Laura Hillenbrand describes Louis Zamperini’s struggle to survive the torments of Japanese POW camps as “stubborn retention” of his dignity. I interpret her description as importing Sophie’s Fallacy to make dignity into “stubborn retention” of a controlling self.
When I linked dignity to the desire to control one’s fate, I was thinking about ethics that focus on the dignity of the individual, immortal soul. But “death with dignity” has become a mantra for a movement that focuses on an individual self seen more in terms of rights than soul. As the website for the Death with Dignity National Center puts it:
The greatest human freedom is to live, and die, according to one’s own desires and beliefs. From advance directives to physician-assisted dying, death with dignity is a movement to provide options for the dying to control their own end-of-life care.
Even though the word “dignity” does not appear once in Tricycle Magazine’s ebook collection of articles on death and dying, the rhetoric of “death with dignity” has crept into other Buddhist literature. For instance, Damien Keown’s article on the Buddhist view of end of life care in the medical journal Lancet says:
Buddhist teachings emphasise the ubiquity and inevitability of death, and for this reason, Buddhists tend to be psychologically prepared to accept impending death with calmness and dignity.
A Buddhist would tend to read Keown as referring to equanimity, which is only achieved by letting go of the self. Others would hear echoes of the two Western notions of “dignity” mentioned above. Carl Becker’s article on Japanese Buddhist views of suicide and euthanasia mentions that there is even an Association for Death with Dignity in Japan. According to Becker, however, Buddhists would not support all the positions of this movement because “clarity of consciousness at the moment of death is so important in Buddhism.” I do not intend, however, to pursue the ethical issues surrounding end-of-life care here.
In subsequent posts I do want to explore what “dignity” might mean in a world that Buddhists see as always changing, never satisfactory, and insubstantial. To begin this exploration, I want to refer you to two articles by two well-known Theravada monks: Bhikkhu Bodhi and Thanissaro Bhikkhu.
Bhiikhu Bodhi states: “For Buddhism the innate dignity of human beings does not stem from our relationship to an all-mighty God or our endowment with an immortal soul.” That’s ok as far as it goes, but I do not particularly agree with the anthropocentric cosmology on which he then bases dignity.
For Thanissaro Bhikkhu, dignity is mostly about letting go of our thirst and hunger for the sensual pleasures that control us. This meditation is more practical than theoretical. In another article, Thanissaro Bhikkhu traces the Roots of Buddhist Romanticism. Besides analyzing the Western Romanticism that has crept into contemporary Buddhist thought, he directs our attention to the philosophical trends that underlay much of the Death with Dignity movement. One passage is relevant to the questions we’re pursuing about dignity, control, and selfhood.
The basic spiritual illness. Romantic/humanistic psychology states that the root of suffering is a sense of divided self, which creates not only inner boundaries— between reason and emotion, body and mind, ego and shadow—but also outer ones, separating us from other people and from nature and the cosmos as a whole. The Dharma, however, teaches that the essence of suffering* is clinging, and that the most basic form of clinging is self-identification, regardless of whether one’s sense of self is finite or infinite, fluid or static, unitary or not.
To which I might add, that we are never satisfied, that we get stressed* out as long as we keep clinging to control, to dignity, to self. More to come on these issues.
*Elsewhere, Thanissaro Bhikkhu says that “stress” is a better translation of dukkha than “suffering.”