Symbolism or Suicide?


Young Tibetan monks continue to burn themselves in protest against the Chinese government. There is a well-known historical precedent, but they have misunderstood it. By Devamitra

10am, June 11th, 1963: a 66-year-old monk alights from a car at a busy intersection in central Saigon. A younger monk lifts a large tank from the boot, then takes his senior’s hand as they step into the heart of the junction. Three hundred monks and nuns, none of whom know what is about to happen, lie in the road across the four entrances, blocking access for vehicles. The elder sits in full lotus and tells his rosary. Malcolm Browne points his camera. Click! The younger monk’s hands shake uncontrollably. Much of the petrol spills onto the ground; sufficient splashes onto the self-possessed figure at his feet. The junior retreats. His elder flicks a lighter. Flick, flick, flick. He calls out, ‘No fire!’ Duc Nghiep tosses a replacement. A policeman rushes forward. Flick! Too late.

A huge flame spirals around and above Quang Duc. Click! He sits serenely motionless through endless minutes. Click, click, click. His lifeless body falls back. And the world wakes up to the severe persecution Vietnamese Buddhists suffer at the hands of their Catholic rulers. (Even though it later forgot: the ‘burning monk’ became identified, quite wrongly, with the protest movement against the Vietnam war.) Thanks to Duc Nghiep’s meticulous organisation, the presence of the American journalist Malcolm Browne, a huge amount of luck, and Quang Duc’s fearlessness, the impact of his self-immolation was immense and world-wide, even comparable in its stunning effect to the terrorist attacks of our era.

More recently, perhaps inspired by his example, as a means of protesting against the Chinese occupation of Tibet, Tibetans began burning themselves. Since 2009 there have been 142 known cases, yet the world barely notices and nothing changes. Given that suicide is generally considered unethical within Buddhist tradition, as it is usually driven by negative emotions such as self-hatred, why have so many Buddhists acted in this deeply shocking way? Some answers can be found in James Benn’s fascinating book, Burning for the Buddha, the only detailed account of this tradition. I met Benn several years ago in Chicago, when he moderated the presentation of three papers to the Association for Asian Studies, including one by me on Quang Duc. Although a professor at McMaster University in Canada, he is originally from Leyton.

It all began in China in the late fourth century CE. While Buddhism was becoming gradually more established there, not enough monks were arriving from India to teach the growing number of Chinese Buddhists. All that most had to guide them were a few translations of Buddhist texts including the Sutra of Golden Light and the White Lotus Sutra, which were to become two of the most popular throughout the region. Both contain tales of bodhisattvas – mythical beings who have vowed to lead all beings to Enlightenment before attaining it for themselves – sacrificing their lives. In the Lotus Sutra, one such figure, named Bhaisajyarāja, burns himself in expression of his intensely felt devotion to the Buddha. Although this text was composed in India, there are no records of Indian monks following Bhaisajyarāja’s example. They understood that the story was to be interpreted symbolically, not literally – unlike some of their Chinese spiritual descendants who, in their eagerness to become bodhisattvas, did what the bodhisattvas in the sutras did and thereby initiated the tradition of self-immolation. This is how dangerous it can be when an excess of zeal combines with a lack of proper understanding.

The practice of self-immolation continued well into the twentieth century throughout China, Vietnam and Korea. As the tradition developed, although there was no fixed pattern, in practice there were several elements that often recurred in differing combinations. For example, many made vows to burn themselves at some unspecified future date. This might then be followed by a lengthy period of preparation and purification. Requesting permission of fellow monks or nuns, or even of state rulers, was also common. Many practitioners wrote death poems on the eve of their dramatic passing. Self-immolations were often publicly staged and immolators might recite a text, or a mantra, as they burned. It was considered particularly auspicious to die seated upright with palms together. And there was always the expectation of the accompaniment of miracles and the production of relics. Self-immolation was sometimes enacted during political crises, though that was far from the norm.

