Films, plays, television and listening to Lady Gaga go gaga are out of bounds for monks. However, if, on a rare occasion, a suitably themed documentary is aired then it’s generally considered acceptable to watch it. By suitable we mean something that might promote virtue, meditation and wisdom, and not the usual greed, aversion and delusion. As you’ll know, such a programme doesn’t come around too often.
One contemporary issue that is calling for the attention of anyone concerned with moral and spiritual matters is assisted-suicide. The subject has attracted heavy coverage recently, not least because of a documentary called ‘Choosing to Die’, hosted by the famous author and now Alzheimers sufferer, Sir Terry Pratchett. I thought it might prove insightful viewing and so the other night I tuned into the BBC’s iPlayer and watched it.
For those of you who didn’t see the programme, Sir Terry followed the journey of Peter Smedley, a charming 71 year-old millionaire with motor neurone disease who had made up his mind to travel to the controversial Dignitas clinic in Switzerland to end his life. His condition wasn’t particularly severe but, with the support of his wife, Christine, he chose to intervene before it got any worse. The documentary began with Peter sitting in his palatial home on Guernsey, and more or less finished with him slumped in a Swiss sofa, dead.
Dignitas, you will probably know, is an assisted-dying organisation that helps those with terminal-illnesses and severe mental and physical difficulties commit suicide with the aid of trained doctors and nurses. At a cost of £10,000 this non-profit organisation proposes to arrange for a peaceful death – from the initial consultations to check, among other things, that you are of a sound mind and that you are firm in your intentions, to the glass of poison administered some weeks later. The actual suicide takes place in their purpose-built blue and grey house situated next to a factory on an industrial estate in Zurich. It is not the most pleasant location, but the establishment and what goes on inside is legal and that is what matters for those people choosing to go down this route.
Which may soon include Mr Pratchett himself. With Alzheimers gradually taking its toll on his once brilliant mind, his interest in Peter’s experience was personal. As a potential Dignitas customer he wished to observe the entire process, not least the final moments when the poison takes effect. Was this something he’d be willing to go through? His reaction to it all was overwhelmingly positive (according to him Peter’s death had been ‘a happy event’) and so Sir Terry may well decide to follow in Peter’s footsteps in the not-too-distant future.
Now, the moral and spiritual issues surrounding assisted-suicide are very great in number. But here I would like to be fairly brief and focus on one particular element of the documentary: the quality of Peter’s final moments and their possible implications for him.
Was there the sense of ‘wonderful release’ that his doting wife had spoken of not long before?1 Was it to be as simple and as painless as falling asleep and not waking up? Obviously only he can have fully known the nature of his own experience as he took the poison and waited, but, even so, what was seen on screen was, I thought, very telling.
Approximately twenty minutes before his death, as the documentary neared its climax, he, his wife and an assistant called Erika sat around a circular table in the living-room of the blue and grey house as the pair chatted over a cup of tea, before he swallowed a chemical that would stop his stomach rejecting the poison he was about to take. The mood was jolly. He and Christine looked comfortable. He seemed to have no doubts whatsoever about what lay ahead. If you had only just tuned into the programme you’d have been forgiven for thinking it was a good-natured soap-opera as man and wife discussed which chocolate would taste best (with the poison).
A few minutes later the couple were nestled into a plump red sofa. The assistant, complete with poison, was perched on a chair to his side. For the final time she asked him if he was sure he wanted to go ahead. Not a hint of uncertainty was detectable as he confirmed his decision, confidently took the glass from her, and poured the contents – the barbiturate Nembutal – down his throat in one go. Now it was a matter of waiting.
Peter had been warned beforehand that after swallowing the poison he would become thirsty but that on no account should he drink any water as this would dilute the poison and therefore either prolong the dying process or prevent it altogether. After several minutes of becoming increasingly drowsy the thirst struck and quickly the viewing became, as he did, very uncomfortable.
