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Understanding self-immolation and Buddhism in the wake of Wynn Bruces Earth Day action
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Understanding self-immolation and Buddhism in the wake of Wynn Bruces Earth Day action

A monument in bronze depicts a car with a mans face covered in flames


The shocking and tragic death Wynn Bruce, a Buddhist environmental activist, who self-immolated in front the United States Supreme Court for Earth Day, sparked many reactions.

Media coverageThis has largely been about the question of why men would kill themselves in such a brutal, public manner. The assumption that a man would kill himself in such a public manner is common is the one we all share. This was an act de protestRecent policies that fail the environment are strongly 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.

It is not 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.

A monument in bronze depicts a car with a mans face covered in flames
A monument to Thích Quảng Đức, a Buddhist whose self-immolation hit the headlines in North America in 1963.

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.

Read more:
Thich Nhat Hanh, the Buddhist monk who introduced mindfulness to the West, prepares to die

Buddhist organizations generally do not condone or romanticize self sacrifice or other extreme devotional practices. However, some Buddhist traditions are. Strongly opposedTo such practices. Bruce was a resident at the Rocky Mountain Eco-Dharma Retreat Center in Colorado. A statement was releasedThey said that if they had known about his plans, they would have done everything possible to stop him. How can we understand this practice in Buddhist terms.

Buddhist terms for self-immolation

As it does in many Indian traditions, Buddhism holds fire a special place. The following are some of the Pali canonThe Buddha often speaks The tivisa or “three poisons” (attachment, aversion, ignorance) as fires that consume us. The realm of samsaraThe world of birth (and rebirth) can be described as a realm of flames.

The Maranasatti SuttaBuddha tells us to practice with the urgency and urgency of one whose head, turban, or head 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, which is perhaps the most important, is burning one’s own skinDuring your ordination as priest. It’s easy to speak insincerely while sitting in comfort. However, making (sometimes 250!) vows while slowly lighting is seen as a way of demonstrating ardency.

A black and white photo of monks praying
Buddhist monks pray at Xa Loi pagoda in June 1963, prior to staging a protest march against the government’s oppressive actions against Buddhists, which ended with a monk self-immolating in the street.
(AP Photo/Malcolm Browne)

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.

Courageous compassion

Like Christianity, suicide in Buddhism is strictly prohibited. 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.


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