other cases follow the pattern of the suicides but without
ending in self-inflicted death. Wiltshire, however, treats
these as relevant to the issue of suicide:
to their fundamental resemblance to the indubitable
suicide stories, we shall treat these as relevant to
the issue. The problem of decipherment is partly created
by the Paali locution katakaala (lit.,"making an end")
which is used both for death by natural causes and for
goes astray here in two respects. The first is a minor
one: the compound katakaala does not occur in the
canon and the term invariably used is kaalakata.
More important, however, is his suggestion that this term
is used for suicides. There is no reason to suppose from
the contexts that any of the 174 occurrences of this term
in the canon involve death by suicide.
Kaalakata simply means "dead," and in the absence
of further qualification there is no reason to think it
denotes suicide any more than the use of the English word
"dead" implies a death by suicide. It is noteworthy that
the term kaalakata is not used anywhere in connection
with the three bhikkhu suicide cases: instead all
three are said to have "used the knife" (sattha.m aaharesi).
By including the other cases in his discussion of
suicide Wiltshire gives the impression that suicide was
more ! common than it was. Assuming these stories to be
connected with the three suicides, he writes:
stories which belong in this category are those of the
bhikkhu Assaji (S.III.124)-- this story succeeds Vakkali's
in the Sa.myutta text and shares the same format,
apart from not mentioning his death; it was probably
thought superfluous to mention this, as the primary
object of these suttas is convey doctrine on the khandhas
-- and of the two upaasakas Anaathapi.n.dika
(M.III.258; S.V.380) and Diighaavu (S.V.344).
is no reason to link any of these stories to the suicides,
and it is pure speculation to assume that any of the deaths
involved a suicidal intent. As Wiltshire himself notes,
the suicide cases are clearly distinguished by the reference
to the monks "using the knife," but there is no reference
to this in any of the cases mentioned above. As far as
Assaji is concerned, the text reports (S.v.380ff) that
he is gravely ill with a breathing complaint. The Buddha
visits and gives teachings but, as Wiltshire notes, no
mention is made of the patient's death. Anaathapi.n.dika
is visited once by Saariputta (unusually, his pains disappear!)
and once by Aananda. In neither case is his death reported
nor is there any mention of death being contemplated.
The episode of Diighaavu (A.v.344), a lay-disciple, follows
the familiar pattern. Diighaavu is seriously ill and his
condition is deteriorating. He requests a visit from the
Buddha who comes and give teachings. Diighaavu dies and
th! e Budd ha reveals that he has been reborn as a non-returner
fact there are only two cases in the canon which give
any reason at all for thinking that suicide may be condoned,
those of Channa and Vakkali.
In the third case-- that of Godhika-- the Buddha voices
no opinion at all on the monk's suicide. Even in the case
of Vakkali the Buddha simply predicts that Vakkali's death
will not be "ill" (apaapika)
-- a statement which could be interpreted in a variety
of ways. Only
in one case-- that of Channa-- is anything resembling
exoneration given after the event. This takes the form
of a short statement by the Buddha which is translated
by F. L. Woodward as follows:
whoso, Saariputta, lays down one body and takes up another
body, of him I say "He is to blame." But it is not so
with the brother Channa. Without reproach was the knife
used by the brother Channa.
would not be exaggerating greatly to say that the claim
that suicide is permissible for Arhats rests to a large
extent on the above passage. I will come in a moment to
some reasons why the above translation may be doubtful,
but even taking it at face value I think we should exercise
caution before interpreting it to mean that suicide by
Arhats is permissible.
first point to note is that the Buddha does not explicitly
state that he condones suicide by Arhats. He neither says
this here, nor does he say it anywhere else. What the
Buddha actually says in the first part of his statement
is something slightly different, namely that what he regards
as blameworthy is grasping after a new body. This is little
more than an affirmation of standard Buddhist doctrine.
The Buddha could be seen here, as on numerous other
occasions, as skillfully taking advantage of the context
to make an point about the importance of remaining focused
on the goal. In other words, Channa's death becomes a
poignant occasion for the Buddha to emphasize the urgency
of putting an end to rebirth.
trickier bit to explain, however, is the final part of
the statement where the Buddha says "Without reproach
was the knife used by the brother Channa." Do these words
not clearly imply, as Wiltshire and others have suggested,
an exoneration with respect to suicide? Yes, I think they
do. Nevertheless, I do not think this leads to the conclusion
that Buddhism condones suicide. Exoneration and
condonation are two different things. Exoneration is the
removal of a burden (onus) of guilt, while condonation
is the approval of what is done. These two terms reflect
the distinction-- well established in Western ethics and
law-- between the wrongfulness of acts and the guilt incurred
by those who commit them. Although an act may be wrong
in itself, the burden of guilt incurred in its commission
may vary. Self-defence, provocation, duress, and insanity
are all grounds which mitigate otherwise wrongful acts.
It is also widely recognized with respect to suicide in
partic! ular t hat there may be psychological and other
factors present which diminish responsibility.
This is one reason suicide has been decriminalized
in many jurisdictions.
like Woodward, we translate the Buddha's concluding statement
to the effect that Channa used the knife "without reproach,"
it could mean simply that-- that the Buddha felt
it would be improper to blame or reproach Channa (or someone
in his situation). This need not mean that suicide is
morally right: it simply acknowledges that the burden
of guilt in many circumstances may be slight or non-existent.
Thus we might say in the present case the Buddha is
exonerating Channa rather than condoning suicide.