With his wife fighting back tears he suddenly grabbed her arm, began to choke and was heard gasping, ‘Water…. Water…’ ‘No more water, just sleep.’ replied the ever-cool Erika. His struggle then subsided as he began to fade, and with the side of his head coming to rest on the assistant’s shoulder his eyes closed and he began to snore very loudly – a sign of respiratory failure.
‘He’s sleeping very, very deeply now,’ Erika told his wife. ‘Soon his breathing will stop and then his heart’.
And so they did.
I did not view Peter’s death as ‘a happy event’, as Sir Terry had put it. On the contrary, I found those last one or two minutes made for difficult viewing. This is not because I am averse to seeing a man die – far from it – but because I felt for him.
It was plain to see, in my view, that Peter, as he choked and strained and gasped, was terrified. Just look at his final words: they were not tender expressions of love for his wife, nor of his elation at being very nearly ‘free’; they were harrowing pleas for water.
But this is not the end of the matter. If we stop to consider just what his chronic thirst implies we find a potentially significant and uncomfortable truth. Because what is it that underlies this desire for water? It is of course the innate desire to live.
Peter had made a rational decision to kill himself. To him, since severe discomfort and immobility would soon come to dominate his life, it seemed only sensible to put an end to it. And, he assumed, it would be as simple as swallowing some poison, going to sleep, and not waking up. But it appears that having taken the poison and set the process in motion, once the mortal thirst arrived the desire for death was rapidly eclipsed by the far more powerful intrinsic desire to live. All rationales behind his act were swept aside like autumn leaves before a gale; the cool and charming personality of twenty minutes before had gone. All that remained was this raw will to survive.
In the depths of his being it wasn’t death that he truly craved, but to live free of pain. Now, however, he had brought both pain and death upon himself, only to expose his innate urge to resist them. He craved life yet he had just taken his life. Can you imagine a more difficult experience than this?
So I would contend that Peter’s last conscious moments were by no means peaceful. On the contrary, they appear to have been characterised by intense physical discomfort, fear, distress and confusion. And by the intense desire to preserve his life.
But then he fell asleep. Was this the end of his mental anguish? We cannot be sure but it’s quite possible that the turmoil continued into a dream-like or semi-conscious state. Perhaps he was even fully conscious as his respiratory system and then heart failed, in the same way that people in comas can sometimes be aware of their condition. And so what of his dreams, if he had any? Taking into account his life-threatening thirst, and the various forms of anguish we suppose he was experiencing, it’s reasonable to say there would have been no dream – just a nightmare. And what if he had been conscious of the whole process up until the point of death? One can only imagine his suffering was acute.
Whether he was truly asleep or not, however, the snoring, and his heart, did finally stop.
As for the implications, for him2, of his troubled final moments, our take on what these could have been will depend on our view of what happens after the moment of death.
For a materialist, that is someone who believes that only matter exists and that death heralds the complete end to everything about a conscious being, all talk of implications for the individual is meaningless. The last few minutes of suffering experienced by Peter would probably be seen as a small price to pay for the months or years of discomfort of which they suppose him to be now relieved.
For the person who reserves judgement over what, if anything, follows death until they reach that point, I think they might be cautious of entering the great unknown under such negative circumstances.
And for those of us who do accept the doctrine of rebirth? For us, the taking of ones life is viewed as a deeply unskilful act, with grave implications for the individual. Let me try to explain why this might be so.
According to Buddhist teaching, the thought-processes that immediately precede a person’s death are highly significant for it is precisely these that determine the first thought-processes of the next life. It is not dissimilar to how a thought obsessing the mind before sleep will often be the first to appear when one awakes.
