Namo amitabha Buddhaya, y'all.
This here's a religious establishment. Act respectable.

Friday, October 1, 2010

Reflexive Application of the First Precept

I've been thinking about suicide a lot lately. Okay, calm down, I didn't mean thinking about committing it. It's just that there seems to be a lot of it around. My friend Sally just went to a funeral for a woman, about my age, who killed herself. Some college kid in New Jersey jumped off a bridge after a makeout session between him and his boyfriend got broadcast on the Internet by his roommate. (I think I'd just strangle my roommate and plead justifiable homicide, myself. Not a jury in the world...) A thirteen-year-old hung himself here in Texas after school officials allegedly ignored years of bullying and harassment. And last week, four soldiers at Fort Hood killed themselves. (This is the Fort Hood where the Army psychiatrist freaked out, went on a rampage and shot 37 people last year.) So it's kinda captured my attention. We're also coming up on the ninth anniversary of Stuart Adamson's suicide, which I know I've bitched about on this blog at great length. For the record, it's against the rules to kill yourself if you've ever swapped smoochies with yours truly. Bear that in mind, the other eight or nine of you. The penalty is getting bitched about on my blog for all eternity.

I found out recently that people with bipolar disorder have the highest rate of suicide of any kind of mental illness, and probably the rate is even higher than is generally known. People with bipolar disorder, you see, tend to do things like drive too fast, get into rollover accidents and crash into telephone poles, go BASE jumping and hanggliding and things like that. It's called "thrill-seeking behavior," in which you kill yourself purely by accident, versus killing yourself on purpose, which society kind of frowns upon. (When I was talking about the funeral with Sally, for example, we spoke in whispers, as though someone might overhear.) But for all the frowning, people still do it. I even had one in my immediate family; my grandfather, who was dying of M.S. and decided to hurry the process along with a 12-gauge shotgun. Cause of death was being minus most of his head. Or lead poisoning, if you prefer.

Anyway: The First Precept for lay Buddhists is to refrain from the taking of life. This is why you don't often see Buddhists eating meat or stomping on ants or advocating for the death penalty. But ask ten Buddhists how a Buddhist views suicide and you'll get twenty different answers and forty deep discussions. Actually, that's the standard formula for Buddhist views on everything. In general, though, since you're gonna be coming back anyway unless you're fully enlightened, suicide is considered an inappropriate behavior. It causes grief for your friends and family members and it makes a big mess. It's in the same vein of taking your personal suffering, anxiety and grief and dumping same into the laps of some innocent parties, like some of my co-workers do every darn day when they come to work in a bad mood. That's a big bad Buddhist no-no. In short, while it's not a mortal sin in the Catholic-guilt sense of things, most Buddhists would consider it kinda rude.

But that's just in general. It's not hard to find examples of Buddhists who condoned or committed suicide. The Buddha himself didn't have a problem with monks Vikkali and Channa committing suicide when they were dying of painful illnesses, even though the other monks argued for keeping them around a while longer. And then there's the monks who marched in front of anti-government protests in Tibet, India, China and Burma. They must have known they'd be the ones most likely to get hurt or killed. Now, one might argue they put themselves first in the line of fire to protect the lay people further back in the crowd, but how about the guys who set themselves on fire to protest religious oppression in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos? (No, I'm not gonna include the famous photo, but you can go see it here if you're really interested.) So does suicide violate the First Precept only if you don't have a good enough reason? And who gets to decide what a good enough reason is, anyway?

And if you start questioning the actual definition of suicide, things get even less clear. My mother-in-law, for example, died of congestive heart failure. That was obvious. But what was interesting, as we found out when we started clearing out her apartment, was that she stopped taking all of her medication about a week before she died. Which, considering most of her medication was for her heart, was basically inviting said heart to stop beating. She knew this; she was a nurse. So was her death a suicide, or did she die of natural causes? Does refusing medical treatment count as suicide? Or does suicide only apply to things like jumping off bridges? Or is there a ratio of, say, forty percent suicide to sixty percent natural causes? (I've always thought, for example, that Stuart Adamson's death was seventy percent suicide and thirty percent accident. I'm still convinced, on some level, that he was sure it wouldn't work and was just trying for the hell of it.)

