The trickier bit to explain, however, is the final part of the statement where the Buddha says "Without reproach was the knife used by the brother Channa." Do these words not clearly imply, as Wiltshire and others have suggested, an exoneration with respect to suicide? Yes, I think they do. Nevertheless, I do not think this leads to the conclusion that Buddhism condones suicide. Exoneration and condonation are two different things. Exoneration is the removal of a burden (onus) of guilt, while condonation is the approval of what is done. These two terms reflect the distinction-- well established in Western ethics and law-- between the wrongfulness of acts and the guilt incurred by those who commit them. Although an act may be wrong in itself, the burden of guilt incurred in its commission may vary. Self-defence, provocation, duress, and insanity are all grounds which mitigate otherwise wrongful acts. It is also widely recognized with respect to suicide in particular that there may be psychological and other factors present which diminish responsibility…. This is one reason suicide has been decriminalized in many jurisdictions.
If, like Woodward, we translate the Buddha's concluding statement to the effect that Channa used the knife "without reproach," it could mean simply that-- that the Buddha felt it would be improper to blame or reproach Channa (or someone in his situation). This need not mean that suicide is morally right: it simply acknowledges that the burden of guilt in many circumstances may be slight or non-existent…. Thus we might say in the present case the Buddha is exonerating Channa rather than condoning suicide. Wiltshire makes a similar point:
Apart from representing putative cases of suicide, these stories share one further overriding theme -- each of the protagonists is suffering from a serious degenerative illness -- So, when we try to understand why they are exonerated, it is initially necessary to appreciate that their act is not gratuitously performed, but constrained by force of circumstances….
The discussion so far, then, would suggest that there is no need to see the Buddha's pronouncement on Channa as establishing a normative position on suicide by Arhats. At the very least, the evidence falls a long way short of proving "beyond dispute" that suicide for Arhats is condoned….
The main text makes no reference to Channa gaining enlightenment. We know that Channa died an Arhat by inference from the Buddha's closing statement, although there is no corroborating evidence that Channa was an Arhat and no indication of when he became one.
Curiously, it is this question of the timing of Channa's enlightenment which concerns the commentary most, and it devotes a good deal of effort to show that Channa was not an Arhat before he committed suicide. It seeks to establish this in two ways.
First, it volunteers a rationale for the specific teaching given to Channa by Mahaa Cunda. The commentary suggests that Mahaa Cunda gave this teaching because he deduced from Channa's inability to bear the pain of the illness, and his threat to take his life, that he was still an unenlightened person (puthujjana)…. The attribution of this motive to Mahaa Cunda is speculative, since the text says nothing at all about his motives for selecting the teaching in question. Nor is Channa referred to in the text as an "unenlightened person" (puthujjana).
Second, the commentary reconstructs Channa's last moments of life to make it very clear that enlightenment was gained at the last second: "He used the knife" means he used a knife which removes life-- he cut his throat. Now in that very moment the fear of death possessed him, and the sign of his next birth (gatinimitta) arose. Knowing he was unenlightened he was stirred (sa.mviggo) and aroused insight. Apprehending the formations (sa"nkhaara) he attained Arhatship and entered nirvana simultaneous with his death (samasiisii hutvaa).
The claim of the commentary is thus that Channa was a samasiisin ("equal headed"), that is to say someone who dies and attains nirvana simultaneously…. This reconstruction of Channa's death is likewise speculative, since no details at all are supplied in the text. Horner's verdict on the commentarial version of events is: "The facts could not have been known, and it seems a rather desperate effort to work up a satisfactory reason for this supposed attainment…." While it seems true that the commentary's reconstruction can never be verified, the possibility of achieving "sudden enlightenment" at the critical point "betwixt the bridge and the brook, the knife and the throat"-- as Robert Burton put it in The Anatomy of Melancholy [Note 47: …. Part 1, Section 4, Member 1. Quoted in Battin, Margaret Pabst (1982), Ethical Issues in Suicide. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, p. 53.]-- is recognised in Pali sources, and there are several examples of people gaining enlightenment just as they are about to kill th! emselves. The commentarial claim that Channa was not an Arhat until his death seems also to be widely accepted in the secondary literature. Wiltshire is of the opinion that none of the three suicides were Arhats before their deaths. Discussing the case of Godhika he writes:
"It so happens that in the other bhikkhu suicide cases, those of Channa and Vakkali, it is also made quite clear that they too were not arahants until the event of their death, after which the Buddha pronounces them parinibbuta" [Note 49: 1983:134. Wiltshire does not say where this is "made quite clear." In fact-- as already noted-- the main text makes no pronouncement on the matter one way or the other, and contains nothing inconsistent with the view that Channa was an Arhat before the time he began to contemplate suicide. Poussin, in his entry on suicide in the Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics, gives the suicides of Vakkali and Godhika as examples of suicide by Arhats, but gives no evidence for his claim that they were Arhats. In his capsule summary of Godhika's suicide, moreover, he states "Godhika reached arhatship just after he had begun cutting his throat." This hardly counts as a suicide by an Arhat. What is most surprising, however, is the absence of any reference to Channa in his entire discussion.].
