The Buddhist View on Suicide

Last week a friend of several friends of mine back in Akron killed himself. His name was Tyler. I probably met him or at least saw him around Angel Falls coffee shop or at one of the Akron Cooking Coalition’s vegan dinner parties. But I didn’t really know him. A lot of my friends did, though. And they’re pretty sad that he’s gone.

In connection with this I was asked what the Buddhist view on suicide was. It’s kind of like what I said in my book Sex Sin and Zen about the Buddhist view on abortion. I don’t really know. But the fact that I don’t really know says a lot about the Buddhist view. Imagine a person who had studied and practiced Catholicism for nearly thirty years, for example, not knowing what the church’s position on suicide or abortion was. It just wouldn’t happen because these are very hot issues for Catholics. That I don’t have a ready answer to the question tells you that these are not hot issues for Buddhists in the Zen tradition. I can’t recall a single instance of Dogen mentioning suicide in any of his many writings. I’ve decided not to Google the answer before writing this piece because I think my raw non-Google-informed opinions might shed a different light on things than the factoids any random person could find after searching the web for three minutes.

The very prominent suicides by self-immolation (setting oneself on fire) that have been carried out by certain Buddhists in Vietnam and elsewhere have led some people to the mistaken conclusion that Buddhism sees suicide as a noble act. This isn’t true. Suicide is generally frowned upon by Buddhists as something to be avoided because it is thought to be an act that tends to lead to a less auspicious rebirth. I believe it is counted among the “actions that are difficult to overcome” in one of Buddha’s recorded talks. It’s not believed that one is condemned to Hell forever for killing oneself the way the Catholic tradition has it. But it’s thought that one is setting up conditions that will make one’s next birth more difficult than the life one chooses to end prematurely. This is because committing suicide causes so much pain and suffering to those who know and love the person who chooses to take their own life.

I take all that stuff about rebirth with a big grain of salt, myself. Even if we really do get reborn after we die, how can anyone can say what sort of next life a person is likely to have knowing only the fact that the person killed himself? There’s a lot more to any individual’s life than just how it ends. For those that believe in rebirth, the entirety of the person’s life determines how he or she will be reborn, not just the last thing the person did.

When dealing with suicide, vague speculations about rebirth don’t really help. It’s a way to avoid the real question of what do we do when faced with the fact that someone we cared about killed himself. No one ever knows the right thing to do or to say when something like this happens. It’s more important just to be supportive. In fact, I’d say that discussing what sort of next life the person is likely to have is one of the least supportive thing you could do.

I came precariously close to killing myself one sunny day in the Spring of 1992. My life was shit. I was living in a decrepit punk rock house in Akron, Ohio. My girlfriend had dumped me. I had no money, no skills, no prospects. I’d released five records on an indie label that had gotten some good press but had gone nowhere in terms of sales. My dreams of making a living as a songwriter and musician were obviously never going to come true. I felt like all I had to look forward to was eking out a meager existence in the muddy Midwest.

Nice aerial view of the dam at the Gorge Metro Park in Akron.

I put a bunch of rope in the trunk of my car and drove out to the Gorge Metro Park, just down the street from where I lived. My plan was to carry that rope out as far away from people as I could, find a sturdy tree and do the deed. But when I stepped out of my car I saw some kids playing in the field right near the parking lot. I realized I could never find a spot far enough off the path where there wasn’t some chance a little kid out for a hike, or a young couple looking for a make-out spot, or an old man with a picnic basket and a picture of his late wife might find me. Then I thought about my mom and how bummed out she’d be if I killed myself. And I thought about my friend “Iggy” Morningstar who’d killed himself about ten years earlier and how I was still not over that. I put the rope back in the trunk and went home.

That day changed me forever. I decided to live. But I also decided I was no longer bound to anything that came before that day. I decided that conceptually I had already killed myself. Now I could do anything, absolutely anything at all.

