[ Y2000 Global Conference on Buddhism : in the Face of the Third Millennium ]




Bhikkhu Professor Dhammavihari


Pursuing a little further our study of suicide in Buddhism into the area of Commentarial literature of the later period, one discovers quite a few interesting developments. The Vinaya texts of Pàràjikà Pàli [ PTS. Vin. III. p.82 and BJTS. I. Pàràjikà. p.180. f.] enumerate a large number of lower grade offenses under Parajika III on destruction of human life which do not come to be classified under the major offense of Pàràjikà. We discover one of these in Na ca bhikkhave attànaü pàtetabbaü. Yo pàteyya àpatti dukkañassa. [ PTS. Vin. III. p.82. line 20 ff. and BJTS. I. Pàràjikà. p.180. $ 26 ]. This injunction seems to have caused a considerable amount of confusion, even at the stage of the Commentary, and a great deal more of misinterpretation, centuries later, in the hands of Sri Lankan scholar monks. Both Burmese and Cambodians texts and traditions share these. All three translate it as ' A monk should not commit suicide. He who commits suicide is guilty of a minor offence '. It is amazing that the English translators have got it perfectly right [ 'But monks, one should not throw oneself off. Whoever shall throw ( himself ) off, there is an offence of wrong-doing.' Book of the Discipline I. p.142 ]. The Thai tradition is the only one which we believe has got it correct. At the moment we are not in a positon to say whether it is a mistake of independent origin or is a product of deliberate borrowing or mutual interaction.

A Sri Lankan Vinaya manual in Sinhala by the name of Sikhavalanda / Sikhavandavinisa of about the late Anuradhapura period [ i.e. circa ninth to the eleventh centuries ], in a chapter named Miscelaneous or Pakiõõaka, includes two items under suicide, of killing oneself or getting oneself killed, and grade them under the minor offence of Dukkaña or Dukulà in Sinhala [Sikhavalandavinisa Pradipaya by Medauyangoda Vimalakitti Thera 1950, p. 8 item 48 : tamà marà naü maravà nam and p. 79 item 48 : miyañi sitin tamà marà naü dukulà ve. anun lavà tamà maravà naü dukulà ve. ]. But it is clear that Buddhist Ecclesiastical Law in early Vinaya literature does not take into reckonning incidence of suicide. We presume the reason for this is that in case of suicide, the offender being no more existent in the world of the living, there is no possibility of posthumous prosecution or punishment being carried out. Nor is there any real need to contemplate on the same.

But it is also clear that attempted suicide, though not successfully accomplished, has to be viewed as attempted man slaughter. Common sense view woud require it. The Vinaya Commentary, the Samantapasadika totally disapproves of it [ ... aいena ' pi yena kena ci upakkamena antamaso àhàråpacchedena 'pi na màretabbo. VinA. II. 467 ]. Several incidents of sucessfully carried out suicides are encountered in the Canonical text of Samyutta Nikaya.[ Godhika at S.I. 119, Vakkali at S. III. 118 and Channa at S. IV. 55f. See also M. III. 263 ]. They all seem to pertain to people of whom it is asserted that they have terminated their process of samsàric journeying. Hence they are not liable to be born again, and as such there is no more talk about the evils of their action. We have already [ October 1996 ] done a very comprehensive study of these elsewhere. [ See Paper 3 ].

The Parajika III sub-incident cited above which has triggered off this unfortunate misunderstanding of a vital Vinaya issue, refers to the case of the monk who, not being sufficiently attracted to his monastic life [anabhirato ], was contemplating returning to lay life. But he thought : " Before I come to a breach of my moral life [ yàva sãlabhedaü na pàpuõàmi ], it would be better for me to die." So he climbed the Gijjhakuta moun tain, and letting himself fall therefrom to a ravine below, fell upon a cane-worker who was at work down there. This caused the death of the man upon whom he fell. The monk was in doubt with regard to his offense.

It being no intended man slaughter, the offense was declared to be no Pàràjikà [ Anàpatti bhikkhu pàràjikassa ]. What was objectionable herein was the frivolous and indiscreet act of jumping off from a height. Out of this incident, a new Vinaya clause thus emerged. " No monk shall jump off from a height [ literally 'let himself fall ' = pàtetabbaü ]. The injunction reads : Na ca bhikkhave attànaü pàtetabbaü. Yo pàteyya àpatti dukkañassa. [ PTS. Vin. III. p. 82 and BJTS. I. Pàràjikà. p.180. $ 26. ]. The language used here could hardly lead to a misunderstanding. But it has done. Note here the very accurate rendering by the English translator : 'But, monks, one should not throw oneself off. Whoever shall hrow (himself) off, there is an offence of wrong-doing [The Book of Discipline I.p. 142 ]. The root -/ pat > patati, used here without any prefix, means no more than 'fall '. In its causative form pàteti it means 'causes to fall or to fall off from'. It is the form with the prefix ati + as ati pàteti which means to kill or destroy [ Note Yo pàõaü atipàteti = Whoever kills or destroys a living being ].

