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The image of the Buddhist Monk Thich Quang Duc committing suicide by self-immolation is a hugely iconic image of the 20th century. But bearing in mind the first precept against taking life, can this be considered an ethical act in the context of Buddhism.

I appreciate that as a political act it was brave and significant. Since Thich Quang Duc was a committed Buddhist I would imagine that he was pretty certain it was in keeping with Buddhist ethics. What was his line of reasoning? Is there precedent in scripture for this kind of act?

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    I've chosen to include the image since it is so iconic and it what the question is about. If anyone deems it inappropriate I will of course take it down or feel free to submit edits as required – Crab Bucket Jun 29 '14 at 18:41
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There is no simple answer, since it will always depend on the context. However, in most cases, it would go agains the first precept: to abstain from killing.

However, there could be situations where the act is interpreted in different contexts. Thich Nhat Hanh once wrote (a few years after the incident in the picture):

The Vietnamese monk, by burning himself, says with all his strength and determination that he can endure the greatest of suffering to protect his people. What he really aims at is the expression of his will and determination, not death. To express will by burning oneself, therefore, is not to commit an act of destruction but to perform an act of construction, that is to suffer and to die for the sake of one’s people.

In a more recent interview (with Oprah Winfrey), Thich Nhat Hanh mentioned that there were a lot of killings (by the government of its citizens) in the country at the time, and that the monk that chose this action saw it as a peaceful action to put an end to the violence (protesting with a non-violent action to create attention, instead of violence that would cause more violence). In other words, the action to save many lives was an act of compassion.

From Wikipedia regarding sacrificing the body:

The act of sacrificing one's own body, though not by fire, is a component of two well-known stories found in the ancient Buddhist text known as the Jataka tales, which, according to Buddhist tradition, gives accounts of past incarnations of the Buddha. In the "Hungry Tigress" Jataka, Prince Sattva looked down from a cliff and saw a starving tigress that was going to eat her newborn cubs, and compassionately sacrificed his body in order to feed the tigers and spare their lives. In the "Sibi Jataka", King Śibi or Shibi was renowned for unselfishness, and the gods Śakra and Vishvakarman tested him by transforming into a hawk and a dove. The dove fell on the king's lap while trying to escape the hawk, and sought refuge. Rather than surrender the dove, Śibi offered his own flesh equivalent in weight to the dove, and the hawk agreed. They had rigged the balance scale, and King Śibi continued cutting off his flesh until half his body was gone, when the gods revealed themselves, restored his body, and blessed him.

A much discussed topic, and the answer is that it depends on the context.

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Jakata tales often use the literary device of the main character giving a piece of their body to someone hungry, or who otherwise can make use of it.

The Lotus Sutra describes the Medicine King drinking scented oils, wrapping his body in an oil-soaked cloth, and burning himself as an offering to the Buddha. His body flamed for 1,200 years, he was reincarnated, burned off his forearms for 72,000 years, which enabled many to achieve enlightenment, and his arms were miraculously restored.

Source wikipedia

So if this is a 1st precept violation-- it depends. Motivation seems to play a role. Suicide as a way out of a terminal and painful disease is okay, not taking care of yourself and dying is not okay, suicide as a means of helping others is okay.

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Simple straight up answer has to be no, since its a direct breach of precept of non-harming of beings and suicide as a monk is an offense in the vinaya, granted not a grave one but still.

Now the answer will vary by tradition. People can bring out parts of the pali suttas where an awakened(emphasis on awakened..) being committed suicide for some reason or another and the Buddha considered it appropriate. It also appears to be a much more accepted and condoned in mahayana traditions so im sure many would not agree with my assessment, and thats fine.

This is a common question in buddhist discussion forums. I struggle to see the point in killing yourself to make a point... ESPECIALLY when we are part of a religion that espouses non-violence in all we do. I feel its a waste of monk who could be helping others and it holds no valid part in any kind of non-violent resistance.

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    The image is one of the primary things that got me interested in, and now practicing, Buddhism. So if we applied a "by their fruits ye shall know them" test, I'm a +1 for TQD doing something good. – tkp Jun 30 '14 at 21:54
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Whatever others say about self-immolation, the intent of the person is a significant part of the act. Is this planned as a way out or is there a benefit to others that exceeds the harm to the body. We don't own the body, it is on loan. Dogen says the body and mind are one. That may not be supportive of self harming in any form. So the Buddha's precepts of do no harm may outweigh the theoretical benefits to others. It is a topic with many sides but I wanted to give voice to the side of the discussion that self-harm is not justified. This was discussed more in another question in this forum: Can a stream enterer commit suicide?

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Human life is very rare and precious. Also when doing this the chances are that your last thought will not be good leading to rebirth in a lower relm. So in my opinion and general consensus in my tradition is that this should not be done. Also in doing this the following conditions of killing is met:

  • You know that yourself is a living being
  • You device a method to for self immolate
  • You follow through with the intention
  • As a result you die

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