A Buddhist perspective on suicide


As I walked around the park today in a breezy high-skied sunset, so glad to be alive, even more alive than usual, the thoughts going around in my mind were, “Denis, you are missing all this.”Sunset in Cheesman Park

In the past year, two people close to me have committed suicide – one a friend and one a family member. It is not unlikely that two people you know of have as well. Suicide has increased 28% in the past twenty years. As William Falk, editor of The Week, says in this thoughtful article:

Every year, about 45,000 people commit suicide in the U.S. — twice as many as are killed in homicides. Each of these deaths has its own circumstances, but as Kirsten Powers says this week in USA Today, the steadily rising toll of despair tells us “something is wrong with our culture.” Family and community bonds are disintegrating; loneliness is rampant.  

Denis’s suicide brought up a lot of things for a lot of people, including me, so I wanted to share some of the thoughts, just as I wrote them down at the time.

Along with this last widely read article by a Buddhist nun, perhaps these might answer some questions about what Buddhists think about suicide. And hopefully it might help some people who are ever considering it (please don’t, please reach out instead), as well as those who are left behind (everyone else). I will share my thoughts about Denis in dark blue, and intersperse these with other remarks.

Today was a bitter-sweet day. The phone call telling me about the suicide of a friend coincided with witnessing the tenderness of a small girl saying hello for the first time to Delphi, my blind foster cat who is now going to be hers.Ellora and Delphi

Denis, you are now missing all this love. You love animals — your own dog Jake, and those at the shelter where you sometimes volunteered. You love humans — you were a social worker for so long, and gave wise counsel to many Veterans because you understood them.

You are now missing this entire precious human life. You loved Dharma — you have been meditating and studying and volunteering happily for years, despite the recent trouble you reported in controlling your thoughts. What possessed you to throw all this away?

Is suicide a good idea?

The press are being advised not to release details of the recent celebrity suicides of Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain for fear it will encourage copy-cat suicides. But is this the easy way out?

I don’t believe it is.

Many people believe that when the body disintegrates at death, the continuum of the mind ceases and the mind becomes non-existent, like a candle flame that goes out when all the wax has burned. ~ How to Transform Your Life

suicide is no optionIt is true, many people do profess not to believe in life after death (though, funnily enough, some of these same people ask me to pray when their loved ones die.)

There are even some people who contemplate committing suicide in the hope that if they die their problems and sufferings will end. However, these ideas are completely wrong.

Our body and mind are separate entities, so, although the body disintegrates at death, the continuum of the mind remains unbroken. We can discover for ourselves that mind is a non-physical continuum through learning to meditate on our own mind. There are some articles about that here. We are travelers bound for future lives, so suicide is not a viable option for ending our suffering.

Instead of ceasing, the mind simply leaves the present body and goes to the next life. For ordinary beings, therefore, instead of releasing us from suffering, death only brings new sufferings.

travellersThis is the cycle of suffering called samsara, from which we can and must break free — but not by killing ourselves. 

Not understanding this, many people destroy their precious human life by committing suicide. 

The moment the gun goes off, our consciousness of this life may quickly depart our body; but our consciousness in general does not stop. Our biggest problems are not over — arguably they have just begun. We are quickly thrown into the bardo, or intermediate state, where we will experience many frightening hallucinations. And then we will take uncontrolled rebirth somewhere else — who knows where or with whom or in what body.

There is no escape

And here is a comment left by someone on the last article that indicates the unacceptable risk of a failed suicide attempt as well:

I work in a large trauma hospital and increasingly I’m dealing with suicide 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 into 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.’

hallucinations

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.’

Attempting suicide is very risky. Please don’t do it. It’s a far worse idea than you know. Plus, we need you.

A precious human life

To me it seems that you are now in danger of missing everything, everything good. Which seems unbearably sad given how much good was in you and how much good was around you.