More interesting than the truth or falsity of the commentarial version of events, however, is the question why the commentary should take such pains to establish that Channa was not an Arhat. The reason would appear to be that some aspect of Channa's behaviour was incompatible with the concept held by the tradition of how an Arhat should conduct himself. In other words, there must be one or more features of Channa's behaviour that the tradition found hard to swallow in an Arhat. I think there are three things the commentary might have taken exception to.
The most obvious thing is that the tradition simply found it inconceivable that an Arhat would be capable of suicide. Although this is nowhere mentioned in the text or commentary on this episode, it is often stated elsewhere that it is impossible for an Arhat to do certain things, the first of which is intentionally to kill a living creature.[Note 50: D.iii.235. At D.iii.133 nine things are mentioned, and the commentary says that even a stream-winner is not capable of such things (DA.iii.913).] Death-dealing acts of any kind are certainly not in keeping with the canonical paradigm of the calm and serene Arhat.
We are given a hint as to the second reason why the commentary might be unhappy with the notion of Channa being an Arhat prior to his suicide attempt in the motivation attributed to Mahaa Cunda for providing his homily to Channa. The suggestion is made by the commentary that Mahaa Cunda gave this particular teaching because he saw that Channa was "unable to tolerate the intense pain" and was seeking death in order to escape from it. The inability to tolerate pain shows a lack of self-mastery unbecoming to an Arhat. The danger of a lack of self-mastery is that a monk might do things unbecoming to his office and thereby cause the Order to lose face in the eyes of society. By maintaining that Channa was unlightened until the very end, the image of the Arhat remains untarnished by Channa's all-too-human show of weakness in the face of pain.
The third reason the commentary might have taken exception to suicide by an Arhat is a sectarian one. Suicide by voluntary fasting (sallekhanaa) is a well-known Jain practice, and suicide may also have been customary among the Aajiivikas…. Channa's suicide, and the two others, might have been seen as uncomfortably close to a distinctive sectarian practice and perhaps an unwelcome throwback to the discredited path of self-mortification. The commentary's rejection of suicide by Arhats, therefore, may also carry an implicit rejection of Jainism….
What is most striking, however, is not what the commentary does say, but what it doesn't say. I refer to the complete absence of any discussion of the ethics of suicide. We might expect at least a mention of the third paaraajika, which was introduced specifically to prevent suicide by monks [Note 53: Vin.iii.71].
What can be the reason for this silence? Perhaps the simple explanation is that Channa's suicide was not seen to raise any pressing moral or legal issues: only if Channa was an Arhat would such questions arise. In the eyes of the commentary, Channa was an unenlightened person (puthujjana) who, afflicted by the pain and distress of a serious illness, took his own life. Presented in this light, few ethical problems arise: suicides by the unenlightened are a sad but all too common affair. By holding that Channa gained enlightenment only after he had begun the attempt on his life, the commentary neatly avoids the dilemma of an Arhat ! breaking the precepts.Conclusion
Where does all this leave us with respect to the seventy-year consensus that suicide is permitted for Arhats? I think it gives us a number of reasons to question it. First, there is no reason to think that the exoneration of Channa establishes a normative position on suicide. This is because to exonerate from blame is not the same as to condone.
Second, there are textual reasons for thinking that the Buddha's apparent exoneration may not be an exoneration after all. The textual issues are complex and it would not be safe to draw any firm conclusions. It might be observed in passing that the textual evidence that suicide may be permissible in Christianity is much greater than in Buddhism. There are many examples of suicide in the Old Testament: this has not, however, prevented the Christian tradition from teaching consistently…that suicide is gravely wrong. By comparison, Theravaada sources are a model of consistency in their refusal to countenance the intentional destruction of life.