Wiltshire makes a similar point:
from representing putative cases of suicide, these stories
share one further overriding theme -- each of the protagonists
is suffering from a serious degenerative illness --
So, when we try to understand why they are exonerated,
it is initially necessary to appreciate that their act
is not gratuitously performed, but constrained by force
discussion so far, then, would suggest that there is no
need to see the Buddha's pronouncement on Channa as establishing
a normative position on suicide by Arhats. At the very
least, the evidence falls a long way short of proving
"beyond dispute" that suicide for Arhats is condoned.
far I have discussed the Buddha's exoneration of Channa
out of context. What I would like to do for the remainder
of the paper is take a closer look at the facts of the
case. The closer we look, the less confident I think we
will feel about drawing any firm conclusions from it.
story of Channa
occurs in two places in the canon, once in the Majjhima-nikaaya
and once in the Sa.myutta-nikaaya.
I will first of all summarise the narrative in the
main text and then consider the views of the commentary.
Channovaada-sutta relates how Saariputta, Mahaa
Cunda and Channa were residing on Vulture Peak mountain.
Channa was "afflicted, suffering, and gravely ill."
Arising from his evening meditation, Saariputta suggests
to Mahaa Cunda that they visit the ailing Channa, which
they do. Enquiring about Channa's health they are told
that his condition is deteriorating rather than improving.
The nature of the illness itself is not diagnosed but
the symptoms are described in stock terms identical to
those of the layman Anaathapi.n.dika in the preceding
sutta. Both men complain of intense pain in the head and
stomach, and throughout the body generally. The head pain
is said to be like having one's head split open with a
sharp sword, or having a leather strap progressively tightened
around the head like a headband. The stomach pain is compared
to having one's belly carved up by a sharp knife, in the
way a butcher might carve up an oxe's bell! y. The body
pain is likened to tha t of being roasted over a pit of
hot coals. The head and stomach pains are attributed to
the action of "violent winds" (adhimattaa vaataa),
but no specific cause is mentioned for the more diffuse
but no less intense bodily pain.
describing his condition, Channa declares "I shall use
the knife, friend Saariputta, I have no desire to live."
On hearing this the immediate response of Saariputta
is to dissuade Channa from taking his life:
the venerable Channa not use the knife! Let the venerable
Channa live-- we want the venerable Channa to live!
he lacks suitable food, I will go in search of suitable
food for him. If he lacks suitable medicine, I will
go in search of suitable medicine for him. If he lacks
a proper attendant, I will attend on him. Let the venerable
Channa not use the knife! Let the venerable Channa live--
we want the venerable Channa to live!
response to this entreaty-- which I believe encapsulates
the normative Buddhist stance on suicide-- Channa explains
that he lacks neither food, medicine or care. He then
remarks, somewhat obliquely, that he has long served the
teacher with love as is proper for a disciple, before
repeating his intention to "use the knife":
Saariputta, it is not that I have no suitable food and
medicine or no proper attendant. But rather, friend
Saariputta, the Teacher has long been served by me with
love, not without love; for it is proper for the disciple
to serve the Teacher with love, not without love. Friend
Saariputta, remember this: the monk Channa will use
the knife blamelessly.
is no logical connection between the three ideas in this
passage (I have suitable food -- I have served the teacher
-- I will use the knife) which suggests some textual interpolation
may have taken place.
More important, however, is that in claiming that
his his action will be blameless (anupavajja) Channa
now introduces a moral dimension to his earlier declaration
does he? The commentary offers an interesting gloss on
the term anupavajja, the key word which will later
be used by the Buddha apparently in exoneration. The commentary
offers two synonyms for anupavajja in this context:
the first is anuppattika meaning "without further
arising," and the second is appa.tisandhika which
means "not leading to rebirth."
Read this way Channa is saying "Saariputta, I will
use the knife and not be reborn-- remember I said this."
According to the commentary, then, Channa is making a
factual statement-- perhaps a prediction-- rather than
passing a moral judgement on suicide.
this the subject changes and first Saariputta and then
Mahaa Cunda speak to Channa on matters of doctrine. Both
elders then get up and leave, and soon afterwards Channa
"uses the knife". Saariputta then approaches the Buddha
and-- clearly believing that Channa was not an Arhat--
asks for information about Channa's post-mortem destination
(gati) and future course (abhisamparaaya).
The Buddha's response betrays a degree of impatience and
implies that Saariputta should already know the answer:
"But surely, Saariputta," he says, "the monk Channa told
you in person of his anupavajjataa!"
What does anupavajjataa mean here? Since Saariputta's
question was about rebirth, the context supports the commentarial
interpretation of anupavajja as meaning "not being
reborn" very well and makes the Buddha's reply perfectly
intelligible. The Buddha is saying something like "Wake
up, Saariputta-- you are asking me ab! out th e rebirth
of someone who told you himself he was anupavajja--
not going to be reborn!" To take anupavajja here
in the sense of "blameless" would not fit the context
nearly so well, since Saariputta was asking for simple
factual information on Channa's destiny, not a moral judgement
on the way he died.
after this exchange Saariputta uses the term upavajja
again in the context of Channa's association with certain
families in the Vajjian village of Pubbajira, Channa's
home town. He
refers to these families as upavajjakulaani. The
point of Saariputta's remark here is not clear, neither
is the meaning of upavajjakula. It could mean "blameworthy
family" or it could mean-- as the commentary suggests--
"a family which is to be visited."
