Friday, August 12, 2011

Life is Ugly So Why Not Kill Yourself*

Brad is at Tassajara Zen Monastery where there's no Internet access. Here is an oldie but goodie written for SuicideGirls to tide you over till he gets back.

Often in my writing for SuicideGirls I’ve talked about girls, but I haven’t talked a lot about suicide. Last week a friend of mine attempted it, unsuccessfully thank you Jesus. 25 years ago another friend managed to do it successfully and I’m still bummed about that. When I lived in Chicago my band used to play at a place called Batteries, which was booked by Jim Ellison of the band Material Issue. I was pretty torn up when I found out he’d killed himself in 1996. They played their song Valerie Loves Me at a club I went to this week, which got me thinking even harder about suicide and its consequences. I’ve known a couple people, including an uncle and a co-worker, who managed to commit slow suicide by drinking themselves to death. And I, myself, have come pretty close to doing the deed too.

We used to get into these long philosophical debates around the kitchen table of the punk house near Akron City Hospital where nearly everyone on the scene seemed to hang out 24/7. In one debate it seemed like almost everyone in the room agreed that suicide was a perfectly viable option and that it was up to the individual alone to decide whether to do it or not. I’m not sure I was the only one who disagreed. But I was certainly in the minority. I imagine a lot of “alternative” type people feel somewhat the same way as my friends did, that suicide is an acceptable option.

Intellectually, it’s easy to come up with a convincing argument that suicide is nobody’s business but that of the person who kills herself or himself. But in practical, real world terms this is never the case. Suicide is devastating to everyone whose lives a person touches. No matter how much of a loner you are, there are people who care about you and it’s never easy to deal with someone you care about killing themselves. In the case of my friend Iggy who hung himself in 1983, he seems to have been deliberately trying to hurt his girlfriend who’d recently dumped him. But she dumped him because it was the only way she could think of to make him deal with his alcoholism and general destructiveness. I don’t blame her. I would’ve done the same thing. What he did was really nasty and mean. And I don’t think it really solved his problems.

Most religions forbid suicide and imagine horrible punishments awaiting in the next world for those who take their own lives. If you dug through the Buddhist literature I’m sure you could find some variation on this. There must be a sutra or vinaya text somewhere saying what kind of future incarnation awaits those who commit suicide. But I don’t know about it since I’m a pretty lousy Buddhist scholar. This, in itself says something, though. Because even if such a text exists it’s not greatly emphasized. There are a couple scholarly articles on the Internet about the matter. Here’s one. Here’s another. And here’s one more.

Everyone knows about the
Vietnamese Buddhists who set fire to themselves to protest the Viet Nam War
. For a while there that seemed like one of the most enduring images the general public in the West had of Buddhism. People on this side of the planet had already been taught by their early scholars that Buddhism was a Nihilistic religion filled with talk of suffering and emptiness. So it probably came as no great surprise to hear about Buddhists offing themselves. Buddhism isn’t nihilistic, though. And I don’t think those guys did anyone very much good by going up in flames.

In any case, I’m not terribly concerned with scholarly research or mass opinions. I scanned through those articles I linked to, but I really didn’t read them in depth. It’s interesting to know the history, but not really necessary. Buddhism, as far as I’m concerned, is more about our own experiences than about received wisdom from others. My own experience tells me that suicide is not really a viable option. It ultimately cannot possibly solve the problems it’s intended to solve and it causes a whole lot of unnecessary suffering and grief.

People kill themselves to put an end to their suffering. Ian Curtis of Joy Division did it to end his suffering over his marriage and finances. Pete Ham killed himself because he was suffering over the fate of his band Badfinger, the world’s greatest power pop band. Kurt Cobain killed himself to end his suffering from all those stomach-aches. Of course these are all over-simplifications. But it’s clear that all of these people, as well as anyone else who has ever taken their own lives, did so because they saw it as a way out of suffering. It’s certainly not something you do just for the hell of it.

But the idea that committing suicide will end your suffering comes from the belief that you and the world in which you live are two different things. You believe that you can leave this world and thereby leave suffering behind. But my own sense after years of zazen practice is that this is not true. I’ve spent a long time watching the boundary line between what I call “me” and what I call the rest of the world blur and fade. I’m no longer certain at all where the dividing line is. I’m beginning to even suspect that that guy Buddha may have been right when he said it doesn’t exist at all. In fact I’ve had a few times when this apparently nonsensical notion has come up and bit me on the ass in ways I cannot possibly deny.