Burning oneself in this way, sometimes also described as ‘auto-cremation’, is just one method within the broader practice of self-immolation. ‘Immolation’ does not necessarily denote a death by fire – it also has the more general meaning of making a sacrifice, or of offering oneself as a sacrifice. The two are often conflated. But traditionally the Chinese set about self-immolation in a variety of ways. For example, imitating the bodhisattva in the famous story of one of the Buddha’s previous lives recounted in the Sutra of Golden Light, some practitioners sought to offer themselves for supper to starving tigresses – a more difficult task than you might imagine. (Even hungry tigers, like human beings, could be picky about their food!) Others even resorted to cliff-jumping, starvation, drowning and other practices for which I can find no canonical precedents. Down the centuries the practice of self-immolation, by whatever means, became an established feature of Buddhist tradition throughout the region, though its devotees were a very small minority.

When I began this article, I emailed Tenzin Tsundue. Tenzin is a well-known Tibetan political activist and poet who writes press releases to publicise Tibetan self-immolations, and with whom I spent two weeks in India last year. I warned him that my article would be critical of the recent wave of protests and asked if he wished to comment. He did not reply, possibly because his email is constantly hacked by Chinese authorities.

The self-immolations by Tibetans are described on the Free Tibet website and others almost exclusively in terms of protest. Significantly, by contrast, Quang Duc spoke not of protest, but of making an offering of himself to the Three Jewels, the embodiment of the three highest ideals of Buddhism. Protest is too often, if not invariably, tainted by anger and hatred. In 2012, at the height of the current Tibetan wave of self-immolations, Tsering Shakya, a Tibetan scholar and historian currently attached to the University of British Columbia, observed that, ‘… most of the Tibetans who have committed self-immolation have been monks, former monks or nuns. Their actions were not an obeisance to religion or the performing of virtue. Rather, they signify something entirely different: they are a product of “rage,” induced by daily humiliation and intolerable demands for conformity and obedience. Religious figures in Tibet have been particularly subjected to the discipline of patriotic education and the campaigns opposing the so-called “Dalai clique.” These campaigns … require them to endlessly feign compliance, obliging them to demonstrate repeatedly their patriotism and fidelity to the Communist Party.’ Such a reaction is perfectly understandable, given the inhuman and vicious treatment to which they are subjected by the Chinese authorities, tacitly supported by the shameful hypocrisy and indifference of Western governments like our own, who, presumably from economic interest, dare not offend the Chinese. Even so, the ‘rage’ referred to above cannot be reconciled with the spirit of the Dharma. This was implicitly understood by Sopa Rinpoche, a reincarnate lama who set fire to himself on January 8th, 2012. His final testament is remarkably free from any hint of ill-will and one senses that here at least was someone whose preoccupations transcended the concerns of Tibetan patriotism. His ‘offering of light,’ as he put it in the statement, was ‘for all living beings’ – which would, of course, include the Chinese.

From the few images available on the internet of Tibetans burning themselves, there is an evident absence of the tranquility and stillness so shockingly visible in Malcolm Browne’s photographs of Quang Duc, who, in addition to his many other outstanding qualities, was a highly regarded meditation master. The most recurrent image that I found in my searches is of Jamphel Yeshi, his whole body ablaze, running down a street in New Delhi in unmistakable agony, protesting against a visit by the Chinese president. Westerners may be predisposed to regard such protesters as martyrs, but martyrdom is not a Buddhist concept or practice. In Buddhist tradition, there is no intrinsic merit in dying for one’s religion and no guaranteed reward.

The website of the Central Tibetan Administration gives a detailed and sobering breakdown of the bare facts of the recent Tibetan self-immolators. Twenty-four were monks, or former monks, of Kirti monastery in Ngaba, the district which has had the greatest number of such protests, and the site of repeated clashes with the Chinese. What is most unsettling is the age of so many of these ‘protesters’: the vast majority of them – 101 out of 142 total cases – were under thirty. Of those, forty-one were twenty or under, the youngest being just fifteen. The latter, simply named Dorjee, set himself on fire together with two other young men called Samdrup and Dorjee Kyab, both sixteen, and all three of Ngoshul monastery, also in Ngaba. What is the likelihood of a fifteen-year-old boy and his friends grasping the deeper significance of such an act?

