built of matter. 

We used to imagine that something must enter the body at conception in order to make it living. But microscopy has showed that even before conception the zygote is a fully living thing. Sperm are produced as living things in a male's testes. Eggs are living in the ovaries of females from before birth. In the reproductive cycle there is never a time when a cell is produced dead and becomes alive. New living cells are formed from dividing old living cells. All of our cells are from lineages of cell division stretching back at least 3.5 billion years old. So if we never really go from being dead to being alive then what role could a jīva play?

The only time we really need a life force to explain anything is 3.5 billion years ago when the first living organisms came to life. 


Our perspective on the threshold between life and death is almost exclusively focused on the transition from life to death because the transition the other way is invisible to us in every day life. However scientists have been able to "see" into this domain in new ways in the last century so - the field is called abiogensis meaning "originating from the non-living".

image: Duke
The classic experiment that kicked off this field recreated our best guess of the physical and chemical conditions in the earth's atmosphere 3.5 billion years ago. The Miller-Urey Experiment (1953) created a closed system containing a mixture of gases made up of water, methane, ammonia and hydrogen. The gases were subjected to a continuous electrical spark intended to imitate lightening. The experiment ran for a week and at the end it was discovered that a rich variety of organic molecules had been spontaneously synthesised. The products included many molecules essential to life including amino-acids that make up proteins.

Many subsequent variations of this experiment have been conducted and showed that by fine tuning the conditions almost all the molecules required for life might have spontaneously occurred on early Earth. New theories about the conditions on early earth have provided new avenues of exploration. In addition, analysis of meteorites has shown that they frequently contain organic compounds as well and may have seeded some of the important molecules to the "primordial soup". 

It's no longer beyond the scope of imagination for all of the required elements of life to have assembled spontaneously. Enclosed membranes made of lipids form under the right conditions; RNA molecules self-replicate and even noticeably evolve; amino acids occur in asteroids and meteors. It's only the last step that remains unknown. Just as quantum mechanics has broken down the barriers between physics and chemistry, the study of molecular biology is breaking down the distinction between chemistry and biology.

Life as a New Kind of Stability.

We've known for a long time that high energy systems are unstable and tend to find ways to shed energy and achieve greater stability. We understand this process as increasing the entropy in the system. Entropy can also be understood in terms of order: a highly ordered state has less entropy. With no external inputs systems tend to lower energy, less order, i.e. higher entropy states. So a drop of coloured dye in a container of water will diffuse until it is randomly distributed through out. A hot object will radiate heat until it matches the ambient temperature around it. If we add energy to a solid it will become a liquid then a gas (decreasing order) and vice versa.

Addy Pross, Professor of Chemistry at Ben-Gurion University, Israel, has suggested that living systems attain a new kind of stability that is different to the thermodynamic stability of minimal entropy states (Aeon Magazine). Over time the entropy of the universe increases. But living organisms bucks this trend. Living things at the molecular level is both high energy and highly ordered, indeed living things continually absorb energy rather than shedding it. In terms of thermodynamics living things ought to be unstable and short-lived. But living things are remarkably stable in thermodynamic terms. Pross calls this dynamic kinetic stability.

Pross argues that this dynamic kinetic stability is a feature of self-replicating molecular systems. For example, given the right conditions RNA molecules spontaneously self-replicate. But not always perfectly. All self-replicators will tend to exponential growth, but some variations replicate faster than others. The faster variants will come to dominate a system. A system of two RNA replicators which catalyse each other is even more stable.

Thus there seem to be two kinds of system stability: "one based on probabilities and energy, the other on exponentially driven self-replication." Mathematical of both kinds of system are relatively simple. Pross concludes: 
"This distinction does not trace the dividing line between living and dead matter precisely – but it does explain it, and many of the other riddles of life into the bargain."
The approach is explored in more depth and the state of the field of systems chemistry is reviewed in Ruiz-Mirazo et al. (2014) - see below. 


In trying to think about the distinction between life and death most of us are hampered by only having access to knowledge of the transition in one direction: living to dead. I would argue that even the conception process which involves the joining of two already living gamete-cells is rather abstract for most people. The bio-chemistry which describes the movement of matter into and out of living systems is opaque to non-scientists. Thus most of us are ill-equipped to understand the distinctions between living and dead organisms. Certainly many Vitalists still seek to frame the discussion in terms of living and dead matter despite this being anachronistic and inapplicable.

The science of abiogensis is far from providing a complete description of the systems that might have existed as precursors to living cells. The first serious attempts to recreate the conditions for living systems date only from the 1950s. It's easy to forget that it's only a few decades since such investigations began. It is relatively early days for this field and some significant progress has been made and there is no reason to believe that at some point a plausible set of starting conditions and pathways will not emerge. As Ruiz-Mirazo et al. conclude:
"Although chemistry operating on the prebiotic Earth must have been extraordinarily complex and heterogeneous, we believe it is not impossible to understand. A number of concepts and methodologies, developed over the past 30 years, are now mature enough to ensure a brilliant future for such an old and challenging endeavor of human beings: getting to know about their ancient origins from inert chemical matter."
The most important conclusion however is that there is no need to posit a life force which animates "dead matter". This aspect of Vitalism is entirely discredited. 


