Burning for the Buddha

Burning for the Buddha: Self-Immolation in Chinese Buddhism

James A. Benn
Copyright Date: 2007
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  • Book Info
    Burning for the Buddha
    Book Description:

    Burning for the Buddha is the first book-length study of the theory and practice of "abandoning the body"(self-immolation) in Chinese Buddhism. It examines the hagiographical accounts of all those who made offerings of their own bodies and places them in historical, social, cultural, and doctrinal context. Rather than privilege the doctrinal and exegetical interpretations of the tradition, which assume the central importance of the mind and its cultivation, James Benn focuses on the ways in which the heroic ideals of the bodhisattva present in scriptural materials such as the Lotus Sutra played out in the realm of religious practice on the ground.

    eISBN: 978-0-8248-6173-5
    Subjects: Religion

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xii)
  4. Abbreviations and Conventions
    (pp. xiii-xiv)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-18)

    For a few weeks in late December 526 and early January 527, a monastery on Mount Ruona 若那山 in Eastern Yangzhou 東楊州 played host to a series of remarkable and anomalous events.¹ The monastery and its environs echoed with mysterious sounds and were bathed in multicolored rays of light. Crowds of pilgrims in unprecedented numbers were drawn to the mountain, where they enthusiastically participated in ceremonies affirming their commitment to the Buddhist path. Flocks of birds were observed behaving in an unusual yet portentous manner. At the center of this web of activity that extended into both the natural realm...

  6. CHAPTER 1 “Mounting the Smoke with Glittering Colors”: Self-Immolation in Early Medieval China
    (pp. 19-53)

    The biographies of religious practitioners in medieval Chinese are not just sources of valuable data for historians; they also gave shape to the contours of Buddhist practice and doctrine. In China, unlike India or Tibet, the biographies of monks formed a distinct genre that became an important part of Buddhist literature.¹ As collections of biographies entered the canon and were widely read, accounts of the conduct of monks and nuns recorded Buddhist practice and shaped it as well. From the sixth century onwards monastics could find exemplary models of conduct in the history of their own community in China as...

  7. CHAPTER 2 The Lotus Sūtra, Auto-Cremation, and the Indestructible Tongue
    (pp. 54-77)

    As is immediately apparent from the many references to the scripture (both explicit and oblique) in biographies of auto-cremators, theLotus Sūtrawas a text that offered both rationale and model for burning the body. To understand the way in which Chinese Buddhists shaped their auto-cremation practices we will need to examine the nature of this text as a whole in addition to looking closely at the legend of the Bodhisattva Medicine King. How did a piece of literature composed in quite a different religious and cultural milieu come to affect Chinese beliefs and practices so deeply and enduringly? Why...

  8. CHAPTER 3 Saṃgha and the State: The Power(s) of Self-Immolation
    (pp. 78-103)

    For mid-seventh-century metropolitan monks the world and thesaṃgha’s place within it looked very different from what Baochang and Huijiao had known. China had been unified since 581, first under the pro-Buddhist Sui 隋 (581–617) and then under the Tang 唐 (618–907), a dynastic house that dared not challenge the strength of the Buddhist institution despite its ideological commitment to Taoism. As a consequence of these developments, self-immolation looked different, too. By the seventh century it was a well-established practice, but in contrast to earlier periods—when rulers apparently colluded in the acts of self-immolators—it now sometimes...

  9. CHAPTER 4 Is Self-Immolation a “Good Practice”? Yongming Yanshou on Relinquishing the Body
    (pp. 104-131)

    So far we have viewed self-immolation largely through the lens of biographies—that is to say, through literary descriptions of monks’ actions. But if self-immolation did in fact offer a somatic path to liberation, as I believe it did, then what did Chinese Buddhist authors who worked with doctrine make of the practice? How did they fit self-immolation into the larger framework of valid and orthodox praxis? In this chapter we shall examine two such attempts to do so. The first is the enthusiastic defense of self-immolation offered by Daoxuan’s contemporary Daoshi in his “encyclopedia”Fayuan zhulin. The second is...

  10. CHAPTER 5 Local Heroes in a Fragmenting Empire: Self-Immolation in the Late Tang and Five Dynasties
    (pp. 132-163)

    Many of the biographies in the self-immolation section of Zanning’sSong gaoseng zhuanrelate the tales of local heroes in a world that was often unstable, frightening, and hostile towards Buddhists. We can find in the many accounts of self-immolation from the eighth to tenth centuries no overarching narrative of religious persecution and dynastic legitimation such as we perceived in Daoxuan’s collection. Probably the most significant theme that recurs throughout the section, and one that Zanning develops with enthusiasm in the critical evaluation, is the miraculous power of the relics of the Buddha, in which the compiler had a great...

  11. CHAPTER 6 One Thousand Years of Self-Immolation
    (pp. 164-194)

    We have now discussed in some detail how self-immolation was constructed and shaped by practitioners, biographers, and compilers up to about the year 1000. We have seen that self-immolation was a fluid concept that embraced a range of practices and interpretations. Even after the tenth century the concept of self-immolation never solidified but continued to be reinvented and renegotiated. Although after theSong gaoseng zhuanmore sectarian collections, especially those of the Chan school, became the primary repositories of biographies, monastic biographical collections did not disappear entirely. In this chapter, we shall examine how self-immolation was conceptualized and performed in...

  12. Conclusion
    (pp. 195-202)

    Over the years that I have been studying and writing about self-immolation, the question I have most often been asked is “Why did they do that?” I hope this study has shown that there can never be a single answer to that question. Now that we have a better sense of the range of practices, variety of practitioners, and the vastly different times and places in which they acted, it will be apparent that both the “they” and “that” of the question are meaningless. We need to ask better questions of our sources.

    The reader who has reached this point...

  13. Appendix 1 Major Collections of Biographies of Self-Immolators
    (pp. 203-246)
  14. Appendix 2 Critical Evaluations of Huijiao, Daoxuan, and Zanning
    (pp. 247-260)
  15. Notes
    (pp. 261-314)
  16. Bibliography
    (pp. 315-346)
  17. Index
    (pp. 347-360)
  18. Back Matter
    (pp. 361-362)