The dramatic and tragic death of Wynn Bruce, the Buddhist environmental activist who self-immolated in front of the United States Supreme Court on Earth Day, has provoked a wide range of reactions.
Media coverage has largely focused on the question of why a man would kill himself in such a gruesome, public way. And a common assumption is that this was an act of protest against recent policies that fail to protect the environment.
As a Buddhist Eco-Chaplain and professor who teaches Buddhist philosophy, I am not going to speculate about Bruce’s motives, but I think it’s important to try and understand what the practice of self-immolation is about in Buddhism. In brief, it is an extreme form of Buddhist practice, not an instrumental device to bring about calculated political change.
Not a form of suicide
Buddhist self-immolation first hit the headlines in North America in 1963, with journalist Malcom Browne’s now iconic, Pulitzer prize-winning photograph of the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thích Quảng Đức sitting in flames at an intersection in Saigon.
President John F. Kennedy famously remarked that “no news picture in history has generated so much emotion around the world.” He may have been right, but those emotions were widely varied; how we judge such actions depends upon our own cultural and religious upbringing.
In 1965, Thích Nhất Hạnh wrote a letter to Martin Luther King Jr. in which he expressed concern that Buddhist self-immolation must be “difficult for Western Christian conscience to understand.” (The letter appears in Hạnh’s 1967 book, Vietnam: Lotus in a Sea of Fire.) In particular, he wanted to correct two likely misunderstandings: first, the misunderstanding that it was a form of suicide and second, the misunderstanding that it was an act of protest.
Given that Quảng Đức was widely regarded in the United States as having died by suicide as an extraordinary act of protest against the Vietnam war, Nhất Hạnh’s letter might have been a surprise. I suspect its still surprises many today.
In general, Buddhist organizations are very careful not to condone or romanticize self-immolation or other extreme devotional practices, and some Buddhist traditions are strongly opposed to such practices. The Rocky Mountain Eco-Dharma Retreat Center, where Bruce practised in Colorado, released a statement saying that, had they known of his plans, they would have done everything they could to have stopped him. So, how might we understand this practice in Buddhist terms?
Self-immolation in Buddhist terms
Fire holds a special place in Buddhism, as it does in many Indian traditions. In the Pali canon, the Buddha often speaks of the tivisa or “three poisons” (attachment, aversion, ignorance) as fires that consume us. And the realm of samsara (the world of birth and rebirth) is described as a world of flames.
In the Maranasatti Sutta, Buddha admonishes us to practise with the urgency of one whose turban or head is on fire. In Mahayana Buddhism, the famous “parable of the burning house” in Chapter 3 of the Lotus Sutra depicts us as children living in a burning house, unaware of the flames and ignorant even of what flames are; if we don’t wake up to the fire, it will consume us.
Fire also plays a role in a number of Buddhist ceremonies. Perhaps most pertinent is the Mahayana practice of burning one’s own skin during ordination as a priest. It is easy to speak vows insincerely while sitting in comfort, but making (sometimes 250) vows while slowly burning is seen as a way to embody ardency and seriousness.
In Mahayana traditions, such as the ones in which Quảng Đức and Bruce practiced, adherents make the so-called “Bodhisattva vows,” in which they vow not to liberate themselves from suffering before all other beings are also liberated.
That is, they vow to live in the burning house until everyone else has escaped. So, they take on suffering themselves in order to come alongside those who don’t even recognize the flames; they burn with compassion for the suffering of all life.
In Nhất Hạnh’s letter to King, he explains that a self-immolating monk, “says with all his strength and determination that he can endure the greatest of sufferings to protect his people.”
By setting himself on fire, the monk embodies his vows in the most powerful way he can. By doing it in front of others, he hopes to awaken those who don’t recognize that they too are living in a burning house, and that they must find their own way to quench those flames or to escape.
As in Christianity, suicide is strictly prohibited in Buddhism. However, for Nhất Hạnh, the self-immolation of Quảng Đức was not suicide, rather it was a devotional act of embodied practice: “the importance is not to take one’s life, but to burn.”
Similarly, after Bruce’s action on April 23, Buddhist teacher Kritee Kanko, Bruce’s friend, stated that “this act is not suicide.” Rather than intentional self-destruction or instrumental self-sacrifice, Nhất Hạnh and Kanko encourage us to see manifestations of courageous compassion.
Some responses to Bruce’s death clearly highlight the challenges around such actions in “western Christian conscience” that Nhất Hạnh observed back in 1963. Understandably, such responses don’t place the actions of this white American man in Washington into a Buddhist context, but instead into a largely western Christian North American one.
Social media is full of condemnations of this “suicide” as an “act of protest” that undermines the cause it was designed to support. Hence, in addition to revealing how the climate crisis is our burning house today, Bruce’s death also shows us the cultural challenges that come from the transnational movement of religious cultures.
Chris Goto-Jones does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.