See also (updated 23 Apr 2015)
Attwater, James & Holliger, Philipp. 'A synthetic approach to abiogenesis.' Nature Methods 11, 495–498 (2014) doi:10.1038/nmeth.2893
Pross, Addy. 'Life’s restlessness.' Aeon Magazine
Ruiz-Mirazo, Kepa; Briones, Carlos; and Escosura, Andrés de la. 'Prebiotic Systems Chemistry: New Perspectives for the Origins of Life.' Chemical Reviews. 
Singer, Emily. How Structure Arose in the Primordial SoupQuanta Magazine. (16 April 2015)
Wolchover, Natalie. A New Physics Theory of LifeQuanta Magazine. (January 22, 2014)

25 Feb 2016.
A very interesting view on the origins of life is the Alkaline Hydrothermal Vents Origin Theory. One of the leading proponents of this theory is Nick Lane (who was interviewed this week by Jim Al-khalili on his Life Scientific radio show). A full length (71 min) description of this theory can be found on YouTube. I highly recommend this lecture. This is the most plausible theory of the origin of life that I know of. It also critiques the Miller-Urey approach, which never got beyond creating amino acids, and shows how to improve upon it. 

12 August 2011

Five Facts to Continuously Reflect on.

This is the 250th post on this blog. That's 250 raves in a little less than six years, one per week since the beginning of 2008. I started out limiting myself to 1000 words, though that has gone by the board. So I've written perhaps 300,000 words, mostly on the Buddhadharma. Thanks to all my readers and commenters over the years. And thanks to my friend Ann (Pema) Palomo for inspiring the first raves. I'd like to dedicate this one to all practitioners everywhere.

THESE LINES FROM THE Upajjhatthana Sutta (AN 5.57 PTS A iii.71f) [1] are fairly commonly cited, and the kind of thing I would expect every Buddhist to be familiar with. If not in this form, then something very like it. Still... I get a shudder each time I read them. How often do we really give time to contemplating the facts (ṭhānāni) presented here?
Five facts should be continuously reflected on by men and women, at home and on retreat. Which five?
  1. I am subject to ageing, ageing isn't overcome (yet),
  2. I am subject to illness, illness isn't overcome (yet),
  3. I am subject to death, death isn't overcome (yet),
  4. I will be separated and cut off from everyone I love, and everything I hold dear.
  5. I am the owner of my actions, the heir of my actions, born from my actions, bound to my actions, and find refuge in my actions. Whatever actions I do - beautiful or evil - I will be the heir of them.
These should be reflected on continuously.
These are reflections for every one. Men and women. In its essence Buddhism is not gender specific, though of course different cultures have imposed gender based restrictions on practitioners.

My translation "at home and on retreat" does not exactly follow the Pāli: gahaṭṭena vā pabbajitena vā. More literally this says 'by householders and those gone forth'. Since in the Triratna Order we don't necessarily make this distinction I wanted a translation that reflected our approach more accurately. We are all householders, all settled monastics, and all forest renunciants, some of the time. We may spend the majority of our time in one or other mode—and in our movement we have all three—but we are free to move between lifestyles because we have rejected the formalism associated with each. This point, based on Reginald Ray's tripartite model of Buddhist society in his book Buddhist Saints in India, was made by Dharmacārī Subhūti some years ago. Not so long ago I might have said this was unique to the Triratna Community, but lifestyle mobility is a feature of contemporary Buddhism generally, and any serious Buddhist is unlikely to have just one lifestyle all the time. Householders go on retreats of varying lengths. I've been on many retreats from single days up to four months. I have literally been a forest dweller during some of that time. I've lived for months at a time like a cenobitical monk, and may well do again. Even my home life is not exactly classic nuclear family because I live in a Buddhist community with other single men for instance. So in this translation I wanted to suggest something of the modern spirit of Buddhism, especially as the Triratna Community conceives it. I leave readers to judge whether I have succeeded.

These five phrases are 'facts' (ṭhānāni) to be reflected on (paccavekkhitabbāni) constantly (abhiṇhaṃ). The translation of thāna as 'fact' is also used by both Nyanaponika & Bodhi, and by Thanissaro. The word ṭhāna more literally means 'place', or 'state'. It derives from the verbal root √sthā which is cognate with the English 'standing'. In Sanskrit and Pāli the verb means 'to stand, to remain' and hence 'to be located'.[2] It has a number of abstract or applied meanings one of which is 'standpoint' i.e. ground for, reason, principle. A ṭhāna is the valid ground for a logical conclusion: i.e. a fact.

Each of the first three phrases is in the form: jarā-dhammomhi, jaraṃ anatīto'ti. The final ti means this is something one says or thinks. The morphology of jarādhammomhi foxed me for a little while, and eventually my friend Dhīvan pointed out the correct reading for me. It is a phrase: jarā-dhammo (a)mhi.[3] Here amhi is the first-person singular of the verb 'to be', i.e. 'I am'; while jarā is 'ageing' and dhamma (in this case) means 'nature': jarādhamma 'subject to ageing' or 'of a nature to age'. Dhamma as a suffix can sometimes be translated as the English suffix -able in this context, though it doesn't work in this case, nor with byādhi (disease) or maraṇa (death), c.f. vayadhamma which I translate as 'perishable' relying on the double meaning of perish: 'to die, to decay' to capture the same double meaning of vaya. 'Subject to ageing, disease and death' is a serviceable enough translation. As an aside it occurs to me that the contemporary interest in the "living dead" could be seen as a morbid rejection of these facts about old age, sickness and death.

The word atīta has two senses. In terms of time it means 'past'. Modally it means 'having overcome or surmounted', or even 'free from'. It combines the prefix ati- (beyond, past) with the past participle of the verb √i 'to go' so it literally means 'gone beyond', or 'gone past'. Here it has the negative prefix a(n)- added, so jaraṃ anatīta means 'ageing is not overcome', or 'I have not gone beyond death', or perhaps 'I am still subject to ageing'. I've added yet in parentheses because these are not the morose deliberations of a fatalist waiting to grow old and die. They are a clarion call for those who seek to go beyond. And it must be said that these statements make a lot more sense in a milieu where rebirth is an accepted fact.

