Is Self-Immolation Un-Buddhist?

Sichuan Party chief Liu Qibao has visited the largely Tibetan Aba and Ganzi prefectures, sites of most of the recent string of self-immolations. From The Associated Press:

“Everyone is equal before the law. No matter whether you are a monk or a nun, you are a citizen first,” Liu was quoted as saying. “There are no monasteries outside the law, nor are there individuals outside the law.”

In an apparent reference to the self-immolations, Liu said that according to Buddhist teachings, life is precious and “there should be no reason to destroy an innocent life.”

He told senior clerics to teach the younger monks to “cherish all living things, cherish their health and cherish their lives.”

In an interview at Asia Society, Columbia University’s Robert Barnett examines the argument that protest by self-immolation is an “un-Buddhist” act:

Is there any tradition to this particular kind of protest in Buddhist culture?

The Chinese press has been arguing that these protests violate Buddhist principles and rules, but in fact they resonate strongly with Buddhist tradition. Suicide is shunned in Buddhism if carried out for personal reasons, but self-sacrifice for a noble cause is highly regarded. There are many stories about the Buddha doing this in former lives, most famously one in which he sacrifices himself by giving his body to a dying tigress so she can feed her cubs. So an act that is done for the good of the community is considered noble, and especially so if it is done by a member of the clergy.

It is because these acts have been done by monks, nuns or former monks, that it has been so hard for the Chinese government to discredit the protestors — it would be very different if lay people had been involved. The government had almost total success in discrediting five Chinese people, said by the government to be adherents of the Falun Gong sect, who staged a mass self-immolation in Beijing in 2001: the event was presented as proof that these people had been brainwashed and manipulated by the Falun Gong. But despite some tentative attempts by the Chinese press to do this with the Tibetan monks and nuns, these efforts have failed, largely because they are so widely respected within the Tibetan community.

The interview as a whole is highly recommended reading. For another perspective on self-immolation’s compatibility with Buddhism, via Kelley Currie, a 1965 letter from Thich Nhat Nanh to Martin Luther King.


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