On dragons and human sacrifice

No image of Buddhist monks has seared itself into humanity’s consciousness like that of Ven Thích Quảng Đức, who immolated himself in protest against the then South Vietnamese government in 1963.


He was the first, but by no means the last. A series of similar protests followed in Vietnam, and more recently there has been a regular stream of immolations by Tibetans protesting the Chinese.

For myself, as a monastic dedicated to the Buddha’s way of gentleness and moderation, I cannot see these acts with anything other than horror. Regardless of motivation, the Buddha never encouraged such self-harm. In fact such deeds seem to hark back to a more primitive era, to the extreme forms of self-mortification that the Buddha dismissed.


Such an extreme actions do not arise out of nowhere. In the Buddhist tradition, there are well known stories in the Jātakas of the bodhisattva acting with a similar lack of regard for his body. While these are not political in nature, they are clearly a precedent for the modern practice of self-immolation.

As a text historian, it is obvious to me that such practices emerge from the ambiguous historical sources of the Jātaka stories. They are obviously a later form of literature, and developed several hundred years after the main Suttas. As such, they cannot be regarded as the Buddha’s words. Nevertheless, they are set in the time before the Buddha, as they tell of his past lives. And the social and historical conditions depicted in these stories do indeed often stem from an earlier time.

How this happened is no mystery. They are simply legends and folk tales, circulating in the population for an indefinite period before being adopted by the Buddhist community and formalized as Jātakas. And just as they depict social and political conditions from the time before the Buddha, they also depict spiritual conditions that are frequently more primitive and brutal than we normally encounter in the Suttas. This includes human and animal sacrifice.

Of course, the Jātakas frequently depict the bodhisattva as the agent who reforms such brutal practices (which is one of the greatest of mythic themes). Nevertheless, we still find occasions where the bodhisattva’s voluntary relinquishment of his body is treated as a great spiritual gift.

Human sacrifice, hard as it may be to believe, has often been voluntary. And, harder as it may be to believe, despite the fact that violent sacrifice was so unreservedly condemned by the Buddha, it has been carried out in Buddhist traditions. My point here is simply that the modern practice of self-immolation cannot be considered outside the complex of ideas and practices that have shaped the Buddhist tradition; and the idea that drastic physical sacrifice can be spiritually justifiable and powerful crept back into Buddhism long ago, via the Jātakas especially.

So what does this have to do with dragons? Well, in the Nāgasaṁyutta, the Buddha speaks of certain dragons who, regretting their birth, aspire to a better rebirth and hence observe the uposatha. The Pali has the phrase:

nāgā uposathaṃ upavasanti vossaṭṭhakāyā ca bhavanti

Which Ven Bodhi translates as:

… nāgas observe the Uposatha and relinquish [concern] for their bodies.

In his note he cites the sub-commentary and refers to the Campeyya Jātaka (Ja 506), saying that:

According to Buddhist folklore, the nāgas can undertake the precepts of virtue on Upsatha days and may even resolve to uphold the precepts at the cost of their lives.

However slender, this creates a canonical precedent for the notion that sacrificing one’s body can be regarded as a spiritual practice in Buddhism.

On closer inspection, however, it appears that this translation, and the inference it gives rise to, are not justified. There is a well-known story in the Vinaya (Kd 1.49, translation here) of a nāga who, just like in our Sutta, came to regret their birth as a dragon (nāgayoni) and wished to practice virtue. So he took on the form of a young man and took ordination.

Transformation between human and animal forms is one of the essential mythic qualities of the dragon in India.

Later, however, when sleeping he reverted to his serpentine form and so was discovered. The Buddha, while having sympathy for him, said that he would not prosper as a monk, so he could not remain in the Sangha. The Buddha made it a rule that you have to be a human being to ordain. He encouraged the dragon to undertake the precepts on the uposatha, which would quickly bring him back to a human birth.

This colorful Vinaya story illustrates the situation found in the Samyutta. A dragon who regrets their birth should undertake the uposatha. And in context, vossaṭṭhakāya has nothing to do with sacrificing your body. It means they would “relinquish” their dragon form and take on human form when keeping the uposatha. We should probably translate something like:

some dragons keep the sabbath, having transformed their bodies.

