Search This Blog


Buddhism in the News


Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Buddhism and Euthanasia

Euthanasia is a subject that many avoid but in today's modern world it is more relevant and something that needs to be discussed. I found a great article that discussed the pro's and con's of euthanasia in the Buddhist traditions:

Voluntary or Involuntary?

In discussing euthanasia, it is useful to distinguish between voluntary and involuntary euthanasia. Voluntary euthanasia is when death is hastened with the consent of the dying person. Involuntary euthanasia - usually in situations such as brain-death, long-term coma - is when others (the family and/or the medical profession) decide to withdraw life-sustaining medical support. Euthanasia can be further divided between active and passive modes. Active is when something is done to actually hasten death - a lethal injection for example; passive is when life-sustaining treatment is withdrawn and nature therefore takes its course.

So how does Buddhism stand in relation to each of these?


Buddhism places great emphasis on the significance of human life. Of the six realms of traditional Buddhist cosmology, the human realm offers the best opportunity for enlightenment. To take life - one's own or someone else's - is seen to be wrong, something outlined in the first precept which guides us to abstain from killing living beings. On both counts, euthanasia could be seen to be wrong. On the other hand, Buddhism places great emphasis on compassion (karuna). If someone is dying in terrible agony, would it be so wrong to hasten their death - especially with their consent? Would it not be, in fact, an act of compassion?

James: Ever since I began studying Buddhism I always agreed that "to take life - one's own or someone else's - is seen to be wrong." I have always agreed, hoever, with Involuntary euthanasia. However, in recents weeks and days I have really been debating this issue in my mind and I think that now I am much more open to the idea of voluntary euthanasia. For starters, what is so different between voluntary and involuntary means? Either way one's life is being taken via medicine. Anyway, my arguement FOR voluntary euthanasia can be summed up in the following quote from above:

On the other hand, Buddhism places great emphasis on compassion (karuna). If someone is dying in terrible agony, would it be so wrong to hasten their death - especially with their consent? Would it not be, in fact, an act of compassion?

James: It seems to me that the compassionate thing to do would be to allow individuals the choice of voluntary euthanasia so that they may make the decision, not doctors or family members. Now I think that a person should only have this option in the case of being diagnosed with a terminal illness. I do not advocate in using it just to "escape" at any age.

However, I digress.

How much suffering must one go through before our compassion allows them to pass on peacefully? What lessons can be learned in slowly watching yourself (or a loved one) die from cancer as you bleed from every orifice on your body or in spending months wracked in pain throughout your core? You might say that the terrible suffering teaches that suffering is inevitable but what if you have already learned this great teaching? Or, you might answer that modern drugs allow the patient to be quite comfortable during the dying process but I would argue then, "Isn't that already a form of voluntary euthanasia?"

If doctors are going to decide to drug a person up so that they are basically unconscious most of the time then what is the point of that?? What can the family learn from such a situation besides the unnecessary suffering of their loved one? I would think that the loved one's and family and friends would learn more by knowing ahead of time when the person was going to die and that way everyone could spend precious time with their loved one and exchange love and sincere feelings knowing that these would be their last days/hours/minutes with them. It would also allow everyone to arrange to be present upon the passing of the terminally ill person so that no one would have to go through unneccesary suffering by knowing that they missed the last minutes of their loved one's life.

In this regard, does not the terminally ill loved one fully rippen as a Bodhisattva in compassionately allowing their loved ones a chance to reduce their suffering by giving plenty of notice of their passing?

Then their is the issue of our beloved pets (who are often seen as members of the family). We allow pets to be put to sleep so that they might die with dignity and less suffering. It is done as well for us so that we might reduce our suffering in not seeing them needlessly suffer. What then is so different about humans? Yeah, I have heard the arguement that the human life is more precious then the animal life but is it really? Who do we think that we are to hold ourselves above any other creature? Sure we have a greater chance for enlightenment in a human form but that does not necessarily mean voluntary euthanasia flies against that concept. I think the too can go hand in hand. In following the middle path do we not avoid extremes and is not needless suffering going to an extreme??

Some might say that it creates negative karma to kill oneself but do we know that to be true? How many people have died and come back to say that voluntary euthanasia caused them great amounts of negative karma? Sure some things have to be accepted on faith but I think that the differences between postive or negative karma regarding euthanasia are razor thin. If done for the right reasons for eliminating unnecessay suffering then I think that perhaps the karma would in fact be very positive.

I see the point that human life offers great opportunity even in suffering through one's last days but is that really true? Can we say with 100% certainty that voluntary euthanasia is absolutely wrong in every case?? I think that if we are honest with ourselves then we can not say that is true.

