Category Archives: Buddhism

(1926- )

from Vietnam: Lotus in a Sea of Fire: In Search of the Enemy of Man


Thich Nhat Hanh, a scholar in the field of philosophy of religion and an internationally revered figure of Zen Buddhism, was born Nguyễn Xuân Bảo in Vietnam in 1926. (The word “Thich” [pronounced tick] is not a title, but a name that, for Buddhist monks and nuns, replaces the family name to which they were born.) Thich Nhat Hanh became a Zen monk at the age of 16 and was ordained in 1949. He founded the School of Youth for Social Services, a neutral relief corps, and the Van Hanh Buddhist University in Vietnam in 1957. In 1969, Nhat Hanh was the representative for the Vietnamese Buddhist Peace Delegation at the Paris peace talks during the Vietnam War; when the Paris Peace Accords were signed in 1973, he was officially denied reentry into Vietnam. He has been a student at Princeton and a professor at Columbia. Having lived in exile since 1966 (he has been allowed to visit Vietnam regularly since negotiations in 2005), he now lives in Plum Village, a Buddhist retreat center he cofounded in southwestern France, and conducts mindfulness retreats in Europe and North America.

To protest the anti-Buddhist policies of the Catholic president of South Vietnam, Ngo Dinh Diem, during the Vietnam War, in June 1963, an elderly Buddhist monk, Thich Quang Duc, went to the crossroads at Phan-Dinh-Phung Street in Saigon, sat in the lotus position, poured gasoline on himself, and set himself on fire in order to call attention to the sufferings of the Vietnamese people under Diem’s oppressive regime. As he burned to death, a disciple read his last words to the press. Other Buddhist monks and nuns followed Quang Duc’s example: six burned themselves to death within a short period. Unimpressed, Madame Nhu, Diem’s sister-in-law, described these self-immolations as a “barbecue.”

It is the self-immolations of Thich Quang Duc, Thich Giac Thanh (mentioned in the selection presented here), and the other Buddhist monks and nuns that Nhat Hanh is attempting to explain to a sceptical world in the letter reprinted here. The letter is intended particularly for Westerners who see these acts as suicides, acts of self-destruction stemming from lack of courage, loss of hope, or the desire for nonexistence. . . . Although Giac Thanh was young at the time of his death, Quang Duc was over 70. Nhat Hanh had lived with the older monk for nearly a year at Long-Vinh pagoda before he set himself on fire, and describes him as “a very kind and lucid person . . . calm and in full possession of his mental faculties when he burned himself.” Nhat Hanh insists that these acts of self-immolation are not suicide, which, he says, is one of Buddhism’s “most serious crimes.” Nhat Hanh’s letter “In Search of the Enemy of Man” is addressed to Martin Luther King, who nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize.

Thich Nhat Hanh, Vietnam: Lotus in a Sea of Fire, foreword by Thomas Merton (New York: Hill and Wang, 1967), pp. 106-108.  Quotations in introduction also from Thich Nhat Hanh, Love in Action: Writings on Nonviolent Social Change, foreword by Daniel Berrigan (Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press, 1993).



From a letter by Thich Nhat Hanh addressed to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., June 1, 1965

The self-burning of Vietnamese Buddhist monks in 1963 is somehow difficult for Western Christian conscience to understand. The press spoke then of suicide, but in the essence, it is not. It is not even a protest. What the monks said in the letters they left before burning themselves aimed only at alarming, at moving the hearts of the oppressors, and at calling the attention of the world to the suffering endured then by the Vietnamese. To burn oneself by fire is to prove that what one is saying is of the utmost importance. There is nothing more painful than burning oneself. To say something while experiencing this kind of pain is to say it with utmost courage, frankness, determination, and sincerity. During the ceremony of ordination, as practiced in the Mahayana tradition, the monk-candidate is required to burn one or more small spots on his body in taking the vow to observe the 250 rules of a bhikshu, to live the life of a monk, to attain enlightenment, and to devote his life to the salvation of all beings. One can, of course, say these things while sitting in a comfortable armchair; but when the words are uttered while kneeling before the community of sangha and experiencing this kind of pain, they will express all the seriousness of one’s heart and mind, and carry much greater weight.

The Vietnamese monk, by burning himself, says with all his strength and determination that he can endure the greatest of sufferings to protect his people. But why does he have to burn himself to death? The difference between burning oneself and burning oneself to death is only a difference in degree, not in nature. A man who burns himself too much must die. The importance is not to take one’s life, but to burn. What he really aims at is the expression of his will and determination, not death. In the Buddhist belief, life is not confined to a period of 60 or 80 or 100 years: life is eternal. Life is not confined to this body: life is universal. To express will by burning oneself, therefore, is not to commit an act of destruction but perform an act of construction, that is, to suffer and to die for the sake of one’s people. This is not suicide. Suicide is an act of self-destruction, having as causes the following: (1) lack of courage to live and to cope with difficulties; (2) defeat by life and loss of all hope; (3) desire for nonexistence (abhaya).

This self-destruction is considered by Buddhism as one of the most serious crimes. The monk who burns himself has lost neither courage nor hope; nor does he desire nonexistence. On the contrary, he is very courageous and hopeful and aspires for something good in the future. He does not think that he is destroying himself: he believes in the good fruition of his act of self-sacrifice for the sake of others. Like the Buddha in one of his former lives—as told in a story of Jataka—who gave himself to a hungry lioness which was about to devour her own cubs, the monk believes he is practicing the doctrine of highest compassion by sacrificing himself in order to call the attention of, and to seek help from, the people of the world.

I believe with all my heart that the monks who burned themselves did not aim at the death of the oppressors but only at a change in their policy. Their enemies are not man. They are intolerance, fanaticism, dictatorship, cupidity, hatred, and discrimination which lie within the heart of man. I also believe with all of my being that the struggle for equality and freedom you lead in Birmingham, Alabama, is not really aimed at the whites but only at intolerance, hatred, and discrimination. These are real enemies of man—not man himself. In our unfortunate fatherland we are trying to plead desperately: do not kill man, even in man’s name. Please kill the real enemies of man which are present everywhere, in our very hearts and minds.

Now in the confrontation of the big powers occurring in our country, hundreds and perhaps thousands of Vietnamese peasants and children lose their lives every day, and our land is unmercifully and tragically torn by a war which is already twenty years old. I am sure that since you have been engaged in one of the hardest struggles for equality and human rights, you are among those who understand fully, and who share with all their heart, the indescribable suffering of the Vietnamese people. The world’s greatest humanists would not remain silent. You yourself cannot remain silent. America is said to have a strong religious foundation and spiritual leaders would not allow American political and economic doctrines to be deprived of the spiritual element. You cannot be silent since you have already been in action and you are in action because, in you, God is in action, too—to use Karl Barth’s expression. And Albert Schweitzer, with his stress on the reverence for life. And Paul Tillich with his courage to be, and thus, to love. And Niebuhr. And Mackay. And Fletcher. And Donald Harrington. All these religious humanists and many more, are not going to favor the existence of a shame such as the one mankind has to endure in Vietnam. Recently a young Buddhist monk named Thich Giac Thanh burned himself [April 20, 1965, in Saigon] to call the attention of the world to the suffering endured by the Vietnamese, the suffering caused by this unnecessary war—and you know that war is never necessary. Another young Buddhist, a nun named Hue Thien, was about to sacrifice herself in the same way and with the same intent, but her will was not fulfilled because she did not have the time to strike a match before people saw and interfered. Nobody here wants the war. What is the war for, then? And whose is the war?