As a final note, it seems that the same term for “relinquish” may be hidden in the Vinaya passage as well. When the dragon’s companion monk has left, he is said to fell asleep vissaṭṭha. Now, this is normally a term for “confidence”, and is interpreted to mean that he believed that he would not be discovered. However, it is virtually identical with the term vossaṭṭha we have encountered above (vi+ava+saṭṭha), which means “relinquished”. This is in fact the basic meaning of vissaṭṭha, from which “confidence” is derived (cp. adhimutta). Without getting too much into the technicalities here, I suspect that both terms originally referred to the dragon “giving up” their physical form.


After reading a lot of Buddha’s discourses, it does feel wrong to sacrifice ourselves for something less important than enlightenment. In my opinion a lot of text unrelated to the path like the Jataka is giving bad name for Buddha’s teaching. Story like presenting oneself as a meal to a starving tiger because he is compassionate just don’t make any sense. If a new comer was to think that this is Buddha’s teaching, he’d go elsewhere.


This is an interesting topic. It’s certainly true that the Jātakas were a large influence on early Mahāyāna Buddhist sūtras, and they were often used in illustrations as examples of the bodhisattva carrying out perfections such as giving and forbearance.

Many Mahāyāna sūtras also have strong elements of myth in them, or otherwise contain narratives in which myths are told. One that was very influential was a story told in the Lotus Sūtra about the bodhisattva Bhaiṣajyarāja, who self-immolates and burns for thousands of years.

The main thrust of the narrative seems to be about mentally abandoning the body, to receive and cultivate a greater body, i.e. Saṃbhogakāya or Dharmakāya. In other words, not literally burning your body. However, there is a small paragraph towards the end that does advocate burning off a finger or toe as an offering at a stūpa. Thus the text does include at least some support for actually burning part of one’s body.

In China, during the classical period, some normal and healthy monks actually did completely self-immolate in an attempt to imitate Bhaiṣajyarāja, reciting the chapter of Bhaiṣajyarāja as they did so. Full self-immolation would have been very rare, though.

Burning off a finger was more common. In the early 20th century, Hsu Yun burned off one of his fingers, and a few of his peers did the same. Some people even burned two. Copying long sūtras using one’s blood was also a common form of asceticism that continued into the 20th century.

For that matter, in the 2005 documentary Amongst White Clouds, you can see that one mountain-dwelling ascetic Buddhist monk also has two of his fingers missing.

What is fairly new is using full self-immolation as a form of political protest. I have a hard time seeing any clear basis for that in Buddhist teachings.


I didn’t mention this, but yes, “minor” forms of self-harm are common in east Asian Mahayana. Of course it’s standard to burn three incense sticks on the head when ordaining. But cutting off finger joints is also not that unusual, I’ve known monks who have done it.

If it’s found in the lotus Sutra, that would explain its prominence. My understanding is that the jatakas as such are less prominent in East Asian Buddhism, am I right? Of course they are still there, but in much of Theravada they are the main form of Dhamma teaching widely available.

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Saw the movie “The Jungle Book” movie recently, and loved the “Rikki Tikki Tavi” cartoon movie when I was younger. Both were Rudyard Kipling books and were apparently inspired by stories he heard in India. I couldn’t find any evidence that he had contact with jātaka tales, and I am not too familiar with them either, but for some reason I thought Jungle Book had a jātaka “feel” to it. Lots of talk about “the law” of the jungle, couldn’t help but think of that as Dharma inspired, Buddhist or otherwise.

The figures aren’t exactly known, but anywhere from hundreds to hundreds of thousands of prisoners per year were sacrificed in Aztec rituals…

I’d like to believe ritualistic sacrifice was less savage, I just don’t know of any examples. Unless we’re talking about a broader definition of sacrifice to include voluntarily going to war, etc.

Well, they’re all drawing from the same well of stories.

Jesus, that’s incredible, isn’t it? I’m not so familiar with the Aztec context, but it seems that even there according to Wikipedia acquiescence was required, or at least desirable:

some of the sacrificial victims they freed “indignantly rejected [the] offer of release and demanded to be sacrificed”.

