June 18, 2010

Can a Buddhist rationalize suicide?

self-immolating monk, thich quang duc, four rivers project, south korea, chogye order, korean monk disappearsLeading Korean environmentalist and Buddhist monk disappeared not long after fellow environmentalist and friend, the Ven. Munsu, self-immolated on a riverbank to protest the South Korean government's Four Rivers Project.The Ven. Su Kyung of the Chogye order resigned his post and renounced his title, claiming he'd been living a hypocritical life, according to Union of Catholic Asian News:

"After Munsu’s offering,” he wrote, “I could see my problem clearly. I’m afraid of death and I cannot solve the riddle of my life and death. As a Zen Buddhist, how can I live like this?”

He also lamented his years in the environmental movement, saying they were too much concerned with the pursuit of power. “I cannot live the hypocritical life of a respected monk,” he said.

The Four Rivers Project has been an environmental cause celebre since the South Korean government first invested $19.2 billion to remake the country's four longest rivers. Munsu's suicide in protest of the project drew international attention and for many recalled Quang Duc, who publicly self-immolated in protest of the Vietnam war in 1963.

I once asked Thich Nhat Hanh about Quang Duc, and whether the monk's decision o take his life made sense. Without answering directly, Thay, as he is more familiarly known, responded that the suffering the people at the time was so intense the monk felt it necessary to take on himself.

Not quite a yes or no, but an expression of understanding and nonjudgment. Venerable Jigwan of the Buddhist Environmental Solidarity took this understanding further: He argued that "Venerable Munsu’s death is not a suicide but 'an offering to Buddha' to stop the project through his death."

Not all agree: Father Paul Suh San-geen, chief coordinator of the Catholic Solidarity for Deterrence of Four Major Rivers Project, told the UCAN:

“It’s a tragedy that religious people should take their lives to stop the project,” [he said], “I worry about another similar attempt.”

For both Catholics and Buddhists suicide is considered unacceptable, but monks who have set themselves on fire to protest war, social injustice and now, environmental degradation, arouse mixed feelings. And if you consider the guiding metaphor of Christia martyrdom—not least the crucifixion—whether explicit or not, self-sacrifice is likely to evoke as much awed admiration and grief as judgment.

UPDATE: Vanya writes by way of correction, "Quang Duc was not protesting the Vietnam War. He was protesting repression of Buddhists by the South Vietnamese government."

Thanks, Vanya!

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mike's picture

Could you please update us on Su Kyong's situation as news becomes available?

I have to be honest, in saying that I find his courage to talk openly about his fear of death to be refreshing and hopefully it will enable others who have the same fear to be open as well.

Despite the robes, the pomp, and status in the end we are all only human and face the same issues of life and death - even in the monastery. Nobody should have to face those issues alone. I wish Su Kyong the very best and consider him someone who has decided to go with his integrity. Does Buddhism get any better than that?

Aka's picture

"In another reincarnation described in the Mahavastu, Kaundinya and his four colleagues who were to become the first bhikkhus were seafaring merchants under the command of the future Gautama Buddha. The future Buddha sacrificed himself to save them from an ocean death. The Divyavadana describes two further reincarnations of Kaundinya. In one he was a bird named Uccangama. In another, he was a tigress and Gautama Buddha another tiger. The future Buddha sacrificed his own life by offering himself as meat to the hungry tigress so that it would not eat its own cubs."

Buddha sacrificed his life many times in order to benefit others. Some may call it suicide while others may call it sacrifice.

James Shaheen's picture

@mark Thank you for your comment. How Catholics and Buddhists reach their conclusions may be different but both conclude that suicide is unacceptable. Whether in the case of Buddhism this is a categorical proscription will depend on interpretation.

@vanya Thanks for the correction.

Vanya's picture

Quang Duc was not protesting the Vietnam War. He was protesting repression of Buddhists by the South Vietnamese government.

And I disagree that Catholicism's prohibition against suicide is a rigid moral abstraction. It comes from the belief human life is a gift from God.

Mark's picture

The phrase, "For both Catholics and Buddhists suicide is considered unacceptable" mistakenly equates Catholicism's adherance to rigid moral abstractions with dharma ethics arising from mindful and compassionate awareness. If one were to perceive that one's death were what was necessary to prevent great suffering, and that there was no real "you" and no real "death", then would it not be compassionate to lay down your life? Surely suicide, or any action based on a wrong view of self -- "I can't stand my emotional pain anymore" -- can't be justified as skillful. But it does not seem to me that the dharma is about conforming your self to a set of rules and blanket moral judgements. It's about seeing clearly and responding from Right View.

running42k's picture

Depending on the cause, on person's suicide is another person's martyr.