Yesterday in a class meeting, a student of mine prayed: “Lord Buddha, help us to be alert to realize that we are not victims of each other. We are victims of our own ignorance and the ignorance of others. Help us to avoid engaging ourselves more in mutual slaughter because of the will of others to power and to predominance.” In writing to you, I profess my faith in Love, in Communion, and in the World’s Humanists, whose thoughts and attitude should be the guide for all humankind in finding who is the real enemy of Man.

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Filed under Asia, Buddhism, Hanh, Thich Nhat, Selections, The Modern Era


from Translation of a Conference Between an Advocate For, and an Opponent Of, the Practice of Burning Widows Alive


Raja Rammohun Roy (also spelled Ram Mohun) was born in Bengal in an ancient Brahman family in 1774, or, according to some sources, 1772. Roy was a religious and social reformer during the British colonial period and founder of the Brahmo Samaj, a theist Hindu revivalist movement with strong social-reform commitments. Well-educated, Roy studied Persian, Arabic, and Sanskrit, and later Hebrew and Greek; he was influenced by the monotheistic teachings of Islam, and at about age 15 or 16 went to Tibet to study Buddhism, causing considerable controversy with his opposition to lama-worship. He was also influenced by Western society’s traditions and his study of the Christian gospels. He served for a decade with the East India Company, eventually as Diwan, or head of revenue collections.

Roy was a reformer in many areas, including education, the caste system, freedom of the press, the abolishment of polygamy and child marriage, and the issue of women’s right to inheritance. He considered certain aspects of Hindu culture to be counterproductive in terms of India’s political interests, and directed his reform movement toward changing these aspects in the name of preserving the whole of Hindu culture.

In 1811, Roy is reported to have been a “horrified witness” of the act of sati or self-immolation when his elder brother Jagomohan died and one of his widowed wives was burnt alive with him; Rammohun “vowed never to rest until he had uprooted this custom.” His “Translation of a Conference Between an Advocate For, and an Opponent Of, the Practice of Burning Widows Alive” (1818) is one of several tracts dedicated to examining the alleged religious obligation of sati or concremation. Roy was given the title Raja by the emperor of Delhi and appointed his special envoy to convey the case concerning sati to the Privy Council in England. Roy lived to see the 1829 abolition of sati formally upheld by the Privy Council in 1832, but died unexpectedly the following year at Bristol, his death attributed to brain fever.

Ram Mohun Roy, “Translation of a Conference Between an Advocate For, and an Opponent Of, the Practice of Burning Widows Alive,” from the original Bungla (Calcutta 1818), in The English Works of Raja Rammohun Roy, Bahadhurganj, Alllahabad, 1906. Reprint, New York: AMS Press, Inc., 1978, pp. 323-332. Material in the introduction from the biographical sketch of the author, pp. ix-xi, and from Benoy Bhusan Roy, Socioeconomic Impact of Sati in Bengal and the Role of Raja Rammohun Roy (Calcutta: Naya Prokash, 1987).


Advocate. I am surprised that you endeavour to oppose the practice of Concremation and Postcremation of widows,[1] as long observed in this country.

Opponent. Those who have no reliance on the Sastra, and those who take delight in the self-destruction of women, may well wonder that we should oppose that suicide which is forbidden by all the Sastras, and by every race of men.

Advocate. You have made an improper assertion in alleging that Concremation and Postcremation are forbidden by the Sastras. Hear what Angira and the other saints have said on this subject:

“That Woman who, on the death of her husband, ascends the burning pile with him, is exalted to heaven, as equal to Arundhati.

“She who follows her husband to another world, shall dwell in a region of joy for so many years as there are hairs in the human body, or thirty-five millions.

“As a serpent-catcher forcibly draws a snake from his hole, thus raising her husband by her power, she enjoys delight along with him.

“The woman who follows her husband expiates the sins of the three races; her father’s line, her mother’s line, and the family of him to whom she was given a virgin.

“There possessing her husband as her chiefest good, herself the best of women, enjoying the highest delights, she partakes of bliss with her husband as long as fourteen Indras reign.

“Even though the man had slain a Brahman, or returned evil for good, or killed an intimate friend, the woman expiates those crimes.

“There is no other way known for a virtuous woman except ascending the pile of her husband. It should be understood that there is not other duty whatever after the death of her husband.”

Hear also what Vyasa has written in the parable of the pigeon:

“A pigeon, devoted to her husband, after his death entered the flames, and ascending to heaven, she there found her husband.”

And hear Harita’s words:

“As long as a woman shall not burn herself after her husband’s death she shall be subject to a transmigration in a female form.”

Hear too what Vishnu, the saint, says:

“After the death of her husband a wife must live an ascetic, or ascend his pile.”

Now hear the words of the Brahma Purana on the subject of Postcremation:

“If her lord die in another country, let the faithful wife place his sandals on her breast, and pure enter the fire.”

The faithful widow is declared no suicide by this text of the Rig Veda: “When three days of impurity are gone she obtained obsequies.”

Gotama, says:

“To a Brahmani after the death of her husband, Postcremation is not permitted. But to women of the other classes it is esteemed a chief duty.”

“Living let her benefit her husband; dying she commits suicide.”

“The woman of the Brahman tribe that follows her dead husband, cannot, on account of her self-destruction, convey either herself or her husband to heaven.”

Concremation and Postcremation being thus established by the words of many sacred lawgivers, how can you say they are forbidden by the Sastras, and desire to prevent their practice?

Opponent. All those passages you have quoted are indeed sacred law; and it is clear from those authorities, that if women perform Concremation or Postcremation, they will enjoy heaven for a considerable time. But attend to what Manu and others say respecting the duty of widows: “Let her emaciate her body, by living voluntarily on pure flowers, roots, and fruits, but let her not, when her lord is deceased, even pronounce the name of another man. Let her continue till death forgiving all injuries, performing harsh duties, avoiding every sensual pleasure, and cheerfully practising the incomparable rules of virtue which have been followed by such women as were devoted to one only husband.”

 Here Manu directs, that after the death of her husband, the widow should pass her whole life as an ascetic. Therefore, the laws given by Angira and others whom you have quoted, being contrary to the law of Manu, cannot be accepted; because the Veda declares, “Whatever Manu has said is wholesome;” and Vrihaspati, “Whatever law is contrary to the law of Manu is not commendable.” The Veda especially declares, “By living in the practice of regular and occasional duties the mind may be purified. Thereafter by hearing, reflecting, and constantly meditating on the Supreme Being, absorption in Brahma may be attained. Therefore from a desire during life of future fruition, life ought not to be destroyed.” Manu, Yajnavalkya, and others, have then, in their respective codes of laws prescribed to widows, the duties of ascetics only. By this passage of the Veda, therefore, and the authority of Manu and others, the words you have quoted from Angira and the rest are set aside; for by the express declaration of the former, widows after the death of their husbands, may, by living as ascetics, obtain absorption.

Advocate. What you have said respecting the laws of Angira and others, that recommended the practice of Concremation and Postcremation we do not admit: because, though a practice has not been recommended by Manu, yet, if directed by other lawgivers, it should not on that account be considered as contrary to the law of Manu. For instance, Manu directs the performance of Sandhya, but says calling on the name of Hari. The words of Vyasa do not contradict those of Manu. The same should be understood in the present instance. Manu has commended widows to live as ascetics; Vishnu and other saints direct that they should either live as ascetics or follow their husbands. Therefore the law of Manu may be considered to be applicable as an alternative.