As Geshe Kelsang says:

precious human life and suicideAt this time we have found a boat-like human body that can transport us to the island of full enlightenment, or Buddhahood. If, instead of taking advantage of this body, we were to waste it on the meaningless activities of this life, that would be most tragic. It will not be easy to find another opportunity like this in the future. ~ Clear Light of Bliss

 

No magical overnight miracle

Someone who became a Buddhist nun a few years ago wrote to me in response to the last article on suicide

I experienced suicidal ideations from a very young age. My first suicide attempt was at 14, and, although I never tried another serious attempt, the wish to die remained with me through my life, until very recently really. I thought nothing I did mattered, that life was pointless and needless suffering; and at times I didn’t even have a reason, things could be going well and I still wanted to just wake up when it was “all better” (whatever that was).

The meditations on the preciousness of human life and karma kept me alive, I knew I had something rare and, being Buddhist, I believed that even if I did end this life, another one with just as much, if not more, suffering was just around the corner. There was no magical overnight miracle.

One day I just realised that the deep wish to die had passed, that I’d abandoned that habit of mind over time. I simply kept on meditating on Lamrim, tried to practice the instruction, and kept a mind of faith. Now I value this amazing life and in my heart I truly believe everything matters!

Everything changes. We need to hold on until it does.

It can happen so fast. Research reported in The Sacramento Bee on people who survive suicide attempts “indicates that in 70% of cases, less than an hour passes between the idea of killing oneself and the attempt. In 25%, it’s less than five minutes. Most survivors said they deeply regret their attempts, and 90% were alive more than 25 years later. More of these impulsive acts would be survived if guns—the most effective means of self-execution — weren’t so freely available.”

Only six days ago you were out of the woods, we thought, smiling and making plans to meet people. You were beginning to see past your difficulties with hope and faith. Even on Friday, you seemed happy in the morning according to your brother. Maybe you were a bit happy, relieved you had made this decision, or maybe you were acting, who knows.

A few short weeks earlier you had decided — you had even promised me — that you would not kill yourself; this is after all why you had previously committed yourself to the hospital when you had the urge. Why? Because you said you knew it would not help you, that it could land you in a horrible rebirth, that it would destroy the 21-year-old daughter you worship.

suicide caused by delusionsBut then on Friday you went ahead and did it anyway. Your brother agreed to drive you back to your own place as you were feeling so much better — but that was the day you went out to buy a gun. Even though you spent half an hour once telling me how much you hated guns.

Why?

It is beyond heartbreaking when someone kills themselves, awful that they were in so much pain that they felt they had run out of options. But I think it’s important to remember that the suicide was not their fault but the fault of their delusions, and they are not their delusions. It’s important not to judge; if we have delusions too, we are all in this together.

Why did you do it? A new depression? Must have been. Feeling trapped, like those people in the World Trade Center who chose to jump to their deaths rather than face the certain fire. Difference being, there was no certain fire approaching you, and in your wiser moments you knew that “This too would pass”; but on Friday the future must have felt impossible just long enough for you to go through with trying to end it.

Feeling lonely? Yes, you often suffered from that. The loud newly-developed tinnitus and headaches that you hated? Probably, though you had been working on accepting those sufferings, mind over matter, and reported progress. Bad meds or insufficient meds? self-cherishing and suicideQuite possibly, I’m afraid to say, as you told me they’d taken you off some meds cold turkey and you were having trouble getting in to see a psychiatrist at the VA.

But bottom line is that the distorted self-cherishing thoughts demonizing your mind managed to convince you for just long enough that you’d be better off shooting your head off than staying in this beautiful, far safer place, with your Sangha, your family, and your Spiritual Guide — even though you loved us all.

When people kill themselves, it is usually because their wishes were not fulfilled, but this was unbearable to them only because their self-cherishing made them feel that their wishes were the most important thing in the world. ~ How to Transform Your Life

Self-cherishing is a demon. It is insanity. No one in their right minds would kill themselves. As someone just told me in response to hearing this news, “This makes no sense.” Self-cherishing has never made any sense and it is not about to start.