At death I will be cut off (vinābhāva) and separated (nānābhāva) from everyone I love (piya) and everything I hold dear (manāpa). Piya is 'love' in the ordinary sense, including familial and romantic love.[4] Manāpa means 'pleasant, pleasing'. All the people and things we are attached to we leave behind at death. Everything. We may have the misfortune to be reborn—and for Buddhists rebirth is a disaster—but we won't come back to what we know and love. Each time we start over, except for underlying tendencies. We have to find new friends and loved ones, accumulate new possessions and memories, only to lose them all over again. For those who believe in rebirth what stronger motivation could there be to practice? For those who don't, what strong motivation to practice can replace it?

In the fifth reflection 'actions' translates kamma, which occurs in a series of compounds: kamma-ssaka, kamma-dāyāda, kamma-yoni, kamma-bandhu, kamma-paṭisaraṇa: owner of actions, heir to actions, born from actions, bound to actions, with a refuge in action.[5] The last is particularly interesting. The word is paṭisaraṇa which has more or less the same meaning as saraṇa 'refuge, protection, shelter' - we are not only the victims of our own misdeeds, but actually the authors of our own salvation as well. The message of these terse statements of the idea of kamma is that morally significant actions have consequences. It's useful to think of kamma in terms of how we treat people. It is our actions in relationship to other people that are morally significant, or should I say that that our actions find their moral significance when considered in terms of our relationships with other people. I think this is why the traditional precepts are phrased the way they are. But also it is in relationship to people that we experience the moral effects of our actions. We see the way patterns develop, habits and characters are formed, and harmony preserved or destroyed. This is not the only way to see kamma, but it is useful.

Note that the second part of the fifth reflection, beginning with "Whatever actions I do..." juxtaposes the words kalyāṇa 'beautiful' and pāpa 'evil'. So morality here is linked to aesthetics. Kalyāṇa 'beautiful, auspicious, helpful' is from the root √kal. It is cognate with the Greek κάλλος (kallos) that we find in English words such as calligraphy (beautiful writing), calliope (beautiful voice) and kaleidoscope (beautiful shape observer). Evil (pāpa), then, could be seen as 'ugly' in the sense of a quality of relating to people which is ugly.

Finally we should reflect on these five facts continuously (abhiṇhaṃ). This could also be translated as 'repeatedly'. The word is a contraction of abhikkhaṇaṃ. It is thought to derive from the verbal root √īkṣ 'to see', with the suffix abhi-, which according to PED has the primary meaning of 'taking possession and mastering'. One of the figurative senses (PED I.2) is "intensifying the action implied by the verb". Thus the sense of abhiṇham is to look at these facts closely and repeatedly, to reflect on them over and over again. We can always gain perspective by placing whatever is happening within the context of these five facts. Whatever else is true about our situation, these five facts are also part of the existential situation. Reflecting on these facts helps us to orient ourselves to the world, and to assess our priorities.

All of this could be seen as quite pessimistic and depressing on its own. But behind it is the idea that ageing, illness and death can be overcome. Through our own actions we can find ourselves no longer subject to suffering, and suffering (as distinct from pain [6]) is a result of choices we make. We can develop equanimity in relationship to the people and things that give us pleasure or pain, and that we think make us happy or unhappy. We can find a happiness that is not dependent on sense objects (i.e. which is 'unconditioned'). And as I have already said we can be the authors of our own liberation through choosing our actions carefully. The point is not to deflate, but to inspire—we may still have much left to do, but it can be done! We can all be liberated from the oppression of craving and aversion, especially in relation to other people. I have no doubt about this, though I am not yet liberated from them myself.


  1. Also known (particularly in CST) as Abhiṇhapaccavekkhitabbaṭhāna Sutta. This is my translation. Also translated by Thanissaro on Access to Insight.
  2. Hence place names like Pakistan, and Afghanistan. The -stan ending comes from the same verbal root.
  3. In other words we have a compound and an external sandhi which joins two words. External sandhi is relatively rare in Pāli: we'd expect to see jarādhammo amhi as two separate words in Roman script.
  4. C.f. my comments on the Piyajātika Sutta: From the Beloved.
  5. I read the first four compounds as tatpuruṣa of various kinds, and the last as bahuvrīhi.
  6. I've written about the distinction between Pain & Suffering.

17 June 2011

A Taxonomy of Afterlife Beliefs

I STARTED TO BE INTERESTED in this topic of the different responses to the certainty of death and found it hard to find information organised in the way that I wanted to think about it. I was looking for a taxonomy of afterlife beliefs, or eschatologies, but what one generally finds is the beliefs of various religions without analysis of the characteristics of the belief, and no consideration of the similarities between apparently disparate religions. So here is my own taxonomy of afterlife beliefs, setting them out according to common features rather than religious affiliation. I follow the scheme with some remarks about afterlife beliefs generally.

In this belief one seeks not to die. It is characteristic of Daoism, but also of certain New Age sects. Daoists avoid death through magic. New Agers, influenced by Indian yogis, preach "physical immortality" through yoga and especially diet. At least one Buddhist teacher offers immortality as a fruit of practice, though rather implausibly, even if 'deathless' (amṛta) is a synonym for nirāvṇa it comes from not being born into another life, rather than not dying in this life.

This is a special subset of immortality belief. In this belief it is possible for special individuals to come back from the dead - uniting the same mind and body. Jesus is the exemplar, and is considered by some to be physically immortal.

