A Buddhist View of Suicide

Posted on Mar 7, 2016 | Ask A Buddhist: What happens to someone after suicide? 801more 02/28/16 Sarah Conover has been a Buddhist practitioner for nearly three decades. She’s ready to answer your questions about the faith. What do you want to ask a Buddhist? Submit your questions online or if you would rather not take your answer ‘on the air’ please let Conover know by providing your email with your question. By Sarah Conover In Buddhism, what happens to someone after suicide? What happens to someone after suicide from a Buddhist perspective? My friend, Venerable Chonyi at Sravasti Abbey says, “Rebirth, and then who knows?” It’s a skillful answer. Who can presume to know with certainty the trajectory of a person’s rebirth and beyond? That being said, the primary ethic of Buddhism is to do no harm. As suicide harms the victim as well as those left behind, it is clearly an act with significant consequences. Even if a person doesn’t believe in rebirth or an afterlife, the action of suicide rips across the lives of many. Any of us connected to a suicide—even by several degrees of separation—know this truism from experience. We ache not only for the person whose anguish led him or her to this most extreme act, but almost as much for the family and friends left wondering what they could have done to prevent it. Unlike most other religions, various schools of Buddhism don’t condemn suicide without exception, but exceptions are rare indeed. A human birth is seen as incredibly precious, an opportunity not to be wasted. That the human predicament includes stress and suffering is the First Noble Truth; the Second, Third and Fourth Noble Truths guide our relationship to that suffering. Not that the transformation of suffering is easy. I don’t diminish the utter anguish that causes someone to end his or her life. Brain scans show that the same pain receptors activated in physical trauma are activated by psychological suffering. In other words, distress and grief can feel exactly like an incapacitating pain assaulting the physical body. I’ve had some experience around this, and I do not belittle the experience. For many, the misery is intolerable and they lack the tools—whether pharmaceutical, spiritual and/or psychological—to see pain’s end on their horizon.  There’s a well-known quote in the field of suicide prevention: “You don’t want to die; you just want the pain to go away.” From a Buddhist perspective, the reasons for suicide are almost always ripe with erroneous thought, far off the path to happiness and freedom as taught by the Buddha. Andrew Holecek, in his beautiful essay, Relating to Suicide from a Buddhist Perspective, says: It’s human nature to avoid suffering, how we do so remains the question. In terms of the view, one way to look at suicide…is to understand that suicide comes from a wild case of mistaken identity. In Buddhism, there are two fundamental levels of identity: the relative and the absolute. The relative level is the false level that comes from identifying with the contents...

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Beginning Resources for Beginning Buddhists

Posted on Nov 4, 2015 |

10/9/15 Sarah Conover has been a Buddhist practitioner for nearly three decades. She’s ready to answer your questions about the faith. What do you want to ask a Buddhist? Submit your questions online. By Sarah Conover I’m having a hard time finding anything from the Dharma.  Do you know any sayings, books or any websites that can help? Ironically, your question about beginning resources is one of the most challenging to address. This seemed to be true for other long-time practitioners I asked from a variety of traditions—all of us felt a bit stumped. It’s been such a long, winding trail with lots of fascinating side trips that no one quite remembers the entry point! But I guess that fact speaks well for the Dharma—the teachings of the Buddha—that it is truly, as we say, forward leading. You’ll eventually find your way according to your interest and preferences. There are so many resources these days for Buddhists from entry level to scholar, that indeed, more than one life would be helpful to do them justice. So much is accessible by book, website, audio, classes, and retreats, but don’t let the abundance overwhelm you. Explore it slowly, in small bites, and chew them well. As Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh says, “There’s so much to do, and so little time to do it, we must move very, very slowly.” These days, most Westerners encounter Buddhism first by reading about it, but there are no shortcuts around the experience of contemplating the teachings in daily life and in meditation. Each person, said the Buddha, must test the veracity of his teachings for him or herself. The adventure will be to feel out which teachers and material fit your temperament for learning and spiritual practice. Many of us base ourselves in a particular school, but read widely from other traditions and experiment with their practice methods. So where to start?  Resources could be categorized into orthopraxy (methods like meditation) and orthodoxy (the literature, including those sayings you were curious about). More often than not, there is great overlap—a presentation of the beliefs along with methods to guide your greater understanding of them. Within the discussion we’ll further make a distinction between three major denominations of Buddhism most popular in the West—Vipassana, Zen, and Tibetan. Each has a unique flavor so to speak—character, history and tradition—but don’t panic: they each spring from noble lineages dating back to the Buddha’s time. Finally, I’ll suggest a website for those interested in Buddhism, but more as a philosophy than a religion. Although vast amounts of materials exist for all three schools, my selections will be prejudiced in the Theravada tradition, as I know it best. I’ve asked serious Zen practitioners and Tibetan practitioners for their recommendations. Vipassana, the word for insight in the ancient Pali language, stems from the “School of the Elders,” the oldest school of Buddhism, still practiced in Thailand, Burma and Sri Lanka. One of the loveliest (and slim) texts is, in fact,...

