The eye is aflame. Forms are aflame. Consciousness at the eye is aflame. . . . Aflame with what? Aflame with the fire of passion, the fire of aversion, the fire of delusion. Aflame, I tell you, with birth, aging and death, with sorrows, lamentations, pains, distresses and despairs.
—Aditta-pariyaya Sutta: The Fire Sermon.
Samyutta Nikaya 35:28
Inside Tibet, the Chinese government’s systematic destruction of the Tibetan people, its repression of Buddhism and the demonization of His Holiness the Dalai Lama has called forth a profound response. In protest, more than 125 Tibetans—monks, nuns and laypeople—have set themselves on fire over the last three years. Care has been taken that no Chinese lives or property have been harmed. These deaths are shocking and painful to take in. The enormity of their sacrifice is beyond my imagination. So it is with care and reluctance that I question the strategic value, human and political costs, and dharmic implications.
The Chinese oppression of Tibet and its people has been relentless for more than fifty years. This is genocide, and it calls for the world’s response. It is difficult to entertain questions about these deaths, to raise doubts about the most intense and possibly the most sincere kind of political statement. Is this violence or compassionate action? I know that my questions might be seen as disrespectful to those who have sacrificed everything for their people. I intend respect. But ignoring such matters will not make them disappear.
As early as the fifth century of the Common Era there were accounts of Buddhist monks “using their bodies like a lamp.” The word “immolation” has an interesting Latin root. Immolare, meaning “sacrifice,” comes from mola salsa, or salted flour, applied by ancient vestal virgins and other ceremonial officiants to animal offerings for ritual purification.
In 1948 a Chinese monk set himself on fire as a protest against the Maoist repression of Buddhism. In 1963 the fiery death of senior Vietnamese monk Thich Quang Duc established a new precedent for self-immolation as an act of contemporary protest. At midday of June 11, 1963, a procession of three hundred Buddhist monks, nuns and laypeople, led by Thich Quang Duc, arrived at a busy intersection in Saigon. They were protesting the persecution of Vietnamese Buddhists by President Ngo Dinh Diem and South Vietnam’s Roman Catholic–oriented government. The monk sat cross-legged on a cushion in the street. People encircled him, held back by a cohort of police with long batons. A younger monk poured gasoline over Thich Quang Duc, and after reciting prayers to Amitabha, celestial Buddha of the Pure Land, Quang Duc struck a match and set himself aflame. Journalist David Halberstam, who was there, later wrote:
Flames were coming from a human being; his body was slowly withering and shriveling up, his head blackening and charring. In the air was the smell of burning human flesh; human beings burn surprisingly quickly. Behind me I could hear the sobbing of the Vietnamese who were now gathering. As he burned he never moved a muscle, never uttered a sound, his outward composure in sharp contrast to the wailing people around him.
After Thich Quang Duc’s death, his remains were ceremonially cremated. His heart remained intact, unconsumed by the fires. Within months, the Diem government was toppled in a violent coup. Immolations in Vietnam continued and escalated, spreading as a recognized expression of resistance and the deepest opposition to oppression.
The Buddhist discourses around self-immolation and other kinds of suicide are ancient and complex. Such actions appear in sutras and other texts; they are entwined with our present-day emotions, political views and religious traditions.
In Jataka Tales of the Buddha’s previous lifetimes, the Buddha-to-be feeds his body to a starving tigress and her cubs. A rabbit jumps into the fire, a meal for the god Shakra who is disguised as a starving traveler. In the early Mahayana tradition one can find numerous examples of self-immolation among the biographies of eminent Chinese monks and nuns. In the twenty-third chapter of the Lotus Sutra, the bodhisattva All Beings Delight in Seeing cultivates ascetic practices. After making conventional offerings, he rises from concentration, thinking of making an offering of his own body.
In the presence of the Buddha he wrapped himself in heavenly jeweled robes and poured fragrant oil over himself. Then by means of spiritual penetration, power and vows, he burned his own body. The light shone everywhere throughout worlds in number to the grains of sand in eighty kotis of Ganges Rivers.
As he reflected on the bodhisattva’s body, which burned for twelve hundred years, the Buddha proclaimed:
If one gave away one’s countries, cities, wives and children, that also could not match it. Among all gifts, [this giving] is the most honored and most supreme.
Are these mythological stories to be taken as gospel? Ancient myths and stories are inspiring, but are myths properly translated into actuality? Are they meant as guides to action, or as pointers toward broad principles that we have to work out in the real world?
