|The disturbing image of a Vietnamese monk protesting by setting fire to himself|
I found an article posted on the web from the Chinese paper 'The People's Daily' written by a person described as a renowned Tibetologist, Li Decheng, the article was published in late 2011. The article sums up many of the negative press stories about self immolation and how it has been reported as being un-Buddhist particularly by the Chinese authorities.
Li Decheng states that self immolation is against "core Buddhist ethics". He goes on to say "in Buddhism, especially Tibetan Buddhism, scripture has never encouraged killings and suicide, nor has Buddhist dogma incited others to carry out killings or commit suicide". The Dali Lama has commented upon these acts and his view seems to be clear that he does not encourage Buddhists, or any one else, to use self immolation as a way of protest what ever the circumstance they find themselves in. He did however, recognise that these monks have been very courageous but gave the impression that this is not the best form of protest. So what is the Buddhist view on this and how do i as a lay Buddhist feel about this issue?
Well i don't disagree with Li Decheng when he states that Buddhist scriptures do not encourage people to kill or commit suicide. Anyone vaguely familiar with Buddhist thought would know that refraining from killing and showing compassion towards all beings is central to Buddhism. Taken from this, perhaps simplistic view point, then Buddhists clearly should not encourage or engage in protesting through the extreme act of self immolation.
However, interestingly there are Buddhist scriptures that do contain reference to self immolation and present these acts as acts of compassion Two come from the Jataka Tales, famous stories of some of the Buddhas past lives. One describes where the Buddha, known as Prince Sattva , found a Tigress who was starving and was about to eat her newly born cubs, in order to survive. Prince Sattva then lay down in front of the Tigress and offered up his body as a meal thus saving the Tiger family. In another Jataka Tale, the Buddha, lived in a previous life as King Shibi, who was renowned for his kindness and compassion. Two Gods wanted to test his kindness and transformed themselves into a dove and a hawk. The Hawk chased the dove until it flew into the lap of King Shibi. The King then offered the Hawk to cut off some of his own flesh, equal in weight to the dove, if the Hawk would spare the Dove's life. The King then cut off some of his flesh. The two birds transformed back into Gods again, they paid homage to the King and restored his flesh.
I also have a recitation booklet produced by the Order of Buddhist Contemplatives which can be used when using a 108 bead rosary. One of the short stories in this booklet, not sure of the exact historical origin, tells of a rabbit, seeing a monk, close to starvation. On seeing this the rabbit jumps into the monks cooking pot, offering himself as a meal, in order to allow the monk to have the sustenance to continue with his search for enlightenment. There is also a reference in the Lotus Sutra to the Medicine Kind burning himself as an offering to the Buddha and burning for thousands of years and the act helping many people to attain enlightenment.
Do i believe that all of the above actually happened? I keep an open mind to this but i definitely believe that they are teaching stories aimed at inspiring us to continue with our Buddhist practice. These stories also suggest to me that the idea of laying down ones life for a greater cause is one that has been around in Buddhist literature for some time. Also central to Buddhist practice is letting go of the idea of a separate self in order to realise our interconnection with all beings.
So where does all this leave me?
I don't think for one minute that Buddhism encourages people to lay down their lives in order to make a point. These acts are few and far between and i hope that never changes. However, i do think that the monks in Tibet and else where who have carried out the act of self immolation deserve more than to be judged as un-Buddhist. Who is to say, if they feel they have truly let go of their ego and sense of self, have no fear of dying through their realisation of the impermanence of all things. Then find themselves in the position where they see their fellow citizens suffering and being oppressed and mistreated with very few countries in the world taking much interest in what is happening, then perhaps they felt that the greater good was to carry out such an horrific act, knowing it takes something so horrific to draw attention to their people's plight. So this is a difficult issue for me to confront but i bow to these monks neither in agreement or disagreement but i bow to them with respect.
Thank you for reading this blog. That was a heavy subject so i leave you with a positive image and chant by a Tibetan monk, Ani Choying Dolma, that i listen to often and it always cheers me up. It maybe also shows the rich culture of Tibet and maybe offers some insight as to why some monks laid down their lives for their people?