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.