Choosing Death So Others May Live

Eight Tibetan Buddhist monks set themselves on fire to protest the Chinese occupation of their country. They took  their own lives when soldiers of the army set up quarters in Tibetan monasteries.

How could anyone do such a thing?

They must have been in intense pain. Or, they were offering overwhelming love.

Only martyrs in early Christendom have ever given of themselves so freely, when all they had to do was renounce their faith and continue with their lives. They chose death, not out of fear, but out of love, a compassionate love we hold dear today.

My aunt set fire to herself. I never knew her. It happened before my parents married. Still, the story told is one of pain. Anthoula poured an accelerant over herself after walking to a porch overlooking the Aegean Sea, then struck a match as she saw her lover sailing back to the island of Nysiros, Greece. Family members say she did it to make her fishermen boy friend jealous. Jealousy had nothing to do with it, and I believe she did it out of pain. She must have suffered intensely to take her life.

My son’s favorite teacher took not only her life, but the life of her three-year-old son, leaving a note that “from this day forward” the boy “would be in heaven.” The psychological counseling the woman had received was unable to forestall what many Christians believe is the one unforgivable sin.

I felt hope for her, however, when the former head of the Philadelphia archdiocese, Cardinal Anthony Bevilacqua, told me and hundreds of others attending her funeral about the infinite mercy of God.

“He said that a religious scholar once noted that we could never understand nor imagine the vastness of God’s mercy. (See Infinite Mercy) That mercy stretches beyond time, beyond our earth, our Universe, and no one could ever be able to place a figure to how great and immense that Love for us has been and always will be through infinity.

The cardinal then told us — the  Church-going congregation seated on wooden pews, taking in the burning of incense and the old familiar hymns —   about another theologian who, when asked if he believed in Hell, quickly said “yes.”

But he did not end with a one syllable answer. He continued:

“Do I believe in hell? Yes, I do,”

“But I don’t believe anyone is in it,” he added. “Because of God’s infinite mercy!”

Thich Nhat Hanh, the Zen Buddhist monk who teaches mindfulness meditation, spoke last week of other monks taking their lives when addressing a gathering of a thousand at a retreat in Blue Cliff Monastery, Pine Bush, NY. He told us of monks who protested the war in Vietnam. The aging monastic said the monks in Saigon were not acting out of despair or out of desperation. They chose to highlight the plight of their nation through what he called an act of “compassion.”

He compared their ultimate sacrifice to the one that Jesus offered when chosing to let Roman soldiers put him to death. His crucifixion led to the Resurrection and pointed the way to enlightenment for mankind.

The Tibetan Buddhist Society will hold a world-wide candlelight vigil this Wednesday, October 19, 2011, to draw attention to the occupation of their nation. It is their way to remind all  that there are some things still worth giving our lives toward.

I hope to light a candle at Independence Hall in Philadelphia, PA, and remember the monks’ acts of compassion. I owe it to those who went before me and helped people on both sides to live by ending the war of my generation.

19 comments on “Choosing Death So Others May Live

  1. says:

    Some truly nice stuff on this internet site, I love it.


  2. Terri says:

    Thank you this was very informative and it gave me peace to know that those who have taken their own life will still meet with us all on the other side.


    • contoveros says:

      The good cardinal provided me with a lot of comfort when he spoke so forgivingly about my son’s teacher. I felt better about my place in the Universe and the hereafter, no matter what that might turn out to be. I now believe it will be filled with love and compassion as well as infinite mercy.


  3. Tana Schott says:

    I was not raised Orthodox Christian, which is too bad because I recently learned that Orthodox Christians do not hold to a penal or substitutionary atonement theology. I was raised in a Christianity that taught substitutionary atonement and it took years to undo the damage of it. I’m learning to question any doctrine or dogma that answers, “What’s in it for me?” SA answers, “What’s in it for me?” by answering, “So that God can look at you and allow you into heaven.”

    No, I know the Spirit is guiding when the answer to the question urges me beyond myself. It’s not all about me. It’s more challenging (to me) to view Christ’s death as an example, then to go deeper, to see the gift inherent in not being tied to this breathing in and out and toiling away that we do.



    • As I continue to read comments to this post I keep learning new things. I have never heard the phrase ” substitutionary atonement”. It’s very interesting and so I looked it up on Wiki and then posted it as a link to my own blog. I think I can communicate better now when I explain to others we must atone for our own deeds and misdeeds.

      I agree with your statement also that the beliefs of “What’s in it for me” are in direct conflict of the way things actually are. We’re not buying a used car. It’s a life, a spiritual life. A life that includes and helps others. I’m not of the mind that “Gee, I’m going to get mine. You better get going yourself buddy if you want to get yours”.

      That being said I still believe that we must atone for our own shortcomings.



