Into the Jaws of Yama, Lord of Death: Buddhism, Bioethics, and Death

By Netland, Harold | Ethics & Medicine, Summer 2008 | Go to article overview

Into the Jaws of Yama, Lord of Death: Buddhism, Bioethics, and Death


Netland, Harold, Ethics & Medicine


Into the Jaws of Yama, Lord of Death: Buddhism, Bioethics, and Death Karma Lekshe Tsomo. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2006. ISBN 978-0791468326; 270 PAGES, CLOTH $83.50, PAPER $27.95

The growing prominence of Buddhism within the American religious and cultural landscape is indicative of increasing diversity in American society. Though introduced in the nineteenth century by Asian immigrants, Buddhism has since attracted converts including prominent academics and entertainers. While numbers remain small (perhaps four million), Buddhism's cultural significance is disproportionate to its size.

Originating 2500 years ago in northern India, Buddhism quickly spread throughout South and East Asia, adapting to local environments as it established itself in Sri Lanka, Tibet, China and Japan. As the Buddha's teachings are applied today to Western societies shaped by modern science, ancient teachings continue to be adapted to new issues, including contemporary bioethical debates. Karma Lekshe Tsomo, Assistant Professor of Theology and Religious Studies at the University of San Diego, has written a fascinating and helpful book which both introduces Buddhism to Western audiences and shows how Buddhism might respond to contemporary bioethical questions.

'Until recently, discussions about biomédical ethics have been based upon theories of self and moral agency that have developed within a Western context. The primary goal of this book is to expand the conversation by exploring the issues of death, identity, and bioethics within a Buddhist framework, focusing especially on Tibet.' (10). The first seven of eleven chapters are devoted to the basic teachings of Buddhism and provide a remarkably clear and accessible introduction to a sophisticated and often confusing metaphysical system. The final four chapters examine a variety of bioethical issues from Buddhist perspectives.

Contrary to other Indian religions such as Hinduism and Jainism, Buddhism rejects the idea that there is an enduring, substantial self or soul. 'In the Buddhist view, there is no fixed concept of self; instead, there is a sequence of impermanent, dependently arising moments of consciousness.' (10) This, of course, raises difficulties for moral theory: 'If the self is contingent and has no ontological status . . . this raises questions about how to develop a viable theory of moral agency and moral efficacy.' (10) Tsomo's discussion explains and defends Buddhist teachings on 'no-self while acknowledging the difficulties it presents for moral theory. One of her merits is her refusal to follow many in the West who are attracted to Buddhist practice (meditation as therapy) while minimizing or reinterpreting metaphysical commitments of classical Buddhism. Tsomo maintains that a genuinely Buddhist approach to bioethics must flow from an identifiably Buddhist understanding of self, life and death.

Early Buddhism adopted clear positions on some ethical issues, such as abortion and suicide. Abortion, for example, was condemned because taking the life of a fetus was understood to be taking the life of a human being. …

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