It is not just Buddhists who understand this. When people who have attempted suicide are brought into hospital, they are deemed “not of sound mind”. And for those of us left behind, it is best not to let that moment of insanity define them. As the Buddhist nun puts it so poignantly in this article about her brother: 

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.

This temporary madness is not a reason to dismiss all the good times we shared with them.

faults of self-cherishing and suicideTo me your situation seems like being captured by a murderer who wants to blow your head off. If you are in your right mind, you’re going to try everything to get away from them. But what about when the murderer is your own self-cherishing?!!

Suicide shows how important it is NEVER to identify with our self-cherishing  (or identify other people with theirs), let alone consider it our friend or advisor. It is our worst enemy; it has no function other than to harm us.

You did leave a note asking for Powa — so some forward-thinking wisdom was operating — and some faith in Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha; but seemingly not enough. Your considerable wisdom, love, and faith would have been screaming at you, “Please, don’t do this!;” but where were you at the time?

Wake up call for the rest of us

We need to get rid of self-grasping and self-cherishing, not complacently let them live in our hearts. Someone was saying it’s like having the first stages of cancer and thinking, “Ah, it’s not really doing anything at the moment, so I’ll just let it stick around.” Just because our self-cherishing is not telling us to kill ourselves at the moment, or harm others for that matter, doesn’t mean that it doesn’t have it in it to do this sooner or later, if we let it stay in our minds.

alternative to suicide

Sometimes even having Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha in our lives, or some other faith for that matter, is not enough, as Denis’s story demonstrates. To be protected we need to be relying deeply upon them whenever things get rough. We need to be actively letting go of our self-cherishing when it arises, whether that is in the form of loneliness, self-hatred, anxiety, disillusionment, fear, and so on.

Even if we do already like Dharma, we have to get it from our head into our heart to ensure deep refuge and some peace when the storm comes. ‘Cos storms do inevitably come, for all of us. Reliable refuge takes some practice and consistency.

We would never think that because we ate yesterday we do not need to eat today. To maintain a healthy body we need to eat every day, and, similarly, to maintain our knowledge of Dharma and gain realizations we need to read, contemplate, and meditate on Dharma over and over again. ~ Living Meaningfully, Dying Joyfully

I love and admire Denis, and the tributes coming in for him are testament to what a special, beautiful person he was. But my love for Denis means that I loathe Denis’s self-cherishing for what it has done to him.

Self-cherishing is so sneaky that it can even persuade us we are being noble and doing this for others, so that we are not a burden, for example. There can be a mixed motivation sometimes, there can be some genuine wish to spare others – but I don’t believe that this alone would cause most people to go through with such a painful, frightening, violent act. Especially as it doesn’t take much imagination to see, really, that the people we leave behind are going to be horribly burdened by this act.

suicide prevention lifelineWhen people feel anger at those who have selfishly left them, it is the selfishness itself that is the proper object of the wrath, not the poor person who is its victim. Self-cherishing is self-destructive — let’s be in no doubt about that.

Part Two will appear here in a few days, including thoughts on how we can help suicide victims with transference of consciousness (Powa) and how to cope when someone close to us kills themselves. Till then, I appreciate your comments, stories, and any other feedback that you think might be helpful to other readers. Thank you.

Related articles:

Coming to terms with a brother’s suicide

What is self-cherishing?

Rewriting the story of our lives

Understanding our continuum of consciousness

Author: Luna Kadampa

Based on 36 years' experience, I write about applying meditation and modern Buddhism to our everyday lives, and vice versa. I try to make it accessible to everyone 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!

21 thoughts on “A Buddhist perspective on suicide”

  1. I am sorry for your loss. I very much enjoy reading your articles of insight and wisdom.

    Perhaps, it might be useful to look outside of Buddhism to understand the origins of suicidal thinking.

