Current Events

Robin Williams, suicide, and Buddhism

Girasole 2014 by Marla Robb.

Girasole 2014 by Marla Robb.

Robin Williams’ ashes were scattered in San Francisco Bay two days ago, and it’s been a week since he committed suicide, so, as a blogger, I guess I am behind the curve. Still, there are a couple of things I would like to say.

First and most obvious—Williams’ death made me very sad, since it means there won’t be any more wonderful movies with him. I also felt sad for him as a person—which lead me to muse right away about what a fascinating, profound, and somewhat paradoxical fact it is about artists and celebrities—there is often an illusion (although it is always all it is?) of closeness that leads us to identify with their fortunes much closer than with those of a guy or a gal two doors down the street (or two or three or three hundred or a thousand people somewhere on the other side of the globe—or just a few streets over).

The artists’ and celebrities’ status also make it inevitable that people will use their lives—and deaths—as sounding boards for their own concerns and opinions, sources of speculations, and pretexts for all kinds of discourses. It is par for the course and when celebrities or those around them complain too loud about it happening, it is usually a little disingenuous, and not infrequently—at least in part—a way to attract the very attention that is being denounced. I won’t pursue this endless spiral here, suffice it to say that I believe there is always a middle way, an invisible line beyond which legitimate public gaze becomes that of an intrusive peeping tom, and legitimate use of celebrities’ lives as sources of subjects for conversation slides into insensitive speculations.

Obviously, there can be no clear formula for distinguishing the two, and well-meaning people will always be likely to disagree in any particular case.

With this important caveat in mind, I would like to respectfully disagree with the posts by Brad Warner and Peter Coyote about what lessons a Buddhist might draw from Robin Williams’ demise.

(By the way and for the record—this is not how I wanted to introduce Brad Warner of the Hardcore Zen in this blog, by polemicizing him! I consider Brad a significant voice on the modern American Zen scene and I will talk about him and his books soon in this space).

As far as I am concerned, a Buddhist qua Buddhist can learn from Williams’ suicide exactly…nothing. And, barring a deep personal acquaintance with Williams—or maybe even then—can postulate anything about Williams’ actions…not at all. Zilch. Nada. Not a thing.

Allow me to explain.

Everybody’s life is infinitely complex and involves myriads of closely interwoven chains of causation. Nobody knows them all. Nobody ever can know them all. By definition.

This leads to an apparent paradox. Obviously, we can talk about suicide in general. Based on the statistical analysis of the available data, we can draw up lists of likely causes and conditions and even propose various preventive measures—keep the weapons away, make suicide hotlines readily available, train people to identify warning signs and provider immediate bystander intervention, etc.

We are also, all of us, free to hold various opinions on suicide as such—and those opinions are going to be informed by, and tied in, and expressed in the language of, our overall outlook on life (how consistent and logical those ties are going to be is a different matter).

“Your life is not your own; you have a responsibility to yourself, your loved ones, and the universe as a whole not to [end your own life]; there is no oblivion into which I [and, by extension, anyone] can escape”—all these statements from Brad Warner’s post are not particularly new or original, but that doesn’t make them trite or untrue. In addition, coming from him, they are obviously deeply personally felt and thought out, and nobody can quarrel with that.

Equally unobjectionable is Peter Coyote’s exhortation to balance one’s life and mental faculties.

What rubbed me the wrong way in both authors—strong enough that I am writing about it now—is the implication that all of these things could have had a bearing on Robin Williams’ fate, could have changed the reality as it transpired.

Perhaps they could. Perhaps they couldn’t. Assenting to the proposition “your life is not your own” is, in a way, trivial. I think there is a good chance Williams would have agreed with every one of Warner’s statements. And I am sure he was not purposefully and consciously neglecting balance or just being lazy and not working hard enough on reigning in “the horse of his imagination.”

But, to think about it, I can’t even be sure about that either. And if he was willfully neglectful, there was a reason for that in his mind—and there is no way to know what if any amount of meditation or meds or anything else could have changed that.

Overriding such a fundamental instinct as that of self-preservation, shutting the door on the only life we can feel and know right here, at this moment, in this body (whatever our believes or intuitions or convictions about what lies beyond) is an essentially incomprehensible, incommunicable, and non-reproducible event.

Both Warner and Coyote—completely unintentionally, I would like to think—let the cold draft of judgment sneak in under the door.

Williams was too clever. He didn’t handle his gift as he should have (strictly speaking, if we try to stay within the Buddhist metaphysics, should we even speak of gifts? Or should we perhaps speak of simple conditioned reality that might, under different light and at different time, look like anything—a gift, a curse, or just something that is. And perhaps the presence of that reality, that talent, created some conditions that ultimately made the person’s suicide more likely. Or maybe without that talent he would have been another unknown dead by his own hand before the age of thirty). He allowed himself to forget that, in Coyote’s words, “there is always something we can do.”

Is there?

Always?

For sure?

Apparently, this time there wasn’t. And, as far as I am concerned, that is all we can be certain of.

Two more things.

One: Brad Warner criticizes official psychiatry and especially the way it handles depression. He contra-proposes his personal experience, indicating that for him, Buddhist practice has been the way out of depressed states. Again, this is wonderful and unfalsifiable—for Brad Warner. But it doesn’t warrant the generalization “just about anything a drug can do to us, we can also do for ourselves.”

It doesn’t follow that modern psychiatry has all the answers or that it is never a seething pit of big pharma’s greed, rusted bureaucracy, and every possible failure of human ethics and judgment. Sometimes it most certainly is.

But not every time.

And for someone, somewhere today a right pill—or a right word by a professional psychiatrist—offered at the right moment, will save his or her life.

Specifically from the Buddhist point of view, I feel, it is justifiable to venture one kind of generalization: “we are overrelying on chemicals in modern life,” but not the other: “everything a pill can do, a meditation can do better.” The first one is a reasonable statistical observation, buttressed by the fact that, from the point of view of Buddhist teaching, if you don’t work consciously with your mind at least to some degree, you are missing the biggest opportunity being human affords you. The second one is hubris. (Sorry, Brad!)

Two: Peter Coyote concludes his post with these words: “Our great-hearted friend will be back as the rain, as the cry of a Raven, as the wind.” This is beautiful and poetic and I don’t want to look picky, but this is no kind of Buddhism I know. This is New Age (I plan to make the complex relationships between the two the subject of some of my future posts).

In my understanding of Buddhism, we are not “back” as anything. There is no “back.” There is no “forward.”  There is no essence changing forms in time. Form, essence, and time are indivisible.

Ironically, Coyote’s next sentence rings true to me: “He, you and I have never for one moment not been a part of all it.”

But right now, right here, the human being called Robin Williams is dead. He killed himself. We have his movies. We have our memories of him.

We cannot learn anything from his death. But we can be jolted by it to contemplate such things as life and death, the nature of talent, the problem of suicide, and many other things.

And we can put on “What Dreams May Come” and let Williams enact and thus, through the magic of art, make real, immediate, and close for us the abstract concepts of love, forgiveness, courage, and sacrifice.

What we do with all that stuff once the movie is over, will be up to us.