So what I’m saying here goes a little further than just the old “the show must go on” type thing where people say you have a responsibility to your friends and family not to go off and shoot your brains out in the greenhouse. You also have a responsibility to yourself and even to the universe as a whole not to do that. Even if committing suicide solves the immediate problem by ending a poor relationship or making it so your stomach doesn’t hurt anymore, the suffering you thought was yours alone spreads out like a wave to those parts of the universe you’ve been taught to think of as separate from you. It’s impossible for me to believe that even the person who dies does not, in some way, continue to suffer just as greatly after suicide as before. I no longer believe it’s possible to leave this world. And that’s as far as I want to speculate about that. Anything I might say about the mechanism involved in how this happens would just be a load of stinky brain farts. Still, I have a very deep and unshakable feeling that this is true.

Anyway, please forgive the grimness of this little piece. What my friend did last week got me thinking hard about the matter. So SuicideGirls readers, don’t kill yourselves! Life is beautiful, so why not eat health foods instead?*

*This title of this article comes from a punk rock compilation album put out around 1979-80 by New Underground Records. The Descendents and Red Cross are featured. I’d love to find a copy of this or its sequel Life Is Beautiful So Why Not Eat Health Foods.


Anonymous said...

Very compassionate post. I lost an uncle to suicide and his note said "I only want it all to end." He had terrible depression and very much believed this life ending would be his only option. Thank you for your article.

Anonymous said...


Oh Fuck It.. Who knows if I've attained the Nirvana of the coveted #1 spot. Only the shameless all-powerful censor knows. This really blows.

Khru said...

This is probably the worst comment thread I've ever seen on Bradley's blog...

Anonymous said...

suicide is also murder.

Anonymous said...

Thank you.
I agree totally!
The best way to minimize suffering is to relieve the suffering of others.

Anonymous said...

The way out of something is through
it. The solution to the pain and
suffering is to penetrate the pain,
to thoroughly become the pain
rather than avoid it. Giving shape
and form to suffering as an object
reinforces the distinction of you
as separate from the Universe.
Embrace your illusions and see them
for what they are.

I love that that it says " choose
an identity "

Anonymous said...

Krishnamurti on suffering :
"when it is suddenly exposed, we do not dwell with it, we do not watch it, we try to escape. In escape there is resistance, and that very resistance creates further conflict, further struggle, so we are caught in this everlasting process of suffering. Whereas, if, when suffering comes, we are capable of looking at that nakedness, that loneliness, that emptiness which is the self, only then is there a possibility of going beyond it. "

Awakened Yeti said...

How long will it be until the pendulum swings back the other way and bradley mcZen is whining about people bitching at him for having his own opinion that is different than someone else's opinion?

Lets find out... a 1.. a 2-hoooo.. a 3..

Laurent said...

My mother killed herself for my 16th Birthday.
Her brother put himself a bullet in his brain 10 years after.
Suicide is a great suffering scream.
But somebody who cries or scream instead of killing himself, will not hurt me so much than if he makes end his life and let no possibility to be helped.
Suicide is egoistic way of ending suffering. But the wave of suffering continues because nothing is separated, because that world is one; and we live in.
When, a few years after my mother's death, I was depressed and thought about dying, when I was thinking about the suffering I would have left, I could not to do it. Because action has consequences, and nothing is separated.
I had a friend that hung himself three years ago. A good zazen mate. I understand he suffered, as my mother, as my uncle, as every person who commit suicide.
But suicide is a bad example to do for those who are left!

then, you who are so fed up with this fucking unsatisfying life, don't forget that if you suicide, your suffering will survive, and it's never a good thing for anyone, and first for you.
Because in some part of the world somebody is able to be hurted by your death, and to be touched like that seems to be what we called love.
Then, stay here.
Sit and don't move : when I decided suiciding my ego on a zafu, I discovered how much I could suffer always more. But I discovered my desire of being alive...the pleasure of listening the bird singing in the morning, or feeling the wind on my skin...and I discovered that suiciding something so called ego is a nonsense, because that stuff is always rebirthing when we want it to be dead.
The singing of the bird, the wind on the skin!.....the green mountains, the river flowing.....the sun shining, the rain falling......

