Academic journal article Journal of Buddhist Ethics

Thresholds of Transcendence: Buddhist Self-Immolation and Mahayanist Absolute Altruism, Part One

Academic journal article Journal of Buddhist Ethics

Thresholds of Transcendence: Buddhist Self-Immolation and Mahayanist Absolute Altruism, Part One

Article excerpt


In China and Tibet, and under the gaze of the global media, the four-year period from February 2009 to February 2013 saw the self-immolations of at least 110 Tibetan Buddhist monks and lay-people. (3) An English Tibetan Buddhist monk, then resident in France, joined this number in mid-November 2012, though his self-immolation has been excluded from the authoritative accounts of the exile Tibetan and other documenters of the ongoing Tibetan crisis.

The reasons for this are various and non-explicit; some perhaps lie in the real and interpretive ambiguity between personal suicide, religious (or ritual-transcendental) suicide, political suicide, and political suicide within the Buddhist saigha specifically. Such ambiguity is reflected in the varying assessments of the practice given by globally significant Buddhist leaders such as His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama and the Vietnamese monk and activist Thich Nhat Hanh. Part One of this essay surveys the textual and theoretical background to the record and reception of suicide in Pali Buddhist texts, and the background to self-immolation in the Mahayana. Part Two summarizes the Tibetan Buddhist monastic and lay self-immolations of February 2009 to February 2013 and, with the textual background in view, theorizes a non-endorsive but constructive account of them as a religious and political act in the "global repertoire of contention," in order to clarify those claims for what is a critically urgent issue in Buddhist ethics.

One of the reasons for this lack of clarity to date is that little attention has been paid to the metaethical background for such acts. By surveying the empirical data of the cases of Tibetan Buddhist self-immolation, recent commentary has sought to adduce their heterogeneous valuations, motivations and ethical effects (4) that themselves require responses that, also widely varying, leave these acts in ethical irresolution.

Many distinctions are relevant to this clarification. We need, ideally, to consider both the canonical record and its commentary, the orthopraxical monastic and lay responses to them, the lay and monastic suicides themselves, their varying motivations, and their political and transcendental-sacrificial dimensions. Many of those detailed tasks lie beyond this discussion, which generalizes from the given cases. Essentially contentional in nature, the self-immolations provoke a widely varying range of valuations rather than a univocal condemnation or praise. It may be that their ultimate ethical import is something that can only be comparatively resolved in a still-unknown future.

Thankfully, Buddhist studies scholarship of recent decades has developed textual analyses on which we can draw to consider relevant hypotheses. (5) My concern here, however, will be to apply existing theoretical analyses to the contemporary Tibetan and Western cases in order to discern possible Buddhist-normative grounds common to them, and to the schools of the Buddhist tradition generally.

Accordingly, there are three main dimensions to the Buddhist self-immolations of 2009 to 2013 that both parts of this essay seek to address. The first, is twofold: 1) the Buddhist-theoretical background from the Theravada and Mahayana traditions that understands suicide (and self-immolation) in a wide range of signification, and scholarly argument concerning it, and 2) how the current suicides relate ethically (moreso than socio-historically) to that textual tradition--here, however, in immanent terms, and only secondarily in the more explicitly transcendental bodhisattvic discourse familiar from the Lotus Sutra and elsewhere. These analyses constitute Part One.

The second main concern, briefly, is the empirical circumstance of Buddhist self-immolation, in Tibet, (6) and in the West; the third dimension is the normative and meta-ethical status of self-immolation vis-a-vis both Buddhist culture and its contentional relation to the extra-Buddhist world. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.