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A Buddhist monk confronts Japan's suicide culture (2013) (newyorker.com)
189 points by bookofjoe 58 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 44 comments

This is one of my favourite New Yorker articles. I wish they published more articles like this.

Suicidal thoughts are a really tough thing to deal with. I've struggled with them for my entire adult life -- more than 20 years now, and counting. They're also deeply personal, and it's hard to find a one-size-fits-all method of helping people through them.

In my case, I find them perversely soothing. Planning it out, and planning out the accompanying clean-up, is strangely calming for me; I suspect at least part of it is because it's applying a feeling of control and structure to otherwise chaotic, painful, or confusing situations. As I run through details in my head, the feelings that incited the thoughts begin to dimish.

I know, rationally, that it would be devastating for those left behind. I know, rationally, that no amount of preparation or planning will make it easier or less painful for them. I know, rationally, that suicide is not a solution for anything.

But it feels like all of the above. It feels like a release, like a perfect, lasting solution to pain and confusion and distress I've carried with me for so long.

I'm lucky that I've found some kind of equilibrium that's allowed me to work through them when they occur, relatively harmlessly. I know others who aren't so lucky, and who haven't found something that works for them. Some of thoem have died; others have survived, but aren't whole since.

It's something that's hard for us to talk about, and current society doesn't seem predisposed to talk about. Many of those suffering the most are faced by a media climate that's not helpful or supportive, and makes it hard for some of the most emotionally and psychologically vulnerable to seek help because of who they were born.

If you've ever had thoughts, please don't suffer in silence: try to find someone, anyone, to talk to. In the UK, we have the Samaritans[1] on 116123 (free to call). There's also Breathing Space Scotland[2] on 0800 83 85 87 (also free).

[1]: https://www.samaritans.org/how-we-can-help/contact-samaritan...

[2]: https://breathingspace.scot/

Buddhism has an explanation for why these thoughts are soothing. It comes down to thinking provides a level of control and an appearance of a illusion you feel in control of. But alas this is illusion. The mind simply likes thinking. In fact Buddhists off camera will say your addicted to thinking. I believe this will be shown to be true. The default mode network may be the “addiction to thinking.”

I think the solution might be somewhat simple, something I've noticed recently while trying to deal with my own stress. I recalled that as a child I would often do something very strange. I would just lay on the floor staring at the carpet, just completely mesmerized by the most banal of things. I'm mean there's less happening than watching paint dry. Or I would sit out in the yard in the fresh air and stare and some patch of dirt and grass for some period of time. I spoke to my girlfriend and she said that she recalled doing something similar. she said she had a very distinct memory of a door knob and just starting at it. I think maybe most children do this instinctively and forget it when they grow up. And rather than worry about complex esoteric philosophies just practicing a simple child like act for some time a day can help (and yes I know this is similar to practices known as grounding, but maybe more time is necessary to be devoted to it for it to restore inner calm)

I haven't ever heard of the explanation you offer for why thoughts are helpful (having the appearance of control over an apparent illusion?).

Thinking is required in buddhist practise, it's just not thinking about anything you please.

Also, one usually deals with the coarser forms of suffering first, and no special esoteric philosophies and techniques are needed to address them, usually just clear thinking and problem solving is required.

"having the appearance of control over an apparent illusion?"

Just before Ninakawa passed away the Zen master Ikkyu visited him. “Shall I lead you on?” Ikkyu asked.

Ninakawa replied: “I came here alone and I go alone. What help could you be to me?”

Ikkyu answered: “If you think you really come and go, that is your delusion. Let me show you the path on which there is no coming and going.”

I get what is being referred to, but if you are implying that buddhism teaches everything is an illusion, the Buddha himself specifically warned his followers away from nihilism and solipsism.

Your everyday conventional wisdom is not negated by buddhism.

For example, buddhist people use the word 'I' all the time ("Let me show you the path on which there is no coming and going."), despite trying to realise the doctrine of 'no self" in their practise.

The doctrines attempt to eliminate suffering, proceeding from the coarsest levels down to more and more subtle forms of suffering.

