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Living Death


You recently wrote about your last will & testament, and that made sense to me. One of the people commenting on that mentioned getting a living will. What are your thoughts on those?


Interesting point! A “living will” for anyone who might not know is a document that explains your wishes concerning life support equipment and whether or not you want to be kept alive artificially in case of some very severe medical condition. As that same commenter mentioned, the most famous situation involving this was the one involving Terry Schiavo a few years ago; she was in a coma and couldn’t say what she wanted, so there was a hugely publicized court battle between her parents and husband over what to do with her.

My own wishes are pretty straightforward, and probably the same as most people. In case of an emergency, I want the doctors to do anything and everything within reason they can to fix me, but if the problem is irreparable to the point where I need a machine to live one minute to the next, that they should stop and let me go. Yes, I have a living will that says this, so obviously, I am “pro” living will.It’s a good idea for everyone to have a living will whether or not you want to live on a machine or be allowed to die; it’s the only way to make your wishes known legally. A regular “Last Will” is only good after you have died; it doesn’t do anything if you are in a coma.

But you probably knew all this already. The real question here is what is “The Buddhist Perspective?” It’s more complicated than it appears at first. There are two conflicting ideas at work:

1. Life is “sacred.” We cannot take a life, either by murder or suicide. Depending on your perspective, not using a machine when the option is there could count as either. Pulling someone off a machine who is already on one really does look and feel like murder.

2. On the other hand, keeping someone alive in that condition only prolongs suffering, both for the victim and their families. Staying alive on the machine is another form of “irrational grasping” which causes suffering.

These are the same two ideas that make the issue controversial for Christians, Muslims, Atheists, and everyone else; they aren’t just Buddhist questions. Buddhists, however, would probably place more emphasis on the second point, concerning suffering, than the others.

If you hadn’t guessed already, there really is no simple right and wrong with this; we each have to decide for ourselves. Once again, I’ll go back to the importance of getting a Living Will.

2 comments to Living Death

  • Midlands

    I like the legal way of dealing with this issue. Removing life-support is not committing murder because life-support only prevents the inevitable that would occur without it. It is not a separate intervening cause (novus actus interveniens). As such, taking someone off life-support simply allows a person to take die as they would otherwise have done. Murder or suicide would be to take a life when the person would otherwise have lived.

  • Don

    Freewill becomes of foremost importantce here, we all have the freewill to decide how to live and how to die, I believe. I agree with Midlands, allowing the inevidable to take place without artificial means is neither murder or suicide, but just the freewill of the spirit to move on.