Last year, there was a horrifying occurrence of another ritual suicide by fire in Buddhism:
In the ensuing discussion, I was alerted to an article by the scholar Georgias Halkias, who argued that suicide by fire was not, as had been thought, a late development in China, but could be traced to the early Buddhist period via the ascetic Kalanos, who accompanied Alexander. Halkias’ article was published in the Journal of the Oxford Centre for Buddhist Studies (8, 2015), and since it had gained some traction among apologists for people burning themselves to death, I decided to publish a full rebuttal in the same journal. Thanks to Alex Wynne and the folks at JOCBS for helping bring it across the line.
TBH, while the topic of Kalanos is fascinating, this article is really only of interest to anyone who has read Halkias’ earlier one. Feel free to ignore it!
There are other interesting articles in the issue, including one by Alex on suicide.
Below is the conclusion.
In modern times, hundreds of Buddhists have burned themselves to death
throughout the world. This article was prompted by the latest such tragedy, a
protest against climate change. Right now, the next self-immolator is having
suicidal thoughts and is considering whether to go ahead. And those who are
Buddhists may well do so in the future in the belief that it is a practice of
ancient and spiritual meaning. They are, in all likelihood, reading articles and
social media posts where people repeat arguments that directly or indirectly
pave the way for more suicide.
The fact that some Buddhists commit suicide by fire does not mean it is an
established “Buddhist” practice. Buddhists are people and they do all kinds
of things, many of them quite stupid. Suicide by fire occurs globally among
people of all different backgrounds, and many of them, including Buddhists,
look to their own scriptures and traditions for justification.
The modern spectacle of suicide by fire as a political protest has no grounds
in early Buddhism. Yet the evolution from there to here is a gradual one. Were
it true that Kalanos was a Buddhist monk, it would push the origins of this
practice much closer to the time of the Buddha, and potentially, establish it as
a genuine practice of early Buddhism.
As we have seen, this is not the case. Rather, while ostensibly building
a historical argument, Halkias displays an uncomfortable tendency to
romanticise suicide by fire. The title of his article describes the gruesome act
of burning oneself to death as a “luminous encounter”. One section is headed
“An incandescent liberation” (2015: 172), another “Ablaze in honour of the
Buddha” (2015: 175). These phrases are not in his sources; he is describing
things as he sees them, not as his sources tell him.
Buddhism teaches us that the human state is precious and that no matter
what, we always have the chance to do better. Suicide achieves no spiritual
end and has no worth or place in any spiritual path. As a political protest, it is
rightly ignored and dismissed by decision-makers, who do not and should not
make decisions based on such extreme and destructive behaviour.
To burn oneself to death is not a “radical form of self-transcendence”
(Halkias 2015: 182). It is an agonising and fruitless display, a waste of a life, and
a sign of a disturbed and despairing mind. Let us please stop romanticising
suicide by fire.