In destination beliefs the dead have a one-way ticket to a final post-mortem realm. Personal identity can be retained on arrival or relinquished. In the latter case one can merge with a god personified, or with a god in the abstract (e.g. the godhead, the universe, the essence).

When linked with morality it results in eternal heaven and hell. Both heaven and hell reflect the ideals of the cultures which propose them, often they are the ideal version of a man's life (women's ideals are usually ignored). Most mono-theist religions maintain some form of this after-life belief. However it seems to me that believers can reasonably expect to go to Heaven and that Hell is for other people, especially non-believers. The idea that Hell is for "sinners" is nonsensical in the face of the saving power of the Messiah.

The Catholic church introduced an temporary intermediate destination - purgatory - to enable necessary purging of any remaining sin before entering heaven. Sin here is seen as a kind of ritual pollution which adheres to the soul, but can be cleansed - very reminiscent of Hindu, and to some extent Jain, karma doctrines.

The idea here is that after a sojourn one is reborn. This is widespread across the world, but shows a great deal of variation. For some rebirth is a good thing, for others it is not and an escape from rebirth becomes the goal of life. Following Obeyesekere I've identified these forms. [1]
  1. One is reborn immediately after death, amongst one's own people.
  2. One is reborn in another world amongst one's ancestors, and lives there for a long time. Then one dies in the other world and is reborn again in this world, usually amongst one's own people. This is the oldest Vedic belief. And seems to be behind the this world/other world terminology found in the Pāli Canon.
  3. The destination after death is connected with ritual actions - only the adept obtains rebirth amongst their ancestors in another world, or their family in this world. Others have less desirable destinations. Seen in orthodox Hinduism.
  4. Destination after death is connected with morality - minimally this requires a bifurcation into heavenly/hellish states, but these are not permanent and one still cycles around. Buddhism posits 5, 6, or 10 possible destinations each of which may be subdivided into many sub-levels. For early Buddhism the rebirth happens with no time lapse. Tibetan Buddhists add the idea of the bardo - a kind of intermediate state or clearing house which determines one's destination on the basis of the development of one's consciousness at the time of death. The bardo also provides an early opportunity for escape from repeated rebirth.
  5. Avatar. In this kind of belief the same individual, despite the possibility of escape, deliberately returns to the world again and again for the benefit of others - e.g. the Tibetan tulku; the advanced bodhisattva in Buddhism, and some Hindu gods.

There are some forms of afterlife belief which do not entail any actual life. I'm not sure if this is a genuine afterlife belief - it seems to be a consolation for not believing in life after death. But it's worth including for completeness sake.

Some would say that we live on as memories. For instance we may say that someone "lives on in the hearts and minds of their loved ones". Similarly when we leave children behind we have left something ourselves to continue on. We could call this genetic seeding - it's not our life that continues, but our genes. There is also intellectual or artistic seeding where we leave behind evidence of our creative work - books, art, music, and ideas.

Hybrid forms
Although the early Vedic model was simply cyclic, in Bṛhadāranyaka Upaniṣad one can see it becoming more sophisticated. We see, for instance, a version in which the post-mortem destination is linked to ritual funeral rites (śraddha). But we also see an escape to a single destination as well - usually in terms of companionship with brahman/Brahmā (the former being the abstract universal principle, the latter being the personified creator god). Here we see the two main types above - destination and recycling - combined into one complex system.

Buddhism also posits a more or less endless cycle of birth and death if one makes no effort, but with an escape route - amṛta "the deathless" - which removes one from cycle permanently. However one cannot say anything about the destination the tathāgata ("one in that state") after death. Later a further elaboration was added which was the Pure Land - an intermediate idealised destination which is perfect for gaining enlightenment, and reflected the cultural values first of medieval India and then China (compare this with the Catholic purgatory)

Personal vs Cosmic Eschatology
Some belief systems overlay personal eschatology - i.e. the post-mortem fate of the individual - with a more universal eschatology - the fate of the universe. So for some Christians the world will end at some point - the end times or Apocalypse.

Similarly in India it is common to see the world as going through great cycles of evolution and devolution with a world destroying cataclysm leading to rebirth of the cosmos. Though presumably the liberated are no more caught up in these cycles than they are the cycles of personal existence.


Buddhist afterlife beliefs are variations on a hybrid model. Traditionally Buddhists believe that without making an effort they are reborn in a beginningless/endless cycle. The fact that the cycles are eternal may well be an extension of the unwillingness to see death as the end of consciousness. Ethics is what determines one's destination and there are 5,6, or 10 main destinations that are subdivided. These range from heavenly to hellish with the human world being middling, but still ultimately disappointing - although it is generally only from the human realm that one can escape the cycles. Buddhists include heaven within the impermanent cycling around. Liberation from the rounds of rebirth is possible with effort and results in an indeterminate state but not in rebirth in this world. Variations include an intermediate state - easy to attain - called the Pure Land from where liberation is guaranteed. The Tibetans add the bardo state which is a prolonged limbo in which decisions can be made - consciously or unconsciously - by the disembodied being about their destination.

Clearly Buddhists agree on the broad outline of this hybrid model, but details vary from culture to culture often exhibiting the direct influence of local culture.

We need to note that all afterlife beliefs (except perhaps the Seeding variety which I will leave out of this discussion) by definition require a mind-body duality. While the body dies something does not die but persists. This insubstantial aspect of the being may be called mind or soul or spirit or something else, but it is not part of the body, and not permanently bound to the body. All afterlife beliefs are therefore fundamentally dualistic. All recycling afterlife beliefs therefore also create another problem in that they require a mechanism by which the mind (or whatever) can detach from the body and reattach to another body - and as Buddhists we do need to acknowledge that our own forms of rebirth belief share these fundamental problems. Where the afterlife belief entails 'memories' of past lives this entails the further difficult problem of how memories are stored and accessed, and why they are not generally available. Such metaphysical problems seem insoluble to me.

