Questions on Life and Death

Questions on the process of rebirth, modern diseases, euthanasia and vivisection by Dr Myint Swe are answered by the renowned Burmese meditation master and scholar, the late Venerable Mahasi Sayadaw.

Q. According to the Buddha’s teaching of “Vayadhamma sankara appamadena sampadetha” all kammic formations end in dissolution. Matter perishes and so does the mind. This fact is undeniable. How does a being come to a new existence in spite of the fact that mind as well as matter perishes as soon as a being passes away?

A. Over two thousand five hundred years ago, the Buddha taught about the process of continued existence from his own direct knowledge. There are three kinds of existences:

1. The existence having both mind and matter.
2. The existence having only matter.
3. The existence having only mind.

The existence having only matter or only mind can be known only through meditation (bhavana), they cannot be known by scientific experiments. However, if the manner of the mind-process having only mind in the existence is reflected upon you can appreciate and understand the ability of mind. So the way to reflect is shown here in brief.

In the existence having mind only, mind (citta) arises and passes away without interruption from the moment of conception to the moment of death. The first citta arises and perishes and, without any interval, the second citta arises and perishes. Cittas continue arising and perishing in this manner so, after the disappearance of the former mind there is no base for the latter mind. However, the latter arises because of the impetus of the former. This is how the process of mind continues.

It is generally the case when thinking deeply that thoughts go on occurring without any interruption by ear-consciousness (sota vinnana), even though there are probably sounds at the time. So we can understand that it is the same in the case of existences having mind only. If we realise how the impetus of the preceding minds cause the arising of the following minds even before death, we can also understand that after death the rebirth-consciousness (patisandhi – vinnana) appears because of the mental impetus of the past existence, whether there is a physical base in the next existence or not. In other words, the decease-consciousness of the next. This is a brief explanation to enable one to gauge the power of the mind.

Although both the mentality and materiality of a being perish at the moment of death, a new mind appears in the new body of the next existence through the impetus of the decrease-consciousness. This citta clings to a certain object in the dying moment. This is known as death-proximate kamma (asanna kamma). The death-proximate kamma is the bridge between death and rebirth, which is how rebirth-consciousness occurs.

When death is very near, the wholesome or unwholesome deeds one has done may appear before one’s mind’s eye. Objects associated with those deeds may also appear. Alternatively, there may be a vision of one’s destiny. Although such objects may not be wanted, they cannot be eliminated at the moment of death. Among those who are seriously ill and in a coma, some behave strangely. Some show signs of pleasure and joy, others behave as if they are frightened or facing danger. Those who are close to the dying person usually report such events. Some people who were close to death, recover and then reveal who took them, where they went to and what they saw. At the very moment of the decrease-consciousness (cuticitta), the person dies with his or her mind on one of the three signs. Death means the expiry of the last life-continuum. As soon as the decrease-consciousness ceases, the rebirth-consciousness arises from the impetus of the decrease-consciousness. The rebirth-consciousness arises in a new body in the next existence conditioned by the sign seen just before death. Because of this relationship with the previous existence this rebirth-consciousness is called relinking-consciousness (patisandhi citta).

To give an example: A man dreams of strange events and goes on thinking about them when he wakes up. The strange dream is like the object that one clung to in the past. Thinking of his dream is like the vision of the object which one clung to in the past. The above case is also like remembering an intention to do something when one wakes up.

If the rebirth consciousness arises in the fine-material plane (rupabhumi), its associated matter arises simultaneously due to kamma. If the rebirth-consciousness arises like this, eye-consciousness, ear-consciousness, nose-consciousness, tongue-consciousness, body-consciousness and mind-consciousness also arise accordingly. This, in brief, is how a being is reborn.

Q. It is found that rich people, high-ranking officers and influential bhikkhus generally suffer from high blood pressure, coronary embolism, cerebral embolism, cerebral palsy and similar diseases. They are in bed for months suffering from those diseases although they are wealthy. However skilful the doctors may be, such diseases can rarely be cured. People generally assume, according to indigenous medicine, that these diseases are caused by mind and food from among the four causes of kamma, mind, climate and food. Is this assumption correct? In saying that mind causes these diseases, bhikkhus and others who use their brains a lot have veins that cannot return blood to their hearts. It is like garden plants that wither because of a shortage of water.

A. Regarding the modern diseases mentioned above, the assumption that mind causes these diseases may be correct to some extent, but we should be more specific. Simply put, there are two types of mind: the hot mind associated with passion and anger and the peaceful and purified mind dissociated from passion and anger. The man who is over anxious about his business may suffer from the above disease because of mind. The bhikkhu who has to attend to many affairs, such as looking after the monastery and pupils, giving discourses and writing articles, may suffer from the same diseases for this reason too. This kind of anxious mind may be hot because of passion and anger. However, one should not therefore assume that these diseases are caused by mind only. There are other possibilities: insufficient exercise, unsuitable food, old age and infirmity, or genetic weaknesses. The mind that is peaceful will not cause any disorder to the four elements in the body because one who practises insight meditation has four kinds of accomplishment called iddhipada, which are mental powers.

