Our organs are the most intimate parts of our bodies. We almost never notice them functioning but without them we could not survive. Giving them away after death is seen as an incredible act of life-saving generosity, even more so while one is alive.
In South Asia, there are signs that misconceptions about organ donation are receding, but India remains a country with one of the lowest organ benefactor rates. Buddhist monks and other religious leaders have played an important role in encouraging this act of post-mortem generosity and compassion.
On 31 December last year, The Times of India, reported that two teenage boys had been saved by doctors at the Institute of Kidney Diseases and Research Centre in Ahmedabad thanks to two kidney transplants. The Times of India says that these organs were transferred based on a decision of the family of a 47-year-old brain-dead man called Apurva Desai, who had collapsed on 29 December and was declared brain-dead the next day. Desai’s cousin Nirav, brother-in-law Mihir, and uncle Bharat were quoted by The Times of India as saying that organ donation was a “noble deed,” and that there couldn’t be anything as noble as “giving a new lease of life to people.”
Religious concerns about the afterlife and getting a proper funeral discourage family members from donating a loved one’s organ. One apprehension is that the deceased do not find peace after death without their body “intact,” and their spirits will haunt the living. One unsavory reason is that there is a demand for illegal organs in the market, which only leads to more botched surgeries, uninformed donors, and unneccessary deaths.
To challenge and dispel these myths, the National Organ and Tissue Transplant Organization (NOTTO) hosted Organ Donation Day on 30 November last year and invited Buddhist, Christian, Islamic and Hindu religious leaders to come discuss the issues plaguing India’s organ donation rates. Speaking at the event, Shri Ravi Dev Gupta, a Hindu leader, said that organ donation is often misunderstood because people fail to understand what it entails. He said that a human being may willingly contribute to “normal donations or donations related to contributing wealth” but hesitate when it comes to donating an organ. He went on to add that examples of organ donation could be found in many Hindu scriptures. (NDTV)
Lama Lobzang, leader of the International Buddhist Confederation, said: “People think if we donate an eye, we’ll be born without an eye in the next birth.” After dismissing this misunderstanding he called upon people to live with a comprehensive awareness of an eventual donation. “If you donate with a pure mind, there is no better work.” (NDTV)
Lama Lobzang’s opinion echoed other that of other Buddhist masters. For example, Karma Lekshe Tsomo offered several reasons in support of organ donation: “to donate a vital organ gives another person the chance to have a longer life and to use it meaningfully for Dharma practice. After death, one’s vital organs are no longer useful, so they may as well be used to benefit others.” (Tsomo, 156)
Tsomo further lists three reasons: “first, to donate one’s body for research or organ transplantation is a way to sever attachment to one’s own body. Second, to place another person’s welfare above one’s own is a perfect expression of the bodhisattva ethic of compassion. Third, to donate one’s organs with the pure motivation to benefit others will bring great fruits of merit in future lives, enabling one to gain a fortunate rebirth and further opportunities for Dharma practice; if the gift is dedicated to the enlightenment of all beings, the fruits are immeasurable.” (Tsomo, 156)
Robert A. F. Thurman, chair of religious studies and Jey Tsong Khapa professor of Buddhist Studies at Columbia University, said that the organ donation offers a “karmic advantage” to Buddhists. In an interview, he said: “ordinary people have a continuity of life that is their consciousness continuum. They don’t like to talk about a self and they’re a little nervous talking about a soul because it can be taken for a self. [Their consciousness] leaves the body behind completely. The body is not sacred in that sense. . . . So there is really no bar to organ donation. In fact it is considered, especially in Mahayana Buddhism, nothing but an extremely virtuous thing.” (New York Organ Donor Network)
Sri Lanka has set an enviable example as a generous donor of corneas. In 2014 the Eye Donation Society, a non-profit organization founded by doctor Hudson Silva in 1961, estimated that one in five Sri Lankans had pledged to donate their corneas. However, the survey did not include those like Viswani Pasadi, a Buddhist student who has signed up with the National Eye Bank (a different institution) to pledge her eyes after her death. In 2014, the latter exported 2,551 corneas, including 1,000 to China, 850 to Pakistan, 250 to Thailand, and 50 to Japan.
The BBC reported Sri Lankan Buddhist monks as having helped to encourage donations and teaching people to see them as an act of giving that can help them to enjoy a good rebirth. One of these monks, Kiribathgoda Gnanananda Thero, has already donated a kidney and is encouraging others to do the same. He held up the Buddha as an example in the Buddhist scriptures. The Jataka Tales portray the Buddha’s past lives as the heroic and compassionate bodhisattva, whose many lives were voluntarily ended due to an act of superhuman physical sacrifice, including lives where he cut off his own flesh or gave up his limbs so that other beings could benefit.
Kiribathgoda Gnanananda Thero illustrated this with the Jataka tale of how the bodhisattva selflessly gave his eyes to a blind beggar, restoring the latter’s vision. “Generation after generation, we are listening to those kinds of stories,” he told the BBC. “So we are very encouraged to give our body parts to others.”
Tsome, Karma Lekshe. 2006. Into the Jaws of Yama, Lord of Death: Buddhism, Bioethics, and Death. Albany: State University of New York Press.
Religious Leaders Dispel Myths About Organ Donation (NDTV)
Organ donation: Three get new lease of life (The Times of India)
Organ donation: India should follow France and switch to a presumed consent system (The Times of India)
Organ Donation Offers a “Karmic Advantage” to Buddhists (Beadonor.org)
The country that supplies eyes (BBC)