Recent research on children's afterlife beliefs [2] suggest that even young children understand that when a person dies their physical functions cease. However children seem to believe that mental functioning may continue in the dead 'person'. So the deceased may not need to eat, but will still feel hungry. It may be that having developed a theory of mind, i.e. the ability to see other beings as self conscious in the way that we are self conscious, that we find it hard to imagine a dead person not having an inner life, even when they clearly have no outer life. We also have a tendency to see self-consciousness in places where it cannot logically exist. Animism is far from dead, and was given a boost by 19th Century Romantics.

I would say that some sort of afterlife belief is one of the fundamental characteristics of religion and that it is difficult to imagine a religion which did not address this question (I can't think of an example). It is true that nihilists have arisen within societies, and sometimes become quite prominent, but I also cannot think of a generally nihilistic society or culture.

Philosopher Thomas Metzinger has also put forward the idea that because the strongest urge, desire, drive (it is difficult to find terms which are not anthropomorphic) of life is to continue - aka the survival instinct - that faced with the certainty of death we simply cannot cope and chose to believe in continuity whatever the evidence. Hence though science has undermined religion since the European Enlightenment, it has not annihilated it, and indeed fundamentalist religion, with the greatest reliance on faith and superstition, appears to be on the rise. What 'feels right', can over-ride what 'makes sense', or to put it another way it feels wrong that life does not continue, so we prefer unlikely invention. Metzinger makes the interesting point that attacking such beliefs, especially from an empirical realist (aka 'scientific') point of view is not an ethically neutral venture. Attacking deeply held beliefs, even if they be factually erroneous, under these circumstances may in fact create more suffering than the ignorance itself. At the very least we must consider our motives for attacking other people's beliefs.

That said, when we line all these different kinds of belief up together I'm at a loss to decide between them - they all seem equally unlikely to me, especially in light of theory of mind research. We should not fall into the error of thinking of assertions as evidence. All of these forms of belief are supported by assertions and arguments, but by what possible criteria would we assess them, either individually or comparatively? We simply choose to believe without reference to rational criteria. But then this how human beings make decisions, so perhaps it's not great surprise.


Isn't is always the way. An hour after I hit the "publish" button I find an interesting article on death from precisely the kind of perspective that I'm interested in: Afterlife in Cross-Cultural Perspective. From the Encyclopedia of Death and Dying.

  1. This section in particular relies on Gananath Obeyesekere. (2002) Imagining Karma: Ethical Transformation in Amerindian, Buddhist and Greek Rebirth. University of California Press. Obeyesekere discusses rebirth theories found in the Americas, Africa, Polynesia, Ancient Greece and India and provides a very useful taxonomy of the development of rebirth eschatologies that has influenced this post.
  2. See for instance:
    • Oxford Centre for Anthropology & Mind.
    • Bering et al. (2005) "The development of ‘afterlife’ beliefs in religiously and secularly schooled children." British Journal of Developmental Psychology, 23, 587–607. pdf

06 May 2011

The Abyss of Death

In this post I want to look at a theme that I explored in my recent talk at the London Buddhist Centre (available on Free Buddhist Audio). Thomas Metzinger points out that evolution has imbued all life with a powerful urge to continuity. We humans experience this on a number of levels - we will do almost anything to ensure our personal continuity; and most of us will also try to ensure our genetic continuity by procreating. We share this fundamental drive with all life - animals, plants, and even viruses. Indeed a virus does little else except reproduce itself with no sense of purpose, but relentless efficiency. The 'urge' for continuity underlies all of our other basic needs - shelter, food, water, air. I did not see the film 127 Hours, but I know the story - a man is trapped by a boulder while climbing and after several days cuts his own arm off in order to get free. It's a true story. Likewise people survive through all kinds of adversity and oppression - concentration camps, ship wrecks, wars, and slavery. The survival instinct is extremely powerful.

But at the same time evolution has given us consciousness. Emerging (probably) out of our need to regulate our internal milieu and optimise our response to the environment we animals began to model our own internal states using our complex brains. At some point our awareness of ourselves became part of the picture - we became aware of ourselves as being aware. The advantages of this are manifold. We can better grasp social interactions because we can understand what another is feeling through emulating emotions; we can learn what others do by imitating them; and we can imagine various possibilities of action and weigh the consequences. The benefits of having an ego are huge, and in particular it allows us to be moral beings. If any other animals have this ability it is only very rudimentary.

But Metzinger also notes that with the evolution of this amazing new ability comes another kind of knowledge. The knowledge that we will grow old, become ill, and die. Death is a certainty. When we see a corpse we know that something we value is missing. We can hold decay at bay with preservatives such as formaldehyde or honey, but the corpse is only preserved and does not continue except as inert matter. Life leaves us, consciousness leaves us. Seeing a corpse can be a profoundly, existentially disturbing experience, but it is also entirely natural and inevitable for all living things to die.

This certain knowledge of the inevitability of death creates a conflict with our most basic and powerful drive which is for continuity. It is the proverbial irresistible force meeting an immovable object. Not continuing is an option few of us can really take seriously as an option because deep down inside our most singular and powerful drive is to keep going. We Buddhists have memorialised this conflict in the story of the four sights - in various different tellings the youthful Siddhartha sees old age, sickness and death, (as if) for the first time, and he is engulfed by the dilemma. In those days men and women left their home life and social ties to seek an answer - they were called śramaṇas 'toilers'. The Buddha to be joined first one and then another band of wanderers seeking the way to the deathless. Our story says that he eventually abandoned all previous methods and found the way on his own, and that this 'way' is what we pass on from one generation to the next. The details are specific to Buddhism, but the theme is universal.