    ‘You should not exist’
    Many children may hear this message directly; for example, a parent might say, “I wish you had never been born.” Perhaps a woman became pregnant and it led to an unhappy marriage or economic struggle. Perhaps a parent resents or even dislikes one child.

    Shaming messages can trigger a strong sense of emptiness and nothingness. Thinking ‘I should not exist’ drains the energy, leading a child to despair. The child who accepts this statement will have difficult finding a reason to live. Then, or later as an adult, he might even consider suicide. Self destruction reflects hopelessness. But, at the same time, it is an act of loyalty to shaming parents:’ Since you tell me I should not exist, I will cease to be.’

    from “Letting Go of Shame”, Ronald & Patricia Potter-Efron (1989) pages 78-79.

    Hope this helps.

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  2. This precious article is mind appealing, I am astounded at how it really has hit the note on wanting to self harm. We have so many reasons why we want to leave thus life and dharma can really have you take a different look at your mind. I really look forward to reading part 2. Thank you for this important insightful teaching.

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  3. I am a Buddhist. For 9 years I have been studying and practising. I have suffered from suicidal thoughts. Once trying to gas myself. As I waited for the gas to put me to sleep I had a clear image of daffodils. I thought I will never see them again. I do not have particular love or attachment to the flower. However it was that thought that stopped me. I am grateful for the life that was saved. I still suffer from depression I am working on the causes of it. Geshe la’s quote don’t let depression into your life. It is like inviting a robber into your home.I was 25 when I saw the daffodils. I tried again 10 years later, to commit suicide and failed. Now at 69 I hope that I live long enough to practice Dharma. I am working towards liberation for the benefit of all. So glad you took the time to post this message.

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  4. The black and white way depression is handled by a lot of teachers/sangha can be dangerous. Saying it’s just self cherishing to a clearly deluded suffering mind only makes it worse. Saying you need to have renunciation can send an already struggling mind over the edge into the abyss of “why bother living if samsara is so toxic”. We know the truth but to someone suffering depression these things can sound like a message of detachment to everything rather then connection to the ultimate truth. In addition to this comes the feelings of great despair when someone is very well versed in dharma but nevertheless struggling with depression. Whatever starts it; it is what it is, and as such needs to be treated with wisdom mindfulness and great compassion.
    We need to remember that everyone is at their own unique spot on the path!
    With wisdom and great compassion we can clearly see it and understand that even the greatest messages of hope can sound like the ultimate despair to a deluded suffering mind.
    Logic to a dark desperate mind is overwhelming!
    Blessings and great compassion are the only real first step to helping.

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    1. I agree. Hence my point about not judging. We need skill to say the right thing at the right time. Need to encourage them, talking about love and faith, and how they are loved, and how they are not these thoughts, and how this too will pass. Listening to them is clearly important, not just talking at them.

      And helping people to feel blessings is crucial as these can bring light into the mind. I would be interested in how other people do this as well. Depends on who they are, but we can pray with people for example.

      I was very gentle and encouraging with Denis, and he got a lot less worried and depressed for a few short weeks. I also put him in touch with a wonderful monk teacher who also gave him some valuable support. Other Sangha were very kind as well. We thought he was out of the woods. Unfortunately, although we all tried, and so did his family, he slipped through anyway. I was away when he killed himself.

      In my observation people’s skill and sensitivity increase with the depth of their own experience, not just their intellectual knowledge. Another reason to get practicing.

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  5. I’ve had two suicides in my family and many family members suffer with depression and other mental illnesses. This article strikes close to home. I’ve also suffered with suicidal ideation from time to time. I wanted to share the three things that have helped me and one that hasn’t, with the aim of helping those who might need to talk to and encourage someone going through these kinds of thoughts.

