Self-immolation and the exchange of self and others

When I started this blog a few months ago, it was never my intention to get involved in ‘politics’ through my postings. Yet the following may have a potential for such an involvement. Let me state here right at the beginning, however, that H.H. the Dalai Lama’s statements only serve here for providing the occasion to discuss some doctrinal matters in the text under research, the Drikungpa’s dGongs gcig.

Three days ago, on October 23, 2012, H.H. the Dalai Lama stated on NBC: “I am quite certain that those who sacrificed their lives with sincere motivation, for Buddha dharma and for the well-being of the people, from the Buddhist or religious view points, is positive. But if these acts are carried out with full anger and hatred, then it is wrong. So it is difficult to judge. But it is really very sad, very very sad.”♦ 1

What H.H. the Dalai Lama is saying here is that, doctrinally speaking, to sacrifice one’s life “with sincere motivation, for Buddha dharma and for the well-being of the people … is positive.” Out of anger and hatred, however, it is wrong. He must have in mind the well known passage from the Abhidharmakosha, according to which (good or bad) karma is volition, i.e. a good volition leads to a positive result, whereas a bad volition must lead to a negative one.

But this is not the only doctrinal perspective.

The Dalai Lama himself is referring here to the “well-being of the people,” that is, he alludes to the mahayana doctrine of the bodhisattva who offers his body for the benefit of other beings. The well known Jataka stories of the monkey king who offers his body as a bridge to other monkeys (and dies) and the bodhisattva who offers his body as food to the starving tigress come to mind.

In the dGongs gcig the problem of offering one’s body and life is discussed in the connection of the “exchange of self and other.” An unnamed teacher is quoted with the words: “Out of compassion good aspirations are formed for the benefit of others and the suffering of others is exchanged for one’s own [happiness].” Jigten Gönpo’s remarks in this context (dGongs gcig 4.8): “There are cases where the exchange of the self and other is a fault.” When and why is that so?

First of all, in Jigten Gönpo’s view such a practise is not always a fault, but there are cases where it is a fault. He states that up to and including the level of the two bodhisattva paths of accumulation and preparation the bodhisattva carries out practical efforts for the benefit of others as much as he is able to, having first cultivated the vast power of motivation. Yet this is still the time when a practitioner must take care of himself through virtuous practise, because both the motivation and the skills of the bodhisattva are not firm enough. Once the bodhisattva has entered the path of seeing and progresses gradually up to the seventh bodhisattva level, both the motivation and the practise are increasing, until the motivation has become vastly cultivated and the practise is carried out to the greatest possible extend. This is then the time of the “equality of the self and others.” And from the eighth to the tenth bodhisattva level, both motivation and practise are of great power, the benefit of others is vastly accomplished, one is able to engage in the vast activities, the yogic discipline is very great, and one obtains also the great power for the enduring of suffering. Therefore, with combined motivation and practise of that sort it is now possible to engage in the practises of “vast liberality” (such as offering one’s life).

The reason not to engage in such practises at an earlier point of one’s bodhisattva career, says Rigdzin Chökyi Dragpa, is that “if you have the wish to exchange self and other with small discriminating knowledge but great faith, it will become an obstacle, like the sickness of the lord Phagmodrupa, who suffered from constant headaches because of his former aspiration that the sufferings of others may always ripen in him. In the Bodhicaryavatara (86-87) it is said:

Do not harm for a trifle reason
the body that practises excellent Dharma!
Do not give your body
as long as your motivation of compassion remains impure!

To give you body and life prematurely is likened to the destruction of the seedling of a medical plant. If it is uprooted too early, its potential is completely lost. But, as Rigdzin Chökyi Dragpa says, if one skilfully allows it to develop, when it is fully developed, the trunk, branches, leaves, petals, flowers, fruits, bark and so forth all turn into medicines that sustain immeasurable beings. Similarly, the bodhisattvas, too, must know the right occasion and must act skilfully. The illustration means according to the rDo sher ma that “if the new sprout of supreme awakening that has not [yet] become the powerful resolve for awakening turns into a deterioration of the resolve for awakening and an impediment on the path through untimely exchange of oneself and others, it is an impediment for the medicine that removes all samsaric suffering through supreme awakening, for the [wish fulfilling] tree that annihilates all poverty, and for the [precious jewel that is the] source of all that is necessary and desired, and therefore it is taught that one has to guard against untimely practises.” If the beginning bodhisattva loses the path due to the pain that he experiences through the offering in this life and because his rebirth is not one where the bodhisattva path can be practised, he destroys through his one compassionate deed his whole potential: He acts with great faith but little discriminating knowledge.