The delusion the monk is suffering from here, can only become uncovered after much work has been done clearing the way first.

This Zen parable is faulty wisdom (like so much of Mahayana and Vajrayana fanfiction). The title the Buddha used to refer to himself, Tathagata, can simultaneously be translated as, "Thus Comes One" and "Thus Goes One". It's not about a path where there is no coming and going, it's about both simultaneously.

> This Zen parable is faulty wisdom (like so much of Mahayana and Vajrayana fanfiction)

Please don't promote sectarian strife here.

Buddhism is a living tradition and always has been. Theravadins have no monopoly on "true" Buddhism - the Pali canon was transcribed hundreds of years after the death of Gautama Buddha and the authorship and authenticity of many parts of the canon remain disputed within the Theravada tradition.

Perhaps more to the point, a quotation from Nanda-manava-puccha (as translated by Thanissaro Bhikku):

"Whatever brahmans & contemplatives describe purity in terms of views & learning, describe purity in terms of precepts & practices, describe purity in terms of manifold ways: none of them, living there in that way, I tell you, have crossed over birth & aging."


The Buddha is speaking very specifically in the quote you've mentioned of a class of religious priest, the brahman, and the contemplative engaging in jhanic meditations that do not lead to the ending of suffering.

You're right, the words of the Buddha weren't written down for hundreds of years after but across those earliest texts flung across space and time, we find an astonishing harmony.

Look, I'm seeing calls to end my supposed promotion of sectarian strife: I love Three Pillars of Zen, have obsessively studied the Mahayana epic the Surangama Sutra, and washed myself in the pure poetry of the Complete Reality school. But I cannot stress enough, and neither did the Buddha, in the importance of incisive, unequivocal language when it comes to identifying right view.

Vajrayana, the deeply mystical arm of Buddhism, stresses the importance of a guru relationship to the disciple, fraught with a history of sexual manipulation. Unquestioned power structures do this. We have thousands of years of history to support this.

Mahayana Buddhism gave birth to Zen, perhaps the cleanest strain to emerge but which sacrificed an essential tenet: that a monk should not grow their own food; should rely on the continuing generosity of the people to survive. It is further compromised by the trappings of rites and rituals, which the Buddha of the early texts rejected.

And what of Nichiren who famously declared that enlightenment was impossible in such a fallen world? The same enlightenment the pre-Mahayana Buddha stressed was for everyone?

"And what of Nichiren who famously declared that enlightenment was impossible in such a fallen world?"

Nothing, or better yet, no thing. They're just wrong.

great truths are paradox -- both true and not true, at once

You are talking about 'dialectical statements' statements that contain an apparent contradiction.

They are not true and false at the same time, they are only commonly understood to be a contradiction, and the point of the koan or statement is to push the practitioner to is to see through the apparent contradictions.

Koans and Zen stories are a training aid, but are not a substitute for common sense.

Usually the contradiction occurs because the opposing statements come from different levels of analysis (the conventional: "I am going to 7/11 to get a drink.) the ultimate (I am just an unfolding process dependent on conditions that changes from one second to another, so in a way there is no I that goes to 7/11 ...).

The thing is, even though 'ultimate' sounds more awesome, buddhists say "I" all the time. Just the same way that engineers use classical mechanics every day for certain classes of problems, because there's no need to bring in disappearing cats and quantum weirdness for that level of analysis.

To every level of suffering, there are appropriate tools, but for some reason in the west, we often prefer to discuss complex subtle metaphysical statements we don't really understand¹, than to just go clean up the mess in the kitchen, which is a more pressing issue.

The only reason I'm even engaging in this kind of talk is to discourage others from approaching buddhism that way.

1: Because they are meant to be experienced, not thought about. Full disclosure, I only know what I don't know, and I don't fully understand them either.

There is nothing contradictory here. The beauty of the title is to impress upon the listener the essential nature of the liberated mind and all of existence as non-dual. It isn't one or the other because the further down you go, what emerges vanishes instantaneously, simultaneously.

Zen and Vajrayana practices can be an effective tool but I see more faulty thinking in its practitioners than people who stick to Sravakayana (Theravada + surviving canon of the other Early Buddhist schools).

