The Buddhist View on Suicide

The following first appeared on the Suicide Girls website in 2013. I have revised it a little.

The most famous rock and roll suicide is, of course, Kurt Cobain. To me, though, the most important rock and roll suicide was one you probably never heard of; the suicide of Robert “Iggy Nition” Morningstar, lead singer of the f-Models. 

The f-Models were a Kent, Ohio-based punk rock group of the early 80s. They were one of the first punk bands I ever got to see up close. I loved their melodic pop-punk sound, heavily influenced by bands like The Ramones and The Dickies who mixed singable melodies with crunchy guitars. Green Day came along much later and became superstars with that same kind of sound.

Everybody called the f-Model’s singer Iggy because he looked a little like Iggy Pop, though I thought he resembled Ric Okasek of The Cars a whole lot more. Iggy killed himself at a Christmas party at the end of 1983. He left the party and disappeared into the basement, where he was discovered dead the following morning by his girlfriend. Iggy and I shared a house in those days, though it was not the house where the party was held. A few years later I ended up living at the house where Iggy killed himself. So I have a strong, strange connection with Iggy. I’ve never forgotten how bad it hurt to know he was gone.

In 2013 a friend of several friends of mine back in Akron, Ohio, killed himself. His name was Tyler. I didn’t really know him. A lot of my friends did know him well, though. And they were pretty sad that he’s gone.

In connection with Tyler’s death I was asked what the Buddhist view on suicide was. I can’t recall a single instance of Eihei Dogen, the founder of the sect I was ordained in, mentioning suicide in any of his many writings*. 

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. 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.

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 how Iggy Morningstar killed himself ten years earlier and how I was still not over that. I put the rope back in the trunk and went home.

I was working at Tassajara monastery when Robin Williams committed suicide. But very oddly, on the day that happened I met someone who told me that my book There is No God and He is Always With You had played a large role in preventing her from killing herself  (though we didn’t get the news till the following day since there is no Internet, TV or radio at Tassajara). She showed me how she had copied out the section that she said saved her life. Here it is:

This is what I believe when it comes to suicide. Your life isn’t really your own to do with as you please. That’s a deceptive ego-based fallacy. You are intimately connected to every person and thing you come into contact with. You do not end at the borders of your body. You are not your own possession to throw away.

Sometimes people imagine they can terminate their suffering by killing themselves. I don’t believe that. The idea that committing suicide will end your suffering comes from the belief that you and the world in which you live are two different things. You believe that you can leave this world and thereby leave suffering behind. But my own sense, after years of zazen practice, is that this is not true. I’ve spent a long time watching the boundary line between what I call “me” and what I call “the rest of the world” blur and fade.

So what I’m saying here goes a little further than just the old the-show-must-go-on–type thing, wherein people say you have a responsibility to your friends and family not to go off and blow your brains out in the greenhouse. I would add that you also have a responsibility to yourself and even to the universe as a whole not to do that. If you kill yourself, the suffering you thought was yours alone spreads out like a wave to those parts of the universe you’ve been taught to think of as separate from you. And they really aren’t. They’re you too.

Most people seem to feel that, if nothing else, suicide at least helps the person who does it to escape the pain of life into complete oblivion. But I don’t think that’s true either.

I don’t base this belief on received wisdom from others or on beliefs handed down to me. I don’t base it on speculating about what is most likely to happen to one who commits suicide. I base my belief on my own real experiences. In my deeper and more connected moments I’ve seen that there really is no oblivion into which I might escape.

I don’t know what life was like for Robin Williams or for “Iggy” Morningstar or Kurt Cobain or anyone else who killed themselves. My teacher, Nishijima Roshi, was deeply interested in studying suicide. He never said why. But it’s a big issue in Japan. Perhaps someone he knew committed suicide, or perhaps he’d considered it himself. Both are very likely.

Nishijima Roshi often referenced a book about suicide that he liked very much called Man Against Himself by Karl Menninger. That and Menninger’s Love Against Hate seemed to be his favorite books aside from Shobogenzo.

Once, when answering a question about suicidal depression, Nishijima said that people who suffer from suicidal depression were usually “too clever.” I can see that in Robin Williams. The same thing that gave Robin Williams the ability to do those amazing rapid-fire improvisations was probably a big problem when he wasn’t on stage. I can’t imagine what it would be like to be that clever.

I’ve dealt with depression all my life, which is one of the reasons I almost ended up killing myself. I’ve never been diagnosed with Clinical Depression because I never had the cash to see a doctor about my stuff when it was at its worst. I’ve often wondered if I would have been diagnosed and prescribed anything for it. I’m pretty sure I would have. It was bad. But I’m not clever enough to have had it as bad as Robin Williams did, I’m sure.

It’s hard to get over depression no matter how much of it you have. You cannot think your way out of it. You can always find a good reason to think everything sucks. If you’re clever enough, you can come up with infinite reasons. Some say it’s “bad chemicals” like Kurt Vonnegut talked about in his novel Breakfast of Champions that causes your depression. Perhaps those same chemicals cause you to over-think everything. Some say those chemicals can only be brought back to manageable levels with medication. I don’t have the final answer here. But I do feel that just about anything a drug can do to us, we can also do for ourselves. Still, it can take a whole lot of time and work to get to that point and sometimes there’s a need for more drastic action.

That long ago day when I walked away from killing myself 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 advice 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.

* Since I wrote this piece, I discovered one reference to suicide in Dogen’s writings. It appears in a chapter called GYOJI (Pure Conduct and Observance of the Precepts) Part 2. It can be found in Shobogenzo Book 2 (Nishijima/Cross translation) Chapter 30. Here it is.

Zen Master Kyogen said:

Making a hundred calculations and a thousand plans only

for the sake of [our own] body,

We forget that the body will become dust in a grave.

Never say that the white-haired speak no words:

They are just the people to tell us of the underworld.

So although we make hundreds of calculations and thousands of plans to spare [the body], eventually it nonetheless turns into a pile of dust in a grave. Worse still is to be fruitlessly scampering east and west in the employ of the king and citizens of a small nation, and therein being made to suffer countless hardships through innumerable bodies and minds. Those who think light of their own body and life because of a sense of loyalty seem unable to forget the custom of ritual suicide following the death of a lord. The way ahead for those driven by [such] obligation is only dark clouds and mists. Many people since ancient times have been used by small vassals and have thus thrown away their bodies and lives in the world of common folk. These were human bodies that should have been treasured, because they could have become vessels for the state of truth. Now we have met the right Dharma, we should learn the right Dharma in practice, even if it means throwing away bodies and lives as countless as the sands of the Ganges. For which is it worth relinquishing body and life: some futile small person, or the wide, great, profound, and eternal Buddha-Dharma? There can be no cause for either the wise or the inept to vacillate between advancing and retreating. We should quietly consider that before the right Dharma has spread through the world, even if people want to abandon their body and life for the right Dharma, they cannot do so: they might dearly love to be in our place today, meeting with the right Dharma.