The issue, as the commentary explains it, concerns
the fault of overly-close association with kin (kulasa.msaggadosa),
a fault to which Channa seems to have been prone.
cannot rule out the possibility that despite the macabre
context obscure puns on the meaning of upavajja--
the sense of which it is now difficult to recover-- are
being made throughout this passage. The most likely explanation
for Saariputta's remark about the kinfolk, however, is
that he is pointing to another connection in which he
had heard the term upavajja linked to Channa's
name. By doing so he defends himself against the Buddha's
criticism that he should know Channa's fate. He is saying,
in effect, "Well, yes, Channa did tell me his death would
be anupavajja, but I wasn't exactly sure what he
meant by that since I have heard this term used of him
in another context in connection with visiting certain
Buddha then concludes the discourse with the statement
quoted at the start which has been taken as condoning
Arhat suicide. I think that when we place the Buddha's
statement in context, we see that the Buddha is offering
not an exoneration of suicide but a clarification of the
meaning of anupavajja for Saariputta's benefit.
This is how his statement might be translated:
Saariputta, there are these clansmen and relatives who
were visited (upavajjakula) [by Channa],
I do not say he was "saupavajja" on that account
(ettaavataa). By "saupavajja" I mean that
someone lays down this body and takes up another. That
is not the case with respect to Channa. Channa used
the knife without being reborn (anupavajja).
This is how you should understand it, Saariputta.
is noteworthy that in the Sa.myutta version quoted
above, the term anupavajja is contrasted not as
we might expect with upavajja-- the normal word
for "blameworthy"-- but with saupavajja, a word
which seems created specifically for this context, since
the only two ocurrences in the entire canon are found
in the passage just quoted. This seems to confirm that
upavajja is not being used here in its everyday
sense of "blameworthy," and that the contrast intended
is between anupavajja as "not reborn" and saupavajja
as "is reborn."
taking the key term anupavajja in the way suggested
by the commentary, which I think fits the context well,
the Buddha's concluding remark becomes not an exoneration
of suicide but a clarification of the meaning of an ambiguous
word in a context which has nothing to do with ethics.
main text makes no reference to Channa gaining enlightenment.
We know that Channa died an Arhat by inference
from the Buddha's closing statement, although there is
no corroborating evidence that Channa was an Arhat and
no indication of when he became one.
it is this question of the timing of Channa's enlightenment
which concerns the commentary most, and it devotes a good
deal of effort to show that Channa was not an Arhat before
he committed suicide. It seeks to establish this in two
it volunteers a rationale for the specific teaching given
to Channa by Mahaa Cunda. The commentary suggests that
Mahaa Cunda gave this teaching because he deduced from
Channa's inability to bear the pain of the illness, and
his threat to take his life, that he was still an unenlightened
The attribution of this motive to Mahaa Cunda is speculative,
since the text says nothing at all about his motives for
selecting the teaching in question. Nor is Channa referred
to in the text as an "unenlightened person" (puthujjana).
the commentary reconstructs Channa's last moments of life
to make it very clear that enlightenment was gained at
the last second:
used the knife" means he used a knife which removes
life-- he cut his throat. Now in that very moment the
fear of death possessed him, and the sign of his next
birth (gatinimitta) arose. Knowing he was unenlightened
he was stirred (sa.mviggo) and aroused insight.
Apprehending the formations (sa"nkhaara) he attained
Arhatship and entered nirvana simultaneous with his
death (samasiisii hutvaa).
claim of the commentary is thus that Channa was a samasiisin
("equal headed"), that is to say someone who dies and
attains nirvana simultaneously.
This reconstruction of Channa's death is likewise
speculative, since no details at all are supplied in the
text. Horner's verdict on the commentarial version of
events is: "The facts could not have been known, and it
seems a rather desperate effort to work up a satisfactory
reason for this supposed attainment."
While it seems true that the commentary's reconstruction
can never be verified, the possibility of achieving "sudden
enlightenment" at the critical point "betwixt the bridge
and the brook, the knife and the throat"-- as Robert Burton
put it in The Anatomy of Melancholy
-- is recognised in Pali sources, and there are several
examples of people gaining enlightenment just as they
are about to kill th! emselves.
The commentarial claim that Channa was not an Arhat
until his death seems also to be widely accepted in the
secondary literature. Wiltshire is of the opinion that
none of the three suicides were Arhats before their deaths.
Discussing the case of Godhika he writes:
so happens that in the other bhikkhu suicide cases,
those of Channa and Vakkali, it is also made quite clear
that they too were not arahants until the event of their
death, after which the Buddha pronounces them parinibbuta.
interesting than the truth or falsity of the commentarial
version of events, however, is the question why the commentary
should take such pains to establish that Channa was not
an Arhat. The reason would appear to be that some aspect
of Channa's behaviour was incompatible with the concept
held by the tradition of how an Arhat should conduct himself.
In other words, there must be one or more features of
Channa's behaviour that the tradition found hard to swallow
in an Arhat. I think there are three things the commentary
might have taken exception to.
most obvious thing is that the tradition simply found
it inconceivable that an Arhat would be capable of suicide.
Although this is nowhere mentioned in the text or commentary
on this episode, it is often stated elsewhere that it
is impossible for an Arhat to do certain things, the first
of which is intentionally to kill a living creature.
Death-dealing acts of any kind are certainly not in
keeping with the canonical paradigm of the calm and serene
are given a hint as to the second reason why the commentary
might be unhappy with the notion of Channa being an Arhat
prior to his suicide attempt in the motivation attributed
to Mahaa Cunda for providing his homily to Channa. The
suggestion is made by the commentary that Mahaa Cunda
gave this particular teaching because he saw that Channa
was "unable to tolerate the intense pain" and was seeking
death in order to escape from it. The inability to tolerate
pain shows a lack of self-mastery unbecoming to an Arhat.
