The tragic and shocking death of Wynn Bruce (a Buddhist environmental activist) who self-immolated before the United States Supreme Court on Earth Day has sparked a wide range reactions.
Media coverageThe question of why a man would commit suicide in such a public, gruesome manner has been the focus of much of the discussion. A common assumption is that This was an act in protestRecent policies that do not protect the environment should be resisted.
As a Buddhist Eco-Chaplain and professor who teaches Buddhist philosophy, I am not going to speculate about Bruce’s motives, but I think it’s important to try and understand what the practice of self-immolation is about in Buddhism. It is an extreme form Buddhist practice that does not serve to achieve political change.
This is not a form of suicide
Buddhist self-immolation first hit the headlines in North America in 1963, with journalist Malcom Browne’s now iconic, Pulitzer prize-winning photograph of the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thích Quảng Đức sitting in flames at an intersection in Saigon.
President John F. Kennedy Famously, remarked that “no news picture in history has generated so much emotion around the world.” He may have been right, but those emotions were widely varied; how we judge such actions depends upon our own cultural and religious upbringing.
1965 Thích Nhất Hạnh wrote a letter to Martin Luther King Jr. in which he expressed concern that Buddhist self-immolation must be “difficult for Western Christian conscience to understand.” (The letter appears in Hạnh’s 1967 book, Vietnam: Lotus in a Sea of Fire.) In particular, he wanted to correct two likely misunderstandings: first, the misunderstanding that it was a form of suicide and second, the misunderstanding that it was an act of protest.
Given that Quảng Đức was widely regarded in the United States as having died by suicide as an extraordinary act of protest against the Vietnam war, Nhất Hạnh’s letter might have been a surprise. I suspect its still surprises many today.
Buddhist organizations are careful not to romanticize or condone self-immolation or any other extreme devotional practices. Some Buddhist traditions are also prohibited. Strongly opposedThese practices. Bruce was a resident at the Rocky Mountain Eco-Dharma Retreat Center in Colorado. A statement was releasedIt is said that if they knew of his plans, they would have done all they could to stop him. How can we understand this practice in Buddhist terms.
Buddhist terms for self-immolation
Fire is a central part of Buddhism and many Indian traditions. In the Pali canonThe Buddha speaks often The tivisa or “three poisons” (attachment, aversion, ignorance) as fires that consume us. And the realm of samsaraThe world of birth and rebirth is described as a place of flames.
The Maranasatti SuttaBuddha commands us to practice with the urgency of someone whose head or turban is on fire. In Mahayana Buddhism, the famous “parable of the burning house” in Chapter 3 of the Lotus Sutra depicts us as children living in a burning house, unaware of the flames and ignorant even of what flames are; if we don’t wake up to the fire, it will consume us.
Many Buddhist ceremonies include fire. The Mahayana practice of burning one’s own skinDuring ordination as a priest. It’s easy to speak insincerely while sitting comfortably. However, making (sometimes 250!) vows while slowly lighting is a way of demonstrating ardency as well as seriousness.
In Mahayana traditions, such as the ones in which Quảng Đức and Bruce practiced, adherents make the so-called “Bodhisattva vows,” in which they vow not to liberate themselves from suffering before all other beings are also liberated.
They vow to live in the house of fire until all others have fled. So, they take on suffering themselves in order to come alongside those who don’t even recognize the flames; they burn with compassion for the suffering of all life.
In Nhất Hạnh’s letter to King, he explains that a self-immolating monk, “says with all his strength and determination that he can endure the greatest of sufferings to protect his people.”
The monk sets himself on fire to live out his vows. By doing it in front of others, he hopes to awaken those who don’t recognize that they too are living in a burning house, and that they must find their own way to quench those flames or to escape.
Suicide is strictly forbidden in Buddhism, just as in Christianity. However, for Nhất Hạnh, the self-immolation of Quảng Đức was not suicide, rather it was a devotional act of embodied practice: “the importance is not to take one’s life, but to burn.”
Similarly, after Bruce’s action on April 23, Buddhist teacher Kritee Kanko, Bruce’s friend, stated that “this act is not suicide.” Rather than intentional self-destruction or instrumental self-sacrifice, Nhất Hạnh and Kanko encourage us to see manifestations of courageous compassion.
Here are some responses to Bruce’s death clearly highlight the challenges around such actions in “western Christian conscience” that Nhất Hạnh observed back in 1963. Understandably, such responses don’t place the actions of this white American man in Washington into a Buddhist context, but instead into a largely western Christian North American one.
Social media is full of condemnations of this “suicide” as an “act of protest” that undermines the cause it was designed to support. Hence, in addition to revealing how the climate crisis is our burning house today, Bruce’s death also shows us the cultural challenges that come from the transnational movement of religious cultures.