I think of these Buddhist myths as legendary acts of altruism. The word altruism was coined by nineteenth-century French philosopher and sociologist Auguste Comte. His formulation meant “Live for others.” He did not say, “Die for others.”
Self-sacrifice by immolation conflicts with the Buddha’s First Precept: do not kill. The precept applies to other beings and to oneself. To have death as an intention, even when the motivation is to save others, presents an ethical dilemma. In the context of basic Buddhism, is it acceptable to take one’s own life? Does the right motivation make it okay to ignore the First Precept?
In an open letter to Martin Luther King, Jr., Thich Nhat Hanh commented on the death of respected elder monk Thich Quang Duc:
To burn oneself by fire is to prove that what one is saying is of the utmost importance. . . . To express will by burning oneself, therefore, is not to commit an act of destruction but to perform an act of construction, that is, to suffer and to die for the sake of one’s people.
His Holiness the Dalai Lama, in a 2011 BBC interview, spoke about the Tibetan immolations from a different angle: “There is courage—very strong courage. But how much effect? Courage alone is no substitute. You must utilize your wisdom.”
Thich Nhat Hanh and the Dalai Lama are Buddhist leaders who deeply influence their Vietnamese and Tibetan followers. In the wider world they are seen as moral and religious teachers. Each is understandably moved by the death of fellow monks and nuns. I would not propose that Thich Nhat Hanh and the Dalai Lama stand on different sides of this question, but that their statements present different perspectives. One argues, “To burn oneself by fire is to prove that what one is saying is of the utmost importance. . . . [This is] an act of construction.” The other asks, “But how much effect?”
Is self-immolation the expression of wisdom? Even our wise teachers may differ, but each of us must think for ourself.
It is impossible to predict the outcome of any action. Even in great enlightenment, we human animals are ever subject to delusion. Japanese Zen Master Eihei Dogen writes, “Those who have great realization of delusion are Buddhas.” This is the human condition. Elsewhere, Dogen quotes the ninth-century Chinese Zen master Lung-ya, who said, “In this life, save the body which is the fruit of many lives.” Dogen is saying that our lives and our bodies are precious. Not just because human life offers the path to awakening but because life is a gift given to us; we must keep this gift in motion.
How Much Effect?
Aside from the Jataka Tales, there are no models for “altruistic” suicide in the early Buddhist suttas. Such practices surfaced in China with the development of Mahayana Buddhism. Where Theravada Buddhism—prevalent in south and southeast Asia—could be said to emphasize the elimination of passions as the source of suffering, Mahayana Buddhism, in north and east Asia, uses the energy of passions themselves for transformation. These are contrasting Buddhist perspectives: the cooling approach of Theravada and the often-fiery approach of Mahayana. As cited above, the Lotus Sutra offers doctrinal support and invokes the legitimacy of self-sacrifice as a bodhisattva act, the highest kind of offering for the sake of others.
Still we have the Buddhist precept not to take life. Unlike the Hebrew scriptures, this is not God’s commandment carved in stone. It is a vow inscribed in one’s own heart and mind. One keeps it as best one can. The strength of this precept precludes all killing—capital punishment, “just war” and self-immolation. The Dhammapada (130) is very clear:
All tremble at the rod, / All hold their life dear. / Putting oneself in the place of others, / Do not kill or allow others to kill.
The burning continues. Scholar Michael Biggs documents 533 cases of self-immolation worldwide between 1963 and 2002. In the case of Vietnam, several of these actions—the death of Thich Quang Duc and the May 1966 self-immolation of Thich Nu Thanh Quang, a Buddhist nun in the city of Hue—brought many thousands of people into the streets to oppose the war. Thich Quang Duc and his fellow monks were creating a spectacle with more than three hundred people witnessing this well-planned death. Strangely, the police were there not to intervene in the burning but to hold back the crowd. Between 1963 and 1975 there were forty-nine reported self-immolations in Vietnam, acts that seem to blend invisibly into the war’s scorched tapestry of violence. Some argue that these burnings were skillful means to shorten the war in Vietnam. But I wonder, is this so? The full violence of war really flowered after 1963 and continued until the fall of Saigon in 1975. Within those twelve years, millions on all sides died.
