Letters to the Editor Winter 2002

Distinguishing Verses
I would like to make a few observations regarding your recent interview with Stephen Batchelor (Fall 2002). Mr. Batchelor’s statement that rebirth “was simply a part of the Indian worldview the Buddha inherited” is at odds with the written record of the Buddha’s enlightenment in the Maha Saccaka Sutta, discourse thirty-six of the Majjhima Nikaya, the 1995 translation by Bhikkhus Nanamoli and Bodhi. It is recorded that on recollecting what had transpired on that auspicious night under the Bodhi tree, the Buddha said, “I recollected my manifold past lives, that is, one birth, two birth . . . Thus with their aspects and particulars I recollected my manifold past lives.” The Buddha’s second insight related to the rebirth of others. “Thus with the divine eye, which is purified and surpasses the human, I saw beings passing away and reappearing, inferior and superior, fair and ugly, fortunate and unfortunate, and I understood how beings pass on according to their actions.” As a part of the third insight, the Buddha said, “Birth is destroyed, the holy life has been lived, what had to be done has been done, there is no more coming to any state of being.” These verses clearly and unequivocally speak of rebirth and show that the Buddha’s knowledge of rebirth was part and parcel of his enlightenment, and not “simply a part of the Indian worldview.”

One could reject those verses, and similar ones in the Bhayabherava Sutta, as being inaccurate, distorted, incomplete, or later additions. It seems that Mr. Batchelor necessarily must question the authenticity of those particular sutta verses since he maintains that Buddha simply accepted the rebirth doctrine as part of his inherited worldview. If Mr. Batchelor rejects the verses relating to rebirth, why not reject all the verses relating the Buddha’s enlightenment, including the one relating to suffering? The Buddha said, “I directly knew as it actually is: This is suffering; This is the origin of suffering; This is the cessation of suffering; This is the way leading to the cessation of suffering.” Of course, to reject this verse would be to reject the Four Noble Truths, the foundation of Buddhism.

Why are some verses rejected and others not? What are the rules, the criteria? How does Mr. Batchelor make the distinction?

—Jerry S. Byrd, Washington, D.C.

As a longtime Tibetan Buddhist practitioner, I was pleased to read your interview with Stephen Batchelor. Like Batchelor, I struggled with the notion of reincarnation, and could not accept it on blind faith. While I am not closed to the idea of rebirth, I think it is important to do what the Buddha exhorted us to do: to verify the truths he spoke rather than simply to accept them. This is what distinguishes the Buddha’s teachings from other faiths, which often advocate an “all or nothing” approach. Short of verification, we may well conclude—as in the Buddha’s worldview—that the earth is flat.

—Marina Stockschleder, Mannheim, Germany

© Mike Taylor

Spotting Uncertainty
I read with interest your article “Putting Spot Down” (Summer 2002). As a small-animal veterinarian and a person who humbly tries to follow the teachings of the Buddha, this subject has confounded me for a long time. A veterinary student was surprised when I mentioned that I was not sure if it was ever okay to euthanize an animal. The practice of “putting to sleep” old or suffering pets is well established in our profession. Fortunately, it is no longer common practice to kill on demand, no questions asked, although individual practitioners have different comfort levels about which situations warrant this extreme measure.

This subject, like so many others, may seem clear-cut to the outside observer who finds it easiest to follow a simple rule or principle. To say that it should never be done gets one off the hook in a way, but fails to address the entire situation. In the article, one view was expressed that we should not interfere in any way with the natural dying process. But we medicate, resuscitate, and prevent the “natural” process all the time, and as long as that is seen as “preserving” life rather than interfering with a natural death, it’s acceptable.

However, if we shorten the time an animal spends in agony during a “natural” death by giving an injection, that is viewed as a taboo “killing.” Where do we draw the line on “interfering”?

I greatly appreciate those dedicated pet owners who are willing and able to give their old or ailing pets the necessary care to allow them a natural death. As expressed in the article, it can be a rewarding experience to help an animal through this time. However, not all situations lend themselves to this. Remember, there is no Medicare or Medicaid to help owners pay for long-term hospice-type care for pets, and many veterinary clinics are not equipped to handle that type of care. What is the solution for the old, hundred-pound dog who can’t get up any more, whose owners are elderly themselves and cannot lift him, and who lies outdoors in the heat of summer in his own excrement, maggots invading his flesh? Or the animal in kidney failure who retches and vomits constantly, whose mouth, esophagus, and stomach are ulcerated and infected? Or the pet hit by a car, his limbs mangled, unsalvageable? Is it right to tell the owners in these situations that this is natural and that they should just let the dying process progress without intervention?

Many pet owners cannot afford the type of medication and treatment that might at least keep these animals more comfortable during their last days, and they choose euthanasia with a great deal of regret and sadness.

Even though I have just made some statements that appear to support the concept of pet euthanasia, I still feel ambivalent about it. In the spirit of an article that preceded “Putting Spot Down,” I continue to look at this subject with “Necessary Doubt” (Summer 2002).

There are situations that seem to call clearly for humane assistance in the dying process, but they should not blind us to the actuality of what is being done, which is ending a life.

—Sandy Wasson, D.V.M., Yakima, Washington


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Image 1: © Neal Crosbie; Image 2: © Mike Taylor

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