Opponent. The analogy you have drawn betwixt the practice of Sandhya and invoking Hari, and that of Concremation and Postcremation does not hold. For, in the course of the day the performance of Sandhya, at the prescribed time, does not prevent one from invoking Hari at another period; and, on the other hand, the invocation of Hari need not interfere with the performance of Sandhya. In this case, the direction of one practice is not inconsistent with that of the other. But in the case of living as an ascetic or undergoing Concremation, the performance of the one is incompatible with the observance of the other. Scil. [To wit,] Spending one’s whole life as an ascetic after the death of a husband, is incompatible with immediate Concremation as directed by Angira and others; and vice versa, Concremation, as directed by Angira and others, is inconsistent with living as an ascetic, in order to attain absorption. Therefore those two authorities are obviously contradictory of each other. More especially as Angira, by declaring that “there is no other way known for a virtuous woman except ascending the pile of her husband,” has made Concremation an indespensible duty. And Harita also, in his code, by denouncing evil consequences, in his declaration, that “as long as a woman shall not burn herself after the death of her husband, she shall be subject to transmigration in a female form,” has made this duty absolute. Therefore all those passages are in every respect contradictory to the law of Manu and others.

Advocate. When Angira says that there is no other way for a widow except Concremation, and when Harita says that the omission of it is a fault, we reconcile their words with those of Manu, by considering them as used merely for the purpose of exalting the merit of Concremation, but not as prescribing this as an indespesable duty. All these expressions, moreover, convey a promise of regard for Concremation, and thence it appears that Concremation is only optional.

Opponent. If, in order to reconcile them with the text of Manu, you set down the words of Angira and Harita, that make the duty incumbent, as meant only to convey an exaggerated praise of Concremation, why do you not also reconcile the rest of the words of Angira, Harita, and others, with those in which Manu prescribes to the widow the practice of living as an ascetic as her absolute duty? And why do you not keep aloof from witnessing the destruction of females, instead of tempting them with the inducement of future fruition? Moreover, in the text already quoted, self-destruction with the view of reward is expressly prohibited.

Advocate. What you have quoted from Manu and Yajnavalkya and the text of the Veda is admitted. But how can you set aside the following text of the Rig Veda on the subject of Concremation? “O fire! let these women, with bodies anointed with clarified butter, eyes coloured with collyrium, and void of tears, enter thee, the parent of water, that they may not be separated from their husbands, but may be, in unison with excellent husbands, themselves sinless and jewels amongst women.”

Opponent. This text of the Veda, and the former passages from Harita and the rest whom you have quoted, all praise the practice of Concremation as leading to fruition, and are addressed to those who are occupied by sensual desires; and you cannot but admit that to follow these practices is only optional. In repeating the Sankalpa of Concremation, the desire of future fruition is declared as the object. The text therefore of the Veda which we have quoted, offering no gratifications, supercedes, in every respect, that which you have adduced, as well as all the words of Angira and the rest. In proof we quote from the Kathopanishad: “Faith in God which leads to absorption is one thingl and rites which have future fruition for their object, another. Each of these, producing different consequences, hold out to man inducements to follow it. The man, who of these two chooses faith, is blessed: and he, who for the sake of reward practices rites, is dashed away from the enjoyment of eternal beatitude.” Also the Mundakopanishad: “Rites, of which there are eighteen members, are all perishable: he who considers them as the source of blessing shall undergo repeated transmigrations; and all those fools who, immersed in the foolish practice of rites, consider themselves to be wise and learned, are repeatedly subjected to birth, disease, death, and other pains. When one blind man is guided by another, both subject themselves on their way to all kinds of distress.”

It is asserted in the Bhagavad Gita, the essence of all the Smirtis, Puranas, and Itihasas, that, “all those ignorant persons who attach themselves to the words of the Vedas that convey promises of fruition, consider those falsely alluring passages as leading to real happiness, and say, that besides them there is no other reality. Agitated in their minds by these desires, they believe the abodes of the celestial gods to be the chief object; and they devote themselves to those texts which treat of ceremonies and their fruits, and entice by promises of enjoyment. Such people can have no real confidence in the Supreme Being.” Thus also do the Mundakopanishad and the Gita state that, “the science by which a knowledge of God is attained is superior to all other knowledge.” Therefore it is clear, from those passages of the Veda and of the Gita, that the words of the Veda which promise fruition, are set aside by the texts of contrary import. Moreover, the ancient saints and holy teachers, and their commentators, and yourselves, as well as we and others, agree that Manu is better acquainted than any other lawgiver with the spirit of the Veda. And he, understanding the meaning of those different texts, admitting the inferiority of that which promised fruition, and following that which conveyed no promise of gratifications, has directed widows to spend their lives as ascetics. He has also defined in his 12th chapter, what acts are observed merely for the sake of gratifications, and what are not. “Whatever act is performed for the sake of gratifications in this world or the next is called Prabartak, and those which are performed according to the knowledge respecting God, are called Nibartak. All those who perform acts to procure gratifications, may enjoy heaven like the gods; and he who performs acts free from desires, procures release from the five elements of this body, that is, obtains absorption.”

Advocate. What you have said is indeed consistent with the Vedas, with Manu, and with the Bhagavad Gita. But from this I fear, that the passages of the Vedas and the other Sastras, that prescribe Concremation and Postcremation as the means of attaining heavenly enjoyments, must be considered as only meant to deceive.

Opponent. There is no deception. The object of those passages is declared. As men have various dispositions, those whose minds are enveloped in desire, passion and cupidity, have no inclination for the disinterested worship of the Supreme Being. If they had no Sastras of rewards, they would at once throw aside all Sastras, and would follow their several inclinations, like elephants unguided by the hook. In order to restrain such persons from being led only by their inclinations, the Sastra prescribes various ceremonies, as Syenayaga for one desirous of the destruction of the enemy, Putreshti for one desiring a son, and Jyotishtoma for one desiring gratifications in heaven, &c.; but again reprobates such as are actuated by those desires, and at the same moment expresses contempt for such gratifications. Had the Sastra not repeatedly reprobated both those actuated by desire and the fruits desired by them, all those texts might be considered as deceitful. In proof of what I have advanced I cite the following text of the Upanishad, “Knowledge and rites together offer themselves to every man. The wise man considers which of these two is better and which the worse. By reflecting, he becomes convinced of the superiority of the former, despises rites, and takes refuge in knowledge. And the unlearned, for the sake of bodily gratifications, has recourse to the performance of the rites.” The Bhagavad Gita says: “The Vedas treat of rites are for the sake of those who are possessed of desire: therefore, O Arjuna! do thou abstain from desires.”

Hear also the text of the Veda reprobating the fruits of rites: “As in this world the fruits obtained from cultivation and labour perish, so in the next world fruits derived from rites are perishable.” Also the Bhagavad Gita: “Also those who observe the rites prescribed by the three Vedas, and through those ceremonies worship me and seek for heaven, having become sinless from eating the remains of offerings, ascending to heaven, and enjoying the pleasures of the gods, after the completion of their rewards, again return to earth. Therefore, the observers of rites for the sake of rewards, repeatedly, ascend to heaven, and return to the world, and cannot obtain absorption.”

Advocate. Though what you have advanced from the Veda and sacred codes against the practice of Concremation and Postcremation, is not to be set aside, yet we have had the practice prescribed by Harita and others handed down to us.

Opponent.Such an argument is highly inconsistent with justice. It is every way improper to persuade to self-destruction by citing passages of inadmissible authority. In the second place, it is evident from your own authorities, and the Sankalpa recited in conformity with them, that the widow should voluntarily quit life, ascending the flaming pile of her husband. But, on the contrary, you first bind down the widow along with the corpse of her husband, and heap over her such a quantity of wood that she cannot rise. At the time too of setting fire to the pile, you press her down with large bamboos. In what passage of Harita or the rest do you find authority for thus binding the woman according to your practice? This then is, in fact, deliberate female murder.

