“I’m still recovering from that real talk,” was Student A’s response to me, as I asked him why he was slow to get started on his warm-up in second period. (Student A is in the unfortunate position of having me for two different classes, two periods in a row). A real talk, it was. In a somber, thoughtful, and respectful manner, the kids in my first and third periods talked about if or when it was okay to let someone make the decision to die.
The context was the introduction of the concept of sallekhana in the Jain religion. Sallekhana is a ritual fasting that some Jains choose to lead them into death. It is not considered suicide, nor is it considered violent. This ritual surprises some, who know the Jains only for their utmost compassion for all living beings on earth. Jains sweep the ground ahead of them so as not to injure insects and adhere to a strict vegetarian diet, all in the practice of ahimsa, or nonviolence. However, this act of sallekhana is not considered violent, but rather is a physical expression of the non-attachment that is critical to Jain spiritual growth. From this article by Hotta Kazuyoshi:
When it is time for someone to perform sallekhana, he must ask permission from the religious
leader. First he must give up love, hatred and attachments. He should beg his kinsmen and others
to forgive him, and should also forgive them. He also should honestly confess his past sins; then he
should maintain the five great vows, the same as the mendicants, and should read (study) the canon
until his death. Next he gradually changes his diet to dairy products, hot water, etc. Finally, fasting
completely and reciting a mantra, he should discard his body.
Sallekhana is only allowed in cases where death is imminent, as a result of disease, warfare, famine or some other misfortune. The ritual gives Jains control over their death in these moments, and the chance to perform it in a way that affirms their spiritual beliefs and intentions.
When planning this conversation and lesson, Brittney Maynard became a symbol for the Death with Dignity movement in the United States. A beautiful young woman, recently married and shortly after diagnosed with a terminal brain cancer, her story captured the interest of media immediately. She decided to move to Oregon, where she could choose to end her life with assitance from a physician. In fact, just a few days before I delivered this lesson, she died, according to her own pre-determined plans.
Personally, I had avoided watching the videos about Ms. Maynard–I knew that her story would make me emotional and upset. However, as I thought about sallekhana, I was curious about her story and her approach to death, and so I dove into some research, reading and watching. I decided to share her story with the students (knowing some of them would have already seen something about it) and used it as a point of comparison. I was impressed, in particular, with the language tha that she used to describe her decision, describing it as a healthcare choice. Her careful use of words reminded me in a way of the Jain distinctions between “death of wise man” and “death of a fool”–sallekhana being the former. In class, we watched the video below to give all students a summary of her choice.
I simply asked students to think about her decision and the Jain ritual of sallekhana, and to think about points where they might be the same or different. I also encouraged them to think about their own perspectives on death, and whether or not making choices like these were okay. Sometimes, when I bring up something like this that I think is going to be controversial, the conversation falls entirely flat. I understand this, students often avoid saying something they fear will be inflammatory or un-PC. In this case, while most of those who shared were in support of both the concept of “death with dignity” and the ritual sallekhana, the points that they made and the stories they shared just blew me away.
One student mentioned that how even though the Jain process explicitly involved meditation, she believed that Maynard’s choice included a long meditation on life as well. Students commented how having control over the end seemed to give meaning and comfort in both cases. We talked about how in sallekhana, the opportunity is there to change one’s mind, and, how the video points out that in Oregon more than half of all those who request drugs to aid in the end of life do not end up using them. Students shared stories about relatives who died after long struggles. It was a quiet conversation, one of those where both you and the students drop your voices lower so that everyone is leaning in, listening intently to catch the words.
Towards the end of our talk I brought up the idea of the preciousness of life–how humans treasure and strive for the fullest, longest lives. How do we reconcile this with the permanence and unpredicability of death? I think that religions find ways to help individuals answer that question, and the Jains offer a different, but thoughtful, solution. Hopefully the kids came away with some understanding of that.