The danger of a lack of self-mastery is that a monk might
do things unbecoming to his office and thereby cause the
Order to lose face in the eyes of society. By maintaining
that Channa was unlightened until the very end, the image
of the Arhat remains untarnished by Channa's all-too-human
show of weakness in the face of pain.
third reason the commentary might have taken exception
to suicide by an Arhat is a sectarian one. Suicide by
voluntary fasting (sallekhanaa) is a well-known
Jain practice, and suicide may also have been customary
among the Aajiivikas.
Channa's suicide, and the two others, might have been
seen as uncomfortably close to a distinctive sectarian
practice and perhaps an unwelcome throwback to the discredited
path of self-mortification. The commentary's rejection
of suicide by Arhats, therefore, may also carry an implicit
rejection of Jainism.
is most striking, however, is not what the commentary
does say, but what it doesn't say. I refer to the complete
absence of any discussion of the ethics of suicide. We
might expect at least a mention of the third paaraajika,
which was introduced specifically to prevent suicide by
can be the reason for this silence? Perhaps the simple
explanation is that Channa's suicide was not seen to raise
any pressing moral or legal issues: only if Channa was
an Arhat would such questions arise. In the eyes of the
commentary, Channa was an unenlightened person (puthujjana)
who, afflicted by the pain and distress of a serious illness,
took his own life. Presented in this light, few ethical
problems arise: suicides by the unenlightened are a sad
but all too common affair. By holding that Channa gained
enlightenment only after he had begun the attempt
on his life, the commentary neatly avoids the dilemma
of an Arhat ! breaking the precepts.
does all this leave us with respect to the seventy-year
consensus that suicide is permitted for Arhats? I think
it gives us a number of reasons to question it. First,
there is no reason to think that the exoneration of Channa
establishes a normative position on suicide. This is because
to exonerate from blame is not the same as to condone.
there are textual reasons for thinking that the Buddha's
apparent exoneration may not be an exoneration after all.
The textual issues are complex and it would not be safe
to draw any firm conclusions. It might be observed in
passing that the textual evidence that suicide may be
permissible in Christianity is much greater than in Buddhism.
There are many examples of suicide in the Old Testament:
this has not, however, prevented the Christian tradition
from teaching consistently
that suicide is gravely wrong. By comparison, Theravaada
sources are a model of consistency in their refusal to
countenance the intentional destruction of life.
the commentarial tradition finds the idea that an Arhat
would take his own life in the way Channa did completely
unacceptable. Fourth, there is a logical point which,
although somewhat obvious, seems to have been overlooked
in previous discussions. If we assume, along with the
commentary and secondary literature, that Channa was not
an Arhat prior to his suicide attempt, then to extrapolate
a rule from this case such that suicide is permissible
for Arhats is fallacious. The reason for this is that
Channa's suicide was-- in all significant respects-- the
suicide of an unenlightened person. The motivation,
deliberation and intention which preceded his suicide--
everything down to the act of picking up the razor-- all
this was done by an unenlightened person. Channa's suicide
thus cannot be taken as setting a precedent for Arhats
for the simple reason that he was not one himself until
after he had performed the suicidal act.
and finally, suicide is repeatedly condemned in canonical
and non-canonical sources and goes directly "against the
stream" of Buddhist moral teachings. A number of reasons
why suicide is wrong are found in the sources
but no single underlying objection to suicide is articulated.
This is not an easy thing to do, and Schopenhauer was
not altogether wrong in his statement that the moral arguments
against suicide "lie very deep and are not touched by
Earlier I suggested that the "roots of evil" critique
of suicide-- that suicide was wrong because of the presence
of desire or aversion-- was unsatisfactory in that it
led in the direction of subjectivism. The underlying objection
to suicide, it seems to me, is to be found not in the
emotional state of the agent but in some intrinsic feature
of the suicidal act which renders it morally flawed. I
believe, however, there is a way in whi! ch the two approaches
can be reconciled. To do this we must locate the wrongness
of suicide in delusion (moha) rather in the affective
"roots" of desire and hatred.
this basis suicide will be wrong because it is an irrational
act. By this I do not mean that it is performed while
the balance of the mind is disturbed, but that it is incoherent
in the context of Buddhist teachings. This is because
suicide is contrary to basic Buddhist values. What Buddhism
values is not death, but life.
Buddhism sees death as an imperfection, a flaw in
the human condition, something to be overcome rather than
affirmed. Death is mentioned in the First Noble Truth
as one of the most basic aspects of suffering (dukkha-dukkha).
A person who opts for death believing it to be a solution
to suffering has fundamentally misunderstood the First
Noble Truth. The First Noble Truth teaches that death
is the problem, not the solution. The fact that the person
who commits suicide will be reborn and live again is not
important. What is significant is that through the affirmation
of death he has, in his heart, embraced Maara! . From
a Buddhist perspective, thi s is clearly irrational. If
suicide is irrational in this sense it can be claimed
there are objective grounds for regarding it as morally
Can Killing a Living Being Ever Be an Act of Compassion?
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Can Killing a Living Being Ever Be an Act of Compassion?
The analysis of the act of killing in the Abhidhamma and
Pali Commentaries -- Rupert Gethin
In the Early Buddhist exegetical tradition, the notion
that intentionally killing a living being is wrong involves
a claim that certain mental states are present in the
mind. The idea that killing a living being might be a
solution to the problem of suffering runs counter to the
Buddhist emphasis on dukkha as a reality. The cultivation
of friendliness in the face of suffering is seen as something
that can bring beneficial effects for self and others
in a situation where it might seem that compassion should
lead one to kill.
