Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Early Buddhist View on Brain-Death


Early Buddhist View on Brain-Death
"Is a brain-dead person awakened?"
by Bhikshu Tenzin Sherab
(a.k.a. Br. Sean Hillman)
University of Toronto
East Asian Studies
March 2007

In ordinary medical settings, a place which is often as far from spirituality as we can possibly go due to its obsessive emphasis on the physical, even those unfamiliar with the science behind the human body and of medicine look at the brain-dead human as being in a sleep-like state of suspended animation. Moreover, this phenomenon has the term “death” built into its very name, and also bears the epithet “vegetable” in which the body and its organs are viable and functional in every respect save non-autonomic brain activity. Even applying the word “human” to a being experiencing a brain dead state is questionable because one of the five aggregates that are central to the definition of “sentient being” might be missing: that of volition. On the other side of the spectrum of beings, we have an enlightened one. This being is beyond death itself since, by definition, a Buddha is free from all mental and physical suffering. She has opened the “eye that never sleeps:” omniscience which perceives all phenomena as clearly as one looking at the palm of one’s hand. The perfection of joyous effort and meditation has also eliminated the non-metaphorical sleep that we enjoy each night! For the sake of brevity, our focus will be thus: a Buddha as unlike our unfortunate brain-dead one in being free from mental and physical sleep, as well as freedom from mental and physical death. It will be shown, from the perspective of the early Buddhist scriptures, that the only thing shared by the beings on the two ends of the spectrum, the brain-dead individual on the one and a Fully Enlightened Buddha on the other, is the presence of a continuum of consciousness.
SLEEP One of the two rotting oars propelling the boat for us poor samaric beings in this ocean of misery is delusion. If one is unable to think, are there still delusions? Brain-death is not freedom from delusion. If only! The proof that delusions still are present on the mind stream, despite not being conscious, is the continued experience of karma. The brain-dead individual is suffering from sickness, decay and will die. As for our well-known form of ordinary sleep, even if the brain-dead individual is not truly comatose, there is a palpable lack of awareness of the surrounding environment. Thus, both forms of sleep are present. The “sleep” of delusions in the mind of a Tathagata does not exist. During the first Turning of the Doctrine at Sarnath, the Buddha describes the necessity and potential to emulate His personal attainment of the the third of the four Arya-Truths: that of the cessation of suffering. The seminal crux of the three poisons, ignorance, has evaporated. As for the oxymoron of “napping-Buddha,” even before achieving enlightenment, during His practise of extreme mortification on the edges of the Narayana river, the Buddha-to-be had overcome the need for ordinary sleep through the power of his meditative concentration. The early Buddhist would hold the position that the Buddha is beyond all sleep and that the brain-dead individual is certainly unawakened, in that they are ‘drowning’ in sleep.
DEATH When there is withdrawal of treatment, the brain-dead one will die. This is indisputable. However, there is a long and raging debate over whether a Buddha dies or not. Within one text, the Parinirvana sutra, there is both a narrative where the Buddha “dies” and a dialogue with Ananda where it is stated that a Buddha can live indefinitely. This excerpt from one of the three baskets of the earliest of Buddhist scripture paints a picture of the Buddha that is of exaltation: the Buddha does not have to die, and even though He manifests the appearance of sloughing off the form that the community could perceive and interact with, it is not really death. The term ‘parinirvana’ is used to describe this entrance into formless bliss (not to be confused with the bliss of the formless absorptive realm, which, unlike the state of Buddhahood, remains in the confines of samsara). The same Sutra describes the grief and concern of the disciples of the Buddha in their feeling that the Buddha would be leaving them without a guide. In a way it seems a similar response to death under normal circumstances and not a more evolved view such that the Buddha is beyond form and will be accessible still in an all-pervading Dharma-body (Dharmakaya). What can be said for certain, despite the different views over the status of the Buddha after the “Kushinigara incident” and despite the fact that there are descriptions of the Buddha laying down mindfully on His side at various times after enlightenment (perhaps seemingly napping), the early Buddhist would not see a brain-dead being as having the transcendence of mental and physical sleep and death and thus cannot be enlightened.

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