Everything is a delusion. There is a reason why the gate is gateless, and it's the same reason why "no thing" is a recurring theme.

Gautama was only one of the 33 buddhas, the last one so far. His entire life he was preparing to die and do so permanently in order to end the cycle of suffering.

Thinking is required but knowing your thinking is the first step. We slip into thinking without knowing and that is the problem. How many hours does the depressed person wallow? Enjoying the trauma they control in their mind as they "future" the coming doom they will face or the regret of the past. There is nothing esoteric. Less than 100 hours of meditation can get you to this insight.

Is it an illusion? Control of whether or not you are alive sounds very much like real control to me

I wish they published more articles like this.

Like how, exactly? About suicide? About foreign culture? From a monk?

You're taking that a little too literally. I wish they published more human-focussed, long-form writing on a range of topics that is readable and relevant even years after it's first published. It seems to have veered quite heavily into fast-cycle political stuff in the last couple of years.

2019 update: Japan Records Lowest Suicide Rate Since Statistics Were First Kept in 1978 https://www.nippon.com/en/japan-data/h00381/japan-records-lo...

It's still extremely high compared to other countries though.

To put it in perspective, nearly as many people die by suicide alone in Japan (per capita) as suicide + guns combined in America (per capita).

It's hard to get accurate stats on gun deaths in America because many reports lump in suicide by gun and accidental shootings to make the numbers look scarier. You might be double dipping.

On the other hand, it has been suggested that quite a few deaths that are actually suicide using a gun get reported as "gun cleaning accident", presumably to lessen the impact on relatives (however slightly).

This is a big claim you're making here. I'm sceptical. Can you provide figures and sources to back it up?

Japan suicide rate 2018: 18.5 per capita[1]

USA suicide rate 2018: 15.3 per capita[1]

USA gun death rate 2018 (excluding suicides): 4.5 per capita[2]

15.3 + 4.5 = 19.8

Like I said, 18.5 is only slightly less than 19.8. Consider also that like GP said, Japan suicides are at an all time low right now. Japan's suicide rate just a few years ago (2014, I think?) was over 20 per capita if I recall correctly, so this claim would have been even more compelling in 2014 when Japan suicides were higher and USA suicide and gun violence rates were lower. Maybe it's more useful to examine decade averages?

[1] http://worldpopulationreview.com/countries/suicide-rate-by-c...

[2] https://www.gunviolencearchive.org/past-tolls

Per capita rate calculated by dividing 14,777 deaths / 3272 (population of US in 2018 in 100k blocks)

How does Japan count suicide? How does the US count suicide?

Are they using comparable definitions for a death by suicide?

I know that the US significantly under-counts deaths compared to the UK. It's very hard to compare suicide rates across countries. In the US it's somewhat hard to compare across different states which is why CDC and others are spending money on finding common definitions.

This a very good article, and good comments here.

Reading it, there is a quote from the person 'T':

> "I understand that I’m in such an irretrievable situation because of my own fault, and I myself have to solve the problem. However, I’m a weak, dependent person who was financially supported by my parents until after reaching thirty, so I’m too weak to find a way out of this situation myself. . ."

These words, I cannot help myself to think -- that these words, these labels -- are not something he(she) came up with... Instead, these words are really the words of T's parents, that got implanted in his head after continuous drilling and pushing and pushing and pushing him to go to that law school.

It is sad and painful to read. When parents cannot appreciate the natural beauty, talents and just overall the magic of life in their children....

Nobody can influence a mind person, his/hers inner-thoughs -- as deep, as long-lasting as parents can.

Yes, may be that influence stops before 20, but parents influence is so deep seated, that it will continue affect the person for the rest of the life.

Anybody who is a parent has to really take this seriously.

One of the techniques of what Westerners call Stoicism is the negative visualization that Nemoto has his patients/clients undergo - imagining you only have a few weeks to live, that you've lost your material wealth, that you've lost someone important to you, thinking about your death. Also, intentional self-deprivation.

