Questions About Death

THE SKILL OF MEDICAL SCIENCE and advances in medical

technology have been responsible for saving countless lives and

alleviating untold suffering. Yet at the same time they pose many ethical

and moral dilemmas for the dying, their families, and their doctors,

which are complex and sometimes anguishingly difficult to

resolve. Should we, for example, allow our dying relative or friend to

be connected to a life-support system, or removed from one? To

avoid prolonging the agony of a dying person, should doctors have

the power to terminate a life? And should those who feel they are

condemned to a long and painful death be encouraged, or even

assisted, in killing themselves? People often ask me questions such as

these about death and dying, and I would like to review some of

them here.


Even forty years ago most people died at home, but now the

majority of us die in hospitals and nursing homes. The prospect of

being kept alive by a machine is a real and frightening one. People

are asking themselves more and more what they can do to ensure a

humane and dignified death, without their lives being unnecessarily

prolonged. This has become a very complicated issue. How do we

decide whether to begin life-support for a person, for instance, after a

serious accident? And what if the person is comatose, cannot speak,

or has been rendered mentally incapable because of a degenerative illness?

What if it is an infant who is severely deformed and braindamaged?

There are no easy answers to questions such as these, but there

are some basic principles that might guide us. According to the teaching

of Buddha, all life is sacred; all beings have buddha nature, and

life offers them, as we have seen, the possibility of enlightenment. To

avoid destroying life is taken as one of the first principles of human

conduct. Yet Buddha also advised very strongly against dogmatism,

and I believe we cannot take a fixed view, or an "official" position, or


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