Wiltshire, Martin G. (1983) "The 'Suicide' Problem in
the Paali Canon," Journal of the International Association
of Buddhist Studies 6, pp. 124-140. I am grateful
to Lance Cousins, Peter Harvey and Richard Gombrich for
comments on an earlier draft of this paper. A fuller discussion
of suicide will be found in a forthcoming book on Buddhist
ethics by Peter Harvey to be published by Cambridge University
Press entitled An Introduction to Buddhist Ethics:
Foundations, Values and Issues, and I am grateful
to the author for sight of an advance copy of the relevant
The literature on suicide includes L. de La Vallee Poussin
"Suicide (Buddhist)" in The Encyclopaedia of Religion
and Ethics, ed. James Hastings (Edinburgh, Clark:
1922) XII, 24-26; Woodward, F.L. (1922) "The Ethics of
Suicide in Greek, Latin and Buddhist Literature," Buddhist
Annual of Ceylon, pp. 4-9; Gernet, Jacques (1960)
"Les suicides par le feu chez les bouddhiques chinoises
de Ve au Xe siecle," Melange publies par l'Institut
des Hautes Études Chinoises II, pp. 527-558;
Filliozat, Jean (1963) "La Morte Volontaire par le feu
en la tradition bouddhique indienne," Journal Asiatique
251, pp. 21-51; Jan, Yün-hua (1964-5) "Buddhist Self-Immolation
in Medieval China," History of Religion 4, pp.243-268;
Rahula, W. (1978), "Self-Cremation in Mahaayaana Buddhism,"
in Zen and the Taming of the Bull, Gordon Fraser,
London; Van Loon, Louis H. (1983) "Some Buddhist Reflections
on Suicide," Religion in S! outhern Africa 4, pp.
3-12; La motte, E. (1987) "Religious Suicide in Early
Buddhism," Buddhist Studies Review 4, pp. 105-126
(first published in French in 1965); Harvey, Peter (1987)
"A Note and Response to 'The Buddhist Perspective on Respect
for Persons'," Buddhist Studies Review 4, pp. 99-103;
Becker, Carl B. (1990) "Buddhist views of suicide and
euthanasia," Philosophy East and West 40, pp. 543-556;
Becker, Carl B. (1993), Breaking the Circle: death
and the afterlife in Buddhism. Carbondale: Southern
Illinois University Press; Stephen Batchelor, "Existence,
Enlightenment and Suicide: the Dilemma of~Naa.naviira
Thera," unpublished paper given at The Buddhist Forum,
School of Oriental and African Studies, University of
London, December 8th 1993. Woodward refers to a discussion
of the Channa episode in "Edmunds, Buddhist and Christian
Gospels, ii, 58" but I cannot locate this passage. For
more general treatments see Thakur, Upendra (1963), The
History of Suicide in India. New Delhi: Munshiram
Manoharlal; Suicide in Different Cultures, ed.
Norman L. Farberow, Baltimore: University Park Press,
1975; Young, Katherine K. (1989), "Euthanasia: Traditional
Hindu Views and the Contemporary Debate," in Hindu
Ethics. Purity, Abortion, and Euthanasia, eds. Harold
G. Coward, Julius J. Lipner, and Katherine K. Young, McGill
Studies in the History of Religions, ed. Katherine
K. Young, Albany, NY: State University of New York Press,
pp. 71-130, esp. pp.103-7. There is additional literature
on ritual suicide in Japan (seppuku), but I see
this practice as bound up with the Japanese Samurai code
and as owing little to Buddhism (Becker apparently disagrees).Return
1922:25. In a more recent encyclopedia entry Marilyn J.
Harran writes: "Buddhism in its various forms affirms
that, while suicide as self-sacrifice may be appropriate
for the person who is an arhat, one who has attained enlightenment,
it is still very much the exception to the rule" s.v.
"Suicide (Buddhism and Confucianism)" in The Encyclopedia
of Religion, ed. in chief Mircea Eliade (New York:
Macmillan), vol. 14 p.129.Return
Views of this kind with certain variations are expressed
by Poussin (1922), Wiltshire (1983), van Loon (1983),
Lamotte (1987), Taniguchi, Shoyu (1987) "A Study of Biomedical
Ethics from a Buddhist Perspective," unpublished MA Thesis,
Berkeley: Graduate Theological Union and the Institute
of Buddhist Studies, p.86-89, Young (1989), Florida, Robert
E. (1993) "Buddhist Approaches to Euthanasia," Studies
in Religion/Sciences Religieuses 22, pp. 35-47, p.41.Return
On the criteria for moral evaluation in Buddhism see Peter
Harvey "Criteria for Judging the Unwholesomeness of Actions
in the Texts of Theravaada Buddhism," Journal of Buddhist
Ethics 2 1995: 140-151. See also Keown, Damien (1995),
Buddhism & Bioethics. (London: Macmillan),
It may be objected that it is impossible to murder without
desire or hatred. Regardless of whether this is psychologically
true, the theoretical possibility of desireless murders
being regarded as not immoral reveals the inadequacy of
the subjectivist account. Another defect in the account
is that the gravity of murders would be nothing more than
a function of the amount of desire present. A "crime of
passion," therefore, would be far more serious than a
random "drive-by" shooting. The fact that courts often
take an opposite view gives cause to question this conclusion.Return
This is suggested at Miln. 195f.Return
As suggested, for example, by Florida, Robert E. (1993)
"Buddhist Approaches to Euthanasia," Studies in Religion/Sciences
Religieuses 22, pp. 35-47, p.45. Cf. Poussin, "In
the case of "Saakyamuni we have to deal with a voluntary
death" (op cit). We must bear in mind, however, that the
Buddha had rejected Maara's overtures in this direction
at the start of his teaching career (D.ii.102) and did
so again three months before his death (D.ii.99).Return
The story of the hungry tigress is found in the Jaataka-maala
and the Suvar.naprabhaasottama-suutra.Return
See Fairbairn, Gavin J. (1995), Contemplating Suicide.