Furthermore, it is the moral nature of the thought-objects which constitute these processess which determine both the nature of the new physical form and the station of rebirth. By thought-object we mean a memory or some kind of vision.*
So, the serial-killer, because of his habitual deeply immoral acts, will experience a thought-object expressing the grave nature of those deeds – for instance a horrific memory or the image of a bloody knife. This thought-object will thus condition an unfavourable rebirth. The philanthropist, on the other hand, may experience a memory that embodies the joy and happiness he so often felt and gave. Thus he can expect a favourable rebirth.
Central to all of this is the doctrine of kamma – the moral law of intentional action and result. Briefly put, our wholesome actions – that is those rooted in generosity, loving-kindness and wisdom – produce pleasant results; our unwholesome actions – those rooted in greed, aversion and delusion – produce unpleasant results.
Who we are now, and the happiness and the suffering that we experience, is nothing but the result of these wholesome and unwholesome deeds of body, speech and mind performed in the past. Likewise, who we will be in the future is determined by the wholesome and unwholesome deeds of body, speech and mind of the present. Death, for us, does not interrupt this process; the individual stream of consciousness, driven by craving, merely latches on to a new physical form and this conditioning process continues.
Bearing all of this in mind we see that, since birth follows death, suicide is no solution to the problem of suffering. And, as a weighty act born of strong aversion directed towards oneself (or one’s condition), it will have serious consequences for the next life.
Apart from the doctrine of rebirth being a logical theory that explains many things about our lives, it is backed up by compelling evidence: thousands of accounts of young children with memories that indicate beyond reasonable doubt they had lived before. Even the famous sceptic and debunker Carl Sagan, aware of some of these children’s memories, admitted they could only be understood through the theory of ‘reincarnation’3, and that it was therefore a subject worthy of ‘serious study’.4
And so what of Peter? With the trauma caused by his own act of suicide dominating his final moments, his dying thoughts were no doubt fixed upon that destructive deed. Thus it seems likely that the thought-object would have been intensely undesirable and therefore his rebirth will have been too.
Peter, if the doctrine of rebirth is correct, appears to have made a terrible mistake.
1. I am 90 per cent certain this is what she said. If it wasn’t then what she did say was very close to it and meant the same thing.
2. As for the wider implications of assisted-suicide, that’s a whole different kettle of fish. I would agree with the many who say assisted-suicide should have no place in civilised society, no matter what your view on rebirth. For more of a Buddhist overview of the subject I recommend this article.
* It is important to note that when this dying thought-process takes place, we will have no control over what the thought-object is. It will either be related to an act habitually performed (which is why Buddhists say that life, in a way, is preparation for death, and hence why we try to cultivate good habits); a vision of the realm that awaits; or, and here our attention returns to Peter, to a weighty act – good or bad – done just before the moment of death.
It is also worth pointing out that the final thought-object will arise no matter what the dying person’s condition or how quickly death takes place, i.e. whether he drowns, dies instantly in a car crash, falls from a cliff, is fast asleep, or is blind drunk.
3. Buddhists should use the term ‘rebirth’ to distinguish it from ‘reincarnation’ as the latter involves the transmigration of an immortal soul. Buddhism teaches that the belief in such an entity is a delusion. The term ‘rebirth’, however, is not entirely satisfactory, as it still implies that ‘something’ or ‘someone’ is ‘re-born’; in reality there is only a chain of mental and physical causes and effects.
4. Further reading on the topic of Rebirth and Kamma:
Rebirth and Questions on Kamma (Two excellent short and succinct introductions)
The Case for Rebirth (includes a case history)
Rebirth as Doctrine and Experience: Essays and Case Studies (See Part 2)
Rebirth Explained (Includes a detailed analysis of the actual process)
Dhamma Without Rebirth?
Kamma and its Fruit
Fundamentals of Buddhism: Kamma and Rebirth
Articles by and about Dr Ian Stevenson, who collected thousands of cases of rebirth
‘Born Again’, an article from the Bangkok Post
‘Could a Little Boy Be Proof of Reincarnation?’
‘Science and the Near-Death Experience’ Compelling evidence undermining materialism.