Third, the commentarial tradition finds the idea that an Arhat would take his own life in the way Channa did completely unacceptable. Fourth, there is a logical point which, although somewhat obvious, seems to have been overlooked in previous discussions. If we assume, along with the commentary and secondary literature, that Channa was not an Arhat prior to his suicide attempt, then to extrapolate a rule from this case such that suicide is permissible for Arhats is fallacious. The reason for this is that Channa's suicide was-- in all significant respects-- the suicide of an unenlightened person. The motivation, deliberation and intention which preceded his suicide-- everything down to the act of picking up the razor-- all this was done by an unenlightened person. Channa's suicide thus cannot be taken as setting a precedent for Arhats for the simple reason that he was not one himself until after he had performed the suicidal act.
Fifth and finally, suicide is repeatedly condemned in canonical and non-canonical sources and goes directly "against the stream" of Buddhist moral teachings. A number of reasons why suicide is wrong are found in the sources—[Note 55: Reasons why Buddhism might be opposed to suicide include the following: 1) It is an act of violence and thus contrary to the principle of ahi.msaa. 2) It is against the First Precept. 3) It is contrary to the third paaraajika (Cf. Miln. 195). 4) It is stated that "Arahants do not cut short their lives" (na . . . apakka.m paatenti) Miln. 44, cf. D.ii.32/DA.810 cited by Horner (Milinda's Questions, I.61n.). Saariputta says that an Arhat neither wishes for death not wishes not to die: it will come when it comes (Thag. vv.1002-3). 5) Suicide destroys something of great value in the case of a virtuous human life and prevents such a person acting in the service of others (Miln. 195f.) Wiltshire states that altruism is also cited in the Paayaasi Sutta as a reason for not taking one's life (1983:131). With reference to the discussion here (D.ii.330-2) he comments "This is the only passage in the Sutta Pi.taka in which the subje! ct of suicide is considered in the abstract, and even then obliquely" (1983:130). Kassapa states that the virtuous should not kill themselves to obtain the results of their good kar ma as this deprives the world of their good influence (D.ii.330f). 6) Suicide brings life to a premature end. As Poussin expresses it: (op cit) "A man must live his alloted span of life . . . To that effect Buddha employs to Paayaasi the simile of the woman who cuts open her body in order to see whether her child is a boy or a girl" (D.ii.331). 7) Self-annihilation is a form of vibhava-ta.nhaa. 8) Self-destruction is associated with ascetic practices which are rejected since "Buddhism had better methods of crushing lust and destroying sin" (Poussin, op cit). 9). There is empirical evidence provided by I Tsing. Poussin notes: "The Pilgrim I-tsing says that Indian Buddhists abstain from suicide and, in general, from self-torture" (op cit). 10) As noted above, Saariputta's immediate reaction is to dissuade Channa in the strongest terms from taking his life. Saariputta's reaction suggests that suicide was not regarded among the Buddha's senior disciples as an option even meriting discussion.]—but no single underlying objection to suicide is articulated. This is not an easy thing to do, and Schopenhauer was not altogether wrong in his statement that the moral arguments against suicide "lie very deep and are not touched by ordinary ethics…." Earlier I suggested that the "roots of evil" critique of suicide-- that suicide was wrong because of the presence of desire or aversion-- was unsatisfactory in that it led in the direction of subjectivism. The underlying objection to suicide, it seems to me, is to be found not in the emotional state of the agent but in some intrinsic feature of the suicidal act which renders it morally flawed. I believe, however, there is a way in whi! ch the two approaches can be reconciled. To do this we must locate the wrongness of suicide in delusion (moha) rather in the affective "roots" of desire and hatred.
On this basis suicide will be wrong because it is an irrational act. By this I do not mean that it is performed while the balance of the mind is disturbed, but that it is incoherent in the context of Buddhist teachings. This is because suicide is contrary to basic Buddhist values. What Buddhism values is not death, but life…. Buddhism sees death as an imperfection, a flaw in the human condition, something to be overcome rather than affirmed. Death is mentioned in the First Noble Truth as one of the most basic aspects of suffering (dukkha-dukkha). A person who opts for death believing it to be a solution to suffering has fundamentally misunderstood the First Noble Truth. The First Noble Truth teaches that death is the problem, not the solution. The fact that the person who commits suicide will be reborn and live again is not important. What is significant is that through the affirmation of death he has, in his heart, embraced Maara! From a Buddhist perspective, this is clearly irrational. If suicide is irrational in this sense it can be claimed there are objective grounds for regarding it as morally wrong.
Keown, D. “Buddhism and Suicide: The Case of Channa.” Journal of Buddhist Ethics
, Vol. 3, 1996