Advocate. Though Harita and the rest do not indeed authorize this practice of binding, &c., yet where a woman after having recited the Sankalpa not to perform Concremation, it would be sinful, and considered disgraceful by others. It is on this account that we have adopted this custom.

Opponent. Respecting the sinfulness of such an act, that is mere talk: for in the same codes it is laid down, that the performance of a penance will obliterate the sin of quitting the pile. Or in case of inability to undergo the regular penance, absolution may be obtained by bestowing the value of a cow, or three kahans of cowries. Therefore the sin is no cause of alarm. The disgrace in the opinion of others is also nothing: for good men regard not the blame or reproach of persons who can reprobate those who abstain from the sinful murder of women. And do you not consider how great is the sin to kill a woman; therein forsaking the fear of God, the fear of conscience, and the fear of the Sastras, merely from a dread of the reproach of those who delight in female murder?

Advocate. Though tying down in this manner be not authorized by the Sastras, yet we practise it as being a custom that has been observed throughout Hinustan.

Opponent. It never was the case that the practice of fastening down widows on the pile was prevalent throughout Hindustan: for it is but of late years that this mode has been followed, and that only in Bengal, which is but a small part of Hindustan. No one besides who has the fear of God and man before him, will assert that male or female murder, theft, &c., having been long practised, cease to be vices. If, according to your argument, custom ought to set aside the precepts of the Sastras, the inhabitants of the forests and mountains who have been in the habits of plunder, must be considered as guiltless of sin, and it would be improper to endeavour to restrain their habits. The Sastras, and the reasonings connected with them, enable us to discriminate right from wrong. In those Sastras such female murder is altogether forbidden. And reason also declares, that to bind down a woman for her destruction, holding out to her the inducement of heavenly rewards, is a most sinful act.

Advocate. This practice may be sinful or anything else, but we will not refrain from observing it. Should it cease, people would general apprehend that if women did not perform Concremation on the death of their husbands, they might go astray; but if they burn themselves this fear is done away. Their family and relations are freed from apprehension. And if the husband could be assured during his life that his wife would follow him on the pile, his mind would be at ease from apprehensions of her misconduct.

Opponent. What can be done, if, merely to avoid the possible danger of disgrace, you are unmercifully resolved to commit the sin of female murder. But is there not also a danger of a woman’s going astray during the life-time of her husband, particularly when he resides for a long time in a distant country? What remedy then have you got against this cause of alarm?

Advocate. There is a great difference betwixt the case of the husband’s being alive, and of his death; for while a husband is alive, whether he resides near or at a distance, a wife is under his control; she must stand in awe of him. But after his death that authority ceases, and she of course is divested of fear.

Opponent. The Sastras which command that a wife should live under the control of her husband during his life, direct that on his death she shall live under the authority of her husband’s family, or else under that of her parental relations; and the Sastras have authorized the ruler of the country to maintain the observance of this law. Therefore, the possibility of a woman’s going astray cannot be more guarded against during the husband’s life than it is after his death. For you daily see, that even while the husband is alive, he gives up his authority, and the wife separates from him. Control alone cannot restrain from evil thoughts, words, and actions; but the suggestions of wisdom and the fear of God may cause both man and woman to abstain from sin. Both the Sastras and experience show this.

Advocate. You have repeatedly asserted, that from want of feeling we promote female destruction. This is incorrect, for it is declared in our Veda and codes of law, that mercy is the root of virtue, and from our practice of hospitality, &c., our compassionate dispositions are well known.

Opponent. That in other cases you shew charitable dispositions is acknowledged. But by witnessing from your youth the voluntary burning of women amongst your elder relatives, your meighbors and the inhabitants of the surrounding villages, and by observing the indifference manifested at the time when the women are writhing under the torture of the flames, habits of insensibility are produced. For the same reason, when men or women are suffering the pains of death, you feel for them no sense of compassion, like the worshippers of the female deities who, witnessing from their infancy the slaughter of kids and buffaloes, feel no compassion for them in the time of their suffering death, while the followers of Vishnu are touched with strong feelings of pity.

Advocate. What you have said I shall carefully consider.

Opponent. It is to me a source of great satisfaction, that you are now ready to take this matter into your consideration. By forsaking prejudice and reflecting on the Sastra, what is really conformable to its precepts may be perceived, and the evils and disgrace brought on this country by the crime of female murder will cease.


[1] When a widow is absent from her husband at the time of his death, she may in certain cases burn herself along with some relic representing the deceased. This practice is called Anumaran or Postcremation.

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Filed under Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Roy, Rammohun, Selections, The Early Modern Period


from The Love Suicides at Sonezaki


Chikamatsu Monzaemon, born Sugimori Nobumori, the second son of a minor samurai family, is recognized as the first modern Japanese dramatist. Often called “the Japanese Shakespeare,” he is widely considered the most important playwright of the Tokugawa age. As a boy, Chikamatsu served as a page to a noble family at a time when the nobility were patrons of the puppet theatre, and his earliest signed dramatic work was the puppet play The Soga Successors. Although of samurai background, he wrote for the chonin, or townspeople. Between 1684 and 1705, Chikamatsu wrote Kabuki plays, many in collaboration with the outstanding actor of the time, Sakata Tojuro. For the last 20 years of his life, Chikamatsu returned to writing for the puppet theatre—dissatisfied, some have claimed, with the liberties that temperamental actors took with his texts, and preferring the more obedient puppets.

Chikamatsu composed over 150 plays, including The Oil Hell, The Punishment of Heaven, The Battles of Coxinga, and the hugely successful puppet play from which the selection is taken, The Love Suicides at Sonezaki (1703). The plays were of two main types: jidaimono, period plays treating the heroes of the distant or recent past, and domestic dramas, sewamono, portraying the ordinary people of his own day.

The Love Suicides at Sonezaki, which determined Chikamatsu’s future career, was his first attempt to use themes from daily life. The play was inspired by a double suicide that occurred at the Sonezaki Shrine in 1703. In the play, a pair of lovers—a clerk in an oil shop, Tokubei, and a courtesan named Ohatsu—kill themselves after they are tricked out of dowry money Tokubei must return after refusing to marry the girl chosen for him by his uncle. The lovers are both in their unlucky years (in the yin-yang system, a man’s 25th, 42nd, and 60th years are dangerous; for a woman, her 19th and 33rd years), and Tokubei is now 25 and Ohatsu is 19. They see their love suicide, shinju, as their only hope of lasting union.

Shinju—meaning “sincerity of heart”—refers to double or multiple suicides, whether pairs of lovers, mothers and children, or entire families. It is sometimes called “companionate” or “companionship” suicide. Like the suicide of loyalty to one’s


from The Love Suicides at Sonezaki

Filed under Asia, Buddhism, Chikamatsu Monzaemon, Love, Selections, The Early Modern Period

(c. 1052-c. 1135)

from Songs of Milarepa


Milarepa was a major figure in Tibetan Buddhism and one of Tibet’s most famous yogis and poets. His writings, often referred to as the Hundred Thousand Songs of Milarepa, are canonical Mahayana Buddhist texts. Milarepa was born Mila Thöpaga to a prosperous family, but when his father died and his uncle and aunt took the family’s wealth, Milarepa left home to study sorcery; he engaged in a series of revenge actions against his thieving relatives. Repenting of his violent deeds, he sought guidance under the Lama Marpa. Milarepa is said to have been the first man to achieve Vajradhara (complete enlightenment) within one lifetime.

This brief selection, spoken in the voice of Milarepa (then still known as Thöpaga), refers to his misdeeds and his suicidal regret for them, as well as Marpa’s angry discipline. It captures the assertion by another Lama present at the time, Ngogpa, of the basis for Buddhism’s rejection of suicide.


