Why have some Buddhist monks set themselves on fire?

photo of a buddhist monk in self-immolation

In 1963, Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc, in protest of the Vietnamese government’s oppression of Buddhists, poured gasoline over his body and set himself on fire, maintaining his meditative posture as his body burned. This Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph was taken by photojournalist Malcolm W. Browne in Saigon, Vietnam. | Everett Collection Inc / Alamy Stock Photo

In recent years, a number of Tibetan Buddhist monks and nuns have set themselves on fire, or self-immolated, to protest against the occupation of Tibet by the Chinese government and to call for the return of the exiled Dalai Lama. In the nearly 70 years since China invaded its Himalayan neighbor, the Chinese government has attempted to obliterate Tibetan religion and culture, imprisoning, torturing, and killing those thought to be dissidents (including many monks and nuns). In the 1960s and ‘70s, Vietnamese Buddhist monks self-immolated to protest the anti-Buddhist policies of the president of South Vietnam and the Vietnam war generally.

The startling media images of these acts have raised many questions about how self-immolation squares with Buddhist practice and the precept against killing as well as with the Buddhist view of suicide. From the perspective of Buddhists who support the protesters, self-immolation is not suicide but an act of physical protest that ends in death. It has been considered the most profound gesture of public opposition available to monastics, one calculated to generate widespread attention to their cause.

The Dalai Lama himself treads a fine line in his public stance on Tibetan self-immolations, neither condemning nor condoning them because of their context in a “very delicate political issue.” The renowned Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh, who became famous for his eloquence in advocating for an end to the Vietnam War, wrote a letter to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1965 explaining his support of the monks who had set themselves on fire during the war. They weren’t committing suicide, he said, because their aim wasn’t self-destruction but rather compassion toward their fellow beings. He wrote: “Like the Buddha in one of his former lives—as told in a story of the Jataka—who gave himself to a hungry lioness that was about to devour her own cubs, the monk believes he is practicing the doctrine of highest compassion by sacrificing himself in order to call the attention of, and to seek help from, the people of the world.”

From an orthodox view (as in some forms of the Theravada tradition), however, it is impossible to see self-immolation as a skillful action. Any self-harm, particularly when it leads to death, inevitably creates negative karma and would be deemed a suicide.


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