Euthanasia: A Buddhist Perspective

A respon to a question on euthanasia and therapeutic persistence from a buddhist perspective.

Q: «Recent news cases have brought attention to the question of euthanasia; what is Buddhism’s position on this delicate issue? “

A: With regard to the question of the ethical legitimacy of euthanasia, Buddhism differentiates between two types of individuals:

  1. The person who has not yet freed himself from the mental obscurations that are the cause of dukkha, existential suffering.
  2. the arahant, one who, having totally freed himself from mental afflictions, is virtually free from the vicious circle of birth and death.

For the latter type of individual, active and passive euthanasia is allowed and granted when, in the event of a serious illness, there is no longer any hope of improvement. This state of affairs is clearly stated in some Suttas (public discourses of the Buddha), such as the Vakkalisutta (Samyutta Nikāya 22.87) and the Channasutta (Samyutta Nikāya 35.87).

On the other hand, for those who are still subject to afflictions such as aversion, according to the doctrine of karma and rebirth, such a practice is not deemed appropriate. It should be noted that on this issue there are no real prohibitions or precepts, but only prescriptions aimed at the well-being of the individual himself.

According to the law of cause and effect, every action generates a series of reactions; for this reason, each individual is held solely responsible for their choices and actions and any consequences.

Furthermore, according to the principle of the middle way, it is not considered wise to go beyond the extreme of therapeutic persistence; death is seen as an integral part of the life of sentient beings, and when there are no longer the necessary conditions to live naturally, it makes no sense to keep a person alive through forms of therapeutic persistence without any benefit.

Moreover, it is absolutely contrary to the spirit of Buddhism to instigate someone to commit suicide or euthanasia when motivated by greed, (to obtain an inheritance example) aversion, ignorance and so on. (bhikkhuni vibhanga, vinaya)

The reason why Buddhism discourages the practice of euthanasia for ordinary people who have not yet reached liberation is due to the fact that the quality of future existence is determined by the decisions (cetanā) followed by actions (kamma) that they once they will determine the goodness of the new existence; dying with a mind full of aversion is considered disadvantageous because it would lead to a painful death and a new unfortunate existence. It is therefore compassionate advice.

Ultimately, in a secular and largely secularized society, each person must be free to choose how to behave and what to do with his life, without being subjected to the diktats of third parties; Buddhism limits itself to emphasizing the individual responsibility of the individual and of the collectivity.


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