Should Buddhists donate their organs?


Recently, I heard a monk advise a class that they should get themselves off the organ donation registry. 

I was appalled. 

His argument was that our consciousness remains with the body for some time after death, and during that time if we’ve developed enough meditative power, we can observe the dissolution of consciousness and maintain a virtuous mind, a characteristic necessary for Karma to throw you into a Pure Land where you can finish your work to obtain enlightenment. He contended that the healthcare workers harvesting your organs would disrupt this process and potentially prevent you from reaching the Pure Land.

I was not convinced.

In the Buddhist tradition, we strive to abandon our clinging to a personal “I”. It’s an ideal we often fall short of. I felt that this monk was grasping at his “I”, self-cherishing, and forming an attachment to his scenario of reaching the Pure Land.

For me, at this point in my spiritual development, I would not be able to prevent organ donation and feel good about it. If I were to do this, I would be motivated by self-grasping, self-cherishing, and attachment. Perhaps I am projecting my own weakness onto this monk unfairly. I can’t look into his head and heart to know. I do know that it doesn’t feel right to me.

One argument the monk made to defend his position was that helping someone in Samsara is less beneficial than personally attaining enlightenment because only after attaining enlightenment can someone lead others out of Samsara and truly help them. Alleviating suffering but leaving people in prison is less beneficial than helping them escape the prison entirely. Basically, he argued that his Boddhichitta, the desire to attain enlightenment for the benefit of all living beings, was so complete that it tips the balance toward taking actions that lead to enlightenment even if that act causes harm in Samsara.

I was still not convinced.

While I strive to develop Boddhichitta, and it grows with each time I go through the Lamrim meditation sequence, I am not at a point where I am truly motivated to liberate myself for the sake of others. I still seek liberation because I believe it will make me feel happier and more peaceful. If others gain benefit from my liberation, it’s a bonus — not the primary motivation. That’s just an honest assessment of where I am right now. Perhaps if I ever attain the pure motivation to help others completely absent of self-grasping and self-cherishing, I would feel as he does — but I have my doubts.

If I were to put myself on the registry to prevent organ donation, I would do so because “I” wanted to gain something, ostensibly a better rebirth, perhaps in a Pure Land. I would be doing this for completely self-serving reasons, cherishing myself in the process. After all, I would be trying to secure a better outcome for “me” irrespective of what that does to anyone else. And in this instance, I know for a fact it would have negative impacts on other people because they wouldn’t be obtaining my healthy organs. This action would also create an attachment because of a strong desire for my death to play out in some certain way so that I could take advantage of my prior arrangements.

For me to ensure I have the ideal conditions at my death, I have to make a conscious decision to withhold my organs from someone else who could use them. If I did this, it would be self-cherishing to the extreme and completely devoid of compassion. If I died with that on my conscience — knowing that I put my self-cherishing desires above the suffering of another — I don’t see how that could possibly improve my Karma. In fact, I see that as something leading to a less than ideal rebirth. I am not alone in this belief (See: A Buddhist Perspective on Organ Donation).

I also struggle with the argument that improving the life of someone still trapped in Samsara doesn’t accumulate much merit. By that reasoning, it would be okay to do nothing to help anyone in Samsara (other than teaching Darmha) because it merely extends their suffering by temporarily improving their life. That doesn’t feel compassionate to me. 

Since we don’t know the future, there are other scenarios to consider. What if donating organs extends someone else’s precious human life long enough for them to attain enlightenment? Aren’t some on the Path of No More Learning in need of organs? In that instance, wouldn’t extending that person’s life (a person very close to enlightenment) through organ donation be a big improvement to the world?

Further, aren’t those Buddhist practitioners who refuse to give organs making a tacit assumption that the recipient of those organs would be unimportant people who would just waste their lives in Samsara? How can we know this? Perhaps the act of receiving the organ and extending their life is what motivates them to start studying the Darmha. Wouldn’t that be a good thing?

For me, if donating my organs means I miss my chance to enter a Pure Land, I’ll accept that fate. Geshe Chekhawa wanted to take rebirth in Hell to help the beings there, but the strength of his compassion sent him to a Pure Land. I don’t know if my compassionate desire to donate my organs would propel me that far, but for me, right now, at my stage of understanding, it feels like the right thing to do.

I understand the desire to have ideal conditions at death, particularly with the emphasis in Buddhism placed on karmic influences during the death process. I desire to have the conditions most conducive to a positive rebirth, and I hope my Karma plays out in such a way that this happens. However, if I were to put myself on the registry to prevent organ donation today, I would be self-grasping, self-cherishing, and forming an attachment. Maybe if my Boddhichitta reached 100%, I would feel differently, but realistically, I’m not there yet; thus I will remain on the organ donor list. 

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I am Anattā. Not my real name, of course, but that’s the point. I selected the moniker Anattā because in Buddhism, my primary spiritual practice, the term anattā refers to the doctrine of “non-self”. In more practical terms, I chose the name Anattā because by writing anonymously, it’s far easier to be completely candid and honest. Further, there is no danger of my writing becoming tainted by any desire for self-aggrandizement. I write primarily to improve my own understanding of these topics, but my deepest desire for writing on this site is to help others.