All the greatest things that have happened to me in my life have happened since that day. Things have been so incredible since then that I sometimes wonder if I’m the main character in some weird existentialist movie and that there’ll be a twist ending in which the audience will realize that I really did kill myself that day.

If you’re contemplating suicide, my advise is go ahead and kill yourself. But don’t do it with a rope or a gun or a knife or a handful of pills. Don’t do it by destroying your body. Do it by cutting off your former life and going in a completely new direction. I know that’s not easy. I know it might even seem impossible. If you’d have asked me before that Spring day in 1992 I would have told you it was absolutely impossible for me to do any of the things I’ve done since that day. At first it seemed like I was right, that it was futile to even try to get out of the morass I was in. It took more than a year of very hard effort before things started to change even a little bit. But when they did, they really changed.

Maybe that’s not where you’re at, though. Maybe you’re just stuck there trying to figure out how to respond to the news that someone you cared about decided to end her own life. Maybe you just want an explanation. Maybe you just want it to be like it was before. Maybe you wish you’d done something different, said something different, been somewhere where you could have prevented it.

You’re not alone. Everyone who has ever known someone who killed themselves had the same questions and second guessed themselves the same way. But know that those are just thoughts. They’re not real. They don’t mean much. The human brain likes to organize things. It tries its best to make sense of whatever it encounters. But some things just don’t make sense. We don’t like that. But it’s the truth.

It’s hard to let go of these kinds of thoughts. But it’s the only way to deal with them. They don’t lead anywhere. They don’t help. Letting go is easier said than done. If you find that you can’t let go even though you want to, then just let go of letting go. Just leave the fact that you can’t let go as it is and do something else anyway. Whatever you do is probably fine. See a movie, take a walk, watch the ducks, go to work. It’s all fine. Just because you’re not grieving in the stereotypical socially approved ways doesn’t mean anything.

Take care.

* * *

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39 Responses

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  1. chasrmartin
    chasrmartin January 16, 2013 at 12:18 pm | |

    Brad, I’ve dealt with chronic depression for, I dunno, 40 years? 45 years?

    This is the best advice I’ve ever seen on suicide.

  2. CLMorgan
    CLMorgan January 16, 2013 at 12:24 pm | |

    Great words of wisdom:

    “If youre contemplating suicide, my advise is go ahead and kill yourself. But dont do it with a rope or a gun or a knife or a handful of pills. Dont do it by destroying your body. Do it by cutting off your former life and going in a completely new direction. “

  3. cblackstar7
    cblackstar7 January 16, 2013 at 12:48 pm | |

    Brad, have you ever read Thich Nhat Hanh’s letter to MLK Jr. explaining why Vietnamese monks committed suicide by self-immolation? Though I wonder if you would disagree, it strikes me as quite a moving piece:

    “To express will by burning oneself, therefore, is not to commit an act of destruction but to perform an act of construction, i.e., to suffer and to die for the sake of one’s people. This is not suicide. Suicide is an act of self-destruction…This self-destruction is considered by Buddhism as one of the most serious crimes. The monk who burns himself has lost neither courage nor hope; nor does he desire non-existence…the monk believes he is practicing the doctrine of highest compassion by sacrificing himself in order to call the attention of, and to seek help from, the people of the world.”
    http://www.aavw.org/special_features/letters_thich_abstract02.html

  4. fightclubbuddha
    fightclubbuddha January 16, 2013 at 12:51 pm | |

    Agreed. We are told to “kill the Buddha” if we meet him on the road. Sometimes, you first have to kill your demons before you ever get the possibility of maybe meeting that Buddha.

    As for those immolating monks, who did indeed start in Vietnam in the early sixties and who now have come to prominence in Tibet, I think that they know suicide is wrong, in that it brings a premature end to your current state of suffering. But, they choose to accept the karmic consequences of that action, because the action might benefit many others eventually by lessening their suffering. Perhaps they see their suicides, at least in part, as a strange twist on the first of the Bodhisattva vows?

