Saturday, 17 April 2010

Buddhist Sets Himself On Fire Tunisia

Buddhist Sets Himself On Fire Tunisia Image

Jessica Ravitz

In Chinese Mahayana Buddhism, self-ignition dates back more than 1,500 years. Thich Quang Duc publicly set himself on fire in Vietnam in 1963. Self-immolations are in the news again after Tunisian's act spawns copycats in Africa.

(CNN) Night had fallen when the men heard the sounds on the mountain. First it was a chime, then a recitation of verses, followed by the crackle of wood burning. They scrambled to the summit to see what was happening.

There, seated with his palms together and facing west, was their friend. Flames leapt around the peaceful man, engulfing him. It was just as he'd intended.

The year was 527.

This story of Daodu, a Mahayana Buddhist monk, is told in James Benn's "Burning for the Buddha: Self-Immolation in Chinese Buddhism." Benn, an associate professor of religion at McMaster University in Ontario, Canada, writes that the act of setting oneself on fire dates back in Chinese Buddhist tradition to the late 4th century.

But no matter how old, self-immolation still leaves people horrified, riveted, and moved.

The popular uprising that led to the toppling of Tunisia's government began after Mohamed Bouazizi, an unemployed 26-year-old college graduate, ignited himself in protest and died earlier this month. Since then, a wave of self-immolations has rolled through North Africa, with other incidents in Egypt, Algeria, and Mauritania.



The country has done what many experts once thought was impossible. EGYPT\'S WEB SHUT DOWN - WORLD MARKETS SINK - EYEWITNESS ACCOUNT

* North Africa crisis: Egypt is no Tunisia
* Will Egypt follow Tunisia's lead?
* ElBaradei: The man to lead Egypt?
* Egyptians brace for protests as Web, IM disrupted
* American, Chinese diplomats meet in Beijing

FIRE IN THE LOTUS SUTRAIn BUDDHISM, the subject of self-immolation is controversial, said Robert Sharf, the chair of the Center for Buddhist Studies at the University of California, Berkeley.

"Many (Buddhist) schools strongly condemn suicide," he said, "but at the same time, in East Asia, self-immolation has been practiced on and off for well over a thousand years."

Like most religions, he said, the canonical literature is so vast that, if you dig deep enough, you can find teachings to fit your needs.

Enter the Lotus Sutra, considered one of the most significant [Mahayana] Buddhist scriptures in East Asia. There's a small passage in one chapter that speaks of a Medicine King, one with great spiritual and moral wisdom.

"The sutra tells us that as an offering to the Buddha and to display his insight that the body is not a permanent, unchanging self, he poured fragrant oil on himself and allowed himself to be burned by fire," wrote Buddhist monk, author, teacher, and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh is his book,

"Peaceful Action, Open Heart."

"This is a quite radical demonstration of his freedom and insight, one that was made out of a very deep love," he wrote.

And it was this part of the Lotus Sutra that Vietnamese monks and nuns pointed to when it came to self-immolation in the 1960s.

But people don't burn themselves to death "simply because the Lotus Sutra says to do it," emphasized UC Berkeley's Sharf. "While it is an extreme and contentious practice, some Buddhists regard it as the ultimate form of self-sacrifice, justified in times of social crisis to bring about political transformation."

As for the recent self-immolations in North Africa, As'ad AbuKhalil said they are about sought-after change, not about religion.

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