The horrifying act of self-immolation has come to prominence with the suicide of a climate activist from a Buddhist community.
On Sunday, [Dr.] Kritee Kanko, a Boulder-based climate scientist and Zen Buddhist priest, said Bruce was a friend and member of her Buddhist community, who had been planning the self-immolation for “at least one year”.
“This act is not suicide. This is a deeply fearless act of compassion to bring attention to climate crisis,” Kanko said in a tweet.
In a subsequent interview with the New York Times, Kanko said she could not be certain about Bruce’s intentions. She told the newspaper that “people are being driven to extreme amounts of climate grief and despair” and that “what I do not want to happen is that young people start thinking about self-immolation”.
Kanko’s claim that this is “not suicide” evidently stems from remarks made by Thich Nhat Hahn in a letter he wrote in 1965 to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., cited by Dr. Kritee:
“The press spoke then of suicide, but in the essence, it is not. It is not even a protest,” Thich Nhat Hanh wrote of the monks, adding that “to burn oneself by fire is to prove that what one is saying is of the utmost importance. There is nothing more painful than burning oneself. To say something while experiencing this kind of pain is to say it with utmost courage, frankness, determination, and sincerity.”
Let’s be clear: they’re both wrong. This is, most assuredly, suicide. One might argue that it is justifiable suicide, but playing language games only obscures the reality.
Bruce’s suicide was preceded by that of David Buckel in 2018, who apparently also alluded to the practice of self-immolation among Tibetan Buddhists.
Such suicides were not taught by the Buddha, do not feature in any authentic texts of early Buddhism, and run contrary to the theme of harmlessness that is the cornerstone of Buddhist philosophy and morality.
As Buddhist practitioners, we should be offering support for the meditative and spiritual resilience for those affected by climate grief and anxiety. This includes the family, friends, and community of Wynn Bruce and David Buckel, who suffer tremendous grief stemming directly from their choice to commit suicide in such a public and horrifying way.
Since suicide is not part of the Buddha’s teaching, where does this practice come from? It seems to me that the origins might lie in the few cases in the Suttas where very advanced practitioners who were at death’s door took their own lives. In the Jataka stories, there came to be the idea that a Bodhisattva could lay down their life for another. These stories are centuries later than the Buddha, and usually have a non-Buddhist origin. In those stories, laying down one’s life is said to be in search of Nibbana, but the Buddha never said such a thing.
In recent times, Buddhists of Vietnam and more recently Tibet and Sri Lanka, have immolated themselves, not for spiritual goals, but as a political protest in service of their country. This has drifted even further from the spiritual context of Buddhism.
To my knowledge, in not a single of these cases have the self-immolators achieved their goals. They aim to raise awareness, to send a message, but it has no affect whatsoever on the actual issue. And this latest case will be no different: the US Supreme Court is deliberating an issue and they will make a decision. They will not, and should not, be influenced by the extreme actions of a lone protester.
To be effective, protest has to mobilize a significant portion of the population in a sustained manner, one that becomes impossible to ignore and which infiltrates the mainstream institutions that actually make decisions. Even then, protest will usually fail, but without it there’s no chance.
Extreme acts of self-harm have no place in a spiritual path or in a protest movement. To their credit, the teachers of the Rocky Mountain Ecodharma Retreat, where Wynn Bruce was a student, made no excuses for this practice, saying:
We have never talked about self-immolation, and we do not think self-immolation is a climate action.
Yet, seeking balance where there is none, they conclude by saying:
We hope we can hear Wynn’s message without condoning his method.
I’m sorry but no. It’s not “Wynn’s message”, it’s the message of climate scientists. The strength of his feelings, and the extremity of his actions, tell us nothing about what is happening with the environment or what we can do about it. It tells us only of the nihilistic despair into which he fell.
Another voice on Twitter, apparently a friend of Bruce Wynn, says what many would suspect:
It was self-expression. He often spoke of immolation as a lifelong fantasy. He tried to do it once before, in NYC. He claimed it showed how he felt inside, specifically in relation to the way the court system treated him. This was personal, more than ideological. RIP, dear friend
We should be listening to the rational and balanced voices of climate scientists, to those who understand the issues. The teachers know this; at least one of them is a climate scientist herself. Why should we pretend to “hear his message” when it tells us nothing we have not heard, and said, a thousand times? All it does is tell others that this is an effective way to get a message across. Make no mistake: there will be more.
Self-immolation is not a message, it’s a debasement: of humanity, of Buddhism, and of climate action. It distracts from the message, while giving aid and succor to those who argue that climate activists create anxiety and stress, that we are nothing more than a loony fringe.
Let us please find it in ourselves to have compassion for people whose delusional and disordered minds lead them to such an extreme, without pretending that they have a message that we need to hear.
And for those who are suffering from anxiety and grief in the face of the disintegration of our natural home: I see you, and I share your pain. You are not crazy, and you are not alone. Rather, to feel nothing in the face of such vast and incomprehensible destruction is a symptom of delusion and inhumanity.
We may not be able to fix the world, but we do not have to let the world break us. We can stand up with honesty and integrity, no matter what, and retain our dignity and our capacity for moral choice. If humanity is to be redeemed for its terrible crimes against nature—for its ecocide and potentially omnicide—it can only be redeemed by those who refuse despair and destruction in all its forms.
If anyone is experiencing grief and despair due to climate change, please feel free to send me a PM and we can meet and talk.