The Sacrifice of the Bodhisattva

Buddhist nun Palden Choetso
Buddhist nun Palden Choetso (d. Nov. 3, 2011)

This week two more Tibetans set themselves on fire in the cause for greater freedom and the return from exile of the Dalai Lama. 102 Tibetan monks, nuns and laypersons have set themselves on fire since 2009.

I support not only autonomy for the Tibetan region but independence from China. That, however, is not the subject of this post, just my simple statement of solidarity with the Tibetan people.

While some, the Chinese government, for instance, maintain that the self-immolations violate Buddhist principles, there is another side to that. In traditional Mahayana teachings, the sacrifice is a critical aspect of Bodhisattva path. The Bodhisattva engages in altruistic action with all the forces of body, speech and mind, and in the cause for the liberation of all living beings, there is nothing the Bodhisattva should hold back. A Bodhisattva does not acquire anything that “he would have not the heart to let go,” says the Narayana-pariprccha. That includes “his own hand, his foot, nose, head, limbs greater and lesser, son, daughter, wife, love, servant, mind, ease, house, wealth, country, treasure and all that is his,” according to the Bodhisattva-pratimoksha. The merit the Bodhisattva accrues because of altruistic action is up for grabs. Even one’s own body is but an offering to place on the altar of altruism.

Elsewhere in the Narayana-pariprccha, it says,

Even so the Bodhisattva must regard as medicine this his frame composed of the four great elements, and say, ‘Let all creatures take it of me as they require it, a hand, for such as need it, or a foot, for such as need it.”

In the Akshayamati Sutra, the Bodhisattva vows, “I must wear out even this my body for the behests of all creatures.” Because the Bodhisattva understands the impermanence of the body, it is not held dearly. The body is shared in any case, shared as we shared the air and the space around us, through interconnectedness. And yet, even though the body is non-essential, to be shared, “worn out,” renounced, the Bodhisattva is nonetheless enjoined to preserve the body, keeping it healthy and strong:

“O Sariputra, one must preserve one’s self when one intends to preserve others.”


The Akshayamati Sutra suggests that it is important for the Bodhisattva to keep the body free from disease, “out of regard for his fellows.” That’s an interesting thought, to maintain good health for the benefit of others.

Medicine King Bodhisattva
Medicine King Bodhisattva

There are a few stories about this extreme form of compassionate effort, such as the jataka tale of the Bodhisattva who made a sacrifice of his body to a hungry tigress. The Mahayana Nirvana Sutra tells of Himalaya Kumara or the Snow Mountains Boy who leaped into the mouth of a demon to receive a teaching composed of eight characters. There are self-immolations, as well, one being the Medicine King Bodhisattva who as an offering to the Buddha set his body on fire and burned for twelve hundred years.

But, these are myths, and as the Japanese priest, Nichiren once pointed out, “Such austere practices are for saints and sages, but not for ordinary people . . . Yet even common mortals can attain Buddhahood if they cherish one thing: earnest faith. In the deepest sense, earnest faith is the will to understand and live up to the spirit, not the words, of the sutras.”

Faith in this sense is not a matter of belief, but sincerity. For those who follow the Buddha way, more important than offerings of incense or money and the like, is the offering of our sincere efforts to live up to the spirit of the teachings. That means to practice kindness, to respect others, to take care of others, and to take care of ourselves.

Most of us, hopefully none of us, will ever find ourselves in a situation that would demand engaging in the ultimate selfless action of setting our body on fire, or any other sacrifice of that nature. Those living in Tibet, however, are living in the worst kind of nightmare.

Recently, Prof. Robert Thurman, in an article, “The Cry of Freedom,” wrote of the self-immolation of the Tibetan Buddhist nun Palden Choetso:

When you destroy your body, you violate your own life, the lives of what Buddhists call “the 84,000 cells” that constitute it. This does seem violent. Yet in this case, the individual sacrifices herself to appeal to her enemy, to convey the perhaps all-too-subliminal message that they have nothing to fear from her, that she will resist their relationship of fear and harm by removing herself from being the target of their ultimately self-destructive, evil behavior. That is true non-harming—perfect resistance by complete surrender.”

Thurman calls these extreme acts “a final appeal for a change in the iron hearts of their oppressors.”

Some critics of the self-immolations say the Tibet situation is not about Buddhism, it must be about politics or something. However, it seems they are missing one of the prime points of the teachings. The Bodhisattva-pratimoksha says, “in all business of life.” The Anantamukha-nirhdradhdrani, “Wherever conflicts arise amongst living creatures . . .” And the Lotus Sutra, “No affairs of life or work are in any way different from the ultimate reality.” It’s all about dharma. Everything.

How one reconciles these teachings on the sacrifice of the Bodhisattva with conflicting Buddhist teachings is an individual matter. My own feelings about the self-immolations are torn. I believe, for instance, that being outside the region, Tonden (David Alain), the British monk who set himself on fire at Nalanda monastery near Labastide-Saint-Georges, might have had more lasting impact and greater influence had he chosen another way to protest. As far as the Tibetans are concerned, they are inside the tyranny, I am not, and therefore I cannot judge them. All I can do is to support their cause in my own meager and ineffectual way.


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