"A Guide to the Good Life: the Ancient Art of Stoic Joy" was well worth reading and has a whole chapter on negative visualization as a means for overall more positive thinking.

I have some experience here.

I now prefer to think of every day as the start of my life and ask myself "What to do first?"

Life is a gift, everyday a celebration.

Ittetsu Nemoto is the subject of a wonderfully quiet documentary on this selfsame topic, The Departure, directed by Lana Wilson. (It is available on Amazon Prime Video.)

The reason I consider ending my life is because I have done the things I've wanted to do in life. I would not have much to write on that paper as opposed to visiting some friends and family for some conversation and hugs.

I think we forget that much of the suicide rate in adults, especially over 50, is that the burden of life in much of the United States can become higher than the benefits for some people at that age. Things like health ailments, cost of healthcare, worsening job prospects, lack of social connections etc.

Please, do not take this as encouragement or other things for suicide. It is simply an effort to help others to consider the quality of life issues we are creating for people, as they age, in the United States. We continue to try to treat the person, but maybe we need to treat the circumstances we are creating that can place a person in that position.

The reason I consider ending my life is because I've done or experienced all the things that realistically I want to or can. I'm never going to be an attractive man, so I'll never have love, or a wife and kids. It's just not worth it to me to work to pay to sustain myself just to watch the planet be destroyed and the social fabric disintegrate. There's just nothing worth the time or effort when living is just so unenjoyable.

> I'm never going to be an attractive man, so I'll never have love, or a wife and kids.

At a certain point though everybody becomes unattractive. Do you think old couples still look attractive? There's love out there for you if you are willing to invest in it. Sure, you might not be super attracted to their looks initially, but over time you become attracted to the person, which transcends superficial properties of people. Do you think I would stop loving my wife if she got in a car accident and became super unattractive because of burn scarring? Of course not! Love is an investment... you get out what you put in.

> I'm never going to be an attractive man, so I'll never have love, or a wife and kids.

This pops out to me.

I don't know your full circumstances but I don't think this is true.

If we focus only on the attractiveness aspect: I've known plenty of people of both genders who I thought were "unattractive" people (a very subjective term!) and they were partnered. If your desire is to find a partner, don't give up on it or consider it an inevitable failure! You are worthy.

Then it makes me consider if there's some other health issue preventing finding a partner or having a kid? Surely, a few of those exist, and I can imagine them being very sad.

I think it's important to distinguish physical attraction from net total attraction. Usually when people say "attractive" they mean the former, but I think GP may mean the latter. I'm probably about average physically, but I have my own set of personality issues that make me pretty damn unattractive on the whole. I doubt I would be interested in anyone who was so fucked up that they were interested in me.

I've come to terms with my situation and I'm not the least be suicidal, but I think it's important to tread carefully when talking about this stuff online, where you have so little context. Someone who says "I'm never going to be an attractive man, so I'll never have love, or a wife and kids" has probably thought about it more than you have, and certainly knows their own situation much better than you do. I think it's extremely unhelpful to give them platitudes like "You are worthy". Maybe they are, but you're really not in a position to know.

It's quaint that you think you cannot apply a nonphysical meaning for "attractive" to my comment and see that the point still stands.

I think you're probably wrong about yourself too.

And yes I did call out that I don't know the full circumstances.

And I think it's very presumptuous of you to think that you know my own circumstances better than I do. Both of your comments are, frankly, condescending to a degree I find slightly insulting and I have no further desire to continue this conversation.

I feel it, man. I'm financially stable at the job I was aiming for in college, but now it feels like I'm just going through the motions every day. Not interested in love and not able to dedicate the amount of time and effort to my hobbies that I would need to be great at them. It just seems so pointless. HMU if you ever want someone to talk with though.

There are 26 countries with suicide rates higher than the US

I am in the US, so I was speifically listing the US because that is what I am familiar with and did not want to make assumptions about other regions. Appologies if you took offense to that in any way.

I’ve struggled with incessant suicidal desire for the last 75% of my years alive on earth. Having given up everything in slow preparation for the act: family, friends, savings, career - I can safely say that the only thing holding me back is the infinite unknown of the afterlife.

A incredible read.

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