QUESTION: This may seem a bizarre question but one I would like a Buddhist view on. Is suicide a sin,in Christianity to commit suicide is a total sin considered evil and completely against all it teaches but in Japanese culture from the past a way of proving total loyalty to ones sovereign lord the ultimate of duty giri. Has a human being diagnosed with incurable cancer facing death anyway the right to end their life on their terms. Does this send ripples in their karma. I know this is a weird question, but as someone who has had a heart attack and a stroke and has been told I face the onset of early dementia do I have the right to choose when I leave this world.
SHORT ANSWER: Not an absolute matter in Buddhism – it all depends upon motive and intention.
LONGER ANSWER: In Buddhism, one has neither “rights” nor “sins”, only consequences. One certainly has karma and if an act is intentionally committed in a self-serving manner it will create karmic seeds. Generally speaking, Buddhism cherishes all life and is opposed to suicide. There are instances in the sutras where the Buddha says that there was no fault in a particular suicide because the motive had been purely altruistic. This altruism could be that of saving others from being burdened by the care of one’s person when one’s medical condition was completely hopeless, but this does not refer to a situation where it is merely the case that, on the balance of probabilities, one is going to get worse and not recover. When a person does commit suicide, the “correct” Buddhist attitude toward them – except in these very rare completely altruistic cases – is compassion (not disapproval), both for what they did suffer and for the karma they have created. The idea of proving loyalty by katagiri is not Buddhist, it is a samurai custom deriving, I imagine, from Shintoism (if it has religious roots at all). When we say things like “the right to end their life on their terms” – this is an idea and a form of thinking very much grounded in the Western individualistic paradigm and is not really in the Buddhist mode.
We can take responsibility to use whatever life we have in a noble way for the benefit of all. This is true whatever the extent or limitation of our faculties may be. It is, of course, no easy matter, and we often get it wrong, but the principle is clear enough, I think. It is, perhaps, better to think of life as something entrusted to us than as something that we have power over. We do not know what the future holds and we do not know what influence our mode of conducting life will have, but we can be broadly confident that living in a dignified manner is itself supportive to many beings, including those we are unaware of. In general, suicide tends to undermine the faith of others and cause them dismay and fear.
Currently, there is a certain amount of debate about euthanasia, which has gradually become more popular in Europe over recent years. Again, it is the motive and intention that is crucial and the effect upon others. This is a difficult matter because one does not know the extent of that effect. Different people are affected in different ways. One cannot control such things. So, I think we can say that the Buddhist position in such debate should, on the one hand, be that of great caution regarding policy and, on the other, great sympathy for those who do resort to it.