A brother’s suicide ~ guest article by a Buddhist nun

I want to explore over a couple of articles what Buddhists think about suicide. A friend of mine has kindly shared her story.

My brother was 19 when he killed himself.

When someone commits suicide, it feels like an angry act; and those left behind feel this anger. This can be very confusing because often the person who kills themselves was not that way in their life, and frequently they were quite the opposite. We also feel guilty because we get angry at them for leaving us, and it is easy to feel like they somehow did it to hurt us.suicide-of-brother

These feelings are so overwhelming for the survivors and yet, even today, people rarely deal with the anger parts of suicide. Many times there is no indication that someone is thinking of suicide except for a chronic subtle sadness or a lack of much happiness despite having good conditions. It ends up to be such a confusing time. Even nowadays people move away from the uncomfortable arena of suicide, meaning that those left behind can begin to feel that the event is somehow a reflection of them. No one wants to visit the bereaved for fear they will have to talk about “it” and they won’t know what to say. The survivors end up alone, confused, and, often, subconsciously blaming each other because they don’t know what else to blame.

My own parents ultimately divorced after years of this — they lost their faith in the church that they had both served their entire lives because suicide was seen as a horrible act, a sin. The neighborhood in which I was raised also experienced a lot of emotional trauma after this event, which happened in 1971 when suicide was very rare, especially in young people. Plus, as they say, my brother had “everything going for him”. Recently I heard, suicide is now the 3rd leading cause of death in young males aged 15 to 25. A recent New York Times editorial stated that 60% of gun related deaths (30,000/year) in this country are suicides.

healingNo one has an answer that really helps except Buddha, in my experience.

In hindsight, I was only able to cope with my own loss by caring for others as a nurse. Unknowingly, nursing became my own healing practice; and now I understand through Dharma that not focusing on my own loss and, instead, helping others was a powerful step in my own recovery from grief. I believe my Spiritual Guide, Geshe Kelsang, emanated all of it for me until I could meet him again.

After 15 years of therapy and searching for an answer, I met Kadam Dharma through a powerful Kadampa teacher and Buddhist nun. In my first meeting with her, which was very soon after I started attending a General Program class, naturally one of my first questions was: “What does Buddha say about suicide?” This was a major test, and her answer would determine whether I would stay or go.

She was honest and loving, and so comfortable talking about this topic, which was very different from any of my previous experiences. I wanted to know if my brother was being punished for his action, because I did not believe that someone who despairingly took their own life could be punished by a loving Deity … if there was one. He was my “everything” and I just buddhaavalokiteshvaracouldn’t believe that, if he was sad enough to take his own life, he would then be punished after death as well. I left my early religion because of this contradiction. I also wanted to know why I felt so much anger from his action because he was not like that … and why I felt afraid at times of the intense anger surrounding the event. Suicide is never a gentle death.

Basically, what I remember her saying was that Buddha doesn’t punish anybody! That was a winner. Secondly, she said people take their lives due to delusions (negative uncontrolled thoughts and feelings) in their heart, which make them believe that they will never be happy. This is so hard to bear that they naturally experience anger, and that anger turns inward and they kill themselves to stop the pain and sadness. They do this believing that death will end their suffering, just as when you go to sleep and all your problems disappear.

So then I asked her, is he in hell then? She replied that killing is a negative action in Buddhism as well, and it does have karmic consequences. However, my brother obviously had so much inner pain and struggle that he was unable to see any other solution, and Buddhas understand that pain and always have compassion for us when our delusions are stronger than we are.

And then she told me that even though he had passed away many years before, I could do a special practice for him, called “powa” or “transference of consciousness”, which would ensure that he would take a Pure Land rebirth either now or in the future.

It was an amazing day for me, and as my understanding of Dharma has grown, so too has my understanding of my brother’s death. The horrible nightmares left shortly after I met Dharma and talked with my kind teacher.

Now when I talk with others who have lost loved ones to suicide, what I always like to share is that their delusions at that moment were just stronger than the person they really were, and so the delusions won. There is nothing to be afraid of other than our delusions. Now, whenever I remember my brother, instead of pain I just feel love.

Thank you, Geshe-la.

Author: Luna Kadampa

Based on 40 years' experience, I write about applying meditation and modern Buddhism to improve and transform our everyday lives and societies. I try to make it accessible to everyone anywhere who wants more inner peace and profound tools to help our world, not just Buddhists. Do make comments any time and I'll write you back!

43 thoughts on “A brother’s suicide ~ guest article by a Buddhist nun”

  1. So well explained. Have a much better understanding after reading and watching the video.
    Thank you for sharing.
    Blessings to you

  2. I have just found this blog and your post(KW 11/3/17). I pray that you did ask for help. Your challenging situation makes perfect sense and I’m sure you know all the dharma answers such as not to give yourself a hard time as you are not your delusions etc; so I will not recite any; just merely say that it takes great courage to reach out, as in doing this we “express” our feelings which is the opposite to “depressing” them. We are all on our own unique stage of the path, and that’s just the way it is, no judgment as until we accept where we are at, we can not progress so we stay stuck…
    Remember acceptance of what is does not mean we want negative things to stay that way, rather, that in finding the great courage to acknowledge what is, we can create the space for things to shift. May your mind be filled with Buddha’s beautiful healing light of peace.