W. Y. Evans-Wentz, ed., Tibet’s Great Yogi Milarepa. A Biography from the TibetanPart II, Ch. 5. London: Oxford University Press, 1928, pp. 126-128.


‘One day during a feast given to some of his disciples from the most distant parts and to the members of his own family, Lāma Marpa sat, with a long staff by his side, looking with fierce eyes at Lāma Ngogpa, who was one of those present.  After a time, pointing at him with his finger, he said, “Ngogdun Chudor, what explanation hast thou to give in the matter of thy having conferred Initiation and the Truths upon this wicked person, Thöpaga?%E

(c. 1052-c. 1135)

from Songs of Milarepa

Filed under Asia, Buddhism, Middle Ages, Milarepa, Jetsun, Selections

(c. 50 A.D.-c. 200 A.D.)

from Former Affairs of the Bodhisattva Medicine King


The Lotus Sutra, or Saddharma Pundarika Sutra, is one of the earliest Mahayana Buddhist texts and is considered to be the principal Mahayana sutra. Developing somewhat after Hinayana, the more ancient form of Buddhism that later evolved into modern Theravada, Mahayana is the second, though larger, of the two main branches of Buddhist thought. Mahayana Buddhism developed in India between the 2nd century B.C. and the 1st century A.D., and by the 4th, 5th, and 6th centuries A.D. had begun to spread into China, Korea, Japan, Tibet, Vietnam, and Central Asia, where further schools such as Pure Land Buddhism and Zen appeared. Mahayana Buddhism is more liberal in its interpretations of the teachings of the historical Buddha than Theravada, with a more mythologized interpretation of the nature of the Buddha; it also incorporates a wider variety of practices. Its monastic communities, or sangha, can include both lay believers and monks, both of whom can seek to become bodhisattva, aspirants to bodhi who seek to reach or enlightenment, who will also help all beings achieve nirvana. Although Buddhism remains widespread in much of Asia, by the 13th century A.D., it had largely disappeared from India.

Little is known about the origin of the Lotus Sutra, also called the Lotus of the True Law, although most scholars place its composition sometime in the 1st century a.d., with its final form being reached around 200 A.D.. The earliest translation of the Lotus Sutra into Chinese was made by Dharmaraksha in 286 A.D., and it has become the most popular Buddhist text in China and Japan. It is the sole canonical text for Japanese Buddhists of the Nichiren sect.

In its fairly simple, accessible literary style, illustrated with parables and poetic images, the Lotus Sutra propounds all the major doctrines of Mahayana Buddhism and focuses on the doctrine of the “one true vehicle [or way],” Ekayana, which includes both the “greater vehicle,” Mahayana, and the “lesser vehicle,” Theravada. In a parable, the Buddha explains the nature of revelation and the way in which it is adapted to the limited faculties of not-yet-enlightened human beings, until they are ready for full revelation.

The dramatic narrative of the Lotus Sutra contains a succession of dialogues that serve to make an impression on the reader of the great wisdom, power, and eminence of the Buddha. The selection presented here centers on a discourse given by Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha, who lived from c. 563–483 B.C., to a congregation of followers at a famed place called Vulture’s Peak. He is represented as an almost eternal being, omnipotent, nearly free from the cycle of birth and rebirth, though from time to time, he descends to earth and is reborn among humans, as is the case in the discourse at Vulture’s Peak. The discourse stresses the proper use of wisdom, the need for compassion, and the importance of moral living.

The section of the text presented here is a Buddhist version of the myth of the phoenix. In it, a monk, the bodhisattva Mahasattva Sarvasattvapriyadarshana, or the bodhisattva Gladly Seen by All Living Beings, feeds himself for 12 years on the substances usually used in sacrificial rituals and then, by self-immolation, sacrifices his perfumed and anointed body to the Buddha. The Bodhisattva’s body burns for 1,200 years before he is reborn, having achieved a “heroic feat.” This is one step on his way to final extinction, having achieved Nirvana.


Lotus Sutra, ch. 23. “Former Affairs of the Bodhisattva Medicine King,” tr. Burton Watson, New York: Columbia University Press, 1993, pp, 280-289. Footnotes interpolated.


Former Affairs of the Bodhisattva Medicine King

At that time bodhisattva Constellation King Flower spoke to the Buddha, Saying: “World-Honored One, how does the bodhisattva Medicine King come and go in the saha world?  World-Honored One, this bodhisattva Medicine King has carried out some hundreds, thousands, ten thousands, millions of nayutas of difficult practices, arduous practices.  Very well, World-Honored One, could I ask you to explain a little?  The heavenly beings, dragons, gods, yakshas, gandharvas, asuras, garudas, kimnaras, mahoragas, human and nonhuman beings, and the bodhisattvas who have come from other lands and the multitude of voice-hearers, will all be delighted to hear you.”

At that time the Buddha addressed the bodhisattva Constellation King Flower, saying: “Many kalpas in the past, immeasurable as Ganges sands, there was a Buddha named Sun Moon Pure Bright Virtue Thus Come One, worthy of offerings, of right and universal knowledge, perfect clarity and conduct, well gone, understanding the world, unexcelled worthy, trainer of people, teacher of heavenly and human beings, Buddha, World-Honored One. This Buddha had eighty million great bodhisattvas and mahasattvas and a multitude of great voice-hearers equal to the sands of seventy-two Ganges. This Buddha’s life span was forty-two thousand kalpas, and the life span of the bodhisattvas was the same. In his land there were no women, hell dwellers, hungry spirits, beasts of asuras, and no kinds of tribulation. The ground was as level as the palm of a hand, made of lapis lazuli and adorned with jeweled trees.  Jeweled curtains covered it over, banners of jeweled flowers hung down, and jeweled urns and incense burners filled the land everywhere.  There were daises made of the seven treasures, with a tree by each dais, the tree situated an arrow-shot length from the dais.  These jeweled trees all had bodhisattvas and voice-hearers sitting under them, and each of the jeweled daises had hundreds of millions of heavenly beings playing on heavenly instruments and singing the praises of the Buddha as an offering.

“At that time, for the sake of the bodhisattva Gladly Seen by All Living Beings and the other numerous bodhisattvas and multitude of voice-hearers, the Buddha preached the Lotus Sutra.  This bodhisattva Gladly Seen by All Living Beings delighted in carrying out arduous practices.  In the midst of the Law preached by the Buddha Sun Moon Pure Bright Virtue he applied himself diligently and traveled about here and there, single-mindedly seeking Buddhahood for a period of fully twelve thousand years.  After that he was able to gain the Samadhi in which one can manifest all physical forms.  Having gained this Samadhi, his heart was filled with great joy and he thought to himself: My gaining the Samadhi in which I can manifest all physical forms is due entirely to the fact that I heard the Lotus Sutra.  I must now make an offering to the Buddha Sun Moon Pure Bright Virtue and to the Lotus Sutra!

“Immediately he entered the Samadhi and in the midst of the sky rained down mandarava flowers, great mandarava flowers, and finely ground, hard black particles of sandalwood; they filled the whole sky like clouds as they came raining down.  He also rained down the incense of the sandalwood that grows by the southern seashore.  Six taels of this incense is worth as mush as the saha world.  All these he used as an offering to the Buddha.

“When he had finished making this offering, he rose from his Samadhi and thought to himself: Though I have employed my supernatural powers to make this offering to the Buddha, it is not as good as making an offering of my own body.

