Monday, March 23, 2009
Burning for the Buddha: Self-Immolation in Chinese Buddhism
Burning for the Buddha: Self-Immolation in Chinese Buddhism is the first book-length study of the theory and practice of "abandoning the body"(self-immolation) in Chinese Buddhism. Although largely ignored by conventional scholarship, the acts of self-immolators (which included not only burning the body, but also being devoured by wild animals, drowning oneself, and self-mummification, among others) form an enduring part of the religious tradition and provide a new perspective on the multifarious dimensions of Buddhist practice in China from the early medieval period to the present time. This book 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. His investigation leads him beyond traditional boundaries between Buddhist studies and sinology and draws on a wide range of canonical, historical, and polemical sources, many of them translated and analyzed for the first time in any language. Focusing on an aspect of religious practice that was seen as both extreme and heroic, Benn brings to the surface a number of deep and unresolved tensions within the religion itself and reveals some hitherto unsuspected aspects of the constantly shifting negotiations between the Buddhist community and the state.
Self-immolation in Chinese Buddhism was controversial, and Burning for the Buddha gives weight to the criticism and defense of the practice both within the Buddhist tradition and without. It places self-immolation in the context of Chinese Mahayana thought and explores its multiple religious, social, and historical roles. These new perspectives on an important mode of Buddhist practice as it was experienced and recorded in traditional China contribute to not only the study of Buddhism, but also the study of religion and the body.