What is frowned upon here in the Vinaya injunction is the monk's reckless behaviour of jumping off from heights, unmindful of the consequences of such action on others around. It is declared a minor offense of Dukkaña. A similar incident is reported below this. It is about Chabbaggiya monks blasting off of rocks in fun and a piece of broken rock falling upon a cowherd below and killing him [ Tena kho pana samayena Chabbaggiyà bhikkhå gijjhakåñaü pabbataü abhiruhitvà davàya silaü pavijjhimsu. Aいataraü gopàlakaü ottharitvà màresi. PTS and BJTS. loc. cit.].

It is our opinion that at some early stage in the history of the Sàsana, possibly after the great Commentator Buddhaghosa, some dubious thinking on this subject of suicide seems to have surfaced. The Commentary, while disallowing the plea for suicide [ ... aいena ' pi yena kena ci upakkamena antamaso àhàråpacchedena 'pi na màretabbo. VinA. II. 467 ], seems to accomodate some very exceptional situations which need, as it were, to be studied on their own merit. Much more than this, the issue of suicide appears to become a general one. It seems to appear like a question of one's right over one's life, pàõàtipàtà or destruction of life being looked upon as the destruction of the lives of others. We look upon this as a lamentable slip, for the concept of compassion for all or sabba-pàõa-bhåta-hitànukampã should invariably include oneself as well. For it is admitted everywhere in Buddhism that everyone loves to live and does not wish to die [ jãvitukàmo amaritukàmo ].

This underlying yearning for ' the right to die ', much more than a gross ignorance of the Pali idiom in the passage quoted above [ Na ca bhikkhave attànaü pàtetabbaü. Yo pàteyya àpatti dukkañassa.Vin. III. p. 82 ], probably led to the deliberate disregard of the difference between pàteti and atipàteti. It is surprising to find that this translation which we declare to be incorrect is found to exist in this form in Burmese and Cambodiam traditions. This process of inter-regional or international transmission of a religious tradition is worth a real research which we cannot afford at the moment. But we are glad to record, on evidence very reliably sent to us, that the Thai Vinaya texts translate the controversial Pali word pàteyya as 'causes to fall '.

As for the Commentarial explanation on this issue, it appears that they were fully aware of the rulings given by the Buddha himself in the cases of suicide by the theras Godhika, Vakkali and Channa. Except in the case of those who have terminated their rebirth process and are therefore not going to be reborn again [ and face the consequences of their evil deeds ], suicide or self destruction remained a blamable offense. We have discussed this position in detail in our article on Euthanasia. [Paper 3 ]. Hence we feel that the Sri Lankan monk tradition [ along with Burmese and Cambodian ] which reduces suicide by a monk to a mere Dukkaña offence, through an early misunderstanding of the earlier referred to Pali phrase attànaü pàtatabbaü as equivalent to ' destroy oneself ' is totally unacceptable. [ See the Sinhala translation of the Pali phrase at BJTS. I. Pàràjikàpàli. p.181. $ 26 which reads as Mahaõeni àtma-ghàtanaya no kañayutuy. Yamek àtma-ghàtanaya kere nam dukulà avat ve ]. See also Upasampadà Sãlaya of the Venerable Rerukane Candavimala Mahasthavira, [ second edition 1992, p.97. First edition 1970 ] who seems to follow the distorted tradition.

In search of further clarification on this issue, let us hopefully turn in the direction the Vinaya Commentary. We have it at PTS. Vin A. II. p.467.l.8 f. [ romanized version ] and SHB. XXVIII. Samantapasadika Part I. p.333 f. [ in Sinhala script ]. As referred to above, the disgruntled monk climbs a mountain and attempts to commit suicide [ yàva sãlabhedaü na pàpunàmi tàva marissàmã ' ti. Vin.A.II. 467 ] by jumping off from there. But his attempted suicide failed, because he fell upon a man below and the man died instead in the process. The death of the man was not the outcome of intended murder. Hence the death of the man in the hands of the bhikkhu is ruled out as not being a Pàràjikà offense [ anàpatti pàràjikassa ]. The Commentary adds a beautiful note thereafter. It decries the frivolous act of jumping off from heights and denounces suicide in any form, even through starvation [ Ettha ca na kevalaü na pàtetabbaü aいena ' pi yena kena ci upakkamena antamaso àhàråpacchedena ' pi na màretabbo. loc.cit.], reminding perhaps of the regular Jain practice.

