Eastern Thought

Unlike other species, humans can reflect on death. One response to the mystery and fear humans associate with death is to create systems of religious meaning that give purpose to life in the face of death. A corollary of the fact that people can reflect on death is their realization that it is possible for them intentionally to end life. Religion constrains this possibility in the interest of human survival; only a few exceptions to the taboo against killing humans are allowed. Animals, by contrast, cannot decide to kill themselves and seldom kill members of their own species.

Concepts of death in Asian religions include two basic types: natural—for example, death by disease and old age; and unnatural—for example, death by an accident, by the intention of another person (homicide), or by one's own intention. The latter, here called self-willed death, may be subdivided into three types: (1) suicide (self-willed death out of depression or passion, an irrational and private act); (2) heroic (self-willed death by warriors, and sometimes their wives, to avoid being killed or captured by an enemy, and therefore shamed; or to follow a leader in death because of loyalty); and (3) religious (self-willed death as a rational and public act sanctioned by a religion; for example, in cases of terminal illness or debilitating old age, or as a means to achieve heaven or enlightenment).

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