Burning for the Buddha

Generally considered antithetical to Buddhism's Middle Way, self-immolation has a long and surprising history in scripture and practiceJames A. Benn

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On an April morning in 1998, a 60-year-old man stepped into a public toilet in New Delhi and doused himself in gasoline. Outside, the police had just broken up a six-week-old hunger strike led by members of the Tibetan Youth Congress, an organization calling for Tibetan independence. Setting himself on fire, the man emerged flailing and jumping before bringing his hands together in prayer. Thupten Ngodup, a former monk, had become the first Tibetan to self-immolate in protest of China’s decades-long occupation of Tibet. He died soon after in a Delhi hospital following a personal visit from Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama.

Like so many dramatic but brief moments that take the international stage, Thupten Ngodrup’s self-immolation was soon forgotten outside Tibetan activist circles. It wasn’t until over a decade later, on February 27, 2009, that his deed took on new significance. On that day, a monk named Tapey became the second Tibetan to self-immolate as a form of political protest. This time, however, the radical act triggered a series of self-immolations in the years that followed. At the time of this writing, 121 Tibetans, including Thupten Ngodup, have self-immolated in protest of China’s rule over Tibet.

Since self-immolation is relatively new to Tibetan Buddhism, practitioners and scholars alike are still struggling to understand it. Although some commentators have considered it contrary to Buddhism’s basic tenets, the past tells a much more complex story. In Chinese Buddhism, for example, self-immolation has a long and well-documented history.

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