London: Routledge, pp. 144ff. Fairbairn suggests that
seppuku is not suicide since the samurai does not
seek to end his life, but only to perform his duty.Return
For example S.v.344 (Diighaavu); S.iv.55, M.iii.263 (Channa);
S.iii.119 (Vakkali); S.iii.124 (Assajji); M.iii.258, S.v.380
V.5.230(167):2. bhagavataa kho aavuso gilaanupa.t.thaana.m
va.n.nita.m. References in this format are to the BUDSIR
edition of the Thai Tipi.taka on CD-ROM. The present reference
is to volume V, p.230, paragraph (or item) 167, line 2.Return
It is unclear whether Godhika is suffering from an illness
In the case of Channa item 2 is absent and Saariputta
and Mahaa Cunda visit on their own initiative.Return
The same may be said of the 137 occurrences of kaalam
I take this (with the commentary) in a literal sense to
mean that a knife (or similar sharp instrument) was actually
employed. The commentary states that Channa "severed his
windpipe" (ka.n.thanaala.m chindi). It is possible
that "using the knife" could be a locution which denotes
suicide by any means, but I think this unlikely given
that, as Wiltshire notes (1983:130), a razor is part of
a monk's "kit" (although apparently not referred to as
sattha). It seems likely that "using the knife" is
meant in a literal sense, since the layman who commits
suicide at M.ii.109f is not said to have "used the knife"
but to have cut or ripped himself open (attaana.m upphaalesi).
Other canonical suicides include those of the unnamed
monks in the Vinaya whose deaths led to the promulgation
of the third paaraajika. At M.ii.109f (supra) a
husband kills his wife and then himself so they will not
be separated. Cases of attempted suicide leading to enlightenment
include those of the monk Sappadaasa in the Theragaathaa
(408), and the nun Siihaa in the Theriigaathaa
(77) (both discussed by Sharma, 1987:123f. Cf Rahula 1978:22f).
At Ud. 92f. the aged Arhat Dabba rises in the air and
disappears in a puff of smoke. There is a similar passage
on Bakkula at M.iii.124-8.Return
Maa bhaayi Vakkali -- apaapaka.m te mara.na.m bhavissati
It may be intended as simple reassurance to Vakkali that
he has nothing to fear from death, or a prediction that
he will die an Arhat.Return
Kindred Sayings, vol. IV p.33. In her introductory
essay to the Majjhima translation Horner seems
to suggest that the compilers of the canon had actually
"rigged" the text in order to exonerate Channa. Of the
Buddha's exonerating statement she writes "they make him
[the Buddha] sanction the unworthy act of the
poor little sufferer" (p. xi.).Return
The use of the word "blameworthy," however, is unusual.
The Buddha does not elsewhere describe those who are reborn
For example, when asked about worshipping the six directions
in the Sigaalovaada-sutta he deftly switches the
context to social relationships.Return
This distinction is made clear in Catholic teachings.
The Declaration on Euthanasia prepared by the Sacred
Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith states: "Intentionally
causing one's own death, or suicide, is therefore equally
as wrong as murder -- although, as is generally recognized,
at times there are psychological factors present that
can diminish responsibility or even completely remove
it" (Boston: St. Paul's Books and Media, 1980), p.7.Return
This is similar to Christ's reaction to the woman taken
in adultery: in defending the woman with the words "Neither
do I condemn thee," (John 8, 11) Christ is not endorsing
adultery but displaying compassion for the woman who has
Three Channas are known in the canon: a paribbaajaka,
Gotama's charioteer, and the elder (thera) who
commits suicide. Details in DPPN.Return
In the Majjhima-nikaaya it occurs in The Division
of the Sixfold Base (Salaayatanavagga), the fifth
and last division of the "final fifty" (upari-pa.n.naasa).
Here, it is the second of the five "advisory" (ovaada)
style discourses which form the first half of the division.
In the Sa.myutta-nikaaya it is found in the Salaayatana-sa.myutta,
where the rationale for its inclusion seems to be the
passage in which Saariputta gives teachings to Channa
about the six sense-consciousnesses [S.18.72(107):10ff.].Return
aabhaadhiko hoti dukkhito baalhagilaano.Return
The nature of Channa's complaint is not easy to diagnose
from these symptoms. One medical opinion I have received
is as follows: "The head pain is typical of migraine,
which is universal and has been recognized for centuries.
Other causes may be an intracranial tumour causing raised
intracranial pressure, but this is often accompanied by
vomiting and specific neurological signs which appear
to be missing in this description. The abdominal pain
is more difficult. Peritonitis causes this kind of severe,
unremitting pain, and may result from any cause which
leads to peritoneal infection such as a ruptured appendix,
perforated ulcer, leaking bowel etc. Another cause of
such pain could be a strangulated intestine, often due
to vascular causes in older people or to twisting of the
bowel with loss of blood supply. A third cause in this
region of the world could be intestinal infection such
as cholera or typhoid, often accompanied by diarrhoea.