    First off, when one is that depressed I’ve found it unhelpful to go for the jugular of self cherishing by telling myself, or having someone else tell me, or even reading that I’m feeling that way due to self cherishing. If it’s a Dharma practioner you’re talking to they will already KNOW that and the self cherishing hears that and uses it as another weapon against yourself (yeah I KNEW I was a horrible, useless practitioner, won’t ever overcome my selfishness, etc etc). It’s like you’re being eaten alive by the self cherishing mind and that wisdom becomes a poison in your ear. I’ve found instead an oblique approach is so helpful. I focus for example, on how much I love my parents. How kind they are, how much they’ve given me, how devastated they would feel if I harmed myself.

    Secondly I focus on the temporary nature of thoughts & delusions, I talk about it, I read about it. I think of examples of when my mind changed.

    Lastly, I try to focus on my faith in Geshe-la, how he only ever tells me the truth to help me. That faith and trust has gotten me out of some pretty scary minds. Only then can I read about death and rebirth to pump up my understanding that death is not going to be a relief, and who knows where one would end up? And when I’m feeling a lot better, then I read about my self cherishing.

    I hope these ideas can help someone. May no one ever experience a wish to destroy themselves and may everyone have a meaningful life.

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    1. This is really helpful. Thank you. May I put it in the next installment?

      For Denis, he told me himself that it was remembering where he would end up that had stopped him buying a gun on a few occasions, as well as not wanting to hurt his daughter. When I conversed back and forth with him, it was mainly about love and faith, and how this too will pass (rather as you describe above), and it made him happier for a while. He came up with most of the good ideas as well, i wasn’t talking at him.

      I don’t know what his thoughts were on the Friday he died. We’ll never know. Maybe he was just tired of thinking about any antidotes. Maybe it was the meds.

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      1. Absolutely you can use it. Thank you for addressing this topic. Usually there’s so much stigma! It’s so great to have Dharma permeating this area of my (and so many others!) life.

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        1. Yes, thank you, I hadn’t thought of it that way … there is stigma surrounding discussions of death in general, let alone death by suicide. About time we got rid of that stigma, too 😊 It doesn’t seem to help anybody.

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  6. Thank you for sharing.. love and blessings to all the friends and family of Denis. Im so sorry for your loss.

    When I was 24 my partner killed himself while we were travelling together. Its a long road back to the normal world and it can take many, many years. There is something I would share that may help in your journey.

    Beware ‘Poor Me’ .. The mind that says, its not fair, why me, and beware that despite all attempts of searching for answers we will probably never know whey they did it. Most people we decide to share our trauma with seem to quickly ask ‘why did they do it’ .. It seems that for all the searching there is never going to be an answer to this question. Samsara is a shitstorm.. But..

    Healing lies in the breaking down of that solid samsara world of mind. If we can follow the pathways and dive deep into the cool waters of Dharma then the crumbling walls of the boring world with its ordinary appearances and hamster wheel existence, can .. start to snap.. What if there was we are all living the matrix, what if everyone has the potential to be NEO/Buddha.. Thats exactly whats going on.. If we can bring the spiritual alive in our life we can be healed. Buddhas are communicating to us if we can tune the dial in and listen to that stillness.. Perhaps we can even come to see this as an incredible essential part of our path. Our Own Spiritual Adventure.

    If we find the looming negative minds of depression or self cherishing raging up a storm in our minds we must summon the magic of the Dharma wand and cast it off into the ocean with the light of Truth.
    We must Become the Bodhisattva on that path.. I can see no other way..

    May you all be well. May you all be healed. May you all be free. Om Ah Hum..

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  7. Thanks for this article. my son shot himself just over three years ago and what you say about the delusions really rings a bell.
    He seemed to have emerged from depression and then unexpectedly the worst happened.
    What helped me maintain some sanity was that I realized that if I didn’t accept the situation for what it was I would possibly come apart at the seams and who knows where or how that could end.
    I also focused on the good experiences and the privilege of having had him in my life for the time I did as opposed to that final very sad,gut wrenching moment that changed everything for ever.
    I also did POWA for 49 days as that was the only way I could help him wherever he may possibly have been afterwards. OM MANI PAME HUM
    Sangha also become absolute life savers at a time like this.
    It is what it is has become my mantra.
    My heart goes out to everyone who has experienced this type of devastation in their lives.