Most human cultures have stories about post-mortem continuity, be it a return to earth (usually via some intermediate state) or arrival in some version of a perfect world. Although genuine nihilism does crop up from time to time, I think we are mostly naive eternalists. Almost all of these stories require consciousness to be distinct from matter, to be able to exist without a body - that is to say a mind/body duality. In Buddhism we even find it said that consciousness causes a body to come into being. Those who curate these stories -- priests -- often become powerful and rich, but at the very least they are usually respected and influential. However, even in the presence of powerful priests, ordinary folk will often maintain their own local traditions of continuity through local spirits and ghosts and the like. The interesting spin in India is that repeated rebirth came to be seen as a burden to be put down in favour of something more satisfying which the spiritual masters called variously brahman, vimokṣa or nirvaṇa.

Whatever we make of these stories - whether we take them literally or dismiss them, or find some compromise - we all face this tension between the continuity imperative and the certainty of our own death. The great magnitude of the tension is reflected in the grip we take on these stories - some people will kill or be killed before giving up their particular story. Many people are just not equipped to deal with the idea of death as a discontinuity, and most are not willing to see it that way. There often a hint of moral condemnation from religious people against those who declare that no continuity is possible. During his US Presidency George Bush apparently opined that an atheist could not be a citizen or a patriot for instance.

The fact of death is an abyss, a hole that can't be filled. It is not something we can fix on it's own level. But we can bring light to the situation. We can care, i.e. care about and care for other living beings. We can be kind and generous. We can be selfless. Although consciousness brings the abyss of knowledge of personal death, it brings the blessing of selfless acts of kindness. Ironically we find fulfilment in selflessness.

09 April 2010

The Stream of Life

I was reading through Rune Johansson's Pāli Buddhist Texts and came across this little verse [1].
accayanti ahorattā
jīvatam uparujjhati
āyu khīyati maccānam
kunnadīnam va odakaṃ

Days and nights elapse
Vitality declines
Mortal life is exhausted
Like water in streams
We are used to using rivers as metaphors. We understand the idea of the ever changing stream of the river, flowing from head waters to the sea, especially if we come from moist temperate climates. But in North India there is another phenomena which may not be so familiar.

In Feb 2009 I was in Bodhgaya for the convention of the Triratna Buddhist Order. One day I took the time to walk a little out of town to cross the long bridge over the River Falgu (called the Nirañjana in the Buddha's day) to the little village of Senani (also called Sujata in association with the young women who is said to have offered the Bodhisatta some milk-rice after he gave up self-torture). In Senani the farmers still pull a wooden plough behind bullocks despite the fact the iron age began about three millennia ago and resulted in the original clearing of this land. However the fields looked green and productive on this side of the river, where there was only brown dry fields around Bodhgaya. On the edge of the village is a stūpa which was built to commemorate Sujata.

The accompanying image from Google earth [2] shows Bodhgaya and the Falgu/Narañjana, the Mahabodhi Temple complex, the bridge and Suajata's stūpa. Although the bridge is about 600 meters wide, as I walked accompanied by one of the ubiquitous 'school children' [3] of Bodhgaya, I saw only sand. The mighty river had completely dried up, and this was not even the hot season, this was during the coolish winter. This is what this image shows - the brown colour is sand, not water. At higher magnifications one can see the patterns and cart tracks in the sand, as well as the little hut next to the bridge that Śaiva sadhus occupy when it is dry. Pulling back even more one sees that the river peters out in both directions, though I think it probably forms a tributary of the Ganges during the monsoon. There is even a word for this phenomena in Sanskrit: vārṣikodaka 'having water only during the rainy season [varṣa]'.

Certainly I am not used to such contrasts. It occurred to me that the verse above had to be understood in this context - this cyclic flooding and then complete drying up of even substantial rivers. I could not have imagined life becoming exhausted like a small stream because I've (more or less) always lived on islands with abundant rainfall all year round. But in this region when even a large river can completely dry up, what chance does a small stream have? And the verse is saying that life is like a small stream in this region - it may flood, but soon is will disappear. The verse is much more compelling when seen in this context.

The use of the word jīvata is interesting. It begins as a past-participle of jīvati and therefore means 'lived', but comes to mean the life-span, or 'vitality' (itself from Latin vita 'life' and probably cognate with jīvata). The noun jīva is an important technical term in Jainism where it denotes a kind of soul which moves from life to life. The verse makes a contrast by choosing another word for life: ayu (Sanskrit āyus). We find this word in āyurveda which means something like the 'knowledge of life' i.e. a literal rending in English would be biology (though they do not quite mean the same thing!). Āyus is related to the Greek word æon, and to English 'eternal, always'. So buried in the history of these words is the notion of eternity, the belief or wish that life will go on and on.

The Canon records that these words were spoken to Māra in the Squirrel Sanctuary near Rājagaha in the heart land of the samaṇa movement. I've noted before that Johannes Bronkhorst has argued that the idea of rebirth came from this region from amongst the samaṇa groups of whom the Jains were pre-eminent in the Buddha's time [Rethinking Indian History]. Māra here argues that the jīvata rolls along like the chariot's wheel, he literally denies that days and nights pass and that life ends. The verse above is the Buddha's rely. The status of Māra is a long story - was he 'real', allegorical, metaphorical? One way we could take this story is as a psychodrama with Māra representing that part of our psyche which coined these words for life which has 'eternal' as a connotation. Māra is our refusal to face up to our own impending death. The refusal to face death is quite a common theme and I have dealth with it at least once before in my essay: From the Beloved.