Anonymous said...

Sehr gut!

Unknown said...

I can’t help but believe that life is and will always be filled with grief. Whenever I have an issue, I immediately jump to the thought of suicide. So far in every situation I’ve been able to reason with myself to try less drastic and less permanent measures. But the thought doesn’t leave the back of my mind, because no matter what I do in place of suicide I feel like I’ve just delayed the grief. I’ve just flipped the hour glass and I’m just waiting for the pain to begin again. Happiness begins to feel diminished and overshadowed by the sadness the builds up in me like an increasing pressure. It might take a month, a year, a hundred years, I may die before I succumb to it. If the pressure becomes too great it’s going to come out. Whether I release it by committing suicide, or I simply break down. I think it’s the compassionate alternative to enduring the torture of life that life is for some people. Why can’t I be normal? Why can’t I deal with life? Why can’t I be happy? I don’t have answers to any of those questions. When I hear people say suicide is wrong it bothers me, because sometimes the only way I can get through the day is by knowing if my life becomes unbearable I have a way out. I know it’s hard to accept. I couldn’t even write it without crying, but I can’t stand the thought of being trapped in life. I simply can’t be subjected to whatever fate wants to throw at me. I’ve spent hours thinking about this from the perspective of a person who has considered it, and I know the last thing I want is to hurt the people that love me. However, if I do ultimately make the decision to end my life I want my loved ones to understand why and forgive me.

Anonymous said...

If all sentient beings simultaneously
commit suicide, there will be no one
left to suffer.

BTW, whoever invented pain
must have been a real
major asshole.

Anonymous said...

A person causes his or her own suffering. No one else does. If someone commits suicide and you feel sick about it, that's YOUR problem, not the dead person's.

I know this sounds somewhat discompassionate, but I think one of the most compassionate things one can do is help one learn to master their own mind.

It's okay to feel sadness, regret, etc. That's not "suffering" to me. That's "life". What is suffering is when we become entangled in such emotions--"attached" if you will.

Anonymous said...

As a real action, suicide is pretty benign. it's the end of a creature, and as far as its impact on the universe goes, it's not much impact. it's no more impact, in real terms, than one of us dying from natural causes. However, as your ability to understand these words demonstrates, we are endowed with this sixth sense of thinking. 

I tend to see thinking as a great evolutionary advantage. I mean thinking in the sense of forming and manipulating abstracts in the "mind," Not the neuronic activity that keeps hearts beating, or lungs breathing or hands flying up to protect the face from a branch flying towards it. The ability to conceive and manipulate abstracts lets us anticipate seasons, build shelters and feel good when pleasing sounds are about us. 

However, the ability to manipulate abstracts also gives us suffering from those abstracts. We suffer when we see death. We suffer more when people close to us die. I think we suffer even more when we know somjeone died simply from being knotted up in their own abstracts. Killing yourself is only a very pathological knot of abstracts. 

I found out when I was quite old, that I was adopted. I learned I had had a brother who killed himself after I was born, but before I knew him. I had another brother who I learned of while he lived, but he was in the middle of killing himself slowly with alcohol. These guys were tied up in their knots of abstract thinking. I get knotted up ( I suffer) when I think of them, and miss these brothers I never knew. 

I will never be free of this. By that I mean I will always be a creature subject to this knotting. Buddhism has brought me to see this as "empty", and yet I am forever wired to experience it. We can cover our eyes and not see. We can cover our ears and not hear. But we can't cover our minds and not react to people dying. I mean "for real" not react. Our reaction to death is a evolutionary advantage that is hard wired into "lower" brain function that some call "subconscious".

Suicide is a act of aggression to all of us left behind. There is no way to steel yourself against it, except by adding more layers to the empty knot. It probably best not to do it.

Anonymous said...

I am very sorry to hear of the tragedy you have had to experience so intimately

I truly believe everyone is doing, has done, and does the best they can in their circumstances and situation

I believe I do my best and I also know I can do better.

pain is unavoidable

"suffering is optional" (I forget who said that),

Pain doesn't hurt half as much when there is no suffering.