  3. Thanks for this article. Suicide has been on my mind a lot recently, not my own, but through my care for others who have completed their suicide or who have come incredibly close. I work in a large trauma hospital and increasingly I’m dealing with this on a weekly basis, sometimes twice weekly. Much of my work revolves around supporting families, especially in the initial stages as their loved one comes in to the hospital. I’m finding the ‘profile’ no longer fits: my patients are as young as 8 and as old as 86. Children who have hanged themselves and elderly people, using the gun they bought in their 20s for ‘protection’ as their means of ‘escape.’

    But there is no escape, furthermore when someone attempts to take their life in this way they significantly underestimate the ‘in-between’ of modern medicine. I’m not speaking of the bardo, though it’s likely that sort of experience: but rather the murky grey zone that physicians have to be mindful of, lest their compassion accidentally places themselves in a position that could be argued as ‘assisted suicide.’

    As such, I have witnessed nearly completed suicides drag out for days, causing so much more pain for families due to the significant legal requirements the medical team has to ‘do everything’ even in the face of outcomes for which one might ordinarily be able to advocate ‘allow natural death (and).’ (suicide attempts come with the general understanding that the person was ‘not of sound mind’ at the time – making such outcomes significantly more complex).

    While there are many people more qualified than me to discuss the determinants of suicide, a common thread I see seems to be a patient’s strong belief in their separateness; and so while I can’t necessarily help all beings yet, I can be kind. I can chose to extend myself a little further in my conversation with others to give them time and space to be heard. I can cultivate a genuine interest in their experience so that the possibility of connection can begin to outweigh that of separateness; so that the possibility of relationship can become more appealing than that of severance. I certainly pray for this.

    1. Thank you sooo much for sharing this. I am about to put another article up about Buddhist thoughts on suicide and this has given me even more food for thought — in fact i might quote bits of it if that is alright with you?

    2. I thank you as well for your practical insights as a part of the medical model that people flow through after an attempt, for example. I am sure Luna Kadampa will respond to your experience with clarity and wisdom. I look forward to her follow-up article.

  4. Thank you Luna Kadampa for sharing
    Very clearly explained -suicide understood in Buddhism in a loving way 🙏🏻

  5. Thank you for such a very helpful article especially the answers that were given to difficult questions ❤️😊

    1. Thank you for taking the time to comment. It is nice to know that the article was helpful for you.

  6. My niece, 27 took her own life a few weeks ago. The whole family was shocked and distraught. A Powa was held for for her, and all recently deceased, at Kadampa in Monbulk Australia. It was beautiful. I came away with a deep sense of calm, the opposite of how I felt beforehand. That peace has remained with me ever since, as has the strong sense that that my niece is at peace. Her immediate family were greatly comforted too. It’s wonderful that we are able to help ourselves and, more importantly, others in this very special way.

    1. Hello Carmel, I just found your post from 8/13 and so I just wanted to apologize for taking so long to reply and say thank you. Yes, in Kadampa Buddhism we have so many ways to transform death, into spiritual growth and a real sense of peace and confidence that never leaves….because it is the truth. We are very fortunate.

  7. Thank you for this beautiful article. I know someone who has just attempted suicide and is now recovering in both body and mind. It is exactly what you said. The act was the exact opposite of who he was. He is a hero who has devoted his life to others. May I humbly request the kind prayers of this wonderful Sangha community for both him and his entire family. Thanks so much.

  8. Thank you very much for writing about this , my partner killed our 11 yr old son and then herself . Finding the path of Dharma has helped me greatly and in turn helped my loved ones hopefully in their next lives . Om Mani Pedme Hum xx .

    1. I am so happy you found Dharma and the practice of Powa to provide comfort and confidence for you and those you love. Thank you for sharing your experience with us.

  9. I really appreciate the article on this topic. I have experienced the suicide (both young men 12yrs & 15 yrs) of cousins on both sides of my family. I also had a depressive episode about 15 years ago that included suicidal thoughts. Dharma is powerful medicine to help. But I think we have to be careful within Dharma communities and within our own practice to avoid “Dharma bashing” ourselves and others. So many people I see at our Center are suffering from depression and are riddled with anxiety that they aren’t “doing it right” when it comes to practice or they are told told it’s just “their self-cherishing” (it is! but a gentler approach is needed because that ugly mind is already turned inward and folks are harder on themselves than anyone!) How do we encourage one another? Something that occurred to me recently is that suicidal thoughts aim to serve the same function as renunciation – that is, to END the suffering of samsara! I’m outta here! However, the one is extreme delusion that only leads to more suffering (not an END!) and the other is virtuous and leads to energized practice & liberation. I’ve been trying to figure out how to help folks transform these thoughts into something positive, virtuous, energizing, and useable. Any other thoughts on this?