However we read the verses I find it very helpful to have walked in that landscape when trying to get into the mindset I find in the Pāli texts.

  1. The reference is Saṃyutta Nikāya i.109 - pg 201-202 of the single vol ed. of Bhikkhu Bodhi's translation. [I'm tempted to offer a prize for anyone who knows what a 'felly' is without looking it up!]
  2. If you want a closer look at Bodhgaya on Google then the coordinates are: Latitude: N 24° 41.75, Longitude: E 84° 59.49
  3. The 'students' scam money out of tourists and pilgrims by asking them to buy school books for them, which they immediately sell back to the shop. This scam has a second level in which the dupe is invited to visit the school where the headmaster informs them that the child is out of school because they haven't paid their fees, which the generous dupe pays for them - 0nly to see them on the street again the next day. (It happened to a friend of mine!)

08 May 2009

We are all going to die.

cemetery on Newmarket RdYears ago I shared a room with a man who was concerned that he didn't take the subject of his own death seriously enough. As a reminder he painted, in large black letters above his bed:

I am going to die

That man is still alive but in the intervening years a number of friends and acquaintances have died. My mother is alive and well, but my father died 19 years ago, and all of my grandparents are dead. As I write I'm absorbing the news that a colleague has died. I didn't know him very well, but I did live in his community when I first arrived in the UK seven years ago. He died of a stroke and it seems he had no time to set his affairs in order or to compose himself.

Once my preceptor gave a talk in which he said: "death is absolutely inconvenient." This has echoed down the years for me as I grieved for loved ones and friends. Death just comes and we are never ready for it. When death comes we will have plans for the future, we will leave unfinished projects, unresolved conflicts, and unrequited loves. All of those things that we have been putting off will never be done. It is a harsh and stark fact of life.

I often walk through the Mill Rd cemetery. This is a large old burial ground in which the grounds' keepers are gradually losing the battle against nature. Many of the stones are unreadable and all but a very few of the graves are untended and rely on public employees and occasional volunteers to keep the brambles and other weeds from overwhelming them. I noticed that some of the graves are not that old. Some of the people buried there probably have living grand children. It struck me that within two or three generations most people are forgotten. Even well loved people who raised a family and worked hard are just a name engraved on a crumbling piece of stone in a cemetery somewhere. If that.

None of this can be news to anyone. We all know that we are going to die. And yet we continue to live our lives, to choose our values and priorities as though death is far off. I was struck that Jade Goody - a UK star of so-called reality TV - was only 27 when she died of cancer. And yet she had achieved notoriety and celebrity if not universal public acclaim. She leaves two kids and a husband, but in all likelihood all of this will be forgotten in a generation or two. Most of us won't rate an obituary in the media, and won't have gotten around to starting that memoir that we sometimes toyed with writing. It's not that we have uninteresting lives, simply that we fall under the radar. We are unexceptional.

Have your ever played that game where someone asks you what you would do if you had only 24 hours left to live? It can be revealing, but, even if we do get notice of immanent death, we are often too sick to do anything but lie in a hospital bed in those last 24 hours. The world keeps turning, the seasons wax and wane, days and nights alternate, the tides slosh in and out, and the wind blows the fallen blossoms in autumn. All that just goes on without you. Nature doesn't shed a tear when you die - you are compost at best.

We have limited time and energy and yet we spend so much of it on things that simply don't matter in the long run. Accumulating possessions that will end up in charity shops when we're gone. Working long hours making money for share holders who don't even know our names, and who are themselves are unexceptional on the whole and achieve nothing of significance with the money we make for them. So much of our economic activity we now know unequivocally to be actively harmful to the environment. We follow the news religiously because we want to be informed - but we never learn anything of value.

It's like there is a conspiracy to keep us docile and productive, to stop us thinking about our lives. Sometimes when you do something weird like becoming a Buddhist, people almost seemed threatened that you would do anything which upsets the status quo - like not eating meat. We are conditioned with values some of which have no real value.

But given the fact of our own death, and subsequent anonymity, isn't it important to consider what we are doing with our lives? So what would it be like to just stop for a minute and consider what's really important? In some stories about the early life of the Buddha he was stopped in his tracks by the realisation that everyone he loved was just going to die no matter what he did. His response was not to go into denial or self-pity, he did not bury himself in work or in booze. His response was to face the problem directly and undertake a thorough exploration of what is truly valuable. He found a way to live in accordance with these values. Buddhists are sometimes criticised because the Buddha left his wife and child behind to do something selfish. But this could not be further from the truth. The Buddha made a very great sacrifice for his family. In those stories (which may well be apocryphal) he gave up everything for his family, and having solved the problem of suffering came back to teach them the way beyond death as well. There can be no higher fulfilment of family duty or filial piety. And yet after self-doubt and low self-esteem, family and career responsibilities are perhaps the biggest barrier to spiritual commitment that there are. Even though we accept the Buddha's teaching we cannot shake off the values absorbed from our society.

You will sometimes get blithe spirits who say something like: "never mind, I do it in my next life." I find this unlikely. If karma works at all, then it is our choices which drive it. By leaving something undone in this life you most likely create the conditions for not having the opportunity to do it in a next life. We are working against a current which will drag us down unless we make a positive effort. To put something worthy off thinking that the opportunity will present itself again is to abdicate responsibility, and this sets up conditions for the future.