  5. introvertmrsmith
    introvertmrsmith January 16, 2013 at 1:07 pm | |

    Hey Brad,

    You are a strong person. I enjoyed reading your blog. I experienced a similar situation in my life; one where I was ready to end it all.

    “That day changed me forever. I decided to live. But I also decided I was no longer bound to anything that came before that day. I decided that conceptually I had already killed myself. Now I could do anything, absolutely anything at all.”

    “I was no longer bound to anything that came before that day…” POWERFUL
    “I decided that conceptually I had already killed myself.” DEEP
    “Now I could do anything, absolutely anything at all.” TRUTH

    Amazing story. Good meeting you.

    -Nelson

  6. pavelpenev
    pavelpenev January 16, 2013 at 1:11 pm | |

    Aaron Swartz, the hacker activist and one of reddit’s co-founders, committed suicide a few days ago, after being threatened with 35 years in jail for downloading academic papers(which might not even have been illegal, but thats a different debate). (more http://boingboing.net/2013/01/12/rip-aaron-swartz.html ) I didn’t know the man, but like many others in the technology circles, I was inspired by his work.

    The morning I read about his suicide, I was sad, then extremely angry and I couldn’t do anything for the rest of the day. A strangers death has affected me greatly from across continents. Strange how that works. It felt very personal, I’m a bit of a cynic, so when I read horrible news, I just try to process it rationally, and stay at a distance, but this felt like something that could happen to me. I totally would kill myself If I was being sent to prison and bankrupted by the legal struggle.

    Thankfully, I am very psychologically resilient, and don’t plan on killing myself anytime soon.

  7. Rich
    Rich January 16, 2013 at 1:23 pm | |

    Great essay, especially the part about grieving.

  8. billzant
    billzant January 16, 2013 at 2:04 pm | |

    Fascinating article. I hit bottom when younger – not a suicide attempt, and came out on the spiritual Path. People like Eckhart Tolle and Neale Donald Walsch also talk of hitting bottom (my phrase), and coming out on their spiritual Paths. It is therefore, Brad, fascinating to read of your own experience.

    As a Buddhist who believes in reincarnation, suicide is one issue where belief in Karma helps. Because death is just a blip on samsara (cycles of death and rebirth) opting out with suicide in one life is probably considered a regression on such a path, but as you quite rightly say who can know what Karma says.

    But your advice – stunning. Kill the previous life that is bringing misery and start again. Good stuff.

  9. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote January 16, 2013 at 6:04 pm | |

    I don’t know what happens when people die
    Can’t seem to grasp it as hard as I try
    It’s like a song I can hear playing right in my ear
    That I can’t sing
    I can’t help listening
    And I can’t help feeling stupid standing ’round
    Crying as they ease you down
    ‘Cause I know that you’d rather we were dancing
    Dancing our sorrow away
    No matter what fate chooses to play

    just do the steps that you’ve been shown
    By everyone you’ve ever known
    Until the dance becomes your very own
    No matter how close to yours
    Another’s steps have grown
    In the end there is one dance you’ll do alone

    Jackson Browne, “For A Dancer”

  10. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote January 16, 2013 at 6:10 pm | |

    One more:

    “The true way goes over a rope which is not stretched at any great height but just off the ground. It seems more designed to make people stumble than to be walked upon.”

    Franz Kafka

  11. Keith
    Keith January 16, 2013 at 6:44 pm | |

    That was beautiful, Brad. Thanks. Although we’ve not met in person, I, for one, am glad you decided to put that rope back in your trunk on that day in 1992.

  12. tysondav
    tysondav January 16, 2013 at 9:17 pm | |

    One of the best posts i have read on this site brad. thank you.

  13. AnneMH
    AnneMH January 17, 2013 at 5:32 am | |

    Excellent writing Brad. We have one suicide in our extended family that affects people so many years later. I didn’t know the young man, only his relatives years later and I wonder if he could have left the limiting circumstances where he lived and taken a risk, or if it was something no one knows. I just see how affected the family is after decades.