Certainly in India there are well attested stories of voluntary sacrifice. Nothing like that scale though. It’s usually one individual who’s chosen to be a special representative of the gods, that kind of thing. There’s obviously a huge weight of social and religious expectations and beliefs that can make such a thing possible. And obviously not everyone would have been willing, although in certain rituals the assent of the victim is required.


the custom of Sati for instance


That’s true, Jātakas are not widely known. I think maybe in some former times they were more common. These days, I think Journey to the West probably plays a little similar role.

Here are a few related passages:

The striking thing about both of these passages is that they appear quite isolated in the text, and are not supported by other passages. Notice also that the passage in the Śūraṅgama Sūtra even contains bits at the end that contradict those at the beginning.

Concerning egoless self-sacrifice, though, probably the most well-known passage is the following:

Interestingly, I think at least one Chinese monk who went to India asked the monks there about these sort of practices. They replied that “the bodhisattva” did these things, but we don’t have to do them.


A post was split to a new topic: On the authenticity of the Jatakas

I feel that it’s exactly the same as how Buddhism disappeared from India.

Buddha taught the middle path, which is balancing between self and others, harming others for selfish reasons can be as bad as harming oneself for others. But human beings by nature are extreme, they either become materialistic easily or have the romantic idea of sacrifice self for the benefits of others.

I remember my friend said that people do charity for selfish reasons, so that they feel good about themselves, it’s not selfless at all. I was like “what’s wrong with helping others to feel good?”. Also look at the story of Abraham in bible where he prepared to sacrifice his own son for god and christians all around the world are OK with it.

At least they still have wisdom to protect themselves :laughing:

that episode could be viewed as harbinger of a much more grandiose imminent sacrifice of soteriological significance in the future, namely that of the God’s son Jesus by the God himself

and Christians apparently are OK with that too

Okay, well, I’m trying to stop myself, but it appears I can’t. :smirk:

The notion of substitute sacrifice was established by Frazer, and in my view is one of the most well-grounded and significant findings in mythology.

The basic story is that in the past a crueler sacrifice was required—typically human sacrifice—but that this requirement was dropped by the gods who came to accept a gentler sacrifice. In the case of Abraham it was a goat rather than his son. In the Buddhist texts, it’s usually a vegetarian sacrifice, such as ghee and rice.

Since we read these stories from the wrong end of history, we misjudge what’s going on (often such misjudgments are found in the texts themselves). We get outraged at the idea that God wanted Abraham to sacrifice his son. But that’s not the point; it’s just the normal, bog-ordinary behavior of gods. It’s what they, and their followers, expect.

The point is that god comes to accept a “lesser” sacrifice. In the Abraham story this comes from God’s own choice. In the Buddhist texts it’s typically because the yakkha is converted to Buddhism, or at least harmlessness, by the Buddha, a disciple, or the bodhisattva (if it’s a Jataka).


As is the way of mythology, the story is told a gajillion times, and each telling retains the same essential pattern, while revealing different interpretations due to the details. In Greek mythology, perhaps the best known example is Tantalus, who murdered his son and fed him to the gods. It didn’t turn out well.

Once animal sacrifice becomes seen as repulsive as human sacrifice, a purely symbolic sacrifice becomes possible, as in the Christian host. But this story is not just part of major religions, it’s everywhere, in paganism and folklore around the world. The sacrificial murder ends up as childrens’ games.

Children in England prepare for the Guy Fawkes bonfire

Just as we miss the twist in the plot, we miss the moral of the story. Which is, in fact, that the story has a moral. Again, due to our late perspective we cannot disentangle morality and religion. But the two have nothing essentially to do with one another, and in fact are fundamentally opposed.

If God’s will is truly unfettered, how can he be checked by considerations of morality or kindness? He can’t. (Or she can’t; I don’t want to imply that gods are any more vicious and heartless than goddesses. They’re not; the gentle goddess of herbal tea and yoga is a modern paganist fiction.)

A deity is an absolute narcissist. They’re not subject to the rule of law, the rule of morality, or anything else. The world spreads itself out from them as a manifestation of their own ego, which is perfection itself. If the world doesn’t get that, it’s the world’s problem. The only duty a narcissist has is to help free the world from this delusion. All the world has to do is acknowledge that the narcissist is in fact the true and only source of all that is good and sacred, and its problems will be solved. But if the follower refuses to obey an order, even if that order is to murder their only child, their disobedience must be punished.