As Buddhists in the West, it is difficult to know what to make of all this. For example, are these monks and nuns committing suicide, as we normally understand that term? Suicide is often committed in an impulsive, clandestine way, and is frequently associated with psychological disturbance. However, this did not characterise the tradition described above. Chinese auto-cremators of past tradition were modelling themselves on Bhaisajyarāja and their sacrifice would be regarded as an expression of devotion, not of negative emotion. Like the bodhisattva, they were making an offering of what was most precious to all of us – their bodies – to the Buddha. This seems to be what they understood to be necessary if you aspired to bodhisattvahood, as they presumably did. That is very likely what was driving them, but what the myth of Bhaisajyarāja probably points to is that in extreme circumstances we may need to give our lives for the sake of Buddhism.

Is it possible that so many people missed the point in this way, suffering an appallingly painful death on the basis of a misunderstanding? One must always allow for exceptions, and I for one am convinced that one such exception was Quang Duc. In his case, it is perhaps significant that Vietnamese Buddhists universally consider him to have been a living bodhisattva – and I can imagine that he was. Some will argue that self-immolation is never reconcilable with the principle of non-violence, but actually it can be. ‘Non-violence’ is the bodhisattva’s attitude to life expressed negatively. But it can also be expressed positively, as universal compassion, and it is in this overriding spirit that Quang Duc acted. Even though he sacrificed his own life, he did so in the spirit of non-violence. Unlike suicide bombers, or the 9/11 hijackers – assassins seeking to harm or kill others – Quang Duc harmed no other living being. Moreover his action almost certainly saved the lives of 300 monks, nuns and others on the verge of starvation in the principal temple in Hue which had been besieged by government forces. It was the desperate plight of these people that finally convinced his brother monks to help Quang Duc fulfil his vow. His high-profile and shocking death forced the government, under pressure from their embarrassed American allies, to call off the siege.

What about self-immolation in other, less glorious circumstances? It has happened in our very own Buddhist community. In 1985, Mahadhammavir, an elderly Indian Order member, whose health was beginning to fail, and who did not wish to become a burden either to the Order, or to his family – a particularly significant matter in India – attempted to burn himself to death beneath the full moon one midnight at the back of our retreat centre at Bhaja. He was discovered, and dragged from his pyre. Even so, he spent the remaining twenty-four hours of his long life seemingly unaffected by the pain that he must have borne consequent to his fatal burns. He had worked indefatigably in his last few years to spread the Dharma. Sangharakshita, the founder of the Triratna Buddhist Order and community, was so moved by Mahadhammavir’s nobility of spirit that he wrote a long poem commemorating his death.


How then are we to view the recent wave of Tibetan auto-cremations? As there is no tradition of self-immolation in Tibetan Buddhism, it seems likely that Quang Duc’s example triggered them, as it was so widely reported. Moreover, although he was not politically motivated, his self-immolation had a huge political impact and is widely regarded as the event which, five months later, triggered the collapse of the South Vietnamese Government. While I sympathise deeply with the plight of the Tibetan people and hope that one day Tibet will be free of its Chinese tyranny, I for one cannot see that any number of Tibetan auto-cremations are likely to bring about their desired end. Sadly, the world is not interested enough.

From a Buddhist perspective, the ethical status of any individual act is determined by the intention behind it. This holds true whether we regard self-immolation simply as a method of suicide or as a discrete phenomenon. But that is problematic because it is very easy to rationalise unskilful mental states, giving them a positive spin. As I hope will be clear from this account, it can be particularly difficult to determine the mental state behind a person taking his life (suicide) or giving it (self-immolation). It is further complicated by the fact that often we act with mixed motives. Furthermore, as in the case of the Tibetans of the recent wave, I am left with an uneasy question: are they really giving their lives? More than that, if they are, for what are they giving them – for their country, or for the truth as taught by the Buddha? Their actions seem to blur several lines. Perhaps that would not matter if one could be confident that they were acting for the benefit of all, but after 142 self-immolations, given the implacability of the Chinese Government, it is difficult to see that they are benefitting anybody. I think it is time this tragic episode was brought to a close. ■

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