  14. deluded
    deluded January 17, 2013 at 6:46 am | |

    Our bodies will die anyway.
    Our self-centered behavior will die spontaneously.
    We don’t need to do any effort to let the self and body die.
    Because we try to escape from suffering by dying, we don’t live the wonder that is simply let the suffering be.

  15. SoF
    SoF January 17, 2013 at 9:08 am | |

    Gautama taught that: “Abandoning this life is wasteful.”

    Japanese Buddhists may think ‘en’ of fate is in play. Others may think the wheel of karma is turning.

    My view is “Ring the bell, turn the (prayer) wheel.”

    Wait, and see.

  16. Serenity
    Serenity January 17, 2013 at 9:19 am | |

    You’re recent posts have touched on some really serious subjects. I think you’ve done a great job addressing them. I’ve lost family and friends to suicide. I appreciate all that you said and in particular about judging. Kahlil Gibran said something like: “to judge a man for a single action was like determining the power of the ocean by the frailty of it’s foam”.
    When I had my really depressed time a friend said, “Oh well, when it’s time to die, then it’s time to dance first.”

    thanks again

  17. ookami
    ookami January 17, 2013 at 1:07 pm | |

    I also don’t know what any practitioner of Buddhism has written of suicide, but it’s fairly clear to me that it’s irrelavent. the matter of suicide is meaningful to us, which is important, but it is of no consequence to zen. to look to Buddhism for answers is to ask water why it nourishes you.

  18. Khru
    Khru January 18, 2013 at 9:07 am | |

    ookami, please stop.

  19. Sai
    Sai January 18, 2013 at 1:21 pm | |

    A very moving post indeed. I was wondering if you could tell whether suicide is discussed in Japan and how is it regarded there now? After all it is the country where ritualized suicide had been elevated to an art form performed by Samurai and celebrated in countless works of art. I read a little bit about the influence of Zen on Japanese culture by D.T. Suzuki but don’t remember him mentioning it. It seemed to me that in general the Japanese seemed to regard life as really really transitory which could vanish anytime and did not seem to consider death as such a great tragedy.

  20. Keicha
    Keicha January 18, 2013 at 1:38 pm | |

    Thank you for writing this. As a suicide survivor, I can relate to much of what you said. First and foremost, thank you for sharing your own struggle and near-suicide attempt. I’m so happy to know you chose another path, and gratified about your willingness to share your experience.

    I also enjoyed your perspective about rebirth. You’re right. It’s irrelevant, especially to those left behind to make sense of a suicide. The best way to help them is to not avoid the subject, and certainly don’t avoid talking about the person who killed themselves. When my beloved sister killed herself, one of the hardest things for me was how people completely ignored the subject. Few people dared mention her name to me, when all I wanted to do was talk about her and what a wonderful person she was. How she ended her life was awful, the most horrific experience of my life. However, she lived a full, vibrant life for 34 years and I like to focus on her life, not how she ended it. In other words, the final chapter doesn’t rewrite the whole book.

  21. sri_barence
    sri_barence January 18, 2013 at 4:08 pm | |

    When I was about 18, I also had the “to be or not to be” moment. I wonder how many of us face this choice when we are young? How many of us who choose to live realize, as Brad did, how much freedom we actually have to write the story of our own lives? I am only just beginning to understand, some 30 years down the line. I will try to pass this lesson on to my daughter, as she grows up. I hope she is able to understand, and pass through the gate.

  22. PhilBob-SquareHead
    PhilBob-SquareHead January 18, 2013 at 6:03 pm | |

    That’s about the best post you’ve written in the last couple of years.

  23. Mark Foote
    Mark Foote January 18, 2013 at 7:56 pm | |

    I haven’t read much of the Vinaya, but the mention of suicide in the Nikayas is mostly about folks who are seriously ill and in great pain. The occasion is usually someone encouraging the patient to remember the teaching as a way to reconcile with the illness, and the patient as I recall pretty much always “took the knife” at some point afterward.