      • contoveros says:

        “We’re not buying a used car. It’s a life, a spiritual life. A life that includes and helps others.”
        I chose St Francis’ name as my Confirmation name in the Catholic religion. I wanted to help all animals out of a sincere compassion for those little critters that seem to need a helping hand from someone a little more advantaged on the evolutionary scale.

        I am so glad that a little of that compassion had seeped into my dealings with humans and that I can help others with the same feeling: to give to another without expecting anything in return.

        OK, I’d like to hear my cat purr when I feed her, and my parakeet to ring his bell when I untangle it. But, I think you know what I mean.

        Who knows? Maybe I am trying to atone for something I did in a past life?

        (By the way, I saw the new category, “Substitutional Atonement” at your site and marveled how qauikly information can be shared via the Internet.)



    • contoveros says:

      Well Tana, I followed the lead of Informationforager and looked up the “substitutionary attonement.” (see link above) I read it, but still can’t quite understand it,

      I do agree that we should get away from “what’s in it for me?” I prefer a take on the old JFK quote: “Ask not what you can do for me, but for what I can do for you,” and for the rest of mankind by trying to develop a habit of altruism despite an ego that’s generally calling for “me first.”

      How’s that for a “contrarian” answer?


  4. livvy1234 says:

    A book you might want to read is “The Heart Sutra,” by Red Pine. The works of Jiddu Krishnamurti offer golden truths about the manipulations of the human mind. It is up to each one of us to watch and study the machinations of our mind.

    “Observe the very actions, the thoughts, which provoke your physical actions and inquire about them.” (JK)


    • contoveros says:

      I just finished a book on “Relationships” by Krishnamurti. I saw many truths, but felt a lack of hope for the human condition. Now, I will pick up “The Heart Sutra” by Red Pine, thanks to your guidance.

      And guidance is the correct word to use, because I really believe that certain people (some events) become guides for us if we but open ourselves to the signs they present us to read and/or follow. Is it Him working through his creation to nudge us to a higher consciousness? Maybe. Or it may just be karma ripening at a time when I must choose to either take action or not to act.

      I’ll lean forward and go where my heart tells me to go . . .

      Thanks, Livvy. It’s nice to have made your acquaintance after seeing your post on the Bodhisattva “Tag.”


      • livvy1234 says:

        I believe that people come into our lives for a reason and a season. I am new to Word Press, and have not figured out much of the details. I figured I would just start writing and work on learning how to move around the site this winter.

        I was shocked to find that someone read my words. So there is a reason, and this is the season. A lot of your articles offer similarities to my journey to my Self.

        I promised myself this Fall would be the happiest in my life. I am doing a lot of nature walks on state park trails. The more I go into the woods, the more content I find myself.

        It is a deep pleasure to meet another journeying on the path to nowhere. I look forward to reading your blog, and responding from mindful reflection. Have a blessed day.


        • contoveros says:

          I see certain people as “guides” ever since I read the book, “The Celestine Prophecy,” ( about 18 months ago. I was already in a state open to such a suggestion as a “guide,” but I found by actually “looking” for signs in sometimes the most mundane experiences and in persons I wouldn’t normally give a second thought, I discovered something new. It was when I opened myself, that I’d feel a “pull” or a “nudge” toward and into a new insight.

          It’s kind of like walking in the woods and mingling with nature, while observing the birds, animals and insects I’m not normally aware of back home.


  5. Thank you for this post… which (BTW) is the first one that has come into my mail box in ages! I wondered what happened to ya? Hope ur keeping well. xxx


    • contoveros says:

      My Fellow Pennsylvanian,

      I took a Sabbatical . . . took time off for “bad behavior” . . . and only recently found my old writing quill. Don’t know how much ink is left, but I plan to see it run dry before I’m done.


  6. souldipper says:

    Through the Virtues Project, I learned that to be merciful, I must step beyond being just. I like the Cardinal’s description of the vastness of Mercy.


    • contoveros says:

      The cardinal dispensed a lot of peace and hope when he spoke to the family, friends and high school students at the service. I think it was the best “sermon” I ever heard.


  7. Beechmount says:

    During the Second World War, thousands sacrificed their lives, so that others might survive. In the NAZI concentration camps, the stories of people sacrificing their lives for others are enumerable. Giving the supreme sacrifice in the cause of something or for the sake of others is often difficult to comprehend; certainly in view of the love for life most people have, and no less so, when one observes the post mortem reaction to such deeds, which often is callous and unfeeling and frequently all too soon forgotten.



    • contoveros says:

      There is no greater love than for a man to lay down his life so that another may live.

      I forget where I heard that. I think it was a Jewish fellow some called “rabbi.”


  8. A very thoughful post. I’ll try to light a candle on the 19th. Life is complex and I imagine that death or the hereafter is even more complex. I think that God’s mercy is infinate. Thanks.


    • contoveros says:

      Such infinite mercy is bestowed on everyone even though we might think someone may not be worthy of it. It seems there is a much greater and more benevolent Divinity at work of whom we can barely know, let only understand.


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