The general! body pain is most difficult. There are not
many things that cause generalized pain. This is typical
of myalgia, aching of the muscles, and it may occur in
severe generalized infections, often of viral origin,
and in rare metabolic diseases of muscle in which certain
enzymes are lacking. The combination is strange." I am
grateful to my brother Dr Paul A. Keown for this opinion
(personal communication 23rd September 1995). A second
opinion, for which I am indebted to Dr Steven Emmett is
as follows: "Both the head and abdominal pain are 'sharp'
which tends to point to a vascular phenomenon, but the
pain throughout the body tends to points to an infectious
etiology -- though any severe process can have concomitant
body pain -- my guesses would be lupus erythematosus,
viral illness, and possibly syphilis, though I don't know
if it were present in that area of the world at that time,
and what would be the chances of holy men contracting
it -- assuming two people had similar illnesse! s at the
same time (I don't know h ow far apart in time the two
suttas were) -- but if they were coeval, then an infectious
illness, presumably viral, though possibly bacterial,
would be the cause" (personal communication, 14th September
Sattha.m aavuso Saariputta aaharissaami naavaka.nkhaami
jiivitan ti. Return
Maayasmaa Channo sattha.m aaharesi, yaapetaayasmaa Channo
yaapenta.m maya.m aayasmanta.m Channa.m icchaama.Return
In her translation of the Majjhima passage, Horner
seems to suggest that Channa regards his previous reverence
for the teacher as the justification for his planned course
of action: "No, friend Saariputta. I am not without proper
food. I have it. I am not without proper clothing. I have
it. I am not without fit attendants. I have them. I myself,
friend, waited on the Master for many a long day with
service that was delightful, not tedious. That, friend,
is the proper thing for a disciple to do. 'In so far as
he served the Master with a service that was delightful,
not tedious, blameless (must be accounted) the brother
Channa's use of the knife': so should you uphold, friend
Saariputta." Kindred Sayings, vol.II p.31. The text reads:
Eta.m hi aavuso saavakassa pa.tiruupa.m satthaara.m paricareyya
manaapeneva no amanaapena ta.m anupavajja.m channo bhikkhu
sattha.m aaharissatiti evameta.m aavuso saariputta dhaarehiiti.
Horner's reading arises fr! om tak ing the ya.m
-- ta.m construction as a separate sentence having
the sense of "In so far as -- to that extent." However,
the ta.m is not present in all manuscripts, and
in any event a more plausible reading is to take the ya.m
clause as correlative to the initial Eta.m rather
than the ta.m, in the sense of illustrating what
is "proper" (pa.tiruupa) to a disciple rather than
announcing a state of affairs which is subsequently justified
in the ta.m clause. Bhikkhus~Naa"namoli and Bodhi
do not follow Horner in their The Middle Length Discourses
of The Buddha (Wisdom, 1995).Return
MA.10.237(390). I am grateful to Lance Cousins for his
observation that the commentary apparently takes the term
as deriving from the root VRAJ (to go, walk, proceed).
This term includes associations with rebirth: "with punar
'to return to life'" (Monier Williams, s.v. VRAJ). Another
possible derivation is from PAD. See CPD s.v. "an-upavajja."
Woodward suggests: "Sa-upavajjo (culpable: really
'attended by a supporter')" (1922:8).Return
Nanu te Saariputta channena bhikkhunaa sammukhaaya eva
anupavajjataa byaakataa ti.Return
DPPN s.v. "Channa."Return
Upavajjakulaaniiti upasa"nkamitabbakulaani. This seems
to confirm the derivation from Sanskrit upavrajya,
"to be gone to." Cf. CPD "upa-vajja."Return
Or, "who are blameworthy."Return
Honti hete Saariputta Channassa bhikkhuno mittakulaani
suhajjakulaani upavajjakulaaniiti. Na kho panaaha.m Saariputta
ettaavataa saupavajjoti vadaami. Yo kho Saariputta ima~nca
kaaya.m nikkhipati a~n~na~nca kaaya.m upaadiyati tamaha.m
saupavajjoti vadaami. Ta.m Channassa bhikkhuno natthi.
Anupavajja.m Channena bhikkhunaa sattha.m aaharitanti
evameta.m Saariputta dhaarehiiti [S.18.74(111)].Return
It introduces this explanation in its elucidation of the
word "Therefore" (tasmaa). "Therefore" means that
[this teaching is given] because Channa was unable
to bear the great pain and said he would use the knife.
The venerable Channa was not enlightened (puthujjana),
so Mahaa Cunda tells him to pay attention to this teaching.
(Tasmaati yasmaa maara.nantikavedana.m adhivaasetu.m asakkonto
sattha.m aaharaamiiti vadati, tasmaa. Putthujano aayasmaa,
tena idampi manasikarohiiti diipeti.)Return
The same claim is made about Vakkali and Godhika. The
concept of the samasiisii is put to good use by
the commentary in these cases. Buddhaghosa explains there
are three kind of samasiisii. i) Iriyaapatha-samasiisii:
someone selects one of the four postures and resolves
not to change posture until they attain Arhatship. The
change of posture and Arhatship occur together. ii) Rogasamasiisii:
someone recovers from an illness and attains Arhatship
at the same time. iii) Jiivita-samasiisii: the
destruction of the aasavas (aasavakkhaya)
and the end of life (jiivitakkhaya) occur simultaneously.
It is the third which is intended here [SA.11.175(159):6-11].Return
Kindred Sayings V. p.33Return
Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy, Part
1, Section 4, Member 1. Quoted in Battin, Margaret Pabst
(1982), Ethical Issues in Suicide. Englewood Cliffs,
NJ: Prentice Hall, p. 53.Return
There are cases of "sudden enlightenment" reported in
Pali sources as well as Mahaayaana ones. Rahula writes:
"Examples of this kind of 'sudden' awakening or 'sudden'
attainment of arahantship are not lacking also in Pali
commentaries." He cites three examples, the last from
the Theragaathaa commentary which is of relevance
to our present theme: "Mahaanaama Thera, living on a mountain,
was thoroughly disgusted with his life because he was
not successful in getting rid of such impure thoughts
as lust, and just at the moment when he was about to commit
suicide by jumping from the top of a rock, he attained
arahantship." Rahula, W. (1978), Zen and the Taming of
the Bull. Towards the Definition of Buddhist Thought,
London: Gordon Fraser, p.22. At S.v.69f someone attains
enlightenment at the moment of death.Return
1983:134. Wiltshire does not say where this is "made quite
clear." In fact-- as already noted-- the main text makes
no pronouncement on the matter one way or the other, and
contains nothing inconsistent with the view that Channa
was an Arhat before the time he began to contemplate suicide.
