What is violence? Self-immolation in Japanese Buddhism

- through Francois Leclercq

Published on

Passage to Fudaraku. From kagawa5.jp

In early October, I was invited to participate in a workshop on Buddhism, violence, and nonviolence, organized by American University and sponsored by the Uberoi Foundation for Religious Studies. In my presentation, I examined some texts and practices in Japan that complicate the seemingly simple Buddhist understanding of violence and nonviolence.

Buddhism's emphasis on non-violence (skt: ahiṃsā), formulated in the first precept (Skt: if the) and, alternatively, translated as non-injury or non-harm, is well known. The first precept and general exhortation of ahiṃsā seem simple enough. However, there are texts and practices in Mahāyāna Buddhism, for example the practice of self-immolation, which complicate the issue.

Today I would like to examine some of these phenomena, interpret them in the light of Mahāyāna Buddhist ideas and texts, suggest a new conception of violence et Nonviolence, and identify some implications for contemporary business. Given the current state of the world, these ideas are no longer idle speculation: they acquire a new sense of urgency.

I would like to begin by identifying four types of harm implicit and inflicted in certain Buddhist texts and practices: 1) self-harm for self-benefit; 2) self-harm for the benefit of others; 3) harm to others for the benefit of another; and 4) harm caused to others for the benefit of oneself. This typology is based on the “us versus them” rhetoric found in many descriptions of violent conflict.

The Buddha body of Tetsumonkai at Chūrenji. From exblog.jp

1) is illustrated by what is called the "passage to Fudaraku (fudaraku tokai); 2), through the practice of self-mummification (sokushinbutsu); 3) by the sarin gas attack on members of Aum Shirikyō in the Tokyo subway on March 20, 1995; and 4), by the support that some Zen Buddhist thinkers and priests gave to Japanese militarism that led to the Pacific War and, ironically, to any just war theory.

Due to time constraints, I would like to focus on the first two practices. They also seem to align more easily with the Buddhist doctrine of no-self (skt: anatman). Practices of self-harm for the benefit of others, such as self-immolation, evoke countless stories around the world. Tales of Jātaka and the Mahāyāna sutras (such as the Vimalakirti Sutra) illustrating the ideal of the bodhisattva.

"Passage to Fudaraku" describes the practice of jumping from boats into the ocean while chanting Amida's name (Amitabha) in order to achieve re/birth in the Pure Land (Jp: ōjō). In some sense, these practitioners, historical or fictional, chose a controlled environment for their death to ensure that the last thought that came to their minds was the name of Amitabha Buddha.

In Edo, Japan (1603-1868), a few Shingon monks followed a six-year practice that included a diet of bark and pine needles called tree-eating practice (Jp: mokujikigyō), stunt practice (Jp: takigyō), and drinking Urushi tea with the aim of mummifying oneself and becoming a “Buddha in this very body”. It is believed that these monks continually practiced and performed miracles.

These practices raise three central questions: 1) A metaphysical question: who does evil, who is hurt? 2) An epistemological question: what does the word “violence” refer to? and 3) A moral question: what type of behavior is appropriate? It is obviously impossible to answer these three questions in 1 words. I will therefore briefly cite three texts to illustrate the issues.

To examine the nature of the victim and the executioner, I will cite DT Suzuki's thoughts on sword fighting. To explore the meaning of the word “violence” itself, I will take refuge in the Diamond Sutra (Vajracchedikā Prajñāpāramitā Sūtra). And to resolve the moral conundrum about “what is the right thing,” I will turn to Dōgen’s work. Shōbōgenzō Shoakumakusa.

