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Suicide: “Looking Deeply”

 “Looking deeply” is a concept by Thich Nhat Hanh.

“The horror, the horror”* has become so great that it has led to this moment—the moment that the suicide puts the barrel of the gun in the mouth, or drinks the potion, or steps into the traffic, or points a gun at the swat team, or puts on the hangman’s noose. This last moment is most likely more painful than all the incidents and durations of horror that have brought this poverino to this choice—this last terribleness that is freighted with both futility and determination. Will the split second of the end be a “soundless big bang”** and flash that fades to darkness in a nanosecond? Will it be a going out like a light, the nothingness, the being no more, the blank awareness? Deep dreamless sleep is comparable. The sleeper is NOT any longer—no awareness of body, mind, and consciousness. No you; the brain has switched to slow wave sleep, eyes to rapid movement, muscles have relaxed and breathing is slow and deep. But the sleeper awakens into the world. The suicide? To what?

 *Colonel Kurtz, Apocalypse Now (1979) directed by Coppola.
**“Despite a promising name, the Big Bang was silent—a sudden burst of energy in which time and space began, forming the Universe as it spread. With no space to expand into, there could be no medium around it into which sound waves could possibly propagate.”

Has, perhaps, Nirvana dawned after suicide, despite the almost universal prohibition? There are exceptions, such as harakiri/seppuku.

Could it be that for some suicides the ‘three fires,’ or ‘three poisons’ have finally been extinguished? a) passion, greed; b) hatred; c) ignorance, delusion.

When these fires are extinguished, then release from the cycle of rebirth (saṃsāra) is attained. If the fires have indeed gone out, this Nirvana may have been achieved at the very last moment by the suicide, if that is possible (Who knows these things?).

Perhaps not. Perhaps for the suicide it is too late. I have heard Frank Ostaseski at Upaya Zen Center in Santa Fe say that it is wise to begin to prepare now for the death that will overtake us in our ordinary lives. Do we think we can include in the dying process, at the last minute, the immense venture of fully taking stock of our lives? It is not my favorite thing to hear, but I get Ostaseski’s point. Media vita in morte sumus. ( “In the midst of life we are in death.”…probably written around 750 in France.)

So it is maybe that the suicide has been overtaken by delusion to the point that the ‘fires’ will keep burning in the next incarnation, if indeed rebirth does kick in. This is, for me, an open question.

If the fires have not gone out, is it any wonder? After all, just look at how virulent and deadly the fires became for the suicide. 

By the time the suicide has chosen the end, chances to change or heal have been missed (judge not)—these missed chances often being part and parcel of their suffering in the “solitary, poor…and short” (Thomas Hobbs) life interval allotted to them a omnia saecula saeculorum (“from all the ages of the ages”).

I cannot believe that Buddha, the One who taught of two things only—suffering and the end of suffering—would judge this self-deliverance as karmically wrong. His compassion for the suffering suicide, I think, is boundless. 

On this last point I have been advised by my scholarly nephew, Lars Panaro, that I do not have it quite right about Buddha being so compassionate in this matter.

Lars wrote to me: “I was just talking to someone about how the wisdom traditions seem to unanimously agree that is the worst thing one can ever do. In Milarepa’s biography there is a part where he threatens to kill himself and a lama tells him this is the worst thing one can do because each person is in truth a living god, making suicide the greatest of acts born out of ignorance and suffering.”

Lars continued: “To me, Gautama Buddha’s compassion is boundless and part of that includes the recognition that we must suffer the karmic consequences, pleasant or unpleasant, for all of our actions. Therefore, should the suicide return to embodied existence then the consequences of a suicidal act and everything that accompanied it must be dealt with according to karmic law, a law that is unalterable and that even the Buddhas (of the three times [past, present, future] if you will) can do very little to alter within others. Nothing can be karmically wrong or right, for karma is neutral —it acts with dispassion because it is a law, not an intelligent being.” ( Lars Panaro, see Branches Reflections Critique of Evolutionary Astrology.)

In closing, there is a suicide not driven so much by the three poisons, but by the weariness and oppressiveness of terminal illness. This can draw a person toward self-deliverance, which nonetheless has its karmic repercussions, which may be stern or soft. Who knows these things?

And beyond this, the reasons go on and on. I leave the matter of the karmic balance sheet of these reasons to others.


The Tibetan Buddhist teacher Trungpa Rinpoche says of ‘basic sanity’ that it is like dancing in a space of “primordial openness.” In a striking conceit, Trungpa likened the suicide, on the other hand, to one for whom space has solidified and whose dance has ended. (Ray, R. A. (2002). Secret of the vajra world: The tantric Buddhism of Tibet. Shambhala Publications.)

Email Conversation

The following conversation went on among myself, Leah Houle and Pamela Brown.

Art: As it now stands in the essay, there is a clinical view of how self-deliverance follows hard times. And the Buddhist view I try to present is that the choice has karmic aspects owned by the self-deliverer—which are like all the karma attached to our choices. So I think self-deliverance is just one more choice freighted with whatever consequences  are attached to this choice, and these are known personally by the person in question and owned by him or her, and can be worked out in the cosmic order of things, which order is not book-keeping, but mysterious and known only by the person. Buddhists talk of Bodhicitta—“a spontaneous wish to attain enlightenment motivated by great compassion for all sentient beings, accompanied by a falling away of the attachment to the illusion of an inherently existing self. … [Also] Bodhicitta is a felt need to replace others’ suffering with bliss.”

Recently at Upaya Zen Center, a sage Japanese teacher, Sensei Kaz Tanahashi, recounted his wondering and fear if war is coming with North Korea due to such a great number of Americans in agreement with a preemptive strike. It made me wonder if there is anything at all to Bodhicitta as a universal condition of mind. Who knows these things?  Could it be said that the self-deliverer has his or her own manner of Bodhicitta? Even the self-deliverer is capable of an awakened heart I think.  

Pamela: Bodhicitta—enlightenment—yes, softening, instead of hardening of the heart is the way. And, “self-deliverance” is a helpful term in the karmic spiral. 

Leah: Suicide has karmic implications, along with all actions, but the details we just don’t get to know. The best we can do is understand that we are part of karma, and as such cannot understand it clearly with our human perceptions. The only understanding I’ve managed with suicide is that it is not wrong. I can’t put words to the deep knowing of okay-ness. But that’s where I’ve ended up.



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