And what about in the Jataka stories (stories of the Buddha's previous lives) where, as a Bodhisattva, the Buddha slits his own throat so that starving tiger cubs may feed off his blood? (The Hungry Tigress).

There was also the case of Vietnamese Buddhist monks in the 1960s who set themselves alight in protest against anti-Buddhist policies.

In the end I think we have to follow the Buddha's teachings to think for ourselves and not just blindly follow a teacher who says that "this" is good and "that" is bad. We all have to find our own path and in the end no one can walk it for us. And who knows? Maybe someone's karma IS to pass on via voluntary euthanasia to help family and loved ones understand certain concepts that could not be understood via a long, drawn out death? Or perhaps that person has suffered enough during their life from a crippling brain disorder or physical ailments and has already learned the lessons of suffering? We just don't know and can not say what each person should or should not do with their bodies in regards to a terminal illness.

Now I do not expect many of you to agree with me on this but I wanted to put it out there for you to at least think about and really challenge yourself on what do you actually believe in your heart. Do we follow the "letter of the law" or the "spirit of the law?"

You decide.

A Possible Perspective (James: I thought this sentence from the article was a great rap up of the issue).

Individual Buddhists will no doubt have different views on euthanasia.

James: I would also recommend reading a great post by my friend Nacho that touches on some of these issues. I especially appreicate the following point:

Besides, Buddhism prides itself in non-dogmatic attachment, even to so called Buddhist doctrine. Zen even more. Buddhists are not all equally bound to "scriptures," and Buddhists tend to heed practice more than rigid adherence to particular "sacred" texts or teachings. So, it would be wrong for me to declare the Buddhist response.

-Peace to all beings-

Stumble Upon Toolbar


Gareth said...

I have to say James, I agree with every word you say in this post.

Perhaps the difference between putting a pet to sleep and putting a person to sleep is that we have a much stronger desirous attachment to the person, or the person they were before the suffering.

Is this is true, prolonging their life might be seen as a selfish action.

"James" said...


Excellent points. I especially agree with what you said about prolonging one's life might be seen as a selfish action. I think that is SO TRUE.

We do need to reduce our attachment to our image of our loved ones. We need to constantly remind ourselves that we are in constant flux and change. That the dying person is in the ultimate process of change and will never be the same (no matter how many drugs are injected).

Again, great points.

mindfull said...

The taking and the preservation of life from a buddhist point of view, is of utmost impotance as you say, but what ever our action we will carry the consequence of that action. The Buddha himself in passed lives has had these choices to make.

"James" said...


Yes, balance in all things.

Mikayla Starstuff said...

Wow. Being new to Buddhism myself I've wondered how a Buddhist could approch this issue. I agree with every word you said! Ideas of the value of life have to be balanced with compassion.

Thanks for sharing that

"James" said...


I'm happy that you found this post helpful. I have been thinking about this for awhile and trying to figure out how I feel about it.

Zen Unbound said...


This blog entry is cited in Blogmandu, Roundup for Oct 10 - 16, 2005.

jJAnAvasthita said...

Euthanasia is a big no-no in Buddhism... pls read the following well-searched article by Damien Keown...

A section of "Killing, Karma and Caring: Euthanasia in Buddhism (Journal of Medical Ethics Vol. 21 No.5 Oct.1995)

Buddhist ethics
Reliable information on Buddhism has been available in the West for less than a century and a half and the study of Buddhist ethics is a nascent discipline. The existence of alien traditions such as Buddhism has long been seen as providing evidence of moral diversity and support for moral relativism. A closer examination, however, suggests that this view is mistaken. What is particularly striking in the case of Buddhism (3) is that despite its different theological premises (most radically its denial of both a supreme being and the soul), it reaches ethical conclusions which are very similar to those of the Semitic religions.

In terms of the categories of Western ethics Buddhism could best be summed up as a teleological virtue ethic. Its nearest analogue would be Aristotle's eudaimonism as developed in the tradition of natural law (4).

In its teachings on karma Buddhism affirms that every moral act has both transitive and intransitive effects. The transitive effects are seen in the impact our moral choices have on others, while the intransitive effects are the changes in the character of the subject brought about through the performance of virtuous or wicked deeds. The doctrine of karma also holds that the circumstances of rebirth are determined by an individual's moral status at death. This means that the hedonic tone of any given existence is conditioned by antecedent moral deeds. While moral actions produce pleasant and unpleasant consequences in the form of transitive and intransitive effects, however, the moral status of an act is not determined by its consequences. For Buddhism this is determined instead by the conformity between what is intended and the eternal moral law (Dharma), the requirements of which can be known through scripture and reason (5).

