The abbot and I were waiting for the funeral procession to come to the cremation grounds. The deceased had committed suicide and we were discussing various views about the matter. I asked the venerable Buddhist whether the deceased could be reincarnated into another life.
“Definitely not,” he said. “She committed a great sin by killing a human being.”
“Herself,” I said, in order to be sure we were still talking about the same being, because in a sense her suicide had destroyed some parts of the lives of her husband and children, as well.
“Yes,” the abbot agreed. “The Lord Buddha was quite clear about it. A person who kills a human being will be consigned to hell – นรก – for sure.”
“Can merit be transferred to her?” I wondered, since her son had entered the novitiate at the abbot’s own temple that morning to do that very thing. His 9-days of ordination were understood by everyone in the family to be efficacious in his mother’s behalf. Her son told me he certainly would have felt derelict not to have done at least a 9-day term.
“There are 5 realms of existence,” the abbot had explained in his sermon earlier in the morning. As we waited, I asked him to talk about them because I thought I understood the first four: the realm of divinities and angels, and the realm of human beings, as well as the realm of animals. Hell, the fourth realm, is a popular subject in Buddhist mythology, although there is quite a bit of variation about the details, such as whether one’s residence in hell can come to an end or whether it’s eternal. The abbot explained to me that one might be reincarnated as another life-form, an animal or insect, for example. And one’s soul might also be transformed into the most horrible realm as a demon. That realm is replete with terrible hunger that cannot be satisfied. He went on to explain that merit cannot be transferred to one who is consigned to the lowest realms. There is nothing we can do for them. “But we cannot know how a person’s soul will migrate,” as it does according to its merit – karma. Then the abbot talked about how special services are held for up to 7 days during which time the transmigration will be complete to one of the realms. That very evening the first service was held back at the house, designed to prevent the woman’s spirit from trying to come back home now that the body in which it has resided in the house was being cremated; the spirit-soul needs to find its destiny.
I had a lot more questions about this, such as whether there are any exceptions as when a murderer (or a warrior) seriously repents. The abbot touched on one familiar exception as the funeral procession was coming, but we had to suspend the discussion. He began a story of a famous suicide (by a disciple of the Buddha, Channa) who apparently got an exoneration from the Buddha, “A person who commits murder has no future except hell,” the abbot reiterated.
This ‘hard line” is far from a consensus point of view in Thailand. But it reminded me of “Hellfire and Damnation” sermons I have grown up with in Christian America. The “hard line” defends traditional morality, insisting that some actions are over the line. They are both unforgiveable and identifiable. One can make a list of them and know them when they are seen. The point, initially, is cautionary. This list of hell-bent infractions is designed to warn people not to do them, and to insist that these unforgiveable actions are indelibly imprinted on human consciousness, although failure to exercise wisdom and yielding to emotion can override one’s conscience and render one temporarily confused. The down-side of the “hard line” is that a type of finger-pointing judgmentalism is almost inevitable. Absolutism is socially destructive even as it tries to protect society.
The alternative is subjectivism. Damien Keown explains it this way [https://www.urbandharma.org/udharma/suicide.html]:
Subjectivism holds that right and wrong are simply a function of the actor's mental states, and that moral standards are a matter of personal opinion or feelings. For the subjectivist, nothing is objectively morally good or morally bad, and actions in themselves do not possess significant moral features.
Then Keown rejects the notion that it might be OK for enlightened disciples to commit suicide, as Chenna did, but not for someone not yet enlightened.
To say that suicide is wrong because motivated by desire, moreover, is really only to say that desire is wrong. It would follow from this that someone who murders without desire does nothing wrong. The absurdity of this conclusion illustrates why a subjectivist approach to the morality of suicide is inadequate. Subjectivism leads to the conclusion that suicide (or murder) can be right for one person but wrong for another, or even right and wrong for the same person at different times, as his state of mind changes, and desire comes and goes.
It is perhaps just as well that the abbot and I did not have time to develop this, since there is no one I know of who would say that the woman whose cremation we were conducting was an enlightened disciple seeking a shortcut to Nirvana. According to the evidence and her suicide note, she was seeking to stop living this life and had no concern about what comes next.
As I ruminate on this, the following thoughts occur:
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.