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The Whole of Spiritual Life

Posted on Jul 14, 2015 |

July 13, 2015 The Whole of the Spiritual Life Two nuns, Thubten Chodron and Ayya Tathaaloka, discuss the vital importance of friendship. Venerable Thubten Chodron (left) and Ayya Tathaaloka (right) speak at Sravasti Abbey in Newport, Washington. In the popular imagination the Buddhist monastic is solitary. Hours spent studying, chanting, and meditating leave scant time for that most trying yet rewarding of human pursuits: friendship. Or so the notion goes. In our far-ranging conversation, the nuns Venerable Thubten Chodron and Ayya Tathaaloka roundly dispel this prevailing conception. Restoring spiritual friendship (in Pali, kalyanamittata) to its rightful place as a central feature of both lay and monastic practice, they encourage aspirants to seek out deep relationships as a crucial site of transformation. Ven. Thubten Chodron is an American-born Tibetan Buddhist nun who was fully ordained as a bhikshuni (in Pali, bhikkhuni) in 1986. She has since written numerous books and founded Sravasti Abbey, a monastic community in Washington State. Ayya Tathaaloka, also American-born, received full ordination as a Theravada bhikkhuni in 1997. She too founded a monastic community, Dhammadharini, which has an affiliated hermitage in Northern California called Aranya Bodhi. Both women have played instrumental roles in the revival of full ordination for women in their respective traditions. —Sarah Conover What did the Buddha say about spiritual friendship? Ven. Thubten Chodron: Knowing that we need support for our practice, the Buddha organized the sangha as a group of spiritual friends. It’s very difficult to sustain the discipline necessary for both keeping up the precepts and regular meditation. In ordinary life we usually think of friends as people with whom we have fun, but friendship in Buddhism, especially in monastic life, is different because it is free of attachment. Its aim is to foster an attitude of long-term well-being between those involved. People often quote the Buddha as saying, “Friendship is not half of the holy life, but all of it” (Samyutta Nikaya, 45.2). When looked at in context, however, the Buddha’s statement refers to him, the Enlightened One, as the true spiritual friend because he guides us on the path to liberation. Ayya Tathaaloka: This is the way the Buddha conceives of himself in relation to everyone else: that is, as the kalyanamitta, as the spiritual friend most excellent. In the early Pali texts, the Buddha repeatedly addresses each person he speaks to as a “friend.” There are a few exceptions, but really, he addresses everyone in a very honorable way, from the highest station in life to the lowest, whether monastic or lay, as a friend.  The Buddha had a tremendous spiritual friendship with the being who became his wife in his final life, and who later became one of the bhikkhuni arhats, Yasodhara Rahulamata. There is also a recurring thread of the Seven Sisters—seven of the Buddha’s foremost women disciples whose life stories of spiritual companionship span eons. How did you two meet and become spiritual friends? When did you recognize the other person as someone who’d be...

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Make my Life Smaller

Posted on May 5, 2015 |

Ask A Buddhist: “Make my Life Smaller” 04/27/15 Sarah Conover has been a Buddhist practitioner for nearly three decades. She’s ready to answer your questions about the faith. What do you want to ask a Buddhist?  Fill out the form below or submit your question online.  By Sarah Conover How do we deal with the paradox of year by year wanting to go through life with new understandings to live more “fully” when this becomes so similar in many ways to all the other desires we have, and we miss a lot of the present moment because of it? Fantastic question Dear Reader. I often find that people ask me just the thing I need to ponder. Not long ago in Backpacker Magazine I read an editorial that, much to my surprise, adjusted the compass of my life. The magazine’s editor had taken a long-wanted distance hike of several months. He said he’d expected to grow, but instead found that he’d shrunk, shrunk to the size of a single human being and it was a huge relief. I take his words about “expecting to grow” as cousin to what you’ve dubbed, “live more fully.” The take-away for me from the article pointed to an always-out-of reach horizon of accruing experiences. When is enough? I’m never going to get to all the retreats I’d like to, read all the books I’ve put on my Amazon Wish List, see all the movies I want from Sundance, watch all the Ted Talks I’ve tagged or listen to the hundreds of podcasts and Dharma talks available online. With so many possibilities now, where does a person dive in or jump out when garnering experiences to create a fuller life? My guiding mantra since reading the article has been to make my life smaller. Living more fully seems to me an unexamined ideal (and thank you for prompting me to look at it), one that we can clearly see through when it refers to material comforts, but one that seems to have snuck right past us when it comes to spirituality. The conundrum brings to mind a man from Eastern Europe I met years ago who, having just got out from under the thumb of the USSR, said that we Americans live under our own form of tyranny — that of too many choices. He had a point. Today, those choices have exploded in material and nonmaterial forms. David Brazier in a recent Tricycle Magazine contribution said: “The pursuit of self-advantage and gain has a clear and pervasive logic. It can enter into every crevice of one’s life, not excluding one’s spiritual path.” It’s possible we’ve become greedy in our most intimate arenas—perhaps we need to dust off our old copies of Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche’s “Spiritual Materialsim.” What truly feeds our heart and not the curating and constucting of self, ego? Trust that I’m asking myself more than making any declarations, hoping I learn something here as well. Can spirituality be chased after or hoarded? “As soon as you...

