By Rev. Koen Kikuchi
How do you feel about euthanasia—deciding the time and place of your own death? In Hawaii starting this year, euthanasia is allowed under certain conditions, adding to a growing number of states in this country. Is euthanasia really our choice to make?
Recently I saw a Japanese TV program about a woman with an incurable disease called “multiple system atrophy.” In Japan, euthanasia is illegal. She decided to end her life in Switzerland.
With her two older sisters by her side, she switched on an intravenous medication attached to her arm. Within a few minutes, she passed away.
For me, it seemed her life ended like “an accident,” similar to a car accident or nuclear accident. What I mean is that today we create new technologies, but also create new problems for ourselves. Generations ago, life was simpler, but in our search for convenience with new inventions, the world has become more complicated. Thus, we now must worry about car accidents and nuclear accidents. Somehow, I had this feeling by watching this woman die.
Each of us are born into this world, and definitely our lives will end someday. In our lifetime, we experience aging and sickness. These are what Shakyamuni Buddha calls the four major sufferings of human beings—birth, sickness, aging, and death. The phrase “happy birthday” expresses the positive side of life, but the more birthdays we have, the more sadness we experience. This is another side of life.
I wonder what our Higashi Honganji denomination would say about the issue of euthanasia. I think it would say it’s a problem if we think by free will we can decide birth, life and death. Also, it may say death is a matter to “accept,” but in our arrogance, we start thinking it’s something to “decide for ourselves.” Both positions seemingly are against euthanasia, but it’s unclear. This is a big problem with human thinking.
According to Buddhism, our life is created by innumerable causes and conditions. Every aspect of life, from tiny things happening in my life to big world events, is created by innumerable karmic causes and conditions. By contrast, we live under the illusion that we can control life through our actions, decisions and technology. This is a big problem for human beings.
Does aging make our lives meaningless? Does sickness destroy our lives? Does death wipe way the meaning of life?
What is the meaning of life? To find meaning in life, we must find meaning in death. How should we live and how should we die?
Buddhism teaches it’s human nature to constantly try to find meaning in life. Otherwise, a life without meaning is not worth living. We primarily calculate our birth, living, and death through our thoughts. But life is greater than our thoughts, isn’t it? We tend to think my life and death need to be in my control. That’s human arrogance.
I think we tend to live “in the opposite direction,” like swimming against a river’s current. A Japanese song, “Kawa no nagare no yoni,” says to “lay my body down in the stream and let go.”
However, if I had a terrible incurable disease, I would want to escape pain, seek relief and find peace. Perhaps I too would want to end my life. I don’t think I could “lay my body down in the stream and let go.” The reality is that I don’t want to suffer.
My grandfather was a Buddhist minister. In the last years of his life, he suffered from ALS, a neurodegenerative disease. His mind was sound, but his body became weaker and weaker. Because he was a Buddhist minister, you may think he’d be at peace and accept his condition. The reality was far different. He didn’t want to die. This is a big issue for me. This is a big teaching for me.
A famous Buddhist teacher once said his sickness was part of life, so it didn’t bother him. This sounds like the perfect goal, but I’m not sure I’d feel that way. I ponder such things when thinking about euthanasia.
I don’t have any definite answers. Rather, I want to share these questions. I am not the one with the “answer.” Seek for yourself. After all, we are all patients.
Namu Amida Butsu
-Rev. Kikuchi is minister of Kaneohe Higashi Honganji temple in Oahu, Hawaii