“Thereupon he swallowed various perfumes, sandalwood, kunduruka, turushka, prikka, aloes, and liquidambar gum, and he also drank the fragrant oil of champaka and other kinds of flowers, doing this for a period of fully twelve hundred years. Anointing his body with fragrant oil, he appeared before the Buddha Sun Moon Pure Bright Virtue, wrapped his body in heavenly jeweled robes, poured fragrant oil over his head and, calling on his transcendental powers, set fire to his body. The glow shone forth, illuminating worlds equal in number to the sands of eighty million Ganges. The Buddhas in these worlds simultaneously spoke out in praise, saying: ‘Excellent, excellent, good man! This is true diligence. This is what is called a true Dharma offering to the Thus Come One. Though one may use flowers, incense, necklaces, incense for burning, powdered incense, paste incense, heavenly silken banners and canopies, along with the incense of the sandalwood that grows by the southern seashore, presenting offerings of all such things as these, he can never match this!  Though one may make donations of his realm and cities, his wife and children, he is no match for this!  Good man, this is called the foremost donation of all.  Among all donations, this is the most highly prized, for one is offering the Dharma to the Thus Come ones!’

“After they had spoken these words, they each one fell silent.  The body of the bodhisattva burned for twelve hundred years, and when that period of time had passed, it at last burned itself out.

“After the bodhisattva Gladly Seen by All Living Beings had made this Dharma offering and his life had come to an end, he was reborn in the land of the Buddha Sun Moon Pres Bright Virtue, in the household of the king Pure Virtue.  Sitting in cross-legged position, he was suddenly born by transformation, and at once for the benefit of his father he spoke in verse form, saying:

Great king, you should now understand this.
Having walked about in a certain place,
I immediately gained the Samadhi
that allows me to manifest all physical forms.
I have carried out my endeavors with great diligence
and cast aside the body that I loved.

“When he had recited this verse, he said to his father: ‘The Buddha Sun Moon Pure Bright Virtue is still present at this time.  Previously I made an offering to this Buddha and gained a dharani that allows me to understand the words of all living brings.  Moreover I have heard this Lotus Sutra with its eight hundred, thousand, ten thousand, millions of nayutas, kankaras, vivaras, akshobhyas of verses.[1] Great king, I must now once more make an offering to this Buddha.’

“Having said this, he seated himself on a dais made of the seven treasures, rose up into the air to the height of seven tala trees and, proceeding to the place where the Buddha was, bowed his head to the ground in obeisance to the Buddha’s feet, put the nails of his ten fingers together and spoke this verse in praise of the Buddha:

A countenance so rare and wonderful,
Its bright beams illuminating the ten directions!
At a previous time I made an offering,
And now once more I draw near.

“At that time, after the bodhisattva Gladly Seen by All Living Beings had spoken this verse, he said to the Buddha: ‘World-Honored One, is the World-Honored One still present in the world?’

“At that time the Buddha Sun Moon Pure Bright Virtue said to the bodhisattva Gladly Seen by All Living Beings: ‘Good man, the time has come for my nirvana.  The time has come for extinction.  You may provide me with a comfortable couch, for tonight will be my parinirvana.’

“He also commanded the bodhisattva Gladly Seen by All Living Beings, saying: ‘Good man, I take this Law of the Buddha and entrust it to you. In addition, the bodhisattvas and great disciples, along with the Law of anuttara-samyak-sambodhi, and the thousand-millionfold seven-jeweled world, with its jeweled trees and jeweled daises and heavenly beings who wait on and attend them—all these I hand over to you. I also entrust to you the relics of my body that remain after I have passed into extinction.  You must distribute them abroad and arrange for offerings to them far and wide.  You should erect many thousands of towers [to house them].’

“The Buddha Sun Moon Pure Bright Virtue, having given these commands to the bodhisattva Gladly Seen by All Living Beings, that night, in the last watch of the night, entered nirvana.

“At that time the bodhisattva Gladly Seen by All Living Beings, seeing the Buddha pass into extinction, was deeply grieved and distressed.  Out of his great love and longing for the Buddha he at once prepared a pyre made of sandalwood from the seashore, and with this as an offering to the Buddha’s body, he cremated the body.  After the fire had burned out, he gathered up the relics, fashioned eighty-four thousand jeweled urns, and built eighty-four thousand towers, high as the three worlds, adorned with central poles, draped with banners and canopies and hung with a multitude of jeweled bells.

“At that time the bodhisattva Gladly Seen by All Living Beings once more thought to himself: Though I have made these offerings, my mind is not yet satisfied.  I must make some further offering to the relics.

“Then he spoke to the other bodhisattvas and great disciples, and to the heavenly beings, dragons, yakshas, and all the members of the great assembly, saying, ‘You must give your undivided attention. I will now make an offering to the relics of the Buddha Sun Moon Pure Bright Virtue.’

“Having spoken these words, immediately in the presence of the eighty-four thousand towers he burned his arms, which were adorned with a hundred blessings, for a period of seventy-two thousand years as his offering.  This caused the numberless multitudes who were seeking to become voice-hearers, along with an immeasurable asamkhya of persons, to conceive a desire for anuttara-samyak-sambodhi, and all of them were able to dwell in the Samadhi where one can manifest all physical forms.

“At that time the bodhisattvas, heavenly and human beings, asuras and others, seeing that the bodhisattva had destroyed his arms, were alarmed and saddened and they said: ‘This bodhisattva Gladly Seen by All Living beings is our teacher, instructing and converting us.  Now he has burned his arms and his body is no longer whole!’

“At that time, in the midst of the great assembly, the bodhisattva Gladly Seen by All Living Beings made this vow, saying: ‘I have cast away both my arms.  I am certain to attain the golden body of a Buddha.  If this is true and not false, then may my two arms become as they were before!’

“When he had finished pronouncing this vow, his arms reappeared of themselves as they had been before.  This came about because the merits and wisdom of this bodhisattva were manifold and profound.  At that time the thousand-millionfold world shook and trembled in six different ways, heaven rained down jeweled flowers, and all the heavenly and human beings gained what they had never had before.”

The Buddha said to the bodhisattva Constellation King Flower: “What do you think?  Is this bodhisattva Gladly Seen by All Living Beings someone unknown to you? He is in fact none other than the present bodhisattva Medicine King!  He cast aside his body as an offering in this fashion immeasurable hundreds, thousands, ten thousands, millions of nayutas of times.

“Constellation King Flower, if there are those who have made up their minds and wish to gain anuttara-samyak-sambodhi, they would do well to burn a finger or one toe of their foot as an offering to the Buddha towers.  It is better than offering one’s realm and cities, wife and children, or the mountains, forests, rivers, and lakes in the ‘lands of the thousand-millionfold world, of all their precious treasures.  Even if a person were to fill the whole thousand-million world with the seven treasures as an offering to the Buddha and the great bodhisattvas, pratyekabuddhas and arhats, the benefits gained by such a person cannot match those gained by accepting and upholding this Lotus Sutra, even just one four-line verse of it!  The latter brings the most numerous blessings of all.

“Constellation King Flower, among all the rivers, streams, and other bodies of water, for example, the ocean is foremost. And this Lotus Sutra is likewise, being the most profound and greatest of the sutras preached by the Thus Come Ones. Again, just as among the Dirt Mountains, Black Mountains, Small Iron Encircling Mountains, Great Iron Encircling Mountains, Ten Treasure Mountains and all the other mountains, Mount Sumeru is foremost, so this Lotus Sutra is likewise.  Among all the stars and their like, the moon, a god’s son, is foremost, so this Lotus Sutra is likewise.  For among all the thousands, ten thousands, millions of types of sutra teachings, it shines the brightest. And just as the sun, a god’s son, can banish all darkness, so too this sutra is capable of destroying the darkness of all that is not good.

