After reflecting upon this topic for some time, I've come to the conclusion that, ultimately, euthanasia isn't a black or white issue. On the one hand, euthanasia certainly goes against the first precept
, regardless of the intention behind it; however, the precepts themselves are merely guidelines that are utilized in order to protect oneself, as well as others, from the results of unskillful actions.
There are cases in the Pali Canon where monks committed suicide — whether due to an incurable illness and unbearable pain, aversion and disgust with the body, etc. — but it's made clear that only those who are free from greed, hatred and delusion are blameless in such actions, i.e., there is only fault when one "gives up this body and seizes another" (MN 144
). When it comes to our practical day-to-day lives, however, we're not always capable of being as stoic as we may wish to be, and enduring all of the difficult circumstances that life has to throw at us isn't always possible.
But even though I don't see this as a black or white issue, the Buddha himself was pretty adamant about where he stood on these issues, and the willful termination of someone's life, no matter the motivation, isn't something he condoned. If we look at it from the Buddhist perspective, we can see that to kill, to assist in killing or to even speak in favor of killing violates the spirit of the first precept. For example, the Vinita-vatthu
, which documents various cases related to the major rules in the Vinaya and gives verdicts as to what penalty, if any, they entail, includes two explicit cases, one involving euthanasia and the other involving capital punishment:
Recommending means of euthanasia. The Vinita-vatthu includes a case of a criminal who has just been punished by having his hands and feet cut off. A bhikkhu asks the man's relatives, "Do you want him to die? Then make him drink buttermilk." The relatives follow the bhikkhu's recommendation, the man dies, and the bhikkhu incurs a parajika.
Recommending means of capital punishment. Again from the Vinita-vatthu: A bhikkhu advises an executioner to kill his victims mercifully with a single blow, rather than torturing them. The executioner follows his advice, and the bhikkhu incurs a parajika. This judgment indicates that a bhikkhu should not involve himself in matters of this sort, no matter how humane his intentions. According to the Vinita-vatthu, if the executioner says that he will not follow the bhikkhu's advice and then kills his victims as he pleases, the bhikkhu incurs no penalty. The Commentary adds that if the executioner tries to follow the bhikkhu's advice and yet needs more than one blow to do the job, the bhikkhu incurs a thullaccaya. As we have mentioned, though, the best course is to leave matters of this sort to the laity. (BMC 1.4)
While these particular rules apply explicitly to monks, the first precept is the same for lay followers, so it's reasonable to assume that all Buddhists should refrain from such actions as much as possible, especially since the weight of such kamma
is so heavy. That being said, the precept itself is only a guideline for our protection, not a commandment that's written in stone, and there's no kind of Buddhist excommunication for breaking it. It's always up to the individual to weigh all the options and their potential consequences before performing any action; and in the end, sometimes our decisions depend more on what we feel than on what we're told is the 'right' or 'moral' thing to do (which is one of the many reasons I'm grateful for the First Amendment
Things like incurable illnesses that cause great amounts of pain can even be unbearable for arahants, let alone the average individual, and it's absurd to expect that everyone should live up to some idealized standard of morality that's arbitrarily placed upon human existence or exhibit superhuman endurance for the sake of piety. Moreover, it's my opinion that individuals should have the right to do what they want with their own bodies.
As such, I support a person's right to end their own life when they're deemed to be sober and of sound mind, and I applaud Oregon, Washington and Montana for their allowance of physician-assisted suicide. In my mind, it's a personal choice that's the individual's alone to make, and denying a person that choice is equivalent to torture. When it comes to animals and invalids, however, I think it gets a bit more complicated since we effectively have to kill them in order to end their suffering and they have little choice in the matter.