On the other hand you can have no pain, but your suffering can be so great that it, itself becomes unbearable. Suffering can make you feel like you are dying.
Suffering can make you want to die.
I think there are ways to meet such suffering and buddhism is one, because it goes to the root, not the symptom.

Handling the symptoms of suffering is like putting out the smoke, instead of the fire.

I think there is a common confusion between suffering and pain -- as if they were the same...

That vow: saving all sentient beings--
isn't from pain
it's from suffering

Anonymous said...

If you're going through hell, just keep going.

Rich said...

The whole point of practice is to develop the ability to break the cycle of birth and death of these suicidal thoughts and feelings or any other thoughts and feelings that you are so attached to, you think is you forever.

The irony is that ultimately there is nothing you can do to stay alive and at some point near the end you may choose to simply let go, which you could have been doing all along the way.

Extending deep compassion to all suffering beings.

Anonymous said...

Anonymous @ 2:27 PM said...

"BTW, whoever invented pain
must have been a real
major asshole."

You invented pain.
I wouldn't call you an asshole.

Ratboy said...

Most of what Brad says here rings true for me. But the part about suicide being wrong because it hurts those around us is not quiet right. As another poster said, it's the attachment that causes the survivors to hurt, not the suicide. Same with any death. We don't hurt for the departed, we just feel sorry for ourselves and the loss it brings to us.

The whole 'we are all connected' idea (as an idea) can be misused to justify any intrusion into personal liberty. Force everyone to exercise daily because any one of us getting sick costs 'society'. Force everyone to eat health food for the same reason. Forbid people to read books or watch media that we think is unhealthy because it affects all of us. Brad uses this same reasoning in denouncing drug use. What one of us does affects everyone, so society should be able to force members to comply. Not.
This is like coerced compassion. It isn't real. 'We are all one' makes a lousy philosophical position and is subject to all sorts of misuse. But to perceive the actual fact is not philosophy or idealism. Action springing from that direct perception does not create more suffering.

As an aside, would it have created more or less suffering in the world if Stalin had committed suicide when he was a university student? If Hitler had offed himself because he was a failed architect? If Osama killed himself in some lonely cave before planning 911? Not always so.

Anonymous said...

when I find myself in times of trouble,
my mind is sinking in the muck,
speaking words of wisdom:
"Let it Suck."

Tao1776 said...

Perfect timing... My wife attempted suicide a few years ago and subsequently threatened to kill herself many times over. She also cut herself in noticeable but yet not so noticeable locations. I soon began to squirm when she would disappear for a while and I was afraid to go and check up on her for fear of what I might find. And she knew this! A cruel tool to which she could punish and manipulate me. When I refused to dance this dance any longer she attacked me and was arrested twice. She filed for divorce and moved out - taking 33 years worth of belongings with her. And she returns to the property ate night, drunk and violent and sets to destroy all that she can - even in the face of a no contact/no trespass order in effect. I firmly believe that before or shortly after our divorce I will find her dead on the property! Her last punishing act!

Anonymous said...

Lust leads to desire for possession, and possession leads to murder.

Anonymous said...

Link is broken on "And here’s one more. "

Anonymous said...

Yes, as Ratboy says, how can we know how any act will influence future events? In that case it is hard to judge any act as wrong, especially suicide. It could even be argued that it should be encouraged to reduce the burden on future generations of having to deal with an overcrowded planet and not enough resources to go round.

Laurent said...

Yes. Agree with Tao : somebody who kill him herself, kills everybody in this world.
we are a complete world in ourselves, we can't destroy this, it's a matter of killing every form of life.

Anonymous said...

it is interesting why this suicide topic comes up just now. in july, a zen friend of ours killed herself. i was shocked since she had been such a beautiful person, physically and in her behaviour. it keeps coming back to me: why did she do this? why did she not ask for help? she never asked for help. she offered assistance and advice, and it was never obtrusive and always constructive. everybody assumed that life must be easy for her. she suffered all the time, and nobody noticed. this incident also shook my understanding of the practice. she had been practicing zen for more than 15 years. how is it possible that a person practicing so long and seriously is able to kill herself? for me, the practice, at a very simple and physical level, has always been a relief. is it possible to practice for years and years and not notice that?

buddy said...