Poussin, in his entry on suicide in the Encyclopaedia
of Religion and Ethics, gives the suicides of Vakkali
and Godhika as examples of suicide by Arhats, but gives
no evidence for his claim that they were Arhats. In his
capsule summary of Godhika's suicide, moreover, he states
"Godhika reached arhatship just after he had begun cutting
his throat." This hardly counts as a suicide by an Arhat.
What is most surprising, however, is the absence of any
reference to Channa in his entire discussion. Return
D.iii.235. At D.iii.133 nine things are mentioned, and
the commentary says that even a stream-winner is not capable
of such things (DA.iii.913).Return
With reference to Gosaala, Poussin cites Uvaasagadasaao,
app. ii. p. 23 and comments: "Suicide is permitted to
ascetics who have reached the highest degree of perfection"
This line of though, which I cannot pursue here, was suggested
to me by Richard Gombrich's article "The Buddha and the
Jains. A Reply to Professor Bronkhorst" (Asiatische Studien
XLVIII, 4, 1994: 1069-1096). The Pali canon suicide cases
could provide interesting evidence in connection with
Bronkhorst's theory regarding "non-authentic" elements
in the Buddhist texts. The criterion for such examples
is as follows: "Perhaps the only hope ever to identify
non-authentic elements in the Buddhist texts is constituted
by the special cases where elements which are recorded
to have been rejected by the Buddha, yet found their way
into the texts, and, moreover, are clearly identifiable
as belonging to one or more movements other than Buddhism"
(quoted by Gombrich, p.1070). The suicide cases seem to
fit this requirement in every way: suicide is rejected
by the Buddha (in the Vinaya and elsewhere, see note infra),
finds its way into the texts (in the three suic! ide cases),
and is identifiable as a Jain practice. Whether these
cases add weight to Bronkhorst's theory, however, is another
Certainly from the time of St. Augustine onwards. The
anomalous cases in the O.T. are explained by St.Thomas
as exceptions resulting from a direct command by God.
On suicide in the early Church see Amundsen, Darrel W.
(1989), "Suicide and Early Christian Values," in Suicide
and Euthanasia, ed. Baruch A. Brody, Dordrecht, Boston,
London: Kluwer Academic Publishers, pp. 77-153. With reference
to Judaism and Christianity see Droge, A.J. and J.D. Tabor
A Noble Death: Suicide and Martyrdom among Christians
and Jews in Antiquity. San Francisco: Harper Collins,
1991. With reference to classical antiquity see van Hooff,
Anton J.L. From Autothanasia to Suicide. Self-Killing
in Classical Antiquity. London: Routledge, 1990.Return
Reasons why Buddhism might be opposed to suicide include
the following: 1) It is an act of violence and thus contrary
to the principle of ahi.msaa. 2) It is against
the First Precept. 3) It is contrary to the third paaraajika
(Cf. Miln. 195). 4) It is stated that "Arahants do not
cut short their lives" (na . . . apakka.m paatenti) Miln.
44, cf. D.ii.32/DA.810 cited by Horner (Milinda's Questions,
I.61n.). Saariputta says that an Arhat neither wishes
for death not wishes not to die: it will come when it
comes (Thag. vv.1002-3). 5) Suicide destroys something
of great value in the case of a virtuous human life and
prevents such a person acting in the service of others
(Miln. 195f.) Wiltshire states that altruism is also cited
in the Paayaasi Sutta as a reason for not taking
one's life (1983:131). With reference to the discussion
here (D.ii.330-2) he comments "This is the only passage
in the Sutta Pi.taka in which the subje! ct of
suicide is considered in the abstract, and even then obliquely"
(1983:130). Kassapa states that the virtuous should not
kill themselves to obtain the results of their good kar
ma as this deprives the world of their good influence
(D.ii.330f). 6) Suicide brings life to a premature end.
As Poussin expresses it: (op cit) "A man must live his
alloted span of life . . . To that effect Buddha employs
to Paayaasi the simile of the woman who cuts open her
body in order to see whether her child is a boy or a girl"
(D.ii.331). 7) Self-annihilation is a form of vibhava-ta.nhaa.
8) Self-destruction is associated with ascetic practices
which are rejected since "Buddhism had better methods
of crushing lust and destroying sin" (Poussin, op cit).
9). There is empirical evidence provided by I Tsing. Poussin
notes: "The Pilgrim I-tsing says that Indian Buddhists
abstain from suicide and, in general, from self-torture"
(op cit). 10) As noted above, Saariputta's immediate reaction
is to dissuade Channa in the strongest terms from taking
his life. Saariputta's reaction suggests that suicide
was not regarded among the Buddha's senior disciples as
an option even ! meriti ng discussion.Return
Foundation of Morals, Section/Paragraph 5, quoted
in Battin, Margaret Pabst (1982), Ethical Issues in
Suicide. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall. p. 74.Return
On life as a basic value for Buddhism see Buddhism &
Bioethics, pp. 44-50.Return
Volume 3 1996