So the First Precept, as applied to oneself, is a little fuzzier in its application as it appears on the surface. This is not surprising to me. All of Buddhism, and especially the Precepts, is fuzzy in its application. The Precepts ain't commandments, folks, as much as I'd sometimes like them to be. They require that most terrifying thing when we speak of religion: Rational thought.

Personally, I believe there are three circumstances under which suicide is acceptable. The first one is dying of a painful disease and not wanting to wait around for the inevitable, kind of like my grandfather. Double points if the treatment is very expensive and/or if your illness is taking a serious toll on your friends and family members. The second one is if you really, really screw something up, and it gets a lot of people hurt or killed, and the only way you can really atone for it is to die. (I'm thinking in this case of an aircraft mechanic who forgot to take the tape off the pitot tube before a 737 took off from Lima, Peru; the plane crashed in the mountains because the altimeter wasn't working and all 230 people aboard were killed. If I were that mechanic, yeah, I'd definitely have considered suicide. Luckily, if I screw up at work, the worst thing that can happen is that we may be out some money.) The third and final circumstance is if you're about to be tortured for information that will get all of your friends killed. But that's not a circumstance I'm ever likely to encounter, unless of course a rival law firm decides to kidnap me to find out what I know about, say, the Burns case. And that doesn't happen very often in Dallas.

Fort Worth, maybe, but not Dallas.


Cele said...

I am never disappointed when I find a new blog posted → "HERE!"

The arguements on the basis of suicide intrigue me. I've tried to put myself mentally in the place where I assume a person attempting suicide must be, not contemplating but attempting. How dark it must be to see no light at the end of the tunnel, no hope of redemption from said attempters actions/life/situation/ or physical condition. There are three human natures
1) Survive
2) Victim
3) mentally incapable of the previously said two.
So often people without mental conditions, try to rationalize the whys and wherefores of ill mental condition though patterns - honestly I don't think you can. If you are of semi healthy rational mind how can you even attempt to rationally put together the mentally ill disjointed thougths and premise behind action and thought into an understandable and defendable pattern? You can't. People with mental conditions often think they can tough it out without meds, or feel better without meds the exact opposit of a drug addict who needs their fix to feel better, alive, even healthy.

I live in Oregon, I voted for physician assisted suicide. If we medically have the right (and tools) to sustain a life long past quality of life, we should medically and legally have the option to end a life based on medical quality of life.

The college students who led Tyler Clementi to commit suicide should be facing long hard time in prison.
1) They invaded his private space and life with willful malice
2) They video taped his intimate moments without his knowledge (illegal in Oregon and prosecutable - yeah I know he wasn't in Oregon)(willful malice)
3) They posted said video in malice and as a violent action against Clementi (willful malice)
4) Resulting in the outcome of his death (willful negligence - although in some government and religious-zealot actions that would be collateral damage)

Gosh I wonder what their life lessons were?

As always a highly thought provoking blog.

Jen said...

Thanks!! Seriously, that means a lot!!

I hope you won't think less of me if I mention that I think committing suicide for reasons other than the three I mentioned is a kind of whining. But that's just my rule for me. Your mileage may vary. I completely agree with Oregon's law. We put dogs and cats to sleep when they're sick and suffering. We should be as compassionate to people when they are suffering, if they request it.

As for Clementi's roommate and his friend, I agree that they should spend some time in prison, but I'm still sorry he killed himself instead of the roommate. Seriously, not a jury in the world. And if you knew juries like I know juries...

Marcia Wall said...

Interesting...but if we are all one...then can you truly ONLY kill yourself?

Jen said...

Oh great. I'm gonna be up all night trying to figure that one out. And so are you...