We would do well to consider death, especially our own deaths. No-one ever said on their deathbed - "I wish I'd spent more time at the office!". I think death provides some perspective on how we organise our lives, and on what we seek to achieve in this life. This life is a precious opportunity. I'll finish with some words from Evans-Wenz's translation of the Tibetan Book of the Dead:
O procrastinating one, who thinketh not of the coming of death,
Devoting thyself to the useless doings of this life,
Improvident art thou in dissipating thy great opportunity;
Mistaken, indeed, will thy purpose be now if thou returnest empty-handed from this life:
Since the Holy Dharma is known to be thy true need,
Wilt thou not devote thyself to the Holy Dharma even now?

Note: since writing this a few weeks ago the H5N1 flu strain has been in the news, but I don't think it changes our existential situation.

image: cemetery by Jayarava

06 May 2006

Suicide as a response to suffering

Ophelia drowns herself
When you dig into the the subject, you find that suicide is regarded with some ambivalence, and even confusion, by the Buddhist tradition. On one hand the principle of ahimsa, or non-violence, would seem to rule out suicide for Buddhists. On the other hand there are at least three cases of suicide in the Pali Canon where men commit suicide with no evil consequnences (they attain final nibbana and are not reborn). In Buddhaghosha's commentary to the vinaya it is said that a bhikkhu may stop taking food and die under certain circumstances. And at the extreme end of the scale we have the 1960's image of a Vietnamese monk immolating himself in order to gain religious freedom for his fellows.

A couple of years back I wrote a long essay on suicide and Buddhism. A version of this, which focuses on suicide in the Pali Canon, was published in the Western Buddhist Review. It's couched in the pseudo-objective language expected in an academic journal which is a shame in a way because I've realised that most of the people to whom I might wish to communicate on this subject won't read that kind of thing.

The apparent ambivalance with regard to suicide seems to stem from a belief that any act done with awareness, with kindness, and especially with non-attachment, is a skilful act that will not cause suffering. It seems pretty clear however that few of us are phlegmatic enough to contemplate taking our own lives with detachment.

I've seen death. My father died in 1990, all of my grandparents are dead, two uncles are dead, and a few friends and aquaintences too. I saw some of their corpses. I've watched bodies being burned on the ghats in Varanasi, and one friend cremated the same way in New Zealand. I've watched a sheep have it's throat cut and bleed to death. But death is still a mystery to me, and despite all the Buddhist rhetoric about it, I find I still fear it. I don't want to die. What sort of state would I need to be in to overturn this fear, to over-ride this powerful urge for continuation? The sacred texts recall several men cutting their throats in supremely positive states. I've contemplated suicide only when in a very negative states.

Looking at the whole thing pragmatically, that is to say not referring to doctrine but to experience, I'd have to say that suicide is, contrary to that old song, not painless. When I think about this I bring to mind Kent, a friend of my brother's, who killed himself out of despair in his twenties. It was very painful for me, and I only knew him a little. For my brother is was a devastating blow. We are all still mourning Kent's death which seemed such a waste. So whatever happened to Kent after he died, I can be sure that his actions resulted in pain for those who loved him.

My thoughts have been turning in this direction because recently several people I know have either been suicidal or have deliberately harmed themselves in some way. And in response I find myself echoing the words of that great hero of the Dharma, Sariputta, to Channa:

"Let the venerable channa not use the knife. Let the venerable Channa live. We want the venerable Channa to live! If venerable Channa lacks suitable food, I will go in search of suitable food for him; if he lacks suitable medicine, I will go in search of suitable medicine for him; if he lacks a proper attendant, I will attend him. Let the venerable channa not use the knife. Let the venerable Channa live. We want the venerable Channa to live!"
- Samyutta Nikaya III.2.4.8.
In my WBR article I noted that scholar Damien Keown, editor of the Journal of Buddhist Ethics, seemed to fudge the conclusion of his article on the subject: The Case of Channa. It's quite clear, from the text that he focuses on, that suicide by someone with no attachment to their body is not a cause of more suffering because Channa is not reborn, ie attains Nibbana. And yet Keown draws the general conclusion that suicide is unskilful. Having surveyed a much wider range of texts, many of which were if anything more open to suicide, I also found myself baulking at concluding that suicide is justified in some cases, even though the textual evidence supports such a conclusion.

The basic problem is that the vast majority of suicides and cases of self-harm are not carried out in state of love, generosity, calm, dettachment. They are carried out in despair, fear, and hatred. It seems likely that if you are in the fourth formless jhana, then it might just be possible to die with equanimity, but that in constricted states of suffering from which we want to escape, then suicide is unlikely to be a positive response.

All of this can be hard to get across to someone in despair. Despair is associated with a vastly reduced perspective. Often when we are down we cannot imagine that there is a way out, we don't see that things change. At the moment I'm exploring the way that awareness can change this. We naturally flinch from pain, and in the case where physical harm will result this is definitely a good thing. Emotional pain is something else though. We flinch from it, we don't want to experience strong and/or painful emotions, and there is some short term benefit from this. There are times when putting our emotions on hold can be useful or even necessary. But long term we cannot function that way. Bringing awareness to pain, especially emotional pain, does seem to help, especially in terms of creating a broader horizon and an awareness of how things change. I hope to be able to say more about this in time, but for now if you are in despair and contemplating suicide, then please seek help.


See also

Rottman J, Kelemen D, Young L. (2014). 'Purity matters more than harm in moral judgments of suicide: Response to Gray (2014).' Cognition. 2014, Jul 10. pii: S0010-0277(14)00118-8. doi: 10.1016/j.cognition.2014.06.008. [Epub ahead of print]
"Many people judge suicide to be immoral. We have found evidence that these moral judgments are primarily predicted by people's belief that suicide taints the soul and by independent concerns about purity. This finding is inconsistent with accounts that define morality as fundamentally based upon harm considerations."