Chagdud Tulku Rinpoche is one of the foremost Tibetan lamas teaching Vajrayana Buddhism in the U.S. today. This is an excerpt from a longer interview, offered here as a companion piece to Maria Monroe’s article, “A Very Human Death.”
Maria Monroe: Do you make a distinction between a suicide committed out of despair and anguish and one committed when a person suffering a terminal illness and/or unbearable pain chooses to end his or her life in order to end his or her suffering?
Chagdud Tulku Rinpoche: There are three categories of suicide. The first is the suicide of despair that is completely life-negating. One is in a state of aversion and has no desire to live any more. That kind of suicide creates tremendous negative karma. It’s the greatest non-virtue of any non-virtue.
The second category is a suicide committed to escape pain. Pain in this life is like a sliver in the finger compared to the pain that is the consequence of taking one’s own life. People have no idea of the suffering that comes from committing suicide, and so to try to escape pain in this way results in far more suffering than the suffering one is attempting to escape.
The third category of suicide is that done to spare others. If you commit suicide because you know that you are going to go through some degeneration, it’s going to be very difficult for other people to take care of you and there will be tremendous expense, you will still create negative karma, but maybe there will be somewhat less negative karma.
MM: From the point of view of the dharma, why is suicide a karmically negative action?
CT: Any suicide involves the three poisons of the mind: desire, aversion and ignorance. First, one desires death. Second, one has aversion to life. And third, one is completely ignorant of what comes after death.
MM: Some diseases like AIDS and Alzheimer’s cause dementia. Wouldn’t it be better to die before mental deterioration begins or becomes advanced?
CT: It would be preferable to die before you lost your mind, but it’s not preferable to commit suicide even if you know you’re going to lose your mind. If you face this suffering with compassionate thought, “As I have this suffering, may all other beings be free from suffering,” there will be great purification of your negative karma.
MM: What will be the bardo experience of a person who commits suicide?
CT: The bardo is a tremendously turbulent time for almost everybody. For persons who have committed suicide it will be even more turbulent and terrible. They will experience the moment of their deaths again and again. And for the person who commits the first category of suicide, as a life-negating act, it is almost impossible to find human rebirth because the karma of suicide is cause for rebirth in the lower realms.
MM: If someone came to you and said that he could not bear the pain of his disease and wanted to end his life, what would you say to him?
CT: Not to do it. It won’t end the suffering, but rather increases the suffering. You are suffering because of your own negative actions in the the past, and your suffering now is purifying your karma. If you end your life, you negate the purification.
MM: What can a dying person or one suffering unbearably turn to for strength and support?
CT: They should be reminded that this suffering is a great purification. To experience even a moment of suffering in this human realm, even a headache, purifies the karmic negativity that might otherwise lead to years of suffering.
They should pray, invoking the object of their refuge—their “wisdom being”—and remember compassion. No matter how terrible their suffering in the human realm, the torment of those in the hungry ghost realms or the hell realms is infinitely greater than theirs. Really generate compassion for the suffering of those beings.
MM: Is there a way to help those who have committed suicide?
CT: The merit from reciting the mantra of the Buddha Akshobhya one-hundred-thousand times and creating an image of him can liberate anyone from the lower realms. Through the Mahakaruna Foundation we arrange for practitioners in India, Nepal and Tibet to do this for the deceased. There are many people who need these prayers, not only suicides, but babies who have been aborted, murdered people, people who have committed murder, etc.
MM: The Tibetan tradition offers us very detailed information about the dying process and afterdeath states. How do Tibetans know these things? (Rinpoche laughs.) I mean no disrepect by my question, but we are curious to know.
CT: Great practitioners have actually seen this, experienced this, so this is what we go by. The Buddha had complete omniscience and knew everything in the past and the future. He could see directly all the lifetimes of all beings. Not only the Buddha, but practitioners, to the extent that they have attainment, also gain a certain clairvoyance into the past and into the future, and many have written down their experiences and taught on that basis to relieve the suffering of beings.
Related articles by Maria Monroe:
“Interview with George Bowman and Trudy Goodman, A Zen Perspective.”