May 30, 2012 § Leave a comment

Self-immolation refers to setting oneself on fire, often as a form of protest or for the purposes of martyrdom or suicide. It has centuries-long traditions in some cultures, while in modern times it has become a type of radical political protest. Michael Biggs compiled a list of 533 “self-immolations” reported by Western media from the 1960s to 2002, though in this work his definition includes more than just self-immolation by fire.

Self-immolation is tolerated by some elements of Mahayana Buddhism and Hinduism, and it has been practiced for many centuries, especially in India, for various reasons, including Sati, political protest, devotion, and renouncement. Certain warrior cultures, such as in the Charans and Rajputs, also practiced self-immolation. An article entitled History of Religions, written by Jan Yun-Hua, investigates the medieval Chinese Buddhist precedents for self-immolation.

A number of Buddhist monks (including the most famous case of Thích Quảng Đức) immolated themselves in protest of the discriminatory treatment endured by Buddhists under the Roman Catholic administration of President Ngô Đình Diệm in South Vietnam — even though violence against oneself is prohibited by most interpretations of Buddhist doctrine. The twenty-third chapter of the Lotus Sutra recounts the life story of the Bodhisattva Medicine King, which served as the main inspiration for the monks and nuns who self-immolated to protest the Vietnam War. In the Sutra, the Medicine King demonstrates his insight into the selfless nature of his body by ritualistically setting his body aflame, spreading the “light of the Dharma” for twelve hundred years. Thich Nhat Hanh adds: “The bodhisattva shined his light about him so that everyone could see as he could see, giving them the opportunity to see the deathless nature of the ultimate.”

List of political self-immolations 1960-2010 (Wikipedia)


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