Maha Prajnaparamita Sastra

by Gelongma Karma Migme Chödrön | 2001 | 940,961 words

This page describes “suicide in buddhism (atmavadha)” as written by Nagarjuna in his Maha-prajnaparamita-sastra (lit. “the treatise on the great virtue of wisdom”) in the 2nd century. This book, written in five volumes, represents an encyclopedia on Buddhism as well as a commentary on the Pancavimsatisahasrika Prajnaparamita.

Appendix 3 - Suicide in Buddhism (ātmavadha)

Note: this appendix is extracted from Chapter XX part 13.2 (refutation of the 1st argument, topic 7.a):

“Question. – Without a doubt, the ātman which is eternal cannot be killed, but the sin of murder is only killing the body. Answer. – If killing the body were murder, why does the Vinaya say that suicide (ātmavadha) is not murder? Sin and merit result from evil done to another or good done to another respectively. It is not by taking care of one’s own body or by killing one’s own body that one gains merit or commits a sin. This is why the Vinaya says that suicide is not a sin of murder but is tainted with ignorance, desire and hatred.”

I [Lamotte] strongly doubt that the Vinaya says that “suicide is not murder”, but it is certain that Buddhism has never condemned suicide as such. It seems that it is wrong that de La Vallée Poussin, in his article Suicide in ERE, XII, p. 25, claimed the contrary.

In fact, the third Pārājika, to which he refers, does not condemn suicide itself, but the encouraging of others to kill themselves, which is quite different:

“If a bhikṣu gives a knife or had a knife given to someone and tells them to kill themselves; if he praises death to them; if he says for example; ‘What use is this miserable life? It is better to die than to live’ … and afterwards this man, because of that, dies, this bhikṣu is guilty of a pārājika sin” (Vinaya, III, p. 72; L. Finot, Le Prātimokṣasūtra des Sarvāstivādin, JA, Nov.-Dec., 1913, p.477–478).

As the Mppś comments here, suicide, which harms no one else, is not a sin since sin consists of harming others, just as merit consists of doing good to others. But although suicide itself is not to be condemned, that does not mean that it should be recommended to all. A reasonable action in some, in others it can be madness.

Among successful suicides, we may cite that of the Buddhas who turned the wheel of Dharma and converted disciples, that of pratyekabuddhas who judged the time had come to enter into nirvāṇa, that of arhats who destroyed their passions and “did what had to be done” (kṛtakṛtya); finally, that of bodhisattvas who sacrificed their lives in honor of the Buddha or for the good of creatures. Thus, Śākyamuni, having decided to die, spontaneously renounced his life force (āyusaṅhkhāraṃ assaji: Digha, II, p. 106).

– Pratyekabuddhas in groups or singly, judging that the time had come, rise up into the sky, change themselves into fire and enter parinirvāṇa (cf. Traité, I, p. 182F, n. 2; p. 392F).

– At the death of Śākyamuni, eighteen arhats entered nirvāṇa with him (Traité, I, p. 89, n. 2) while Subhadra voluntarily preceded him in death (Traité, I, p. 210F).

– Vakkhali, who was suffering from a painful illness, received assurance from the Buddha that his death would be innocent (apāpika), recited the Buddhist credo for the last time and stabbed himself (Saṃyutta, III, p. 119–124; Tsa a han, T 99, no. 1265, k. 47, p. 346b–347b; Tseng yi a han, T 125, k. 19, p. 642b–643a).

– Godhika, despairing of attaining definitive deliverance, slit his throat, at once obtained arhathood and entered into nirvāṇa (cf. Traité, I, p. 211F, n.).

– Mahāprajāpati Gautamī and her friends voluntarily entered nirvāṇa with the Buddha’s permission (Traité, I, p. 587F, n.).

– Both the Lesser and the Greater Vehicle unreservedly praise the charitable deeds of the bodhisattvas who sacrifice their life for the benefit of beings or to pay homage to the Buddhas. We may recall the “gift of the body” and the “gift of the head” made by the future Buddha Śākyamuni (Traité, I, p. 143–144F, n.), the deed of the bodhisattva Sarvasattvapriyadarśana who, to celebrate the Buddha and the Saddharmapuṇḍarīkasūtra, filled his body with oil, set it on fire and burned for twelve years (Traité, I, p. 579, n.; below, p. 751F).

– Suicide seems to be reserved for very saintly and very virtuous people; others would do best to abstain. Often, the untimely attempt at suicide fails, not without, however, assuring the hopeless one of considerable spiritual benefits. Sihā, hopeless at not progressing on the spiritual path, wished to hang herself; hardly had she knotted the cord around her neck than she attained arhathood; the cord loosened from her neck and fell to the ground (Therīgathā, v. 77–81).

– Sappadāsa, feeling unable to arrive at meditative stabilization, was about to kill himself with a razor when he suddenly attained insight (Theragāthā, v. 405–410).

– Vakkhali, regretting not seeing the Buddha, wished to throw himself down from a high rock; at that moment the master appeared and prevented him from prematurely ending his days (Apadāna, II, p. 465–468; Manorathha, I, p. 248–251; Dhammapadaṭṭha, IV, p. 118–119; tr. Burlingame, Legends, III, p. 262–263: Theragāthā Comm. in Rh.-D., Brethren, p. 197–199).