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.