Self-immolation is a suicide by fire, often committed for political or moral reasons as a form of protest.
The use of "immolate" is common in British English when denoting consumption by fire, whether autonomously or imposed. The Latin-based English word immolate, which for centuries was rarely used, means sacrifice, without any reference to burning, so more generally self-immolation means suicide without specifying the method. The word itself comes from the Latin "immolare", to sprinkle with meal, in reference to the ritual sprinkling of the heads of sacrificial victims with wine and fragments of mola salsa, holy cake.
The practice is also called bonzo because Buddhist monks immolated themselves in protest of the Vietnamese regime in 1963. It was Western media coverage of the fiery Vietnamese suicides that introduced the word "self-immolation" to a wide English-speaking audience and gave it a strong association with fire. In English literature prior to the mid-20th century, Buddhist monks were often referred to by the term bonze, particularly when describing monks from East Asia and French Indochina. This term is derived via Portuguese and French from the Japanese word bonsō for a priest or monk, and has become less common in modern literature.
Self-immolation is tolerated by some elements of Mahayana Buddhism and Hinduism, and it has been practiced for many centuries, especially in India, for various reasons, including Sati, political protest, devotion, and renouncement. An article entitled History of Religions, written by Jan Yiin-Hua, investigates the medieval Chinese Buddhist precedents for self-immolation.
Relying exclusively on authoritative Chinese Buddhist texts and, through the use of these texts, interpreting such acts exclusively in terms of doctrines and beliefs (e.g., self-immolation, much like an extreme renunciant might abstain from food until dying, could be an example of disdain for the body in favor of the life of the mind and wisdom) rather than in terms of their socio-political and historical context, the article allows its readers to interpret these deaths as acts that refer only to a distinct set of beliefs that happen to be foreign to the non-Buddhist.
During the Great Schism of the Russian Church, entire villages of Old Believers burned themselves to death in an act known as "fire baptism". Scattered instances of self-immolation have also been recorded by the Jesuit priests of France in the early 17th century. Their practice of this was not intended to be fatal, though. They would burn certain parts of their bodies (limbs such as the forearm, the thigh) to signify the pain Jesus endured while upon the cross.
A number of Buddhist monks (including Thích Quảng Đức) immolated themselves in protest of the discriminatory treatment endured by Buddhists under the Roman Catholic administration of President Ngô Đình Diệm in South Vietnam — even though violence against oneself is prohibited by most interpretations of Buddhist doctrine. The twenty-third chapter of the Lotus Sutra recounts the life story of the Bodhisattva Medicine King, which served as the main inspiration for the monks and nuns who self-immolated to protest the Vietnam War. In the Sutra, the Medicine King demonstrates his insight into the selfless nature of his body by ritualistically setting his body aflame, spreading the "light of the Dharma" for twelve hundred years. Thich Nhat Hanh adds: "The bodhisattva shined his light about him so that everyone could see as he could see, giving them the opportunity to see the deathless nature of the ultimate."
- "self-immolation - Definitions from Dictionary.com". Dictionary.reference.com. http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/self-immolation. Retrieved 2009-12-02.
- The Concise Oxford Dictionary, 7th Edition, 1984
- The Self-Immolation of Thich Quang Duc
- Coleman, Loren (2004). The Copycat Effect: How the Media and Popular Culture Trigger the Mayhem in Tomorrow's Headlines. New York: Paraview Pocket-Simon and Schuster. ISBN 0-7434-8223-9.
- Nhá̂t Hạnh. (2003). Opening the heart of the cosmos: Insights on the Lotus Sutra. Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press. p. 144.
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- The Copycat Effect. New York: Paraview Pocket-Simon and Schuster, 2004, ISBN 0743482239