“As among the petty kings the wheel-turning sage king is foremost, so this sutra is the most honored among all the many sutras. As the lord Shakra is king among the thirty-three heavenly beings, so this sutra likewise is king among all the sutras. And as the heavenly king, great Brahma, is the father if all living beings, so this sutra likewise is father of all sages, worthies, those still learning, those who have completed their learning, and those who set their minds on becoming bodhisattvas. And as among all ordinary mortals, the srotaapanna, sakridagamin, anagamin, arhats and pratyekabuddhas are foremost, so this sutra likewise is foremost among all the sutra teachings preached by all the Thus Come Ones preached by all the bodhisattvas, or preached by all the voice-hearers.  A person who can accept and uphold this sutra is likewise foremost among all living beings.  Bodhisattvas are foremost among all voice-hearers and pratyekabuddhas, and in the same way this sutra is foremost among all the sutra teachings.  As the Buddha is king of the doctrines, so likewise this sutra is king of the sutras.

“Constellation King Flower, this sutra can save all living beings. This sutra can cause all living beings to free themselves from suffering and aguish. This sutra can bring great benefits to all living beings and fulfill their desires, as a clear cool pond can satisfy all those who are thirsty. It is like a fire to one who is cold, a robe to one who is naked, like a band of merchants finding a leader, a child finding its mother, someone finding a ship in which to cross the water, a sick man finding a doctor, someone in darkness finding a lamp, the poor finding riches, the people finding a ruler, a traveling merchant finding his way to the sea.  It is like a torch that banishes darkness. Such is this Lotus Sutra. It can cause living beings to cast off all distress, all sickness and pain.  It can unloose all the bonds of birth and death.

“If a person is able to hear this Lotus Sutra, if he copies it himself or causes others to copy it, the benefits he gains thereby will be such that even the Buddha wisdom could never finish calculating their extent.  If one copies these sutra rolls and uses flowers, incense, necklaces, incense for burning, powdered incense, paste incense, banners, canopies, robes, various kinds of lamps such as lamps of butter oil, oil lamps, lamps with various fragrant oils, lamps of champaka oil, lamps of sumana oil, Lamps of patala oil, lamps of varshika oil, or lamps of navamalika oil to make offerings to them, the benefits that he acquires will likewise be immeasurable.

“Constellation King Flower, if there is a person who hears this chapter on the Former Affairs of the Bodhisattva Medicine King, he too will gain immeasurable and boundless benefits.  If there is a woman who hears this chapter on the Former Affairs of the Bodhisattva Medicine King and is able to accept and uphold it, that will be her last appearance in a woman’s body and she will never be born in that form again.

“If in the last five hundred year period after the Thus Come One has entered extinction there is a woman who hears this sutra and carries out its practices as the sutra directs, when her life here on earth comes to an end she will immediately go to the world of Peace and Delight where the Buddha Amitayus dwells surrounded by the assembly of great bodhisattvas and there will be born seated on a jeweled seat in the center of a lotus blossom. He [2] will no longer know the torments of greed, desire, anger, rage, stupidity of ignorance, or the torments brought about by arrogance, envy or other defilements. He will gain the bodhisattva’s transcendental powers and the truth of the birthlessness of all phenomena.  Having gained this truth, his faculty of sight will be clear and pure, and with this clear pure faculty of sight he will see Buddhas and Thus Come Ones equal in number to the sands of seven hundred twelve thousand million nayutas of Ganges.

“At that time Buddhas will join in praising him from afar, saying: ‘Excellent, excellent, good man!  In the midst of the Law of Shakyamuni Buddha you have been able to accept, uphold, read, recite and ponder this sutra and to preach it for others.  The good fortune you gain thereby is immeasurable and boundless.  It cannot be burned by fire or washed away by water.  Your benefits are such that a thousand Buddhas speaking all together could never finish describing them.  Now you have been able to destroy all devils and thieves, to annihilate the army of birth and death, and all others who bore you enmity of malice have likewise been wiped out.

“’Good man, a hundred, a thousand Buddhas will employ their transcendental powers to join in guarding and protection you. Among the heavenly and human beings of all the worlds, there will be no one like you. With the sole exception of the Thus Come One, there will be none among the voice-hearers, pratyekabuddhas of bodhisattvas whose wisdom and ability in meditation can equal yours!’

“Constellation King Flower, such will be the benefits and the power of wisdom successfully acquired by this bodhisattva.

“If there is a person who, hearing this chapter on the Former Affairs of the Bodhisattva Medicine King, is able to welcome it with joy and praise its excellence, then in this present existence this person’s mouth will constantly emit the fragrance of the blue lotus flower, and the pores of his body will constantly emit the fragrance of ox-head sandalwood.  His benefits will be such as have been described above.

“For this reason, Constellation King Flower, I entrust this chapter on the Former Affairs of the Bodhisattva Medicine King to you.  After I have passed into extinction, in the last five hundred year period you must spread it abroad widely throughout Jambudvipa and never allow it to be cut off, nor must you allow evil devils, the devils’ people, heavenly beings, dragons, yakshas of kumbhanda demons to seize the advantage!

“Constellation King Flower, you must use your transcendental powers to guard and protect this sutra.  Why?  Because this sutra provides good medicine for the ills of the people of Jambudvipa.  If a person who has an illness is able to hear this sutra, then his illness will be wiped out and he will know neither old age or death.

“Constellation King Flower, if you see someone who accepts and upholds this sutra, you must take blue lotus blossoms, heap them with powdered incense, and scatter them over him as an offering.  And when you have scattered them, you should think to yourself: Before long this person will pick grasses, spread them as a seat in the place of practice, and conquer the armies of the devil.  Then he will sound the conch of the Law, beat the drum of the great Law, and free all living beings from the sea of old age, sickness, and death!

“For this reason when those who seek the Buddha way see someone who accepts and upholds this sutra, they should approach him with this kind of respect and reverence.”

When [the Buddha] preached this chapter on the Former Affairs of the Bodhisattva Medicine King, eighty-four thousand bodhisattvas gained the dharani that allows them to understand the words of all living beings.  Many Treasures Thus Come One in the midst of his treasure tower praised the bodhisattva Constellation King Flower, Saying: “Excellent, excellent, Constellation King Flower.  You succeeded in acquiring inconceivable benefits and thus were able to question Shakyamuni Buddha about this matter, profiting immeasurable numbers of living beings.”

  1. Kaṅkara, vivara, and aksobhya are all extremely large numerical units.
  2. As the text makes clear later on, the woman has been reborn in male form.

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(c. 50 A.D.-c. 200 A.D.)

from Former Affairs of the Bodhisattva Medicine King

Filed under Ancient History, Asia, Buddhism, Lotus Sutra, Selections

(c. 100 B.C.)

On Suicide


The Milindapañha, or The Questions of King Milinda, sometimes assigned to one of the “three baskets” of the Pali canon of early Buddhist texts by the Burmese edition, is usually understood as a paracanonical text of Theravada Buddhism, the earlier, more conservative of the two principal branches of Buddhism. Theravada, closer to the teachings of the historical Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama  (c. 563–483 B.C.), emphasizes the ideal of the arhat, the enlightened individual in his progress towards nirvana. Mahayana in contrast stresses the ideal of the boddhisattva, dedicated to helping others achieve enlightenment.

The Questions of King Milinda consist of a dialogue between the Indo-Greek king Menander I, who reigned about 155–130 B.C. and was one of the Bactrian kings to invade farthest into India, and the Buddhist monk Mahathera Nagasena, believed to have been a historical figure who was sent to the kingdoms of Bactria as a Buddhist missionary at the time of Menander’s rule. Menander (known as Milinda in Buddhist traditions), who was arrogant and impatient because he could not find an intellect sufficiently keen to explain the teachings of Buddhism, found his match in Nagasena. The dating of the text is difficult, but it could not have originated earlier than the reign of Menander in the 2nd century B.C., and it is known that the book was translated into Chinese sometime between 317 and 420 A.D.. Most scholars place the composition of the Questions around 100 B.C. or a century later, possibly as late as the end of the 2nd century A.D.. According to legend, the Questions were compiled by the same monk who speaks in the dialogue, Nagasena.