These searches and researches into our texts, specially the Commentary, make us legitimately suspect whether the Vinaya Commentary Samantapasadika is contemplating on the possibility of getting a bit of laxity in the interpretation of an act of suicide within the monastic community. In the stories of monks like Godhika, Vakkali and Channa in the Samyutta Nikaya, implications of suicide has already been thoroughly discussed and explained by the Buddha himself. What has been said in those contexts should, in our opinion, equally well apply even in the lives of lay persons. Suicide, apparently necessitated in undoubtedly challenging situations of monastic life, whose complexity was rapidly multiplying through time, must have called for ethically sound as well as judicially unquestionable precise handling on the part of those in authority in monastic circles. An overall disapproval of suicide, deriving from the conventions of the Sutta tradition, at any rate must have loomed large in the horizon.

Whatever literal translation the Commentator was willing to give to the phrase attànaü pàtetabbaü [ cause oneself to fall off from or destroy one's own life ], it is difficult for us to determine. But his comment Ettha ca na kevalaü na pàtetabbaü aいena ' pi yena kena ci upakkamena antamaso àhàråpacchedena ' pi na màretabbo clearly reveals an underlying rejection of suicide [ ... na màretabbo ] as a remedial measure for a monk under any circumstance. The Commentator lists about six different cases where a monk, under very trying conditions, may be driven to suicide.

It is mostly in the case of an ailing monk who may be terminally ill. Monks who attend on such a sick one may realize that he is incurably ill [ mahààbàdho cirànubaddho. All Commentarial quotations which follow are from PTS. Vin.A. II. p. 467 ] and feel the drudgery of being engaged in a fruitless task and wish to be relieved of it [ kadà nu kho gilànato mucissàmà ' ti aññiyanti ]. In such a case it is conceded that the ailing monk may cut off his food and medical supplies to expedite his death and to terminate his life, to relieve those who are under stress because of him. A justification appears to be sought here in this negative search for life termination, seeking it in nature's own way, as it were, rather than taking to positive action for life destruction.

In a couple of other instances, the spiritual earnestness of a disciple to reach special attainments of samàdhi and vipassanà, and for that reason the wish to cut off food supplies, devoting his time entirely for the furtherance of his meditative assignment [ kammaññhànaü eva anuyujissàmã ' ti ] without wasting his time in search of them, even at the risk of his own life [ àhàra-pariyesanaü nàma papaco ] appears a mitigating factor in favour of a suicidal wish [Yo ayaü rogo kharo àyusamkhàrà na tiññhanti aya ca me visesàdhigamo hatthppatto viya dissatã ' ti upacchindati vaññati yeva ]. Such suicides seem to gain approval = vaññati yeva. In any case, a sick monk's wish to terminate life by rejecting medical supplies and medical attention while they are adequately available, is deemed a bad judgement and an unwise deed [ Yo pi hi gilàno vijjamàne bhesajje ca upaññhàkesu ca maritukàmo àhàraü upacchindati dukkañaü eva. ].

Several similar restrictive curbs on attempts at suicide are presented during this Commentarial briefing. While a possible spiritual attainment may be looked upon as a stimulation towards an accelerated suicide, no monk shall divulge to an average monk such an attainment. He shall do so only to a sabhàga lajjã bhikkhu.

All this rather ramified arguments on both sides of the question of suicide for a Buddhist disciple [ only for an ailing monk who is physically or mentally ill ] are indicative of the unavoidable massive assaults, as the centuries rolled by, on the fortress of Buddhist monastic discipline. We maintain that in view of the absolute standards which appear to be maintained on this issue in the sutta versions which we have presented elsewhere under the study of EUTHANASIA, the Commentarial tradition of the Samantapasadika is totally undermining the position taken up by the sutta tradition. We feel the Commentary's explanation of attànaü na pàtetabbaü of the Parajika section of the Vinaya Pitaka does not in any way lead to an idea of suicide.

There are two things involved here. 1. What we consider to be the error in translation. The genesis of this, for whatever reason, seems to lie outside the Commentary 2. The laxity involved and the liberties taken in the attempt to smuggle in a few cases of 'so-called' allowable suicides. The Commentary must take full responsibility for this. Which of these preceded, the error in translation or the laxity in Commentarial interpretation, is the question. The two Sub-Commentaries on the Samantapasadika, Saratthadipani and Vimativinodani which came after seven centuries and much later, are equally well silent on this issue. Both are identical in their comments and pick up only a single grammatical laxity in the use of the accusative case instead of the nominative [ na attànaü pàtetebbaü instead if attà pàtetabbo ]. Apparently they both decided on a wise policy of 'Let sleeping dogs lie at rest.'