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

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.

Preparing for something?!

Recently two of my old friends lost their beloved husbands to unexpected death. One was a suicide and the other a murder.

These were both very loving partnerships, lasting decades. Both these women have responded to violent loss by seeking refuge in their spiritual practice.

While on retreat, J called her husband at about 2pm each day. This day he didn’t pick up. After 20 minutes of redialing: “I had a hunch that something was dreadfully wrong.”  Driving to his store, she was crying all the way. She found him unconscious, and two days later his life support was turned off. Her husband was a wonderful person, always giving things away in his store, always a kind word for everyone. One of his customers recalled on TV:

“He was just one of the sweetest guys you ever want to meet.  He didn’t deserve this.”

J said to me:

“I collapse on the floor with the pain sometimes. However, if it wasn’t for Dharma, I would have to be hospitalized for grief.”

Interviews of her on local TV show her deeply sad but full of grace, unwilling to condemn the attacker despite the reporter’s leading questions. (The 33-year-old attacker battered J’s husband in a robbery of his antique store, enraged that he had sold his pawned silver coins. The cell phone that J’s husband never picked up was found discarded, along with his wallet, on the road). J said on TV that she was overwhelmed by the kindness that her community had shown her and her family, and felt immense gratitude to friends and strangers.  She told me that she surprised herself by feeling no anger toward the attacker due to her practice of compassion, and for this she was also very grateful. She is taking refuge in her spiritual community and in her meditations, and intends to spend the rest of her life seeking deeper spiritual meanings.

S understands impermanence and the opportunity she now has to increase her empathy and love for everyone, but missing her partner of 46 years hurts like hell:

“In Geshe-la’s books, where do you think I could find some words to help me with my attachment to M……… wanting him back on earth….. I just cannot believe I will not see him again.”

“I have been trying to get a grip on this experience of a broken heart as a gift towards greater compassion. But, you know L,………I just miss M… The younger generation is independent and know how to live their lives self sufficiently……I had been with M for 46 years……I have been part of a team! This is very challenging for me…….”

These women are having strident wake up calls. Not ones anyone would choose, naturally, but we rarely choose our wake up calls; that is why they have the power to wake us up. Hitting the snooze button doesn’t work when we’re in so much pain; we simply cannot distract ourselves with meaningless things as we typically do when we have problems. We have to face the big questions in life because they are staring us in the face. But by facing them and by finding answers, we can gain acceptance, understanding and a growing peace of mind. In this way, we live our fullest lives.

Every day is a challenge for S and J right now, but they are strong. S said this week:

“Spending at least part of the day reading & meditating about this life of ours. Forgiveness is what I am working on a lot………for M & for myself …………just knowing this was his path and had nothing to do with me……is a relief……. Realizing there is nothing permanent here ………… so many things I have learned over the years are now being tested for real……. and I am getting through it all pretty well………  I am working on being happy in this situation because this is what is right now……..”

Please pray for S, J, their husbands and their children.

So often a close encounter with death leads to transformation. At the time of Buddha Shakyamuni, there was a young woman called Kisigotami. She lived a regular life pursuing ordinary ambitions, not particularly interested in spiritual practice. She had a baby, but the baby fell ill and died before its first birthday.

Life of Buddha Play at KMC Manjushri 2009

Clutching the little body in her arms, she took to the streets, begging anyone she met to help bring her baby back to life. One passer-by eventually pointed her in the direction of Buddha.

Buddha told her that there was only one thing she could do to heal her pain, and that was to bring him back a mustard seed from a house in the village that had never known death.

She excitedly knocked on the first door. “I’m sorry. My brother died recently.” At the second door, “We have known many deaths in this family.” At the third, “We are no strangers to death in this house.”

And on it went. She was struck with the realization of death and impermanence, that no one lives forever, that death is part of life. She bid farewell to her child and returned to Buddha empty-handed.

“Did you bring me the mustard seed?” Buddha asked her. She shook her head, and explained how grief had blinded her to the fact that she was not alone in experiencing the reality of death, but that she was now ready to receive spiritual teachings. She wanted to know what death is, what happens at death, what happens after death. She went onto become a great spiritual adept.

No matter how much we deny death, like everyone else we will find ourselves staring it in the face soon enough. Others’ deaths, and our own. It is amazing how little we talk about death in any meaningful way in our modern society — it is taboo, it  is considered morbid, as if talking about it will somehow make it more likely. This leaves us searching for words and meaning when it happens to our friends and loved ones, and utterly unable to cope when we have to face it in ourselves.

Life and death are two ends of the same tunnel. They are parts of the same continuum. If we don’t accept this and learn to live our lives in accordance with this truth, we will experience fear, pain and confusion as the exit looms. If we do accept it, we find like Kisigotami, and so many spiritual practitioners since, that life takes on a deeper meaning. Therein lies a deeper humility, sense of purpose, love, transcendent wisdom and joy. This life is very precious. Others’ lives are precious. If we don’t feel that way, it is probably because we rarely think about how soon we all have to leave.

Death is not the end, it is the opening of a new chapter, one that we are writing today with our thoughts and actions. Every day we prepare for many things. We prepare to get out of bed, we prepare our breakfast, we prepare for school, we prepare for work, we prepare what we’ll do that evening, we prepare to pick up the kids, we prepare how we’ll proceed in our careers, we prepare to meet someone, we prepare ways to earn money, we prepare what to plant in our gardens, we prepare replies for those who’ve offended us, we prepare for our next vacation, we prepare for our retirement, we prepare for bed….

But how many minutes today have we spent preparing for the only future that is certain to occur?