The Questions of King Milinda is a significant and valuable work for many reasons. It records one of the earliest meetings between Buddhist and Hellenistic cultures; it gives a historical view of the 2nd-century Bactrian milieu; and it provides a nearly comprehensive understanding of Theravada Buddhist thought. Some of the important topics raised in the dialogue are the nature of truth, the problem of evil, why philosophical inquiry is unavailing in these issues, and how the process of rebirth occurs. In one portion of the text, King Menander asks how the Buddha can teach the need to overcome “old age, disease, and death” while proscribing suicide as a means to avoid these evils; he points out an apparent contradiction in Buddhist teaching, since it both prohibits suicide but also encourages the putting of an end to life in its doctrine of escape from suffering and rebirth. Nagasena then explains why the Buddha forbade self-killing, citing the reason that a person who is truly good, who is “full of benefit to all beings” should not “be done away with.” According to The Questions and to Buddhist legend, although not historically confirmed, Menander abdicated his throne as a result of his encounter with Nagasena and joined the Buddhist sangha.


Milindapañha. The Questions of King Milinda, Part I, sections 13-15, tr. T. W. Rhys Davids, in The Sacred Books of the East, Vol. 35, ed. F. Max Müller, Oxford, UK: Clarendon Press, 1890. Dover reprint, 1963, pp. 273-278, available online at, from the Internet Sacred Texts Archive.



‘Venerable Nâgasena, it has been said by the Blessed One: “A brother is not, O Bhikkhus, to commit suicide. Whosoever does so shall be dealt with according to the law.” And on the other hand you (members of the Order) say: “On whatsoever subject the Blessed One was addressing the disciples, he always, and with various similes, preached to them in order to bring about the destruction of birth, of old age, of disease, and of death. And whosoever overcame birth, old age, disease, and death, him did he honour with the highest praise.” Now if the Blessed One forbade suicide that saying of yours must be wrong, but if not then the prohibition of suicide must be wrong. This too is a double-edged problem now put to you, and you have to solve it.’

‘The regulation you quote, O king, was laid down by the Blessed One, and yet is our saying you refer to true. And there is a reason for this, a reason for which the Blessed One both prohibited (the destruction of life), and also (in another sense) instigated us to it.’

‘What, Nâgasena, may that reason be?’

‘The good man, O king, perfect in uprightness, is like a medicine to men 1 in being an antidote to the poison of evil, he is like water to men in laying the dust and the impurities of evil dispositions, he is like a jewel treasure to men in bestowing upon them all attainments in righteousness, he is like a boat to men inasmuch as he conveys them to the further shore of the four flooded streams (of lust, individuality, delusion, and ignorance) 2, he is like a caravan owner to men in that he brings them beyond the sandy desert of rebirths, he is like a mighty rain cloud to men in that he fills their hearts with satisfaction, he is like a teacher to men in that he trains them in all good, he is like a good guide to men in that he points out to them the path of peace. It was in order that so good a man as that, one whose good qualities are so many, so various, so immeasurable, in order that so great a treasure mine of good things, so full of benefit to all beings, might not be done away with, that the Blessed One, O king, out of his mercy towards all beings, laid down that injunction, when he said: “A brother is not, O Bhikkhus, to commit suicide. Whosoever does so shall be dealt with according to the law.” This is the reason for which the Blessed One prohibited (self-slaughter). And it was said, O king, by the Elder Kumâra Kassapa, the eloquent, when he was describing to Pâyâsi the Râganya the other world: “So long as Samanas and Brahmans of uprightness of life, and beauty of character, continue to exist–however long that time may be–just so long do they conduct themselves to the advantage and happiness of the great masses of the people, to the good and the gain and the weal of gods and men!”‘

‘And what is the reason for which the Blessed One instigated us (to put an end to life)? Birth, O king, is full of pain, and so is old age, and disease, and death. Sorrow is painful, and so is lamentation, and pain, and grief, and despair. Association with the unpleasant is painful, and separation from the pleasant.  The death of a mother is painful, or of a father, or a brother, or a sister, or a son, or a wife, or of any relative. Painful is the ruin of one’s family, and the suffering of disease, and the loss of wealth, and decline in goodness, and the loss of insight. Painful is the fear produced by despots, or by robbers, or by enemies, or by famine, or by fire, or by flood, or by the tidal wave, or by earthquake, or by crocodiles or alligators. Painful is the fear of possible blame attaching to oneself, or to others, the fear of punishment, the fear of misfortune. Painful is the fear arising from shyness in the presence of assemblies of one’s fellows, painful is anxiety as to one’s means of livelihood, painful the foreboding of death.  Painful are (the punishments inflicted on criminals), such as being flogged with whips, or with sticks, or with split rods, having one’s hands cut off, or one’s feet, or one’s hands and feet, or one’s ears, or one’s nose, or one’s ears and nose. Painful are (the tortures inflicted on traitors)–being subjected to the Gruel Pot (that is, having boiling gruel poured into one’s head from the top of which the skull bone has been removed)–or to the Chank Crown  (that is, having the scalp rubbed with gravel till it becomes smooth like a polished shell)–or to the Râhu’s Mouth (that is, having one’s mouth held open by iron pins, and oil put in it, and a wick lighted therein)–or to the Fire Garland  or to the Hand Torch, (that is, being made a living torch, the whole body, or the arms only, being wrapped up in oily cloths, and set on fire)–or to the Snake Strips  (that is, being skinned in strips from the neck to the hips, so that the skin falls in strips round the legs)or to the Bark Dress  (that is, being skinned alive from the neck downwards, and having each strip of skin as soon as removed tied to the hair, so that these strips form a veil around one)–or to the Spotted Antelope (that is, having one’s knees and elbows tied together, and being made to squat on a plate of iron under which a fire is lit)–or to the Flesh-hooks  (that is, being hung up on a row of iron hooks)–or to the Pennies  (that is, having bits cut out of the flesh, all over the body, of the size of pennies)–or to the Brine Slits  (that is, having cuts made all over one’s body by means of knives or sharp points, and then having salt and caustic liquids poured over the wounds)–or to the Bar Turn  (that is, being transfixed to the ground by a bar of iron passing through the root of the ear, and then being dragged round and round by the leg)–or to the Straw Seat  (that is, being so beaten with clubs that the bones are broken, and the body becomes like a heap of straw)–or to be anointed with boiling oil, or to be eaten by dogs, or to be impaled alive, or to be beheaded. Such and such, O king, are the manifold and various pains which a being caught in the whirlpool of births and rebirths has to endure. just, O king, as the water rained down upon the Himâlaya mountain flows, in its course along the Ganges, through and over rocks and pebbles and gravel, whirlpools and eddies and rapids, and the stumps and branches of trees which obstruct and oppose its passage,–just so has each being caught in the succession of births and rebirths to endure such and such manifold and various pains. Full of pain, then, is the continual succession of rebirths, a joy is it when that succession ends. And it was in pointing out the advantage of that end, the disaster involved in that succession, that the Blessed One, great king, instigated us to get beyond birth, and old age, and disease, and death by the realisation of the final end of that succession of rebirths. This is the sense, O king, which led the Blessed One to instigate us (to put an end to life).’

‘Very good, Nâgasena! Well solved is the puzzle (I put), well set forth are the reasons (you alleged). That is so, and I accept it as you say.’

[Here ends the problem as to suicide.]

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