Leading Korean environmentalist and Buddhist monk disappeared not long after fellow environmentalist and friend, the Ven. Munsu, self-immolated on a riverbank to protest the South Korean government’s Four Rivers Project. The Ven. Su Kyung of the Chogye order resigned his post and renounced his title, claiming he’d been living a hypocritical life, according to Union of Catholic Asian News:
“After Munsu’s offering,” he wrote, “I could see my problem clearly. I’m afraid of death and I cannot solve the riddle of my life and death. As a Zen Buddhist, how can I live like this?” He also lamented his years in the environmental movement, saying they were too much concerned with the pursuit of power. “I cannot live the hypocritical life of a respected monk,” he said.
The Four Rivers Project has been an environmental cause celebre since the South Korean government first invested $19.2 billion to remake the country’s four longest rivers. Munsu’s suicide in protest of the project drew international attention and for many recalled Quang Duc, who publicly self-immolated in protest of the Vietnam war in 1963.
I once asked Thich Nhat Hanh about Quang Duc, and whether the monk’s decision to take his life made sense. Without answering directly, Thay, as he is more familiarly known, responded that the suffering the people at the time was so intense the monk felt it necessary to take on himself.
Not quite a yes or no, but an expression of understanding and nonjudgment. Venerable Jigwan of the Buddhist Environmental Solidarity took this understanding further: He argued that “Venerable Munsu’s death is not a suicide but ‘an offering to Buddha’ to stop the project through his death.”
Not all agree: Father Paul Suh San-geen, chief coordinator of the Catholic Solidarity for Deterrence of Four Major Rivers Project, told the UCAN:
“It’s a tragedy that religious people should take their lives to stop the project,” [he said], “I worry about another similar attempt.”
For both Catholics and Buddhists suicide is considered unacceptable, but monks who have set themselves on fire to protest war, social injustice and now, environmental degradation, arouse mixed feelings. And if you consider the guiding metaphor of Christian martyrdom—not least the crucifixion—whether explicit or not, self-sacrifice is likely to evoke as much awed admiration and grief as judgment.
UPDATE: Vanya writes by way of correction, “Quang Duc was not protesting the Vietnam War. He was protesting repression of Buddhists by the South Vietnamese government.”
Sign up for Tricycle’s newsletters
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.