Thích Quảng Đức was a monk who immolated himself to protest against the repression by the Vietnamese government in 1963. It was filmed how he adopted the full-lotus posture an fire was set on him. The picture which was awarded the Pulitzer was known worldwide.

In that video he does not show any signs of pain at all and he doesn't seem to be under the effect of any drug. It is said this is some sort of deep meditation or self-hypnosis technique nevertheless Hypnosurgery lacks of scientific evidence. Plenty of other monks even younger have committed self-immolation in Tibet to protest against the Chinese occupation. A lack of fiscal pain is a common trait. Is there more information on how this technique is done, it's difficulties and knowing that some Buddhist organizations are collaborating with modern neuro-science is there a scientific explanation for this and its possibilities or medical potential to treat chronic pain diseases?

Video here watcher discretion advised

Picture here watcher discretion advised


2 Answers 2


From the question I assume you are new to Buddhism so will answer accordingly.

There is no scientific explanation for feeling pain let alone not feeling it. However, there are explanations. Indeed, the whole of Buddhist doctrine might be seen as an explanation of how to transcend suffering. You would need to study the 'Four Noble Truths'.

A very famous case is the horrific crucifixion and torture of the Sufi sage Al Hallaj. It seemed not to bother him and he expresses disappointment when one of his students sheds tears for him, for it gives away his lack of understanding that there is nobody there to suffer.

The explanation would be the ability of human beings to discover that the self that suffers is not real and to stand apart from their thoughts, feelings, sensations and emotions. We can all do this to some extent and find ourselves forced to do it situations of great pain. Many people come to Buddhist practice and that of other traditions by way of lengthy painful experiences. They discover that the pain may be viewed objectively without any sense of ownership such that they can say 'There is pain', and not 'I am in pain'.

A full explanation would require delving into the nature of consciousness and personhood and this would take us beyond 'scientific consciousness studies' and academic philosophy, while an understanding of the explanation would require a lot of practice and personal research.

This ability to transcend suffering is in the nature of consciousness. The comment by Aurobindo below indicates that it is a recognition that only our 'surface being' suffers, and this allows practitioners to display great feats of suffering. But it cannot be a theory. It has to be a reality for us or it is not the case for us. Thus practice is required for such feats, not book-learning.

"One might almost say that our surface being is only the deeper eternal self in us throwing itself out as the adventurer in Time, a gambler and speculator in infinite possibilities, limiting itself to the succession of moments so that it may have all the surprise and delight of the adventure, keeping back its self-knowledge and complete self-being so that it may win again what it seems to have lost, reconquering all itself through the chequered joy and pain of an aeonic passion and seeking and adventure." (Sri Aurobindo, The Life Divine)

Thus to overcome suffering would mean realising that our surface being is a construction, much as Dennett describes it, and not our true being. For a truly realised being there would be no suffering and no person to suffer, and this is the meaning of the Four Noble Truths.

On a personal note, aged seventeen I suffered a lot of intense pain for a period due to an operation that went wrong. I had no choice but to distance myself from it and found that this is possible. It was only four decades later that I discovered Buddhism and found an explanation. There is more to human being (or perhaps less) than the natural sciences are able to discover. Hence the placebo effect may be effective in reducing pain. For a full reduction the Buddha's medicine would have to be ingested. A truly skilled monk may self-immolate without the slightest worry about pain and death. They are past all that nonsense.

Whether we believe this is not important since believing it isn't going to help. But even if we know nothing about Buddhist teachings the next time we're in great pain it may be a good chance to perform some experiments. In practice it is said that we discover not simply that we do not suffer but that there is nobody to suffer. Regrettably this knowledge is not easily won, but even a little familiarity with the skills required will help us when we are in pain.

The natural science may be able to verify that the behaviour of some people indicates an ability to transcend pain but is not able to study consciousness so cannot provide an explanation. The science of Yoga, however, as described by Patanjali, or Buddhist practice allows us to know the explanation and make it our reality.

Aurobindo (ibid) also says this.

"In our ordinary life this truth is hidden from us or only dimly glimpsed at times or imperfectly held and conceived. But if we learn to live within, we infallibly awaken to this presence within us which is our more real self, a presence profound, calm, joyous and puissant of which the world is not the master - a presence which, if it is not the Lord Himself, is the radiation of the Lord within. We are aware of it within supporting and helping the apparent and superficial self and smiling at its pleasures and pains as at the error and passion of a little child."

You may find some interesting youtube videos on this topic but I don't know of any on this exact topic. Any decent book on meditation ought to cover the main points and explain the abilities of these self-immolating monks.

Here are some suttas about giving up pleasure and pain.

  • Good answer. Also If a person has permanent disidentification from the ego, then any negative mental formations or physical pain cannot effect their deep peace of mind and contentment.
    – Murathan1
    Feb 7, 2019 at 16:53
  • Interesting observations but it seems that your understanding requires faith. Hypnosis also requires conviction from the subject that submits to this mental state. Your comment denotes a need to believe in the whole Buddhist doctrine without doing too much critical thinking and ignores those who want to go all the way in the search for truth. Thanks for the effort but it's not valid for me.
    – user2428
    Feb 7, 2019 at 16:55
  • @Murathan1 -Amazing isn't it?. I'm still getting over the shock of discovering these facts and am lifetimes away from being able to happily self-immolate. Buddhism is exciting! The adventure to end all adventures.
    – user14119
    Feb 7, 2019 at 16:57
  • @PbxMan - It has nothing whatsoever to do with belief. Believing in Buddhist doctrine is not useful unless it is motivational. It won't help when we are in pain. From your comment I conclude that my answer is poor and needs more work. In truth it is not possible to believe in Buddhist doctrine until one understands it properly, and by then faith and belief are not necessary. . . . .
    – user14119
    Feb 7, 2019 at 17:01
  • @PeterJ You're right. Buddhism is really exciting and life changing. There is always new things to learn and gain from it untill the complete unification with the Ultimate Reality
    – Murathan1
    Feb 7, 2019 at 17:08

The brain activity has many waves, one of them is gamma-wave. One hypothesis is that with gamma-wave you can dissociate with your senses, thus feeling numb on the pain. It seems that activating the gamma wave on-demand is the key to withstand the pain. It also seems that meditation can help doing that.

Note that there is currently no consensus on this. More evidence is needed to support this.

This is taken from the article The Brain of the Buddha (Koch, American Scientific, 2013). Here is an excerpt from it:

Gamma activity in these monks is the largest seen in nonpathological conditions and 30 times greater than in the novices. The more years the monks had been practicing meditation, the stronger the (normalized) power in the gamma band.

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