Warning! The following material may be traumatic for some readers. Seriously, if you thought the photo of the Guy Fawkes with kids was creepy, don't click this. ![image](upload://2wOjjKamHHNuwBIvWUcsAGbLyES.jpeg)

In my time as abbot of a monastery, I met more than one person who honestly believed this. One student actually told me, after being there a week or so, that if I gave the monastery to her to run, all our problems would be solved within a week.

The story of the substitute sacrifice is ultimately the story of the death of god. The god(dess) becomes subject to human considerations like ethics and compassion, and no longer has absolute power. They’re like a constitutional monarch, on the slow road to democracy. If the god themselves is subject to morality, how can they be the source of morality? This is the beginning of the problem of evil. And much of theology is a working out of a defense of how god and morality can coexist.

Since Buddhism is not a religion in the sense I am discussing here—i.e. it is not a cult of sacrifice to forces greater than ourselves—this problem does not exist. Heck, the Buddha actively seeks out a higher authority than himself to honor, and ends up honoring the Dhamma. This is the philosophical reason why Buddhas appear again and again: the Buddha is a part of the natural order. They are subject to the Dhamma just like you or I.


and in mundane and realistic terms the punishment is psychological, by doubt, uncertainty, hesitation, insecurity whereas complete surrender to the god’s will manifested in particular in the facts of life is extremely liberating, conciliatory and pacifying

Complicated and brutal ways of divinity in the past/myth :no_mouth:

I’m sticking with simple yet profound Dhamma.


Dear Bhante,

Scary picture indeed! :grin:

with respect and gratitude,


I was reading a book on the theology of the Idabi Islam and came across a couple of pointseminded me of that post of yours. In the ʾAshʿarīyya theological school of Islam God is considered to be always just not because he is subject to the moral laws but because he created this very law, and is, therefore, above any moral or ethical considerations and his every action is per definitionem just. So, the substitute sacrifice is not the story of ‘taming God’ or subjugating his actions to the ethics, but rather a story of a divine whim. He could have just as well not ordered the substitute sacrifice and it still would have been a perfectly just moral action. As some of the ʾAshʿarīyya theologians wrote, even if God would declare anything that is now evil to be good and anything that is good to be evil, there would be nothing to stop Him. The ʾAshʿarīyya school is widely spread in the regions of the Shāfiʿī and Mālikī madhhabs, i.e. is influential for at least 250 million people (possibly more), so as you see the idea of God as the Absolute Ruler is still very much alive.

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Taking this theme to a tangent, albeit I feel an important one, is the idea that monastics should not be so tied to repulsiveness of the body, or not-self, or self sacrifice, that they neglect their health and fitness. I know of some stories of monks allowing themselves to be fed on by mosquitoes, or bitten by snakes, or medically ill and refusing modern medical treatment. Less harmfully, some monastics feel that their diets are unimportant, or that fitness is not a proper monastic consideration; we then have diabetic and ill monks with preventable diseases.

I’d like to see more of a sense of the Buddha’s magnificent pragmatism, and his sense of acting skillfully, and not foolishly…sometimes letting dengue ridden bugs inject you seems to me silly, when a more skillful approach to mosquitoes might be needed. I’d like to see monks and nuns encouraged to exercise in their kutis, to walk more, and to be allowed ( as one Thai monk did in secret) lift weights to maintain fitness. I’ve heard that Ajahn Passano allows monks to do yoga in their kutis, which I feel is a great idea.

So, to our treasured teacher monks and nuns, our Metta for you overflows, we need and respect you and want you to live long healthy lives. And while none of you may consider self-immolation or finger severing, I for one would like to see self care and fitness emphasized in the Sangha. The lay sangha might be educated a bit as to healthier dana; fewer cakes and sweets, and more protein and veggies. The Buddha lived a mostly fit life to be 80, and we have seen some of our modern great Ajahns live shorter, sicker lives, cut short by lack of self care or a sense that active self care is adhammic. I think of Nanavira Thera as perhaps one tragic example of this.

