Self-immolation refers to ascetic practices that include the voluntary termination of life or the offering of parts of the body. The most commonly encountered types of self-immolation in Buddhism are auto-cremation (the deliberate incineration of one's own body) and the burning off of fingers. Buddhist literature refers to such practices by a variety of terms that may best be rendered as "abandoning the body." In the popular imagination, the best-known examples of self-immolation are the Vietnamese monks who burned themselves to death between 1963 and 1975 to protest the anti-Buddhist policies pursued by the government of South Vietnam. The autocremation of Thích Quang Du'c on June 11, 1963, was captured by the American reporter Malcolm Browne in a series of photographs that have been frequently reproduced. Autocremation by Vietnamese Buddhists continues to be reported in the 1990s and early years of the twenty-first century.
Self-immolation is best attested in Chinese Buddhist sources, which record hundreds of cases dating from the late fourth to the mid-twentieth century. Very few of these acts can be understood as political protest. The offering of fingers is still recognized and carried out as an ascetic practice by monks in China and Korea.
Chinese Buddhist sources contain many accounts of monks, nuns, and laypeople who encouraged insects to feed on their blood, cut their own flesh (particularly the thigh), burned incense on their skin, or burned their fingers, toes, or arms. These practices did not always result in death, but they were still classified as heroic examples of "abandoning the body." There are also accounts of people who starved themselves to death, disemboweled themselves, drowned in rivers or oceans, leapt from cliffs or trees, or fed themselves to wild animals. Although drowning seems to have been more common in Japan, autocremation was the most commonly attested form of self-immolation in China. The preparations for autocremation usually involved the construction of a funeral pyre, inside which the monk or nun would sit. The body was often wrapped in oil-soaked cloth to expedite the burning process, and frequently the autocremator would also consume oil and incense for several days or even months beforehand. Autocremation was usually a public event witnessed by a large audience. In the early medieval period (fifth to seventh centuries c.e.) Chinese emperors and senior officials often attended and later eulogized these dramatic acts.
Autocremation was primarily a Sinitic Buddhist creation that first appeared in late fourth-century China. As practiced in China, autocremation was not a continuation of an Indian custom. Rather, it developed after a particular interpretation of certain Indian texts was combined with indigenous traditions, such as burning the body to bring rain, a practice that long predated the arrival of Buddhism in China. The most influential textual models were some of the bloodier jĀtaka tales and the twenty-third chapter of the Lotus SŪtra (Chinese, Miaofa lianhua jing; Sanskrit, Saddharmapuṇḍarīka-sūtra), in which the Bodhisattva Bhaiṣajyagururāja (Medicine-King) burns his body in offering to the buddhas and to the sūtra itself. The literary precedents for the practice of self-immolation found in Indian Buddhist sources are often extremely graphic, even if they were intended only rhetorically. These have been well studied by Hubert Durt and Reiko Ohnuma. The validity of self-immolation was reinforced by the production of Chinese apocryphal sūtras that vindicated the practice, by the composition of biographies of self-immolators, and, in time, their inclusion in the Buddhist canon as exemplars of heroic practice.
Self-immolation was often controversial and attracted opposition from Confucians and sometimes from the state. The Confucian revivalist Han Yu (768–824), in his famous Lun Fogu biao (Memorial on the Buddha Relic), warned Emperor Xianzong (r. 805–820) in 819 that he should not honor the Buddha's relic because this would trigger a mass outbreak of religious fervor, causing people to burn the tops of their heads and set fire to their fingers. An edict promulgated in 955 by Emperor Shizong (r. 954–959) of the Later Zhou explicitly prohibited self-immolation for both saṅgha and laity. Within Buddhism, the strongest objection came from the eminent monk Yijing (635–713), who wrote a lengthy diatribe against autocremation in his Nanhai jigui neifa zhuan (An Account of the Dharma Sent Back from the Southern Seas). Much later the Ming dynasty cleric Zhuhong (1532–1612) included a heartfelt and extremely critical essay on the practice of burning the body in his Zheng'e ji (Rectification of Errors, 1614). The most coherently and passionately argued defense of self-immolation is that of Yongming Yanshou (904–975) in his Wanshan Tonggui ji (The Common End of the Myriad Good Practices). For Yanshou self-immolation is primarily a manifestation of dĀna (giving), and as the ultimate expression of this pĀramitĀ (perfection) it is grounded in ultimate truth rather than at the level of conventional phenomena.
Benn, James A. "Where Text Meets Flesh: Burning the Body as an 'Apocryphal Practice' in Chinese Buddhism." History of Religions 37, no. 4 (1998): 295–322.
Durt, Hubert. "Two Interpretations of Human-Flesh Offering: Misdeed or Supreme Sacrifice." Journal of the International College for Advanced Buddhist Studies (Kokosai Bukkyōgaku daigakuin daigaku kenkyṢ kiyo) 1 (1998): 236–210 (sic).
Gernet, Jacques. "Les suicides par le feu chez les bouddhistes chinois de Ve au Xe siècle." Mélanges publiés par l'Institute des Hautes Études Chinoises 2 (1960): 527–558.
Jan, Yün-hua. "Buddhist Self-Immolation in Medieval China." History of Religions 4 (1965): 243–265.
Ohnuma, Reiko. "The Gift of the Body and the Gift of the Dharma." History of Religions 37, no. 4 (1998): 323–359.
Orzech, Charles D. "Provoked Suicide and the Victim's Behavior." In Curing Violence, ed. Mark I. Wallace and Theophus H. Smith. Sonoma, CA: Polebridge Press, 1994.
James A. Benn