DT Suzuki's problematic application of the "doctrine of emptiness" (skt: śūnyatāvāda) in sword fighting in particular and in war in general is as follows: “As each of them is of the void and has no “spirit” (Jp: kokoro), the one who strikes is not a man, the sword in his hands is not a sword, and the "self" who is about to be cut down is like the spring breeze split into lightning. »*

Le Diamond Sutra challenges our assumptions about what language actually refers to. Obviously, he does not address the term "violence", but we can paraphrase his statements as follows: "so-called violence is not violence"** and "The Buddha explained that views on violence are not opinions on violence; that’s why we call them that. »*** This is why I use the term “Nonviolence. "

Finally, in his comment on Dharmapada, Dōgen states: “Sometimes the practice of faith and the practice of Dharma can be seen as different. But these separate teachings are the same. For example, the śrāvaka adherence to the precepts is no different from the bodhisattva's violation of the precepts. »**** In other words, “adherence to (1. precept) is no different from its violation. »

“Is violence the same as non-violence”? This seems rather shocking. So how do we solve this conundrum? One problem is that many interpretations of this conundrum, such as the proposal to interpret the Mahāyāna Buddhist approach as antinomianism or even as a theory of amorality, use conceptual language and thinking outside the Buddhist tradition. .

What I would like to do here is fashion a moral framework from the philosophical ideas and concepts developed within the Buddhist tradition, more explicitly from the "fourfold world of Dharma" of Chengguan (738-839) (Ch: Shifajie) and what I call Dōgen’s “ethics of expression.” I believe that such a framework is better suited to revealing the Mahāyāna conception of Nonviolence.

Dōgen suggests: “Now I and the other engage in liberating practices and enter into a…. . . dialogue; he and another engage in liberating practices and enter into a . . . dialogue. In me (as in him), there is expression and there is non-expression. » ***** In short, each statement, metaphysical or moral, highlights one aspect of our common humanity and obscures another.

Therefore, I translated Chengguan's "fourfold world of Dharma" into a fourth-person philosophy:

“Even if a first-person approach is motivated by mon narrative, a third-person approach to le grand narrative and a second person approach through TWO potentially contradictory stories, a fourth person approach engages a multiplicity of points of view in a creative multilogue. »******

First person approach. Image courtesy of the author.
Third person approach. Image courtesy of the author.
Second person approach. Image courtesy of the author.
Fourth person approach. Image courtesy of the author.

With the help of these two thinkers, I was able to develop a philosophical framework for rethinking the concept of non/violence as Nonviolence to solve some central puzzles: why do certain acts seem moral from one point of view and immoral from another? Why are some harms considered acceptable and others not? How can we navigate these mazes?

So where does this leave us? I would like to leave you with a few guidelines: 1) There is no unified theory of Nonviolence but only contextualized theories; 2) Discourse on morality and precepts have four dimensions: personal/subjective, universal/normative, relational and multilayered; 3) Each act and each concept is simultaneously affirming and negating life; and finally, 4) appropriate behavior must be negotiated in a multilogue that includes, but is not limited to, rational discourse but embraces all existential modalities. Both a first and third person approach Nonviolence are insufficient. The first is subjective, the second is external to the experiences of human beings and silences them while alienating them.

We must negotiate “appropriate behavior” in a multilogue that includes everyone affected and involved; we must protect all participants in a conflict; we must recognize our intertwined histories and current power structures; Above all, we must listen to those who are silenced and marginalized. It is “the teaching of the Buddha”, it is the way of the bodhisattvas.

* Yagyū Tajima no Kami Munenori as qtd. by DT Suzuki as qtd. in Victoria 2010, 117.



****DZZ 1:280.

*****DZZ 1:304.

****** Kopf 2021, 2023.

photo of author

Francois Leclercq

François Leclercq is the founder of Buddhist News, a website which aims to disseminate information and practical advice on Buddhism and spirituality. François Leclercq was born and raised in Paris. He studied Buddhism at the University of Paris-Sorbonne, where he graduated in social sciences and psychology. After graduating, he devoted himself to his passion for Buddhism and traveled the world to study and learn about different practices. He notably visited Tibet, Nepal, Thailand, Japan and China.

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