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Religion and the Japanese Suicide Epidemic

If anything good can come from the absolutely awful attacks on Muslims in Burma, it would be the realization among certain Westerners that Buddhism is not some special "peaceful" faith different from "Western" religions. As Thomas Fuller of The New York Times phrased it in an excellent front-page story last week, "The world has grown accustomed to a gentle image of Buddhism defined by the self-effacing words of the Dalai Lama, the global popularity of Buddhist-inspired meditation and postcard-perfect scenes from Southeast Asia and beyond of crimson-robed, barefoot monks receiving alms from villagers at dawn." And yet: 

Over the past year, images of rampaging Burmese Buddhists carrying swords and the vituperative sermons of monks like Ashin Wirathu have underlined the rise of extreme Buddhism in Myanmar — and revealed a darker side of the country’s greater freedoms after decades of military rule. Buddhist lynch mobs have killed more than 200 Muslims and forced more than 150,000 people, mostly Muslims, from their homes.

The story isn't much better in Sri Lanka, another Buddhist-majority country which has seen horrible acts of violence and discrimination against a Tamil (and largely Hindu) minority. 

The reason I mention this is a thought-provoking article in The New Yorker by Larissa MacFarquhar about Japan's high suicide rate. The story is mostly about Ittetsu Nemoto, a Buddhist priest who generously spends his time trying to help people who are considering suicide. Nemoto was originally attracted to Buddhism by an advertisement in a newspaper, and quickly went to train for life as a monk at a monastery, where he discovered some of the less wonderful aspects of the faith:

Apprentice monks are treated like slaves on a brutal plantation... There are many menial tasks a monk must complete in a day...and he is given very little time to do them. If he does not move fast enough, senior monks scream at him... He is always too slow, he is always afraid, and he is always being scrutinized. In the winter, he is cold, but if he looks cold he is screamed at. There is no solitude. The constant screaming and the running, along with chronic exhaustion, produce in him a state of low-level panic... When someone gives them food, they are obliged to eat everything they are given. This forced overeating can be the most physically painful part of the training. 

This is only a small taste of the ordeal Nemoto is put through, but what's most fascinating is that the experience makes him both miserable and invigorated. He finds value in his suffering. It leads to "acute focus." Nemoto is in many ways a likeable man, but he is also, quite clearly, a fanatic. 

MacFarquhar never really discusses the possible connection between this manner of thinking and the epidemic of suicide in Japan that Nemoto is working hard to stop. (Buddhism is by far the largest religion in Japan.) MacFarquhar does say that "there has never been a religious prohibition against suicide [in Japan]" and quotes a writer as saying, in contrast, "The heirs of Cain can never escape the eyes of God." But the question is how much Buddhism, or at least the Buddhism taught to so many in Japan, contributes to a mindset whereby "suicide can be a gesture of moral integrity and freedom, or an act of beauty." As MacFarquhar writes, "Nemoto belives in confronting death; he believes in cultivating a concentrated awareness of the functioning and fragility of the body; and he believes in suffering, because it shows you who you really are." He eventually admits that his wife is a more shallow, less profound person because she is happy.

It was Gandhi who said that "self-suffering quenches violence" and he himself was certainly influenced by Buddhism. Gandhi's lessons of this sort—and there were many of them—were bad enough in a country that was overwhelmed with poverty and suffering already. In the case of Japan, any theory about the connection between what Nemoto is trying to combat and what he ardently believes can only be speculative. But the idea that finding real meaning in suffering might be conducive to suicide is certainly worth exploring.

Isaac Chotiner is a senior editor at The New Republic. Follow him @IChotiner.