In the scope of Buddhism, and in religion in general, rituals are very important. When defining faith, the easiest ways to do so are to look at scriptures, material objects, and rituals. In Buddhism there is a wide variety of rituals practiced by a large group of people; however, I found interest in the lesser known, less popular rituals. One such ritual which grabbed my attention was self-immolation, specifically auto-cremation. Especially with the protests in Vietnam against the government led by Ngo Dinh Diem that oppressed the Buddhists there, auto-cremation is an important Buddhist tradition that people underestimate the historical and religious importance of. The ritual of auto-cremation can tell us a great deal about the range of Buddhist rituals as well as the social and political context in which it was practiced concerning the relationships between religion and state as well as monastics and laypeople.
Rituals are a significant aspect of Buddhist life. There is no one type of ritual in Buddhism and their level of importance range with their type. Various types of rituals include: going for refuge; offering homage to the Buddha or other important Buddhist teachers, teachings or areas of life; making offerings; confessing faults, precept ceremonies; calling on spiritual forces for support; blessings; dedications of merit; rites of passage; and initiations or ordinations. (Zheng 21) The importance of any of these rituals in Buddhism is paramount. The rituals in this religion are interwoven with the daily life of the Buddhist. They express many of the dimensions of the human condition: from our relationships with others to our spiritual life.
Many rituals are meant to be transformative, turning the ordinary into something extraordinary as with performing a blessing. This occurs in many rituals when offerings are given to Buddha and Bodhisattvas to achieve good luck and protection. One such ritual is self-immolation, or, in particular, auto-cremation. Self-immolation is, in the strictest sense, self-sacrifice. Self-immolation could refer to the broader range of practices of self-sacrifice such as drowning, death by starvation, feeding the body to insects, and the like, whereas auto-cremation refers specifically to the practice of self-sacrificing by means of setting oneself on fire. (Burnign for Buddha Benn 8)
In the Buddhist canon, there are many examples of self-immolation as the final step towards the attainment of bodhisattva status. One such example, and the example many Buddhists cite when performing auto-cremation, is the Lotus Sutra’s Bodhisattva Medicine King, originally known as “Seen with Joy by Sentient Beings.” The relevant chapter of the Lotus Sutra – Book XXIII “The Former Deeds of Medicine King Bodhisattva” – talks about the very bitter and ascetic practices of the Medicine King bodhisattva. Because of Seen with Joy’s bitter ascetic practices, he attained Samadhi, deep concentration by which he could transform...