Organ Donation: Giving After We’re Gone
While science and medical care continue to make remarkable strides in advancing our understanding of the various ailments that afflict the human body, saving more lives and extending lifespans, death remains a certainty that we all must face. Yet what is sometimes overlooked or forgotten is that even in death we have the ability to improve or even save the lives of others by allowing our organs to be reused.
The human body is eminently recyclable under optimal circumstances, and the list of salvageable parts is impressive. Up to 25 different organs and body tissues can be reused after death, including bone, cartilage, corneas, heart and heart valves, kidneys, ligaments, liver, lungs, pancreas, skin, tendons, and veins. The facts and figures related to organ donation are at once heartening and sobering. According to the American Transplant Association, a single donor can save as many as eight lives through organ donation and enhance more than 100 lives through tissue donation, but while more than 617,000 transplants have taken place in the US since 1988, an average of 21 people die every day in the US alone from a lack of available donors.
There is no shortage of reports and accounts of people who have saved or touched the lives of others after their own has ended, yet for many people, the subject of organ donation is a delicate one that can be difficult to broach for a variety of reasons, including personal disposition, culture, or religion.
Broadly speaking, all of the world’s major religions either accept organ donation or recognize the right of the individual to make their own decision on the matter, although there can be differing views within the same denomination and some traditions only accept the practice under certain conditions or restrictions. Other groups, for example those who observe the Shinto religion of Japan or the Romani people, do not favor organ transplants. In Buddhism, while there are no teachings against organ donation and for most Buddhists it is a matter of personal outlook, the process of dying is often considered a very important time that should be handled with the utmost care and respect, and some traditions define the moment of death differently to modern medicine.
Some Buddhists, including practitioners of Tibetan Buddhism, for example, believe that the consciousness may remain in the body for some time after breathing has stopped, and it is considered important that the body remain undisturbed while the consciousness is still present. In this context there can be concern that surgical activity immediately after death may affect the consciousness of the deceased and its subsequent rebirth. One solution offered for this question by some Tibetan monastics is that if the wish to donate is motivated by compassion, then any disturbance of the process of death is outweighed by the positive karma created by the act of giving and the desirable state of non-attachment to the body.
Theravada monk Kiribathgoda Gnanananda Thero, founder of Mahamevnawa Buddhist Monastery in Sri Lanka, who has himself already donated a kidney to a woman suffering from kidney disease, is a vocal proponent of the idea that compassionately allowing one’s body parts to be reused after death is a source of positive karma. This view has become so widely accepted in Sri Lanka that the country is one of the world’s leading suppliers of corneas.
At the end of the day, the subject of death and the handling of one’s mortal remains is an intensely personal choice that should be made in the context of one’s cultural background and religious, philosophical, and ethical convictions—perhaps with the guidance of a respected senior mentor. The words of Dr. Desmond Biddulph, chairman of The Buddhist Society in London, may offer a starting point for deciding one’s own position on the matter: “Giving is the greatest of Buddhist virtues. The Buddha in a previous life gave his body to a starving tigress who could not feed her cubs. There are many such Jataka tales, some in which he even gave his eyes to someone who wanted them. What loss do I suffer to give an unwanted organ after my death to give another person life?” (NHS Blood and Transplant)
Facts and Myths (American Transplant Foundation)
DEATH AND DYING IN THE TIBETAN BUDDHIST TRADITION (Buddhanet)
Donating Organs and the Time of Death (Lama Yeshe Wisdom Archive)
Organ donation is a personal decision (Bhikshuni Thubten Chodron)
Buddhism and Organ Donation (1) (Clear Vision)
Monk: Donating organs ‘good karma’ (BBC News)
The country that supplies eyes (BBC News)
ORGAN DONATION AND TRANSPLANT (The Buddhist Society)
Buddhism (NHS Blood and Transplant)
Religious views on organ donation (Wikipedia)