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The Nature of Nature

Posted on Mar 19, 2015 |

    Ask A Buddhist: Seeing the real “truth of nature” 03/16/15 Sarah Conover has been a Buddhist practitioner for nearly three decades. She’s ready to answer your questions about the faith. What do you want to ask a Buddhist?  Fill out the form below or submit your question online.  By Sarah Conover If the Dharma, the teachings of the Buddha, is so closely aligned with nature, and the two most universal laws of nature are desire and fear, how can the Dharma claim to be true when the essence of its teaching is to overcome desire and fear?    Great question Dear Reader, and I’m sorry it’s taken so long to get to it! I happened to take your question to Ajahn Anan, one of the most senior teachers in the Thai Forest Tradition, while I was in Thailand. I’ll start with his answer before I muck around with it. Keep in mind the challenges and issues in simultaneous translation, especially as the monk who was our go-between was fairly new to translation and hence new to conveying subtleties of the teachings. This is what Ajahn Anan said: One who understands the truth of fear, the truth of desire, understands the truth of us. But if someone sees nature as “us” that means that he or she is not understanding the truth of ultimate reality. One who truly understands the nature of everything as emptiness, sees according to that nature. It is that mind which is in line with Dharma, with nature. An untrained mind is the one that doesn’t yet understand the truth of nature and the one that makes suffering arise. To be frank, I certainly couldn’t answer your question more clearly and concisely, but perhaps I can forge ahead with unpacking Ajahn Anan’s response a bit. I added the above italicizations of emphasis for clarity. Truth appears italicized in his first sentence three times because he’s not talking about nature as we normally use and understand the word. He’s talking about the truth of nature as a physicist (and the fully enlightened) might understand it — constructed of many elements and relationships, completely interdependent on the presence of all these elements and relationships, and last, but not least, comprised mostly of empty space! The physicist’s view of the natural world is not what we, in our normal states of consciousness, sense and experience (and likely not what he or she experiences either). When we look at a stone we assume it will feel solid. We lift it and confirm that assumption. When we plunge our hand into a mountain stream we expect it will feel cold and it does. This applies to all our senses for all our waking hours, and thus we negotiate the world by expectations and habit. Although the physicist may realize at an abstract level that the things she contacts in her sensorium are, in actuality, not what they seem to her normal consciousness and senses, she too negotiates the world by these...

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Ask a Buddhist

Posted on Dec 5, 2014 |

Ask A Buddhist: Where does love fit into Buddhism? December 4th 2014By Sarah ConoverSarah Conover has been a Buddhist practitioner for nearly three decades. She’s ready to answer your questions about the faith. What do you want to ask a Buddhist?  Fill out the form below or submit your question online.  I have always wondered how “heart” fits into, or is addressed by Buddhists. I can’t shake the notion that the practice of Buddhism seems “heady” to me; sort of lacks a heart connection to others. I have studied Buddhism a little bit and I am attracted to it, but I keep coming away with the feeling that it is not a good fit because it seems overly intellectual.  What am I missing?  Dear Reader: First off, the caveat that should begin all my AAB responses: know that my slice of perspective is necessarily narrow. I’m a white, middle-class, happily-married, Spokane mother of two who grew up with no knowledge Buddhist teachings or cultures in a WASP (white-anglo-saxon-protestant-middle-class) suburb of New York City. I studied comparative religions in college, and was a religious “tourist” for a time before committing to a Buddhist path for the last three decades in the Southeast Asian Theravada tradition. Most importantly, I’m not liberated, not even close. However, I’m fascinated that we Buddhists find ourselves in the midst of a quickly evolving global religion, a cross-pollination of the ancient East and the modern West, the modern East and the ancient West. As someone with a love of the Buddha’s teachings, over- blessed with curiosity, I’m willing to ask those who are more experienced, committed and smarter than myself to help me wrestle with the issues raised by readers. Now on to Buddhist love. I’ve struggled with this same issue, so I’m really glad you asked. It’s a great question and, in my mind, key in terms of how one matures as a Buddhist (and as a human being for that matter!). Indeed, might love—how it’s cultivated and manifested—be key for spiritual growth no matter the religious tradition? The Buddha described the purpose of the Dharma, his teachings, as “the liberation of the heart which is love.” We in the West have been bombarded with mindfulness this and mindfulness that, and it’s only lately that his many, many teachings on love and methods for its cultivation have come to the forefront of popular attention. The word, love, has become a thin and worn currency in modern life; perhaps love, so essential to all humanity, should never be spoken without a moment of astonishment and a recognition of its effects. We use the word to denote, and connote, everything from romantic passion to a favorite food. “Love you,” we say as husband or child heads out the door. “Love you, too,” they say in reply, halfway down the stairs, voice buried by the roar of a passing car. Christian tradition does have a word for love that is more spiritual in nature—the term, agape, which originally meant selfless love, an ideal echoed in...

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