Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Buddhist Suicidology

Suicidology is said to be “the scientific study of suicidal behavior and prevention.” But in the Buddhist context, the word “suicidology” may be used in the sense of the “academic study of the cases of killing oneself in Buddhist sources and of the Buddhist attitude towards it.” With regard to the academic (i.e. historical-philological-philosophical) study of the topic of suicide in Buddhism, I can only recommend the studies by Martin Delhey.[1] He is, in my view, the expert on the study of suicide in Buddhism. His study not only demonstrates the complexity of the issue of suicide in Buddhism but, in my view, offers a very nuanced picture of the state of affairs from its both diachronic (i.e. here historical) and synchronic (i.e. here doctrinal) perspectives. I wish to add only two points here. First, my initial pretext and context of discussing the case of suicide in Buddhism has been the question whether Vasubandhu committed suicide. According to the accounts of how he died,[2] Vasubandhu goes to Nepal and there he witnesses an ordained Buddhist monk holding a pot of alcohol and ploughing a field. He says: “The doctrine has ceased to exist.” He recites the Uṣṇīṣavijayā’s dhāraṇī in the reverse order or sequence, and dies! If we study Delhey’s studies, we would learn that cases of voluntarily relinquishing one’s impulse of life is not very unusual. What is perhaps unusual here in the hagiogaphy of Vasubandhu is the method or manner of doing that. Second, I wish to understand the Buddhist doctrinal context in which the topic of suicide becomes philosophically relevant. If one’s existence itself is intrinsically painful and unsatisfactory, can one simply not put a total end to existence by committing suicide? From a Buddhist perspective, suicide cannot be a solution to the saṃsāric existence characterized by pain and discontentment at least for two related reasons. First, Buddhism takes the theory of repeated births (or rebirths) of a sentient being for granted. If a sentient being were to live just one once, suicide could be a possible solution in putting an end to the painful or unsatisfactory existence. This is not the case and hence suicide is no solution to the problem. Second, according to Buddhism, the driving force of one’s birth or saṃsāric existence characterized by pain and discontentment is one’s thirst or desire, and unless one eradicates or dismantles it, one would continue to be born and suffer. Suicide is thus no solution. The actual solution lies elsewhere (e.g. the Eight Noble Paths or the Eight Paths of the Noble Ones).[3] The question, however, is if suicide (i.e. killing oneself), like killing others (i.e. paracide?), is karmically unwholesome. Just like any volitionary action in Buddhism, suicide can never be apodictically considered negative, positive, or neutral. 


Delhey 2002
Martin Delhey, “Buddhismus und Selbstötung.” In Grundfragen buddhistischer Ethik. Buddhismus in Geschichte und Gegenwart 7. Hamburg: Universität Hamburg, 2002, pp. 155–165.
Delhey 2006a
Martin Delhey, “Views on Suicide in Buddhism: Some Remarks.” In Buddhism and Violence, edited by Michael Zimmermann with the assistance of Chiew Hui Ho & Philip Pierce. Lumbini: Lumbini International Research Institute, 2006, pp. 26–63.
Delhey 2006b
Ibid., “Zum Verständnis der Selbstötung in Buddhismus.” In Gewalt und Gewaltlosigkeit. Buddhismus in Geschichte und Gegenwart 10. Hamburg: Universität Hamburg, 2006, pp. 155–165.
Schmithausen 2003
Lambert Schmithausen, “Zum Problem der Gewalt im Buddhismus.” In Krieg und Gewalt in den Weltreligionen: Fakten und Hintergründe, edited by Adel Theodor Khoury, Ekkehard Grundmann & Hans-Peter Müller. Freiburg, Basel, Vienna: Verlag Herder Freiburg im Breisgau, 2003, pp. 83–98 [on “suicide,” see pp. 97–98].

[1] Delhey 2002; Delhey 2006a; Delhey 2006b; cf. also Schmithausen 2003: 97–98.
[2] Bu ston chos ’byung (pp. 156–157).

[3] Cf. Schmithausen (inaccessible Ms. A).