to all those saying things like'A person causes his or her own suffering. No one else does. If someone commits suicide and you feel sick about it, that's YOUR problem, not the dead person's.
I know this sounds somewhat discompassionate, but I think one of the most compassionate things one can do is help one learn to master their own mind.' or ', it's the attachment that causes the survivors to hurt, not the suicide. Same with any death. We don't hurt for the departed, we just feel sorry for ourselves and the loss it brings to us' and other variations: that's one step away from the old zen bullshit that says life is an illusion that your mind creates, anything bad that happens to you is your fault, etc etc. which of course has been used to justify all sorts of nonsense like poverty or natural disasters as a result of karma, or the zen establishment's involvement in japanese military aggression last century. or smaller, more 'american' variations like 'if i treat you like shit or sleep with your wife or your kid gets hit by a car, and you get upset, it's your fault because you're not enlightened enough.' a 'person' does cause their own suffering, but if we are truly all no person/one person, then the responsiblity to deal with that suffering flows in all directions.

kristien said...

. His Divine Presence, Parama-Sapta-Na Adi Da, Says: “The purpose of existence is not in its action. The purpose of existence is Inherent. Its purpose is to be submitted to What Is Inherent. The purpose of existence, then, is to transcend conditions, or modifications of What Is Inherent. If you do not live this surrender, this process of transcending egoity, you are binding yourself in this lifetime and beyond it. And, being limited basically to the consciousness of a gross personality, you do not understand what you are doing. You do not understand the consequences of your own actions. You have lost the thread of tradition and the ancient ‘experience’. You do not know what you are creating for yourself as a result of your actions in this lifetime. You are frittering your lives away with Western karmas, and you do not understand the results of doing that, in this life and after it. You spend your life puzzling away whether there is God or whether there is any survival of death, and so forth. And, all the while, there is God and there is survival of death. But there is more than God and survival of death. There are laws in all of that. There are all different kinds of ways to get up in the morning, too, all different kinds of ‘experiences’ that follow getting up in the morning--so with death. What determines your ‘experience’ after death is what you have inherited in the deeper unconscious being as a result of your action, when you had the capability of action. I remember Saying to you many years ago that while you are alive, you make the mind, and when you die, the mind makes you. By your action, all the while now, you are putting things, so to speak, in this unconscious, this deeper personality, which is outside the brain. You are enforcing and reinforcing patterns. You are patterning it. You are (in some sense) indulging in what is there in the unconscious, but you are also adding to it. And all your life, in most cases, the unconscious is just that--unconscious. That is why you wonder whether you survive death, because you are not aware of the greater part. Then, when you die, the conscious part falls off, the physical falls off, and that which was unconscious before, which is outside the brain, is now ‘who’ you are--and ‘where’ you are. It is a place. It is the mind-realm. This is what follows life. Death is by no means simply a doorway to ‘heaven’. What is on your mind now when you lose physical attention? What kinds of thoughts do you have, what kinds of dreams do you have, what kinds of fears do you have? That makes your ‘experience’ after death. While you are alive, you have physical concentration and a brain that locks you away from the so-called ‘unconscious’. You have an opportunity while alive to purify yourself. But, instead, all that ‘stuff’ is not ‘there’ now. It is outside the brain. And, so, you think it does not even exist, and (therefore) just indulge yourself in physical life as if the physical exists for its own sake. It is not there for its own sake. It is there to help you purify the deeper being, the deeper personality, to the point where you can Realize What Transcends even the deeper personality. Conditionally manifested existence is an opportunity for Realization. But most people do not understand that this is so. The body-based mind, the gross personality, is ruling the ‘world’, creating ‘world’-culture, creating everyone's destiny. What I have Fully Realized and am Offering to you as an Opportunity, or to everyone in general, may not make sense to most people. They have lost the tradition, lost the ‘experience’. Nonetheless, many people might be somehow attracted to this Offering, because things do not go all that well. Devotion to one's gross existence does not produce Happiness, so people become dissatisfied with the entire range of things and become heart-sensitized to some degree. Many may (therefore) be capable of responding to this Offering, and through ‘consideration’ may develop the appreciation of the Opportunity.” -Adi Da Samraj-

Anonymous said...

"TLDNR" - La Di Da Sum Guy

Anonymous said...


While I'm not quite sure how you made the leap from my comments about suicide to war, famine, poverty and slimy religious leaders, I'll respond anyway.

