Oct. 12, 2006

Cambodian Monk Burns Himself to Death

A story based on an Agence France-Press report;

HNOM PENH (AFP) - A Buddhist monk in Cambodia burned himself to death as a sacrifice to Buddha, police have said.

The 20-year-old monk, Yin Keo, was at a pagoda on top of a mountain when he doused himself with five litres of petrol Saturday and set fire to himself, Battambang province deputy police chief So Sam An said.

"The monk completely believed in religion -- he sat cross-legged and poured gas over himself and burned to death in order to sacrifice his body to Buddha," So Sam An told AFP.

Other monks and nuns at the pagoda told police that Yin Keo, who had been in the monastery for three months, had repeatedly said he would die in a religious sacrifice.

"I have never seen anyone use their body as a sacrifice like this monk," the police official said.

I haven't found any more details. Although this site implies a very silly conspiracy theory in the caption under a photo of the 1963 immolation of Thich Quang Doc, this burning does unlike the more famous one in the photo, does not appear politically motivated.

Cambodia is a Theravada country, and Theravada unequivocally condemns suicide (except in the extremely rare case of an arahant with a terminal illness.) The story is maddeningly brief and sketchy, but the monk's name sounds Chinese, not Cambodian, so he may have been Mahayana.

There is a tradition of self-sacrifice by burning in Mahayana that can be traced back to this passage in the Lotus Sutra;

"After making this offering, the bodhisattva Seen-with-Joy-by-All-Living-Beings arose from his samadhi and thought to himself, "Although I have resorted to supernatural powers to make offering to the Buddha, that offering is not of my own body." Whereupon he applied to his body various scents of candana, kunduruka, two kinds of frankincense, trigonella, the scent that sinks in water, and the sent of pine tar. He also drank the fragrant oils of campaka-flowers. When a thousand and two hundred years had past in this way, he then painted his body with fragrant oil and in the presence of the Buddha Pure-and-Bright-Excellence-of-Sun-and-Moon he wrapped his body in a garment adorned with sacred jewels, annointed himself with fragrant oils, and with the force of supernatural insight he took a vow to establish a spiritual foundation.

That done, the bodhisattva Seen-with-Joy-by-All-Living-Beings burned his own body, the glow from which illumined a myriad worlds, as numerous as the sands of 80,000,000 Ganges Rivers. From those worlds, the Buddhas in them together and at once praised this bodhisattva by saying, 'Excellent! Excellent! Good man, you are truly persevering with vigor in the practice known as the true Dharma-offering to the Thus-come-one. If with floral scent, necklaces, burnt incense, powdered scents, paint-scents, divine fabric, banners, parasols, the aroma of the candana of the near seashore, and a variety of such things one were to make offerings, still they could not equal this act which you have fulfilled. Even were one to give kingdoms, fortified cities, wives and children, they would still not equal your deeds. Therefore, Good man, yours is called the Prime Gift. Among the various gifts to Buddhas, this is the most honorable, the highest of all, because it is an offering of Dharma to the Thus-come-ones.' When the buddhas had finished saying this they all became silent.

"The body of the bodhisattva Seen-with-Joy-by-All-Living-Beings burned a full thousand and two-hundred years and in the end was consumed by fire. Because this bodhisattva had made such a Dharma-offering as this, when his life ended he was born once again into the Pure Land of the Buddha Pure-and-Bright-Excellence-of-Sun-and-Moon in which he was born suddenly by transformation in the household of the King Pure Virtue (Vimaladatta), sitting with his legs in lotus position. LINK
There have been cases of such self-immolation from time to time, especially in China. Apparently, this practise was also done by some Taoists. There are also smaller acts of self-burning practised in Mahayana. The ordination ceremony usually includes a ritual burning of spots on the newly shaved head with incense, something not found in Theravada.

While this incense-burning is an established part of the ritual, there is also a fairly wide-spread practise among Korean Zen monks (and perhaps others) of burning off one or more fingers. This is often condemned by the religious authorities, but happens nonetheless. (See R.E. Busswell, The Zen Monastic Experience)

There is a story traditional in Theravada that Ananda when he came to the end of his life, levitated out over a river and burned himself up by entering the fire-kasina jhana. It may be of some significance that the oldest documentary source of this story seems to the Chinese traveller Fa Hsien.

Be that as it may, the Theravada position remains, don't try this at home.

Oct. 9, 2006

Thailand Coup

I was in Thailand as a junior monk in 1992 at the time of the last coup. That was a very different affair from the present one. There was a major uprising against the military followed by a bloody repression. The King intervened and settled things down, leading to early elections. I remember a symbolic photograph in the papers that showed the King seated on his throne wagging his finger at the coup leader and the leader of the democratic faction, who were kneeling at his feet, hands in anjali.

The King is a remarkable man. He was actually raised in quite humble circumstances and was not considered to be in line for the throne. He has consistently been a force for stability and democratic progress in the country. He is certainly not a figurehead.

That's why it is significant that he has endorsed this current coup. He didn't have to do that. This coup also seems to have a strong measure of popular support, at least in Bangkok.

The Thaksin government was notoriously corrupt, and the elections almost as sketchy as Ohio's.

Another interesting angle; the coup leader is a Muslim and he wants to try and settle the Muslim insurrection in the south with negotiations. Thaksin was eager to make points with the Americans and was hopping on the War on Terra bandwagon, taking a hard line in the south. This aspect bears watching.

In short, not all coups are created equal.

Doing Firewood - A Haiku

Before enlightenment;
chopping wood, carrying water.
After enlightenment;
chopping wood, carrying water.
Bummer.

(It's that time of year, which is why I'm lazy about blogging)