My two baht for today.


it’s interesting that in the Sabbasava sutta (MN 2) avoidance is prescribed against wild animals, but not insects, who on the other hand are to be met with forbearance

Taints to be Abandoned by Enduring

“What taints, bhikkhus, should be abandoned by enduring? Here a bhikkhu, reflecting wisely, bears cold and heat, hunger and thirst, and contact with gadflies, mosquitoes, wind, the sun, and creeping things; he endures ill-spoken, unwelcome words and arisen bodily feelings that are painful, racking, sharp, piercing, disagreeable, distressing, and menacing to life. While taints, vexation, and fever might arise in one who does not endure such things, there are no taints, vexation, or fever in one who endures them. These are called the taints that should be abandoned by enduring.

Taints to be Abandoned by Avoiding

“What taints, bhikkhus, should be abandoned by avoiding? Here a bhikkhu, reflecting wisely, avoids a wild elephant, a wild horse, a wild bull, a wild dog, a snake, a stump, a bramble patch, a chasm, a cliff, a cesspit, a sewer. Reflecting wisely, he avoids sitting on unsuitable seats, wandering to unsuitable resorts, and associating with bad friends, since if he were to do so wise companions in the holy life might suspect him of evil conduct. While taints, vexation, and fever might arise in one who does not avoid these things, there are no taints, vexation, and fever in one who avoids them. These are called the taints that should be abandoned by avoiding.

that would be good, especially for unhealthy monastics having to be selective in food, but i don’t think monastics are in a position to be picky, as the apposite saying goes ‘beggars can’t be choosers’, so it’s a toll of the homeless life which must be accepted

besides, attitude of contentment in particular with any kind of almsfood as one of the 4 requisites is often praised in the suttas

Therefore, bhikkhus, you should train yourselves thus: ‘We will be content with any kind of robe, almsfood, lodging, medical requisites and we will speak in praise of contentment with any kind of robe, almsfood, lodging, medical requisites, and we will not engage in a wrong search, in what is improper, for the sake of a robe, almsfood, lodging, medical requisites . If we do not get a robe, almsfood, lodging, medical requisites we will not be agitated, and if we get one we will use it without being tied to it, uninfatuated with it, not blindly absorbed in it, seeing the danger in it, understanding the escape.

SN 16.1

i think renunciation means forsaking care about all worldly matters and affairs including diet

when applied to the body the term seems kind of alien and opposite to what the Dhamma stands for, body care would perhaps be more in line with it

Thanks for the reply, LXNDR, my friend. I may have to respectfully agree to disagree with you on this one. While MN2 provides appropriate guidance this text predates knowledge of insects as carriers of deadly disease, so I’d argue we need not take this text as literally as it appears. I still urinate in water every day, though the Vinaya proscribes this, but with modern sanitation, the practice of urinating in water is seen as healthy, not unhealthy, by way of example.

as the apposite saying goes ‘beggars can’t be choosers’, so it’s a toll of the homeless life which must be accepted

I don’t view monastics as beggars, but almsgoers, part of a healthy symbiotic relationship. Just as the lay people depend on the Dhamma being taught as sound, wise, and beneficial, so might as well the dana given in return be the same. I don’t want my Dhamma to be sweetened or without nutritional value. I want it to fuel my life in a beneficial and wise way…so the same for food, in my view.

So, I see the renunciant life as a wise life. We don’t renounce our wisdom, common sense, or our health, but only the aspects of mundane life that draw us away from liberation. I’d like to see our monastics live as long and as healthily as did the Buddha at least, only to pass once their bodies are, naturally, held together like an old cart held together by straps. :wink:

i just quoted it as a curiosity, i don’t think self exposure to bites of insects is prudent when means of protection are handy, probably mosquito nets were unknown to the Buddha’s contemporaries

i just found this particular saying quite apt in relation to bhikkhus, Pali for beggars

there’s another one however ‘don’t look a gift horse in the mouth’

we know that early Sangha monastics couldn’t expect to be offered fresh food, let alone a healthy one

And when he enters a house, some give and some do not. And when they give, some give yesterday’s cooked rice and stale cakes and rancid jelly, sauce and so on. Some, not giving, say, “Please pass on, venerable sir,” others keep silent as if they did not see him. Some avert their faces. Others treat him with harsh words such as: “Go away, you bald-head.”

Visuddhimagga transl. by Ven Nanamoli, pp. 340-341

Today I am fortunate, persevering,
Happy with the scraps in my alms-bowl;
Bhaddiya, son of Godhā,
Practices jhāna without grasping

and so forth

Thag 16.7

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