Rigdzin Chökyi Dragpa provides a story that is a drastic illustration of this point. Earlier, he says, Arya Shariputra cultivated the resolve for supreme awakening and while he was practising the conduct of bodhisattvas for many eons, at one occasion one person said: “Give one of your eyes to me!” Thus he took out one of his eyes and gave it to that person. Then that person placed one foot on top of it and squashed it. [Shariputra said]: “Why did you do that?” [The person replied]: “I wanted it to make the sound ‘squash.’” Shariputra became very downcast and thinking that there was nothing he could do for these beings, he grew frustrated. When this petty thought arose, he became a shravaka [again].

The rDo sher ma mentions that Shariputra was on the sixth bodhisattva level at that time. The text states that even up to the seventh level one is not able at all to bear that kind of suffering and that therefore the exchange of self and others will be a fault. It furthermore states: “If someone who has not obtained the tolerance [i.e. the ability to bear the sufferings] wishes to perform the benefit of others, he needs to investigate whether he should form that aspiration or not by way of five reasons. (1) Is something like that the intention of the excellent guru [referring here to Phagmodrupa] or not? (2) Does that dedication match the resolve or not? (3) Is the aspiration, when one forms it, achieved or not? (4) If it is achieved, can one bear it or not? (5) Apart from that, are there other means or not?” The text explains these five points as follows. (1) It is not the heart intention of Phagmodrupa, since he himself experienced problems from premature aspirations (as mentioned above). (2) If one is overpowered by the accumulations of sufferings and faults and the former aspiration thus turns into the “impediment of goodness,” the dedication does not match the resolve “[may it] cause the obtainment of Buddhahood for myself and all others.” (3) Since the Mañjushribuddhakshetragunavyuha Mahayanasutra (Derge, vol. 41, passage not identified) says:

All phenomena depend entirely
on the goal of one’s striving as [their] condition;
whichever aspiration one forms,
a result like that will be obtained—

the aspiration will always be accomplished. (4) Even up to the seventh level one is not able at all to bear the suffering of others. Therefore the exchange of self and others will be a fault. (5) If one possesses great discriminating knowledge, other means exist. According to the Rin byang ma: “We [in our tradition] engage in these aspirations and practises having familiarised to the ‘taking as path’ and to the precious resolve for awakening, when we have obtained the great compassion of the ultimate level that cannot deteriorate through unfavourable conditions and when we have realised the sameness of all phenomena at the time of being someone like the lord Avalokiteshvara and Mañjushrikumara.” Both the rDo sher ma and the Rin byang ma state also a story where a girl is born in hell with a burning iron wheel on her head and 166,000 years ahead to bear that pain. Experiencing that pain she spontaneously formed the aspiration that others with the same karma should not have to experience this pain through her own taking of that pain upon herself. That is to say: she knew well what she was doing and her act was a spontaneous act of compassion. As a consequence of that wish the wheel rose up and she was freed from that suffering and reborn in Tushita.♦ 2

Returning now to the discussion of self-immolation in present day Tibet and China, I too feel very sad about the loss of so many lives. There is certainly a heroic aspect in giving one’s life for one’s people. And since this causes so many deep emotions among the Tibetans, I can understand that the Dalai Lama doesn’t really have a chance to criticise these deeds. But on the background of the above doctrinal discussion in the commentaries of the dGongs gcig I wonder whether the reference to good volitions leading to good results fully exhausts the full range of doctrinal issues regarding the offering of one’s own life.

I wish the Tibetans could find other means of protest than destroying their own lives, and I can only hope that those who do it nonetheless are not doing it simply out of sheer desperation.


1. []

2. [For the story of Maitranyaka, see John Brough (1957) “Some Notes on Maitrakanyaka: Divyavadana XXXVIII,” Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London, Vol. 20, No. 1/3, Studies in Honour of Sir Ralph Turner, Director of the School of Oriental and African Studies, 1937-57, pp. 111-132.]

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