    1. I agree we have to be skilful with each other and with ourselves so that we don’t misunderstand or misuse the dharma. For most of us, learning how to stop identifying with our delusions (ie.self cherishing) and start identifying with our “real” self, our Buddha nature, is a powerful method to enhance our self-confidence and reduce depression.

    2. Hi Eve, the topic of ‘Dharma bashing’ as you say is an important one. I feel these things happen because people struggle to use the intellectual knowledge they have about Dharma while not having much practical experience. This can lead others to be very unskillful, just spouting off Dharma answers which makes the matter worse.
      For me it’s taken years to find my own pace and to encourage myself that I am ok the way I am and where I am at in my practice. We all have to make Dharma our own in order to make progress. Then I feel we can really encourage each other because it comes from our own authentic experience.

    3. I think it’s important to help depressed and anxious people understand that it is a medical condition. They need to take care of their own medical condition, and in socially induced medical conditions like anxiety and depression Sangha communities can one person at a time, simply respect the unique needs of people need to do to manage their condition.

      To stop Dharma bashing in our communities, call out those who are. Mainly try to proactively and gently – establish a culture of acceptance. Use skillful means to the best of your ability and be supportive of individual needs.

      Lacking a realization of past and future lives could be a basis for tendencies towards suicide as a solution for suffering. So could lacking a realization of other Lamrim. Every individual needs to understand their own mind well enough to diagnose how their Dharma understandings support or oppose depressive and anxious winds. Of course, with the helpful insight of actual Sangha community.

  10. Very Lovely – Buddha’s wisdom purifies the long standing pain and suffering for her.. I so rejoice. Thank you for sharing.

  11. Is killing oneself really a negative action? My guess is that it creates the karma to have a shortened life in future (if born human) but I don’t think it’s anywhere near the same league as killing another person.
    Any thoughts on this welcome, thanks

    1. Killing is always a negative or non-virtuous action, but “the degree of suffering we experience as a result depends upon the power of the action” which depends on 6 factors: nature of action, intention, method, object, how often it is committed and whether we engage in virtue as well. You can read more in Joyful Path of Good Fortune in the section on karma if you like. Hope this helps.

      1. Thanks Gomlam, I think this is in relation to other living beings rather than oneself though 🙂

        1. My understanding is that it includes ourselves, we are also living beings. In the Sutras, Buddha says that suicide is an act of killing.

  12. Beautiful enriching article..Thank you. My mother passed suddenly in 2009, it hit me, as well as rest of my family, friends, acquaintances hard…I didn’t think I could get over her moving on, I stayed off work for over a month and even resigned as I couldnt cope, or so I thought at the time…then one day my eldest sister sent me a personal message stating this..which I have always kept with me, and always will..She said…”Niki….It is selfish of us to want mom to still be here with us, when she was clearly suffering, no matter the circumstances. It was her time to go somewhere more rewarding for her soul, her next life..We would be selfish if we thought otherwise. We have to wish her well and be happy for her that she is at peace and without worldly sufferings. We have to let her go”. This has helped me and ten to one my sister overcome our need to have our mom returned to us. I hope I havent diverted off the topic, but somehow, I find inner peace in contemplating these words, and I hope you do too, however small they may be. I wish you all the love and peace now and for always. Till we meet again, Niki, Strand, Cape Town xxx

    1. I agree that the pain that comes from wanting our loved ones to stay with us forever, especially when they are suffering, is not coming from our “best self”, but rather that little selfish tendency that is always unrealistic and only thinks about what we want regardless of whether that is what would benefit others most. Thank you for your sharing your insights.

  13. Thank you for sharing … my husband took his own life and the sadness is still so deeply rooted that it comes to the surface even though years have passed 🙏🙏

    1. When delusions “win” and we lose someone we love, it is a sadness and that feeling may linger in our heart. But what made us happy in our relationship with them was “loving” them and that never has to stop.

  14. Just a reminder that if you are feeling suicidal or otherwise feel like harming yourself or others, please see your doctor. If it is urgent go to the emergency room. Medications have improved a lot over the last few decades and help your winds flow in more positive ways. You and your medical team can help you learn coping skills which do not contradict Dharma. Suppressing emotions, even under a well intentioned expression of compassion, can add to any difficulties, as explained in tantra.

      1. Reach out – so I did, but am still in the mental black hole and feel like they’ll just be exasperated if I keep talking about it. And my family musn’t know, or they will blame the Sangha. In this state every would-be solution, including any piece of Dharma, ends up reinforcing the problem. I simply can’t stand it, and yet I should, and my problems are insignificant. So why even bother asking for help?
        BTW – love this blog.

Leave a Reply