[VIEWPOINT] A Buddhist Perspective on Right to Life

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[VIEWPOINT] A Buddhist Perspective on Right to Life

Although Buddhism Has Great Respect for Life, There Are Serious Choices to Be Considered
by Seok Ji-myeong

The Netherlands' lower house of parliament recently approved a bill to legalize doctor-assisted suicide. The Dutch parliament set the following guidelines on euthanasia: The physician must be convinced the patient's request is voluntary and well-considered, and must be convinced that the patient is facing unremitting and unbearable suffering. The patient must have a correct and clear understanding of his situation and prognosis and the physician must conclude together with the patient that there is no reasonable alternative that is acceptable to the patient.

The Roman Catholic Church and those who champion the right to life strongly protested the bill. Many people may wonder what Buddhism, in which believers pray to be delivered from worldly existence, teaches about the matter. Buddhists have no different view than the Catholic Church in terms of the principle - a fundamental respect for the right to live. However, when choosing between living with illness and death, Buddhism does not always put more weight on life.

Buddhist master priest Chunseong was widely known for his straightforward - and somewhat abusive and inappropriate - sermons. His resonant voice reverberated in the temple whenever he offered a Buddhist mass. He was looked up to by his contemporaries as a spiritual guide who led a strict, disciplined life but whose spirituality turned that self-discipline into joy.

When he fell critically ill at Hwagyesa temple, many people visited him and asked him how he felt. He answered that he was suffering greatly and that the pain could only be described as a state between life and death.

Although he used medicine early in his fight against the illness, he stopped taking any medicines after his illness was diagnosed as cancer, an incurable disease at the time. Then he stopped eating food, choosing to die by fasting. As do many devout Buddhists when they fall seriously ill, Chunseong requested that he not be moved to a hospital.

Which part of a man, the body or the soul, ages faster? People often say that their hearts are still young but their bodies are aging and weakening quickly, but that is not true. If one does not discipline his spirit, he will quickly and unavoidably lose his judgement although he is physically healthy. In particular, one would never know when to depart the stage of life without spiritual training.

When mentally and spiritually healthy, one can think incisively about whether he would go to a hospital or not, and when to conclude his own worldly affairs and prepare for his departure to the next world.

But with blunted determination and powers of observation, people fail to judge things correctly and appropriately. For example, we often see a person planning business affairs to be carried out several years later, even if he is approaching his final hour, because he has already lost the power to make keen judgements.

It is not easy for a man to decide to die, even if he is hopelessly ill and suffers unremitting pain.

When pain is absent, a person certainly has the power to face death with a clear mind. But with a feeling that one's time is drawing near, everyone earnestly hopes to live.

When someone seeks to live by depending on pain killers, it means the pain is still bearable. In contrast, a person, hoping to live even knowing that his pain is endless, has an opportunity to atone for the sins of his past life, according to Buddhist teaching.

I would like to conclude this discussion of the issue of euthanasia in this way: If one chooses either to face death bravely after falling prey to an incurable disease or to bear endless pain to atone for sins of one's past life, either decision is extremely courageous. But friends and family of seriously ill persons also have the responsibility to provide support and comfort to a patient who might choose assisted suicide only because he feels sorry for causing trouble to the people around him. With such support, the patient can face a natural death bravely and resolutely.

The writer is the head priest of Popchusa temple.

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