The sanctity of life
Buddhism's approach to medical ethics is informed by its belief in the sanctity of life. This pan-Indian belief finds ethical expression among the major religious traditions in the form of the principle of non-harming (ahimsa). In the case of Buddhism, which is atheistic, respect for life is grounded not in its divine origin but in its spiritual destiny, namely the state of final perfection known as nirvana. From this affirmative valuation of life flow precepts forbidding its intentional destruction (6).

Despite its highly sophisticated psychology Buddhism makes no attempt to distinguish certain faculties as indicators of moral personhood. Existence is a continuum of changing states: all states are impermanent, and the possession or absence of certain faculties or qualities in the course of a determined psycho-physical existence is of no moral significance. Individual life in any one existence begins at conception and ends at death: in the interval between the subject is entitled to full moral respect regardless of the stage of psycho-physical development attained or the mental capacities enjoyed (7).

No euphemism such as 'euthanasia' is found in early Buddhist canonical sources, nor is the morality of the practice discussed specifically in the discourses (sutta) of the Buddha (8). As an act or omission involving the intentional destruction of life, however, it would undoubtedly be prohibited by Buddhist precepts. Confirmation of this can be found in the Monastic Rule (Vinaya), a corpus of canonical literature which sets out the regulations governing monastic life. The Monastic Rule is an authoritative source for Buddhist ethics, and includes a body of case law in which the Buddha is represented as giving judgment on specific matters. The cases relevant to euthanasia are recounted under the rubric of the precept against the destruction of human life (the third parajika). The penalty for breaking the precept is the severest which can be imposed: lifelong excommunication.

The circumstances leading to the promulgation of this precept have a direct bearing on euthanasia. The Buddha included it in the monastic code on discovering that a number of monks had either killed themselves or asked others to kill them after developing disgust for their bodies, an attitude not unknown in ascetic traditions. Some monks committed suicide, some killed one another, and others invoked the aid of an assistant from outside the order who killed them with a knife. When the Buddha found out he immediately took action to prevent any recurrence by introducing a precept forbidding the destruction of human life. The precept expressly forbids both killing a human being and seeking assistance in dying (literally 'looking for a knife-wielder') (9).

The promulgation of the precept in these circumstances suggests that voluntary euthanasia (that is, euthanasia at the individual's request) is immoral from a Buddhist perspective. The fact that the monks were autonomous agents seems to have had no beating on the matter, which implies that the principle of the sanctity of life cannot be overridden by an appeal to autonomy. It is arguable that the prohibition was introduced because the monks who sought euthanasia in the case in point had done so under the influence of religious zeal and without due time for sober reflection. This argument is, however, unpersuasive, since the precept imposes an unqualified prohibition. Such a prohibition is, moreover, quite consistent with the corpus of early Buddhist ethical teachings which do not contemplate any circumstances in which the destruction of life might be condoned (10). In addition there are further cases in the Monastic Rule itself where the immorality of euthanasia clearly does not turn on the absence of due consideration. Certain of these cases involve 'quality of life' issues: one concerns terminal care (11), and two the long-term care of patients with serious disabilities (amputated limbs) (12).

The most interesting of these cases is the first, the one involving terminal care. The motive is stated to have been compassion for the suffering of a dying monk. According to the influential fifth-century commentator Buddhaghosa, those found guilty in this case took no direct action to terminate life but merely suggested to a dying monk that death would be preferable to his present condition. Despite this apparently benevolent motive, namely to spare a dying person unnecessary pain, the judgment handed down was that those involved were guilty of a breach of the precept. What had they done wrong? In Buddhaghosa's view the essence of their wrongdoing was that the guilty monks made death their aim (Va.ii.464). It would therefore appear immoral from a Buddhist perspective to embark on any course of action whose aim is the destruction of human life, regardless of the agent's motive (13).

The circumstances in which the precept was promulgated and the cases referred to above are directly relevant to the two main grounds on which euthanasia is thought by some to be justifiable, namely beneficence, either in alleviating pain or terminating life which is no longer thought to be a benefit, or respect for autonomy. The canonical evidence suggests that neither of these grounds provides justification for euthanasia from a Buddhist perspective.

The above does not, however, commit Buddhism to the view that life must be preserved at all costs. Buddhism is only too aware of the fragile and transitory nature of life, but as individual life is a continuum which constantly re-manifests itself Buddhism does not seek to prolong it by artificial means simply because it is technologically possible. There is accordingly no requirement to carry out futile or unduly burdensome treatments, such as resuscitating the dying. The intentional hastening of death is, however, morally unacceptable in all circumstances.