    There’s also the incident where scores of monks a day took the knife while Gautama was on a three-week retreat; they were practicing the “meditation on the unlovely (aspects of the body)” which Gautama had evidently taught prior to going on retreat. He came back, noticed there were fewer monks, and after he learned what had happened he summoned the monks and taught “the intent concentration on in-breaths and out-breaths” as a thing “perfect in and of itself, and a pleasant way of life as well”.

    I read recently of the suicide of a young Western woman who had gone to India to study spiritual teachings; in particular the teaching she had been studying was the meditation on the unlovely.

    My take is that the “intent contemplation of in-breaths and out-breaths” with no particular goal in mind is a safe practice.

    My sitting today centered around the relationship of relaxed extension to the continuity of breath; seems like there comes a moment where a return to the senses including proprioception and equalibrioception (gravity included) is necessary to the movement of breath. Feldenkrais points to holding the breath getting up out of a chair, and advises stretches to facilitate a continuity; Chen Man-ching talks about relaxing the entire body, outward along the arms and legs and upward from the sacrum to the crown of the head, then relaxing the chest in order to allow ch’i to sink to the tan-t’ien. I would say that the continuity of breath in extension, like ch’i accumulating at the tan-t’ien, is a matter of relaxation- but everybody here knows that I think there’s a fine line about a foot off the ground that relaxation walks and intention fumbles.

    I didn’t put a rope in the trunk, but I did decide that it was better to die while still alive; like cutting off my own breath, I finally came to my senses.

  24. Ryanmushin
    Ryanmushin January 19, 2013 at 12:31 pm | |

    I have never been suicidal but I have had three friends that have killed themselves. Two of them I used to do Food Not Bombs with. It was really sad and I think people need to better understand how to deal with pain and sufferring in order advance in this suicidal culture. I enjoyed this blog and I think the subject of mental health is important.

  25. un_malpaso
    un_malpaso January 20, 2013 at 12:30 am | |

    Brad, I am a long time reader and admirer of your books and…
    I just wanted to say that you just now put the “epiphany” of life into the most perfect words that I can imagine.
    We have to “kill ourselves” in spirit, in order to live.
    To say more would be to sully the concept.
    All I can say is… it’s the best feeling in the world to realize that you can be, and are being, reborn at every moment you are awake. And you expressed this idea in a way that I hope touches as many people as may need it. namaste!

  26. yesno
    yesno January 22, 2013 at 11:28 am | |

    life and death
    coming and going

    _/\_

    http://vimeo.com/22564317

  27. boubi
    boubi January 22, 2013 at 2:05 pm | |

    I’ve been struck by Brad’s candor and honesty about his being a human being, with every human possible predicament.

    I propose that anybody who is in touch with any kind of juvenile organization, being school or other, to suggest them a lecture by Brad.

    I think he could relate very well with teens and his simplicity will be accepted by the youngsters.

  28. CosmicBrainz
    CosmicBrainz February 3, 2013 at 8:27 pm | |

    As a final note: killing another is the same thing as suicide. Since killing another person is tantamount to suicide, since we are all like limbs on one body (aka a strong form of monism), we shouldn’t do either. That’s why war is dumb and you guys should be against a possible war with Iran.

  29. floating_abu
    floating_abu February 6, 2013 at 8:01 am | |

    Great post, many thanks for all your sharings. Brad. I’m also very glad you’re here with us.

    Abu

  30. deluded
    deluded February 9, 2013 at 5:52 am | |

    The bad news: we will die, soon or later.
    The good news: there’s no escape.

    (Because we can’t escape, we relax on the dying process).