What I find most interesting about your comment is that you blame my "zen" (I guess, for lack of a better word) for some lax views that have allowed and even justified such acts as war, famine and sleazy religious leaders. However, I don't consider myself "zen" by any means, and what scares me about contemporary zen practice is that, in my mind, in many ways it promotes the very suffering you accuse my approach of promoting. After all, guys like Richard Baker, Dennis Merzel, Seung Sahn,Eido Tai Shimano and on and on were "certified" Zen masters. Furthermore, the Japanese masters who used zen to justify nationalism and war were the exact patriarchs whose "lineage" continues on to this day with many (most?) of the contemporary leaders.

On the other hand, someone like DT Suzuki, who is marginalized and caricatured by many in the "true" Zen movement, has never had any allegations against him of such improprieties. By most (all?) accounts, he was a compassionate, humanistic, loyal, happy person. And yet, his philosophy has been an great inspiration for my own.

So who is right? It almost misses the point to ask. As we are both right and wrong, depending on perspective. But for my life, and my sanity and happiness, recognizing that I have the power to end my own suffering has been the best realization I have had yet.

Anonymous said...

zen and the art of politics
the suicide of society

Ratboy said...

it's the attachment that causes the survivors to hurt, not the suicide. Same with any death. We don't hurt for the departed, we just feel sorry for ourselves and the loss it brings to us' and other variations: that's one step away from the old zen bullshit that says life is an illusion that your mind creates, anything bad that happens to you is your fault

buddy, I think you misunderstand my point. That the hurt we feel upon another's death is not due to feelings of compassion or concern for the other person but rather our own not some metaphysical theory or airy philosophy. It is directly observable if we can be brutally honest with ourselves. I do not think life is an illusion or see what this has to do with zen militarism, etc.

I really disagree with the whole 'It's your karma, so if something bad happens to you it's your own fault.' pov. Though I think Brad may well accept some similar view, I do not at all. The point of zen practice is to transcend karma in any case. We are neither active agents nor passive victims of circumstance. See Pai Chang's Fox koan.

Anonymous said...

mr ron paul risin

Anonymous said...

First, do no harm.

Stinks of Zen said...

"There is but one truly serious philosophical problem and that is suicide."

Anonymous said...

sometimes suicide isn't an option, like with crazy people.
when someone can choose suicide, it isn't a good decision because maybe death of the consciousness couldn't exist or could'nt end suffering.
the solution is make the suffering our bed and rest on it. not die to suffering, but suffer the dying that is continuing happening.
we are dying naturally.

Tim said...

I lost a good friend 2 weeks ago. I feel sad for his family, his new wife and his baby that is on the way. I feel bad most of all that life hadn't treated him better and worse yet that no one knew of his suffering. Life is a gift and not just the fact that we get to live but that we get to experience it and live it together. We should love and respect each other, handle each other with care. Thank you for your post.

Anonymous said...

life is unpleasant most of the time.
We can't rest on the ugglyness of life most of the time.
But We can be honest and stay with the unpleasantness making effort to not deny the suffering.
Even the restlessness must be accepted.
We can stay with this restlessness.
We are slowly dying, and we can more and more make effort to accep our death.
We can live this dying process.

Anonymous said...

how many times we will suicide untill see that is impossible to avoid suffering?

how much time in this life we will be slowly suiciding with scapism, drugs, being workaholic, etc untill see that is impossible to avoid suffering?

Toshogu said...

My friend Glen is a big punk fan from years ago, loved DK and all. I wish he read this article before he killed himself a couple months ago. What a damn damn waste.

Bryon Sabatino said...

Brad: I've never heard of you until last week when my girlfrined picked up a copy of "Sit Down..." off the cheap rack at our local book store. I have since read it and ordered the rest of your work on Amazon. My sense of your writing is that "Someone finally understands me" after over twenty years of meditation practice. We both plan on getting out to see you somewhere sometime as we are both inspired by your style.

Bryon Sabatino, Phoenix Arizona

Anonymous said...

Happened just a few days ago in Greece! SOLIDARITY WITH THR GREEK REVOLT! said...

Gosh, there is so much effective material here!

Anonymous said...

Really? Your only idea for suicide prevention is plain old guilt-tripping?