Self-immolation is not an authentic Buddhist practice

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.

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Thank you Bhante @sujato for this post :pray:

This is truly a situation worthy of compassion. In my past work in Mental health I have worked directly with people who ‘attempted’ (didn’t fully succeed) in self immolation. It is a highly complex situation, and as Bhante so clearly says, it is not about any specific message and it is definitely not Buddhist, but a distorted way to deal with feelings of being trapped in despair (due to a specific situation) and seeing no way to resolve the situation. This act is then of absolute desperation, misperceived as a ‘meaningful’ way to take action where all other things appear ineffective, and it gets tied in or bolstered by all kinds of latent beliefs or myths such as self sacrifice, purging and re-birth through fire etc etc. In this way it differs from suicide, in that it is ‘perceived’ as an action and not an escape. This may be part of what Thich Nhat Hahn was alluding to.

It is when the pain of doing nothing and being witness is so bad, that setting oneself on fire seems less painful, and the (inaccurate) thought that maybe it will lead to change, makes it a ‘reasonable’ option in that persons mind at that time. But as Bhante said - this is a deluded perception, and it will change over time, dependent on conditions.

Having witnessed this situation myself, I urge in the strongest terms, that no-one follow this example. If in despair and suffering, please seek support and comfort. There are many skillful means to deal with despair, either through mental health interventions or practices of Right Attention (yoniso manasekara) and Right Action as part of the Noble 8 fold Path. We have the ability to put in place the conditions that will lead to better mind states, to more peace, and to the ability to live in all circumstances with compassion and to experience happiness and ease.

If one thinks the misery going into an action like this is bad - it is nothing compared to the misery of surviving attempted immolation. I have had to work with people who have survived, but burned off parts of their face, body, hands, and are left with the consequences.

Be wise, be compassionate to oneself, seek support.

May all Beings find the path to peace :pray: :sparkling_heart: :sunflower:

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Between the Jatakas and recent Vietnamese, Tibetan and Sri Lankan occurrences there is a fairly long history of the practice in China dating from at least 400 CE, see here for an academic article on the history of the practice by professor James Benn of McMaster UNiversity.

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Thank you, Bhante. :pray:

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Curious to hear Ajahn @Brahmali’s take, as he previously defended “compassionate” suicide, thus:

:pray:

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Yes, it’s unfortunately a meme of self-sacrifice found in Mahayana literature in various forms. Bodhisattvas are often depicted mutilating themselves or throwing their lives away as acts of devotion in the grander scheme of countless rebirths, which makes the present life something inconsequential. What originally may have been fictional hyperbole was taken by people literally and acted out in real life. As the article you site documents, it’s been happening for a long time.

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Even in the suttas, it appears the Buddha only allowed suicide due to illness if someone was “blameless”, which I take to mean an Arahant.

I don’t think the Buddha condoned suicide in any other situation.

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Thank you, Bhante.
May Wynn find an end to suffering sooner rather than later.

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This is getting off topic, but if I may point out that this is an interpretation. There’s nowhere the Buddha actually says he “allows” anything like this.

It’s equally possible to read the text as saying that, in certain extreme cases, namely in the case of a terminally ill patient suffering extreme pain with no hope of recovery, the act of taking one’s life is blameless, and hence it is possible for an arahant to do it. And in fact that is what I think it means.

There’s nowhere else, I believe, that the Buddha “allows” an arahant to do something that others may not do. It’s not how Buddhist ethics works. Something is right or wrong because of the quality of the act, not because of who performs it; a person is shaped by their deeds, deeds are not shaped by the person.

This is how the Sutta (SN 35.87) frames it. The phrase is:

Anupavajjaṁ channo bhikkhu satthaṁ āharissati
The mendicant Channa will slit his wrists blamelessly

“Blameless” acts as an adverb here, it applies not to the person but to the act.

We’re not supposed to carve out special exceptions to excuse the actions of arahants that are unacceptable for ordinary folks. On the contrary, the actions of an arahant are supposed to set an example of the highest conduct, something to aspire to. And I think these texts act as an implicit acceptance of the fact that even such a fundamental precept as that against taking life has its limits. Yes, it’s hard to know exactly what those limits are, and no, a couple of brief references in 2,500 year old spiritual texts are not going to give us all the answers.

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Indeed. It’s the act of taking up a new body that is considered blameworthy in that sutta. If you can get reborn as a deva and achieve nibbāna from there, that’s also blameless I suppose. So not just arahants.

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You might want to see some doomsday Christian cult who committed mass suicide because they believe that the end of the world is near. There’s massive disowning of the cult, sane people are moved to not want to join in. And it paints a picture for those outside of Christian to say: religion is what compels otherwise good, rational people to do stupid things.

While this does exist in Mahayana texts, it is generally in non-political contexts, such as offering a body part to a Buddha or offering one’s body to an animal to eat as the Buddha does in some Jatakas. I don’t think that its usage in political protest really appears in classic Mahayana texts. I know that the practice of burning a finger or a body part did exist in pre-modern Chinese Buddhism, but again, this wasn’t done for political protest reasons often as far as I am aware. Wikipedia says that five Chinese monks self-immolated in China during the Buddhist persecution of Emperor Wu but it doesn’t cite sources…

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I don’t recall saying it was?

