The shocking death of Robin Williams brings up the difficult topic of suicide, and in his case, the depression that triggered it. These are complex issues. Biological, cultural, social, and psychological causes all conspire to spark these tragic events. How can we relate to suicide from a Buddhist perspective? Is there a way to help those inclined to take their own lives, which in the United States alone occurs once every thirteen minutes?

First of all, and in line with the complex nature of this event, the view around suicide is not consistent in Buddhism. Some traditions, like the Pure Land schools, maintain that suicide is not a categorical disaster. But most Buddhist traditions assert that suicide is a negative act, and should be avoided. They remind us that we have a rare and precious human life, and that we should take full advantage of it to advance along the path. They also remind us that suffering is the nature of samsara, and until we learn how to relate to it properly, thereby transforming it, we’ll never get out of samsara – even if we take our own lives. Buddhism maintains that pain is an unavoidable companion in life, but suffering doesn’t need to be. Suffering is an inappropriate relationship to pain, and the path is largely about learning how to relate to pain properly – and therefore end our suffering.

It’s human nature to avoid suffering, how we do so remains the question. In terms of the view, one way to look at suicide from a Buddhist perspective, and help us relate to it more skillfully, is to understand that suicide comes from a wild case of mistaken identity. In Buddhism, there are two fundamental levels of identity: the relative and the absolute. The relative level is the false level that comes from identifying with the contents of our mind – our thoughts and emotions. Until one enters a genuine spiritual path (where the idea of relative and absolute is first introduced), this is the only level of identity that exists. We are the sum of our thoughts and emotions. What else is there?

But according to many spiritual traditions, there is a truer level of identification, a more authentic and foundation level of being. This absolute level transcends our thoughts and emotions, and can be viewed as the vast open space within which all our thoughts and emotions arise. The absolute level is like the sky, infinite, utterly accommodating, and permanent. The relative level is like clouds that arise in that sky, limited, obscuring, and always temporary. If we have no sense of this vast inner space of our own heart and mind (the absolute), then we have no choice but to contract and identify with what arises in that space (the relative). Thus occurs a tragic and primordial identity theft that is the source of all our suffering.

In many ways the spiritual path is about learning how to let go of the clouds, and coming to identify with the space. It’s about releasing our contraction, our grip on the thoughts and emotions that flow through our mind, and relaxing into the spacious awareness within which those thoughts and emotions arise. It’s about dis-identifying with who we are not (any thought or emotion) and coming to identify with who we truly are.

When dark and heavy clouds arise, it may seem like that’s all there is. We lose sight of the open space that contains those clouds. We fundamentally forget who we really are. We are not the clouds, we are forever the space. It’s only because of our vice-like grip on our thoughts and emotions, and the identity theft that ensues from that very contraction, that we may even resist this spiritual truth.

It may be simple to proclaim this truth, but not so easy to accept. It takes effort, the work of the spiritual path, to replace contraction with relaxation, clouds with space. But when understood, this view alone may be enough to give people hope.

This is not to say that therapy, anti-depressants, or any other relative method for working with depression don’t have a place. It’s too facile to drop all these effective relative means and rush for refuge into the absolute. Our approach should be integrated, using the relative biological, social, and cultural methods available, but conjoined with this more absolute view. Because suicide and depression are multifactorial issues, they require multifactorial methods. Proclaiming that one method alone (what sociologists call “single action bias” – that one remedy can manage a complex issue) is enough to deal with suicide and depression is naïve and potentially harmful. We must honor the relative, but include the absolute.

In my next blog I will review the four aspects of a fully constituted karma, and soften the karmic blow associated with suicide. For now, Robin Williams remains in my thoughts and prayers.

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  • Lida Anne

    Thanks for daring to write about this delicate topic. I find it challenging to talk about the view of Buddhism /precious human birth/karma/suffering within the context of depression and suicide. However, as you pointed out, it is a complex situation but we still can contplate the meaning of the teachings.

  • John Bass

    Thank you for your very clear and accessible teachings on the absolute and relative and the suffering involved with the :”identity theft”., Thank you for addressing a very difficult subject from a compassionate and enlightened perspective and not being one size fits all. .

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