  31. eggplnt12
    eggplnt12 July 21, 2014 at 11:19 am | |

    I stopped by here seeking the answer to the question, “What is the Buddhist view of suicide?” I received my BA in philosophy in 1992 and what I remember about Buddhism is that buddhists seek to rid themselves of desire and they believe that all of reality is not physical but illusory. There for I thought wouldn’t the best way to rid yourself of desire be suicide? And, you would’t really be killing yourself if you believed everything was illusion and not physicality. To quote you, “But know that those are just thoughts. They’re not real. They don’t mean much. The human brain likes to organize things. It tries its best to make sense of whatever it encounters. But some things just don’t make sense. We don’t like that. But it’s the truth.” Yes, the western mind likes to make sense of things it encounters and organize thoughts (which have to be real btw or you couldn’t organize them) but the eastern mindset rejects rationality. So I was a little confused about that. Isn’t that the whole point of a zen cohen to break yourself of rationality? In fact I wondered as I was reading if buddhists even agree with reading. Aren’t they more into experiencing life existentially and meditatively rather than reading about it aloofly? The Islamic faith is also very hostile to reason and rationality which isn’t off topic at all hence their strong belief in suicide bombing. Islamist elevate their law above human reason.

  32. SamsaricHelicoid
    SamsaricHelicoid November 3, 2014 at 1:13 pm | |

    I think this is very biased. It tends to depict suicide in a negative light.

    It depends on “what reasons” one is suicidal for. For reasons such as extreme chronic pain, I can easily understand why people would want to commit suicide… However, there is another noble kind of suicide of a feminine side.

    In many cases, I think suicide is honorable and points to deeper problems in societal structure or the way people generally engage in interpersonal relationships. Robert Bresson’s films, for example, tend to depict suicide as an act of grace in many situations. Suicide can show the inherent failure in trying to “attain an ends” or “holy grail”, of always trying to strive for “better” and being pushed to do so. Sometimes the pressure to mold oneself into the delusional image of “productivity”, “normality”, or whatever can get too much, leading to demotivation to “work consistently” and “earn a daily wage”, and in this case, I neither condemn the man who tries to commit suicide nor attempt to stop him. His suicide is not one of escape but one of brutal recognition then! When one is constantly being pushed, and when one takes a step back to realize how one is being pushed to no “fruit”, then there comes a point one commits suicide not to necessarily stop the pushing, not just for oneself but for others too. The “push” is the same “push” that premeditates wars. It is a fractal of pain. Suicide in this sense can be a message of infinite compassion, especially when meditating and dying from starvation. Watch the films The Devil, Probably and A Gentle Woman. I need some more time to refine these thoughts, but there is a reason the Buddha had respect for Jains.

    Let the dagger to one’s heart be reflective of mankind’s collective movement of destroying nature and oneself. Let mankind know its true hypocritical self. The undulating mass is irrationally devouring itself while lying to itself. When the blood gushes from one’s heart, the trees are toppled down and the oil/blood fills the ocean.

    I consider the suicide of the Vietnamese Buddhist honorable, for he never killed himself.

    Suicide done out of the “I-me-mine” (the egocentric domain) or vicitimization is bad though, and I encourage people not to do that. To kill oneself for the world, the soil, the starving animal, or so forth, is different… and in this case sacrifice and suicide can blur.

  33. SamsaricHelicoid
    SamsaricHelicoid November 3, 2014 at 1:16 pm | |

    Sallekhana is one viable way for enlightenment….

  34. SamsaricHelicoid
    SamsaricHelicoid November 3, 2014 at 1:19 pm | |

    Sokushinbutsu too…

    Anyways, I recommend anyone seriously considering suicide to consider it from all possible angles. I think fasting to death is a very honorable way to die.

    I dislike the Roman approach to suicide. I think it is ingrained in the ethos of the West to always approach suicide from this angle. Thus, whenever people reprimand suicide, they do it from only considering that as the only possible approach the suicidal may take. Robert Bresson’s take on suicide is pretty powerful, in my opinion, and I recommend people seriously consider before dismissing it as hogwash. It is disrespectful to traditional practices that do hold to high esteem.

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