Buddhism emphasizes that death has only one intrinsic quality: not deliverance or joy, sadness or salvation—but certainty. In a universe of variables, it remains the only reliable beacon. To contemplate death, then, and allow this one certainty to inspire our daily behavior is, from a Buddhist perspective, a sane and radically pragmatic inquiry for everyone.
Historically “The Great Matter of Life and Death” has been left largely to spiritual adepts and subsequently packaged by institutional religion. So it is somewhat ironic that this domain of religious bureaucracy is being democratized not by a neo-Aquarian awakening, but rather by medical science at its most secular, and in particular by issues such as euthanasia and the use of aborted fetal tissue.
In the special section on euthanasia, Patricia Anderson, in Good Death, is careful to distinguish active euthanasia from passive—with the former violating the literal interpretation of the precept—and commandment—against killing. To combine this violation with the Buddhist vow to save all sentient beings and to relieve suffering is to invite Buddhists to put contradiction into practice. In Through a Glass, Darkly, Virginia MacLean suggests that for a Buddhist this crisis is apt to focus on ascertaining if, or when, passive euthanasia can be a legitimate means for relieving suffering. Yet, with no reference to Buddhist teachings, Simone de Beauvoir, in A Very Easy Death, confronts the same concern. In his interview, Stephen Levine dismisses a person’s capacity for enlightenment as a reasonable guideline for determining the appropriateness of mercykilling. But while the Buddhist daughter in MacLean’s piece shares with de Beauvoir a disdain for introducing matters of money to the care of her mother, she adds, “Does my mother now really have the same possibilities for awakening that I have? It is the only question.” Here, MacLean’s mercy derives from the tradition of placing supreme value on realization.
Because traditional Buddhist teachings do not take into account all of the issues raised by the contemporary discussion of euthanasia, we cannot rely on doctrinal solutions; and yet, for this very reason, euthanasia contains all the ingredients necessary for dharma students to investigate what it means to be Buddhist. If, for example, we dismiss enlightenment from our considerations of euthanasia, then Buddhists have anything unique to contribute to discussion? Or, if we allow euthanasia to redefine Buddhism, are we in danger of compromising Buddhist teachings on the nature of suffering, which are not, primarily, about physical pain? Who among us is beyond confusing comfort with compassion—and are the American standards of comfort the standards by which we want to review The Great Matter?
In After Patriarchy Rita Gross also addresses challenges that attend translating older Buddhist models into contemporary usage. Gross argues for reevaluation of (male-dominated) monasticism and a fresh assessment of household practice. But as she cautions, the danger is that the attempt to consecrate the mundane may lead to secularizing the sacred. This warning becomes even more relevant when it considered in light of a medical technology that been inspired by a materialistic outlook.
As if walking the line between the mundane and sacred doesn’t contain its fair share of difficulties for the lay practitioner, Jeffrey Zaleski draws this line even finer in The Science of Compassion. Just when we might have concluded that Buddhism in action might fend off the most obvious pitfalls of materialism, Zaleski introduces us to “the selfish gene” and to the possibility that the Buddhists have it all wrong: that if practice has any value at all it is not to realize our inherent compassion but to compensate for its complete (genetic) absence. But Zaleski concludes that as long as scientists refuse to take into account empirical experience, and to ignore the experience of emptiness, that they are working with incomplete and skewed data. Or, taking this even further, Zales quotes Thinley Norbu Rinpoche, who says, “From the point of view of nihilistic science, fundamental, original mind is completely ignored as the source of phenomena, and no connection is even considered between phenomena and wisdom mind.”
If we apply Thinley Norbu Rinpoche’s insight to the questions raised by euthanasia, then we had better consider mining the depths of Buddhist dharma before using patriarchy, democracy, medical technology—or even compassion—as a reason to pull the plug on our chances for awakening, and risk throwing the baby out with the bath water
Start your day with a fresh perspective
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.