References and notes
(3) There are many schools of Buddhism and no central authority on matters of doctrine. There is, however, a consensus on ethics among the main schools. For the purposes of this article the Theravada School, which is the oldest and most orthodox of the surviving traditions, is taken as representative of the Buddhist position.

(4) See Keown D, The nature of Buddhist ethics. London: Macmillan, 1992.

(5) The Buddhist term is prajna which might be translated as 'rational insight'. Like the Greek sophia, prajna denotes the cognitive faculty whose function is the intuitive apprehension of truth. Prajna is not a self-validating mystical intuition and is always grounded in, and justifiable through, reason.

(6) A fuller discussion of these matters may be found in Keown D.d bioethics. London: Macmillan, 1995: ch 1.

(7) For a fuller discussion see reference (6): Buddhism and bioethics: 21-36.

(8) Secondary literature on the subject is also scant. The most useful article to date is Florida R E. Buddhist approaches to euthanasia. Studies in religion/sciences religieuses 1993; 22: 35-47, which contains references to most of the available sources.

(9) The precept states: 'If any monk should intentionally deprive a human being of life or look for a knife-wielder he commits the offence of defeat (parajika) and is no longer in communion' (Vinaya iii.71). The instrument used is of no significance: the embedded commentary explains that the lethal instrument may be a knife, a dagger, an arrow, a cudgel, a stone, a sword, poison or a rope (Vinaya iii.73).

(10) Even killing in self-defence appears to be ruled out (Anguttara.iv. 188).

(11) Vinaya.ii.79.

(12) Vinaya.ii.86.

(13) In Buddhism, as in other religions, there exists the category of mots voluntaria religiosa. This relates to cases where pious individuals or saints, often under the influence of religious zeal, sacrifice their lives for some religious end. Three notable cases are found in the Pali canon, and many more (often fictitious) are scattered throughout later literature. Although these examples are sometimes thought to show that Buddhism condones suicide (and would therefore invalidate the principle stated above) we think it would be unwise to draw normative conclusions from these examples, especially since suicide is elsewhere clearly prohibited (for example by the First Precept and also by the Monastic Rule, as seen above). A brief discussion of the anomalous category of voluntary religious death and its implications for ethics will be found in Buddhism and bioethics: 58-60. For a discussion of voluntary death in the context of another Indian tradition, Jainism, see Bilimoria P. The Jaina ethic of voluntary death. Bioethics 1992; 6: 330-355. With reference to Judaism and Christianity see Droge A J, Tabor J D. 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 A J L. From autothanasia to suicide. Self-killing in classical antiquity. London: Routledge, 1990.

marieroshi said...

You always have such fascinating topics on your blog.

"James" said...


Interesting information. I still do not think there is a black and white rule on euthanasia in Buddhism but Thank-you.

Marie roshi:


jeannette said...

James, I agree with every word that you have said in this post. Thank you for such a thoughtful entry.

They call him James Ure said...


Thank-you for the compliment. It just seems like such a simple answer doesn't it? It seems like a very compassionate action.

Guek Har said...

Hi! I googled and found your post... I am a Buddhist and have been thinking about this issue. I agree with your thoughts. The state of mind during death is important, and having a means to end the suffering and die in dignity is of importance to transcend to the next life.

They call him James Ure said...

Guek Har:

Thank-you for your visit and I hope to see you more on here. I agree totally with your comment. If a person can prepare for their death then they can be in the best mind possible when dying.

It also allows the family and friends to prepare too so that the most suffering is reduced. And reducing suffering is key in Buddhism. As I'm sure you know. Thanks again.

deuerle said...

I am a beginner Buddhist. I know the discussion has been about humans but I am currently faced with the decision regarding my cat. I don't know if I should withhold treatment (which would extend her life but not cure) and whether I should put her to sleep once she begins to suffer. Any advice would be appreciated!

deuerle said...

I am a beginner Buddhist. I know this dialogue has been about humans but I am faced with whether or not to put my cat to sleep. She is terminally ill. I am still torn between not wanting her to suffer and to allow her to die naturally.

They call him James Ure said...


Letting go of those we love is always hard. I hope you can do it with some sense of peace. Suffering is inevitable and maybe it would be beneficial to have a celebration of all the wonderful events with you and your cat. It would be a great send off to the next birth.

Federico Kalamin said...

James, I also agree with what you said, substantially.

Euthanasia is a tough topic, though. Putting it at a personal, individual, level is, for me, the wisest thing to do.

Too bad our modern societies (I'm writing from Italy) as, I suppose, any other society grounded on some Book (capital letter needed), considers this a public issue, a problem to cope with in law courts.