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    1. You have real wisdom and courage, learning how to transform something this big. Does everything else seem easier by comparison?

      And Powa for 49 days … incredible. I hope he is enjoying bliss in the Pure Land as a result, sending his blessings to you and all the rest of us. I will add my prayers for that.

      xxx

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  8. Thank you so much for posting this. On the Kadampa prayer wall on FB it is a rare day when someone doesn’t ask for prayers for a suicide. So heartbreaking. My brother killed himself when he was 15 and I was 12. I felt as if I’d lost everyone. My sister was away at college, my parents were lost to grief, and Stan was gone. I’ve been looking for ways to bring suicide prevention and grief counseling for survivors into my dharma practice. Having a suicide in my family when I was young and witnessed/experienced its devastation has served as a deterrent any time I may have felt suicidal. I knew what it did, and I couldn’t do that to my parents, my sister. Now, with dharma, I see the more long-term ravages of this act.

    Reading through the comments on the article by the Buddhist nun which you reposted recently, it appears that many of us are struggling to find the language to help people suffering from depression. One of the things I’ve been meditating on recently is the concept of sitting with the pain. Treating the painful emotions (not the self-harming voice, just the feelings) as a child that needs comfort. SO much of our deepest pain is caused by ‘fear of’ and rejection. If people could learn to look at the sad mind, the painful mind, and just breath through it, maybe they could learn to wait it out. We know, after some time of practice, how all thoughts disappear back into emptiness.

    How wonderful if we could teach this to those with suicidal thoughts and tendencies. We are too quick sometimes to condemn thoughts,”Don’t think that” and argue “you ARE loved, you ARE wanted, stay!” I’m not saying delusions shouldn’t be condemned, or feared. But the sensation of thought, the sensation of pain, the way it seems to build slowly or comes barrelling down on us like a runaway train, this is what needs to be accepted, sat with, slowly breathed away. Can we teach this? Especially to those new to dharma, but also to us all? Can we learn how to feel pain, and then, let it go?

    Liked by 1 person

    1. This is so good. There is so much in it. I hope a lot of people read this comment. In fact i may add it to the next installment if that’s ok.

      Acceptance is so crucial on the path to letting go. I do write other articles about that on this blog, but in the context of suicide, both for those contemplating it and those left behind, this practice could really heal.

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      1. Thank you for keeping this blog, and for writing about this topic. I am sorry for your loss. Denis sounds like a lovely man. You are welcome to use any of this if you think it’s helpful. I’m so very interested in finding ways to help this population, those contemplating suicide, and those who have lost someone. I was so comforted by the nun’s comment from the previous article which you quoted here, about the person who commits this act being overwhelmed by delusion, not their true self. So how do we/they deal with overwhelming delusion? Is learning how to deal with pain part of the solution? I’m going to discuss this with Sangha and our resident teacher. I’m really interested in pursuing this as a topic for classes. Again, thanks so much for this blog!

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  9. D was a quiet, gentle and loving person who loved nature, hiking and bathing in the hot springs. He loved good music – especially the blues – and always had the right comforting words to say when you most needed a friend. Denis loved his daughter, Ava, more than anything, with all his heart. His eyes glowed when he spoke of her. Denis also loved his spiritual practice, his daily meditations and his devotion for Vajrayogini. Denis taught me how to practice Dakini Yoga – what to do and when … and to this day still carry around his handwritten notes in my sadhana. Denis and I often chatted late in the night……..we talked about samsara, about our lives, our lost loves, our challenges…. I will miss you great Hero.

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