The Buddha often preached that one who has developed the four iddhipadas can recover from diseases resulting from the four causes. One can live to one’s full lifespan or even longer. Some diseases, from which meditator suffered for years, could not be cured by doctors, but were cured by insight meditation.. This is in accordance with the Buddha’s teaching.

In the Dighanikaya and the Samyuttanikaya the Buddha points out that a bhikkhu, having developed the four iddhipadas, can live to his natural lifespan, or longer if he wishes to. He also said, “Monks, the life of a monk is nothing but the four bases of supernatural powers (iddhipada)” So it should be noted that no disease can trouble a meditator who is very intent on the practice of insight meditation. Meditation can eradicate diseases if it is practised to the fullest extent.

Q. Doctors are supposed to save patients from the danger of death. Every good doctor wants his or her patients to recover their health. However, being human, doctors cannot always cure their patients’ diseases as they would wish. There are many diseases that remain incurable. Some patients do not pass away easily although they are suffering from deadly diseases. There are also many people who cannot enjoy their usual quality of life because of their afflictions. Some people think that their lives are not worth living. If some doctors, motivated by pity, help such pitiable individuals to die, do they commit the offence of destroying life or not?

To help a person to die because of an incurable disease is known as euthanasia or ‘mercy-killing’. Some people find this practice acceptable, but others do not. Doesn’t euthanasia make a patient die before the end of his or her natural lifespan? For example, if a doctor knows that a disease such as cancer is incurable and the patient asks the doctor for a speedy death, does the doctor commit the offence of killing a human being?

A. One who asks a doctor to practice euthanasia and the doctor are both guilty of the offence of killing. They make the patient die before the end of his or her natural lifespan.

It is pitiable to see a patient suffering from severe pain. If the patient dies sooner rather than later it may seem that he or she is free from suffering earlier. However, it is uncertain whether the patient will be happy after death. The commentary on the Peta Vatthu of the Pali Canon proves the point.

If a being passes away before his or her natural lifespan due to another’s intervention, the killer has broken the precept to abstain from killing living beings. On seeing the unbearable pain of a patient the first intention is to relieve him or her from suffering, but if we practise euthanasia the second and last intentions will be those of killing. The last volition determines whether it is an offence of killing a living being. This is in accordance with the commentary on the Peta Vatthu.

In the Vinaya Pitaka, Parajika Pali it says as follows:

There was a monk who was seriously ill in bed. When other monks saw him, out of pity they told him that it would be better to die than to live like that. The monk accepted their view and wanted to pass away as soon as possible. With this intention in mind, the monk did not eat anything and so died in a short time. Then the monks who had made the suggestion became doubtful whether they had committed an offence of Parajika or not, so they reported the matter to the Buddha. The Buddha decided that they had violated the first Parajika rule.

In this case, the monks had felt pity for the sick monk and so had suggested that it would be better to pass away. Their first volition was motivated by pity. However, their second volition was one of urging him to die. The commentary explains that the second volition became effective after the first one has disappeared.

According to the commentaries, five factors are necessary to fulfil the offence of killing living beings. (panatipata)

1. It is a living being.
2. One must know that it is a living being.
3. There must be the intention to kill.
4. A verbal or physical effort must be made to kill that being.
5. The living being must die due to that effort.

If all five factors are present, the offence of killing is committed.

Thus, the patient requested the doctor to help him die. Out of pity, the doctor did so. The patient did die. In this case, both the patient and the doctor violated the first precept. Both of them committed the offence of killing a living being.

Some children may request a doctor to practise euthanasia for their mother or father. If the doctor does as requested, the children are guilty of one of the five heinous crimes (anantariya kamma). How dreadful this is! Everyone should be extremely careful to avoid such heinous crimes.

Q. Discoveries and inventions have been made by scientists for the advancement of science and the welfare of mankind. At the same time, their inventions prove how effective modern medicine can be. In making these medical advances they had to kill monkeys, rabbits, birds and other living beings. The progress that has been made in surgery and medicine is wonderful and the benefit to human beings is immeasurable. In working for the benefit of mankind, the researchers unavoidably violated the precept to abstain from killing. If so, in the matter of wholesomeness or unwholesomeness, which is the greater for them?

A. There is no clear documentary evidence to show how advantageous it is to kill animals for the welfare of generations to come. According to the nature of the mental process, at the time of killing the animal, the mental process is only on the action of killing. No mind can occur on two different objects. It is the researcher’s intention to implement the inventions that enables him or her to kill the animals so mercilessly. So the unwholesome process of mind is stronger than the wholesome one. So here, the unwholesome result will be greater than the wholesome result – this is vivid.

If one has compassion, it is quite clear if it should be done or not. How would a human being like to be killed for the welfare of other people? No one would agree to take part in such medical research. Thus it is undeniable that the unwholesome kamma is stronger than the wholesome kamma in such research that involves the killing of animals.

(Translated by U Maung Maung Theinn)