Since I deem maranasati (awareness of death) as one of the highest (and most useful) meditation in Buddhist tradition, I suggest reading some passages from the book "the living end" by Guy Brown (here some excerpts: ).

Metta and respect.


Jennifer said...

I find that as time goes on in my life, I respect other life more and more. I go out of my way now to not even hurt insects, and will even attempt to catch flies and spiders (yes, spiders, of whom I am deathly afraid) indoors to let them outdoors.

My only experience with euthanasia has been with pets, and though I am aware of the buddhist way of allowing each life to finish it's own course, I could not sit back and watch my animals suffer...but at the same time, I was wracked with guilt after putting them down. It was like "who am I to make the decision that life is over for another?" I hope I will never have to face this with a human that I love, but I do believe that if a person is terminally ill and truly suffering, the decision to leave this life should be theirs alone. I don't think we have the right to make that decision for anyone else. If, as in some cases, that suffering is something that the person must or is supposed to go through, then it will be on them to deal with any consequences of skipping it.

Camille said...

came across your blog seeing a tweet being a Buddhist myself we are constantly struggling with the four sufferings birth, aging, sickness and death. but what i have learned from my practice of mahayana Buddhism and the soka gakkai organization is we humans have to make the right choices based on how we understand our faith with compassion.

jessi said...


Thank you for this thoughtful post. I've been at home for the past two weeks with my very old and very ill dog -- a dog I've had since I was ten! I stay by her side night and day, and feel a very deep intuitive sense that what I am doing is right. I pray for her and send positive energy her way, but I am also preparing myself for her (and all of our) eventual transitions. As some of your commentators have said -- flux is the way of it!

I've had somewhat of a hard time justifying this choice to my family -- my father especially -- who seems to think I'm being exceedingly cruel by letting my dog carry on in this way. I hadn't a reference for any Buddhist text on the issue of euthanasia -- animal euthanasia, in particular -- but your post helped me considerably to consolidate my own beliefs: I don't think it's anyone else's call to determine the lifespan of another, and that's as much a part of Buddhism's central stances of compassion and nonviolence as anything else. Sometimes, I think watching, aiding, and bearing witness to suffering -- taking the hard road of looking at my dog, acknowledging her suffering, and meditating on suffering -- may be the only way to go.

Not sure about all of this, but it's certainly nice to find some quality discussion on the topic. Many thanks to you.

All my best,


Padme A'Tea said...

Dear Ones:

I am an Animal Reiki Healer and even though I do not consider myself Buddhist, I endeavor to live my life largely by Buddhist precepts.

From the energy work I've done with animals,I'd like to suggest another perspective - from the animal's viewpoint.

Animals are trying to communicate with us. I've known of many cases (one of which was my cat, Tara who was humanely euthanized 18 months ago due to tumors on her heart. She was in pain, there was nothing more the vet could do for her. She told me it was time.) where the animals will tell their human stewards that it is their time to shed their bodies.

I understand the Buddhist precepts of not taking a life. Alleviating suffering is another precept and I'm researching more on the Buddhist outlook on euthanasia for animals when no other recourse is possible. I will not stand by and watch an animal suffer. Many times it is in those final moments when the animal's wisdom is sent to its human steward (and many times after the transition. I have had animals who have died years ago still communicate to me.).

So this is a dilemma. I've held them, prayed and chanted with them at the time of dying and the peace that is felt afterward is so real.

I'm just trying to reconcile some deep issues with as compassionate a viewpoint as possible.

All Love
Padme A'Tea

Fachh said...

Interesting post...I wrote a paper on euthanasia back in University so I am even more inclined to comment.

I think euthanasia if completely voluntary would not be against Buddha's teachings especially when we consider that life or the experience of it does not end at death. We are to live and breathe death. It might also be prudent however to understand that if a person in a vegetative state could speak they would want to stay. No one can prove for eternity what happens when you die. There is no guarantee of anything. So if it is not 100% voluntary I am not for it.

See the closeness between love and hate and you can begin to find inner peace. See the utter need for eachother in the duality of justice and evil and you see there is harmony even in seemingly violent disharmonius things. To embrace life is also to embrace death. Thanks for all the paradoxes oh wise teachers.

Maranda Russell said...

Fascinating post. I have been struggling with this question a lot myself recently as I watch my grandfather wither away. He is at the point now where he really just wants to "go on". I am not a Buddhist per say, but I do study the philosophy and relate to the spiritual path on a personal level. Personally, I think euthanasia is acceptable in some cases, but it depends on the person and their unique situation. Of course, here in America euthanasia is against the law, so even those who really want to take that path often find it blocked unless they are able to do it themselves.

ShareThis Option