Self-Immolation

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Without question the most extreme forms of homage that traces its roots back to the Lotus Sutra (in particular Chapter 23) is that of self-immolation. Of course the most recent occurrences of this extremity are occurring in Tibet, where Tibetans are choosing to self-immolate themselves in order to win freedom from Chinese Rule. Yet, this practice can trace itself back to the Lotus:

Beginning around the end of the fourth century of the Common Era, and continuing sporadically into modern times, some Chinese Buddhists have drawn inspiration from the Lotus Sūtra for a particular style of religious practice involving burning a finger or the whole body in homage to the scripture. Chinese sources usually refer to the incineration of the body as “auto-cremation” (zifen or shaoshen); it is one manifestation of a broader range of Buddhist practices that involve making a gift of the body (for example, feeding oneself to hungry animals or humans, jumping from cliffs or trees, or drowning oneself) that are termed “self-immolation” (sheshen, wangshen, or yishen). The best-known example of Buddhist self-immolation in recent times is that of the Vietnamese monk Thích Quang Ðuc (1897–1963), whose public auto-cremation in downtown Saigon in 1963 was captured in a series of dramatic photographs that have been widely reproduced.
We know that Chinese Buddhists particularly associated burning the body with the Lotus Sūtra because this connection is stressed in many surviving records beyond the sūtra itself, such as biographies of outstanding monks and nuns, popular tales about miracles associated with the sūtra, and epitaphs for self-immolators inscribed on stone. These accounts tell of men and women who chanted the text as they burned, or who deliberately imitated the model of the bodhisattva Medicine King (Bhaiṣajyarāja), who is depicted in the scripture as burning himself in a selfless and heroic manner. These Chinese sources make frequent allusions to the way in which Medicine King—then known by his earlier name of Seen with Joy by All Living Beings (Sarvasattvapriyadarśana)—carefully prepared his body to be burned. They also draw parallels between their subjects and the story of the bodhisattva, with particular attention to his devotion to the Lotus Sūtra and the relics of his teacher, the miraculous response of the universe to his extreme act of devotion, and the joyous approval of those who witnessed it. So well known was Medicine King’s self-immolation that, from the fourth century on, many East Asian Buddhist authors would point to the Lotus Sūtra as the locus classicus for auto-cremation.

(2010-06-01). Readings of the Lotus Sutra (Columbia Readings of Buddhist Literature, Kindle Locations 3303-3306). Columbia University Press. Kindle Edition.

The actual account is found in Chapter 23, Previous Lives of Medicine King Bodhisattva:

“For a full one thousand two hundred years, he inhaled the fragrance of sandalwood, olibanum, frankincense, clove, aloeswood, and glue trees and drank the fragrant oil of campaka flowers. He then anointed his body with scented ointment. In the presence of the Buddha Candrasūryavimalaprabhāsaśrī he covered his body with a divine jeweled garment and with the fragrant oil. Through his transcendent power and vows he set his body alight, which illuminated worlds equal in number to the sands of eighty koṭis of Ganges Rivers. At the same time all the buddhas in these worlds praised him, saying:

Splendid, splendid, O son of a virtuous family! This is the true perseverance. This is called the true Dharma offering to the Tathāgata.

It stands no comparison, even if one were to pay tribute with flowers, perfumes, necklaces, burning incense, scented powders, ointments, divine silk banners, canopies, perfumes of sandalwood from the inner seacoast of Mount Sumeru, and various other things like this. It stands no comparison, even if one were to offer one’s kingdom or wife and children. O son of a virtuous family, this is the supreme offering. This is the highest and best of all offerings, because you offer the Dharma to the Tathāgatas.”

The rational-mindset would consider all this to be severe-masochism at best, and yet even people who are deeply rooted in rationalism partake in these actions. Even today Buddhist monks (particularly in East Asia) offer up fingers and toes and the burning of incense on the skin. Even within Ch’an Buddhism we have the story of Huike cutting-off his arm while standing in the snow outside Bodhidharma’s cave—as an offering of his allegiance. Of course many would claim that this is just a metaphor for one’s willingness to devote oneself completely to the Buddhadharma. These passages in the Lotus describe the actual act of immolation as lasting for thousands of years; nevertheless one hour is as a million kalpas in terms of Tathatic-Time. So, who’s to say? It’s also common how relics of saints (usually body-parts), even from diverse spiritual cultures, are looked upon and even highly reverenced by devotees. There’s something deeply profound happening here in the human-psyche—almost as if the actual act of offering some part of oneself is part and parcel of the religious enterprise—making that ultimate sacrifice for what one truly believes. So, the old cliché, “I’d give my right-arm for that”, has more weighty-substance to it than one realizes. Indeed, sacrificial-actions since time immemorial continue to play-out in the human milieu.

As a personal anecdote—regarding the burning of incense on the skin—during my early seminary training my own finger was accidentally burned whilst holding the thurible—or incense censer; I still bear the scar from that time back in 1983—it was during the ceremony of being initiated into the Order of Acolyte. So this whole notion of immolation as part of spiritual-initiation is truly driven home for me. The old psalm refrain, “my prayers rise like incense”, in some instances include “my flesh rises like incense”, just like for Medicine King Bodhisattva. Medicine King himself is mentioned frequently throughout the Lotus Sutra. In popular lore he is the epitome of healing, both for self and others. There are entire Buddhist Liturgies offered in his name. As we have seen, the types of “medicine” being offered for healing throughout this Sutra are wide and varied. Not rushing to the extremes with this—but it does matter that one offer-up both body and spirit as a Noble-Offering to all the Buddhas and Maha-Bodhisattvas in the ten directions. BTW, these “ten directions” refer to all the world-systems and universes in existence; yea even beyond all known and unknown existences.

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2 Responses to Self-Immolation

  1. n. yeti says:

    In Asia, it seems there is a different perspective on individual life — something that is particularly difficult for Westerners to assimilate in practice.

    While a bit off topic, there is a legend I am aware of about a samurai who cut off his own head with a katana. This strikes me as a particularly impressive feat under the best of circumstances, and I am not convinced it ever happened. But who knows? Maybe he did it.

    But I am not eager to idealize suffering in this way as a form of religious expression. Gautama tried every imaginable form of ascetic practice, from sleeping on a bed of nails to subsisting on one grain of rice per day, and found this not to be the way. However, I feel that to renounce, in the way that is bodily and spiritually sound, is an action which can be likened to this form of extreme sacrifice carried down in the teachings (vis. Huike).

    But as my own kin have taken their own lives out of despair, I feel rather bleak about the spiritual import of such an action, believing that it is not as a rule, good practice. I don’t think we can achieve liberation in that manner, and while I recognize self-immolation as practiced by monks comes from a different mental posture, I must say that such actions do not strike me as skillful.

    If we are going to throw our lives away for some reason, there are lots of ways to do this for the benefit of others. We can devote our lives to charity or to helping others in their struggles, giving no thought to our own gain, for example. I have seen so much true and abject poverty in my wanderings, that it breaks my heart to see so much waste and excess, yes, even in my own life foremost.

    It is a difficult thing, this saha-world, and it is good to take refuge when feeling the weight of the world. And always it is advisable to delight in the dharma.

    • Vajragoni says:

      I do concur with most of what you say, although the severance from all forms that interfere with being “yoked” with the Transcendent is quite warranted as well. This is not to say that suicide-in-itself is warranted, but a complete “turn-about” from the phenomenal (minus self-abasement and self-torture) is the proper order of the day.

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