I have compassion for Wynn Bruce and do hope he finds peace in one of his future lives. But I do agree with Ven. Sujato that this was a fundamentally unwholesome and unhelpful act that should not be encouraged. It bothers me that ppl on twitter and reddit seem to be apologizing for this act and saying this is condoned by Buddhism, usually in reference to Thich Nhat Hanh.

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Burning yourself alive for attention is ego trip + mental problems

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The individual who commited self-immolation was probably thinking this was a noble sacrifice in order to attract attention to a worthy cause but in reality he was deluding himself with this in order to conceal the real emotions that most of the time accompany the act of suicide: fear, anger, pride, restlessness, desire, etc.

Violence is violence and there’s nothing noble about this.

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you didn’t, I didn’t mean to imply this in my post above.

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Something I probably should have said is that Mahayana texts rarely depict what we would today call self-harm as self-harm. It’s usually under the rubric of dana. In their way of thinking, the physical body is in reality no more than another material possession, which I think did begin in Jataka literature. There are a couple stories about a King Shibi, which can be found in the Dazhidulun, that come to mind. So, it’s a sort of supermundane form of giving. But there’s plenty of stories illustrating this idea, self-immolation (burning oneself like incense or a lamp) being one of them. They get a bit grotesque at times, so I won’t recount them here. It’s probably something that in modern times is overlooked in favor of philosophy. In ancient times, though, I think they play a much larger role. In those days, it was religious ideologies that captured cultural imagination rather than political ones.

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Right, good point. The fervor with which people will act to ensure … the political outcomes they want in their region? It’s so small-minded. To give up everything, to hurt so many people, for what? A decision in an EPA case? Racist posturing against halal slaughter?


I am only just learning of how prevalent self-immolation is, and how disturbingly similar the patterns are across cultures.

in Sri Lanka:

Seventy nine percent of the victims were females and 72% were in the 15-34 years age-group. Most had marital problems. The majority were Tamils, but Muslims were fairly well represented(*). … Social make-up and poor problem-solving ability may be contributing factors

(*) Note, this study was in Batticaloa, where it’s only 1.1% Buddhists.

in Nepal:

patients with intentional burns were more likely to be female (79 vs. 48%), married (84 vs. 67%), younger (25 vs. 30 years), have more extensive burns (total body surface area, %: 55 vs. 25) and higher mortality (60 vs. 22%). Intentional burns were more likely to occur at home (95 vs. 67%), be caused by fire (96 vs. 77%), and kerosene was the most common accelerant (91 vs. 31%). A primary psychosocial risk factor was identified in the majority of intentional burn cases, with 60% experiencing adjustment problems/interpersonal conflict and 32% with evidence of a pre-existing psychological condition.

in Iran:

the majority were female (63.2%) and married (66.3%). Most of the patients were from rural areas (58.3%) with an education level of under diploma (63.2%). Of the patients in our study, 22 (8.7%) had comorbid systemic diseases and 115 (50.5%) had psychiatric disorders.

Young women, poorly educated, suffering emotional distress due to unhappy marriages, and—reading between the lines—a history of abuse and domestic violence. It’s so horrible.


Make no mistake: this will happen again. It’s no one-off. The next Buddhist self-immolator is already having suicidal ideation. And they are listening to the voices in the Buddhist community—maybe even on this very thread—who are telling them it is a noble and heroic act of self-sacrifice, the courage of the bodhisattvas. And this will encourage them to act on their impulses. In coming years we will see this again and again.

I am begging everyone to refrain from attributing spiritual meaning or an important message to any act of suicide.

Meanwhile, the YouTube algorithm, in its unfathomable glory, gave me this. Wynn Bruce, I wish you were here.

(Description for those who don’t want to click)

Over 120 voices came together today as a #Flashmob in Heuston railway station Dublin, Ireland for World Suicide Prevention Day - 10 September 2018 “Working together to prevent suicide”. All were brought together by Music Director Andrius Kozlovskis.

The top comment:

The man playing guitar on the left side was my father, Martin O’Hara. Shortly after this event he was diagnosed with cancer, and very recently after a long hard battle, dad has passed away. So this was one of dads final performances. It meant the world to him that people took the time out of their day to slow down and listen. It also meant the world to him when I told him how many of you people online have resonated with this moment. To slow down that day and stop to listen to those performers and singers was an effortless decision for any passers-by, but it meant a great deal more to him and I, it really was an honour. And dad died with that pride and peace that you gave him, so on his behalf, thank you so much for listening.

Life is precious. Don’t ever forget that, and never doubt that you are valuable and your life has meaning. Even if you can’t see it, others can. Be patient, live a life of goodness, and happiness will come to you when you least expect it.


And finally, if you need a bit of happiness, Bhante Buddharakkhita has you:

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from the D&D staff
:pray:t4:

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