Kapleau on Self-Burning
I posted the following article on SCI Usenet Newsgroup on April 16, 1994, following the self-immolation of Homa Darabi in Iran and Niusha Farrahi in New York. SG
The self-burning of Mr. Niusha Farrahi in New York to protest the Iran-Iraq War; and the recent self-burning of Dr. Homa Darabi in Tehran to protest the conditions of women in Iran have been two occasions that have been on my mind a lot of times. In order to understand this action, I have listened to different ideas. I still do not have any idea myself about self-burning. I read the following by one of the few American Zen masters whom I respect a lot [he is not my guru, teacher, or anything as such; although if I were a Buddhist or if I were strongly interested in Zen, I would probably had hoped that he would seek me as a student. As you know in these practices, if genuine and not commercial junk, contrary to Western style universities, the teacher chooses the student and not the other way.] I read some of Kapleau's works such as THE THREE PILLARS OF ZEN and have learned a lot from him. I do not follow Zen or any other school for that matter; but I respect it just like many other spiritual paths. I also respect Kapleau a lot for his valuable contributions to spiritual teaching in America and for dealing with issues facing the modern world. Issues such as abortion and Euthanasia.
The following is from his book ZEN: THE MERGING OF EAST AND WEST and although the position of the writing is not my position but it is a very enlightened way of looking at the issue of self-burning. Actually as I noted, I still do not have any specific position on this practice. The following is Kapleau's passage:
"In Vietnam there were also monks, nuns, and laymen who burned themselves to death to dramatize the intense sufferings of the Vietnamese people. This self-immolation must be clearly distinguished from suicide, which of course is contrary to the first percept of nonkilling. In ordinary suicide where there is no mental disturbance, the individual does not really want to die, he wants to live, but in a way that he feels is being frustrated by his family, his friends, his work, or his society: or else his life is tedious and, he feels, devoid of meaning. Too weak to struggle to achieve what he desperately longs for, he loses all courage and hope. His barren, pain-producing life becomes unendurable, and in his overwhelming despair he kills himself. Suicide always has a strong element of ego in it: "I can't live MY way, so I would rather die." The act of self- destruction is the suicide's supreme gesture of defiance, symbolic thumbing of his nose at society-the society that at the same time he is dramatically accusing of having failed him rather than he it. But death is not the end, and wherever he is reborn and in whatever form, he will have to face the karmic consequences of his self- slaughter.
"That the self-burning of Buddhist monks, nuns, and laymen in Vietnam sprang from entirely different motivation is clearly seen in the letter of Thich Nhat Hanh [He is a very highly respected spiritual teacher from Vietnam, his works have been widely translated to English-note from SG] to Martin Luther King: "What the monks said in the letters they left before burning themselves aimed only at alarming, at moving the hearts of the oppressors, and at calling the attention of the world to the suffering endured by the Vietnamese. 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 with the utmost courage, frankness, determination, and sincerity ....The Vietnamese monk by burning himself says with all his strength and determination that he can endure the greatest of suffering to protect his people. But why does he have to burn himself to death? The difference between burning oneself and burning oneself to death is only a difference in degree, not in nature. A man who burns himself too much must die. The important thing is not to take one's life but to burn.... To communicate one's feelings by burning oneself therefore is not to commit an act of destruction but to perform an act of construction-that is, to suffer and die for the sake of one's people. This is not suicide ...."
"To sacrifice one's life in this manner calls for
extraordinary courage and usually strong samadhi power, which in turn require
long spiritual training. Who can forget the news media photographs of the
elderly monk who had himself set on fire while sitting in the lotus position?
The sight of the half-incinerated body toppling over generated tremendous shock
waves in the West, particularly in the United States. This reaction was due in
part to the realization that behind this act were fearless egoless, and a
degree of self-control almost unknown in the West today." (Roshi Philip
Kapleau - ZEN: Merging of East and West,
April 16, 1994
* The above article was first posted on SCI (soc.culture.iranian) Usenet newsgroup on April 16, 1994.