There is an almost inevitable “copycat” effect that follows a widely publicized act. People seem to have a strange proclivity to imitate the actions of others. Beyond the Buddhist world, the December 2010 suicide of Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi touched off the Arab Spring. In the aftermath of Bouazizi’s death, 107 Tunisians set themselves on fire. Have we heard their names? If this is violence, then the violence is repeated again and again, a poisonous gift to the world.
The impact of these suicides hinges on images and words. Press coverage determines how widely the public knows about them and what the impact is. While the press can draw attention to real issues of repression or injustice, we tend to become inured to the images. We turn the page or change the channel. Soon the press itself loses interest and the action is forgotten beyond the circle of those who were present.
The Fire This Time
Emotionally I can understand how one arrives at the decision to set oneself on fire. It offers a compelling inner logic. In desperation, any of us might fall into this kind of thinking. Like many young people in the 1970s, I felt a similar horror in the face of my country’s violence at home and abroad. I know some who are dead or spending their lives in prison in the aftermath of what they saw as “necessary” violence.
But, as I see it, in karma or cause and effect there is no separation of ends and means. To paraphrase the Buddha: violence will not cease by violence. Because we are intimately connected to each other, self-violence can never be confined to oneself. It ripples out in all directions.
One could argue that these self-immolations surface the violence inherent in a repressive system and meet it with force. These actions aim to touch off a kind of moral backfire. This is a principle of nonviolent theory, exemplified by Gandhi in India and Martin Luther King Jr. in the American South. But Gandhi, King and other practitioners of nonviolence were trained to receive their oppressors’ blows. I know of no instance where they actually did violence to themselves.
China’s violent repression of the Tibetan people, drawing on China’s economic and military power, is undeniable and continuing. The Chinese government is unlikely to wake up one day and turn from repression to compassion. It will only yield to some kind of force. But force—what Gandhi called satyagraha or “soul-force”—is not synonymous with violence.
Active nonviolence is a practice—exemplified in Gandhi’s India, in King’s South, in Czechoslovakia’s 1989 Velvet Revolution, in Burma’s 2007 Saffron Revolution and in many corners of the world. Repressive systems depend on violence to compel the cooperation of any given population. Nonviolent force depends on resistance and the withdrawal of cooperation, the refusal to participate in one’s own oppression. When cooperation is withdrawn, a repressive system falls. Not always quickly or cleanly, but inevitably.
Active nonviolence, as described by Martin Luther King, does not ignore the realities of power, but it refuses retaliatory violence. It accepts violence but does not initiate it. In his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” coincidently coming in April of 1963, just a few weeks before the death of Thich Quang Duc, King wrote:
Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored.
Rather than self-immolation, could nonviolent direct action be a viable path in Tibet? At its worst, facing the Chinese government’s implacable reactivity, Tibetans would still risk death and imprisonment. But the process and discipline of nonviolence might reenergize a popular movement, one that is open, clandestine or both. Such a movement would be an inspiration for Tibetans and all others seeking freedom.
In 1965 twenty-two-year-old Catholic Worker Roger La Porte immolated himself in front of the United Nations to protest the Vietnam War. Thomas Merton was deeply troubled by this act, which did not represent radical nonviolence to him. Still, he felt some ambiguity. In a letter, he wrote, “Wrong as I think his act was objectively, I believe it did not prejudice the purity of his own heart.” In a later essay, referencing La Porte’s death, Merton came to a more critical position:
Nonviolence must simply avoid the ambiguity of an unclear and confusing protest that hardens the war-makers in their self-righteous blindness. This means in fact that . . . nonviolence must avoid a facile and fanatical self-righteousness and refrain from being satisfied with dramatic self-justifying gestures.
There has long been a protest movement in Tibet that actively resists the overt and covert violence of Chinese hegemony, without itself resorting to violence or self-destruction. I hope this will continue and that it will succeed in accomplishing a life of freedom for all Tibetans. All of us know the darkness of despair. Many live with it as a pervasive condition of life—internal and external. But without the refuge of unconditional love, despair will simply yield more despair, violence will lead to violence. I believe that the opportunity to live is too rare to set aside. So I return to these words: “In this life, save the body which is the fruit of many lives.”
In thinking and writing about this painful subject, I had help from friends and teachers. Thanks to Bhikkhu Bodhi, Barbara Gates, Annette Herskovits, Laurie Senauke and Sulak Sivaraksa. An earlier version of this essay was published on the Upaya Zen Center’s blog in April, 2012.