Climate activist’s self-immolation sparks questions about faith and protest | earth beat
Wynn Bruce, a 50-year-old Buddhist and climate activist, set himself on fire outside the US Supreme Court last week, sparking a national conversation about his motivation and whether he may have been inspired by Buddhist monks who have self-immolated in the past to protest government atrocities.
Bruce, a photographer from Boulder, Colorado, drove to Supreme Court Square around 6:30 p.m. Friday – Earth Day – then sat down and set himself on fire, an official said of law enforcement. Supreme Court officers responded immediately but were unable to extinguish the fire in time to save him.
Investigators, who spoke to The Associated Press on condition of anonymity, said they did not immediately locate a manifesto or note at the scene and that officials were still working to determine a motive.
On Saturday, Kritee Kanko, a Zen Buddhist priest who described herself as Bruce’s friend, shared a moving message on her public Twitter account saying his self-immolation was “not suicide” but “an act of deeply fearless compassion to draw attention to the climate crisis.”
She added that Bruce had been planning the act for at least a year. She wrote: “#wynnbruce I’m so emotional.” She got sympathetic responses as well as negative reactions.
Kanko and other members of the Rocky Mountain Ecodharma Retreat Center in Boulder, released a statement on Monday saying that “none of the Buddhist teachers in the Boulder area were aware of (Bruce’s) plans to self-immolate in this Earth Day”, and that if they had known of his plan, they would have stopped him. Bruce was a frequent visitor to the Buddhist retreat center in the mountains near Boulder where he meditated with the community, Kanko said.
“We have never spoken of self-immolation, and we do not believe that self-immolation is climate action,” the statement read. “Nevertheless, given the dire state of the planet and the worsening climate crisis, we understand why anyone would do this.”
On Facebook, Bruce wrote about following the spiritual tradition of Shambhala, which combines Tibetan Buddhism with the principles of living “an elevated life, fully engaged with the world,” according to the Boulder Shambhala Center. Bruce also posted eulogies for Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh, a leader of committed Buddhism, at the time of his death in January.
Bruce’s act of sitting down and setting himself on fire was reminiscent of the events of June 11, 1963, when Thich Quang Duc, a cross-legged Vietnamese monk, set himself on fire at a very busy intersection. frequented by Saigon. He was protesting the persecution of Buddhists by the South Vietnamese government led by Ngo Dinh Diem, a devout Catholic.
In a letter to the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. whom Hanh considered a friend, Hanh wrote that he was inspired by the self-sacrifice of the Vietnamese monk, saying: “To be burned by fire is to prove that what one says is of the utmost importance . There is nothing more painful than getting burned . To say something in that kind of pain is to say it with the utmost courage, openness, determination and sincerity.”
In Tibet, anti-Chinese activists have used self-immolation as a form of protest. The International Campaign for Tibet says 131 men and 28 women – among them monks, nuns and lay people – have set themselves on fire since 2009 to protest Beijing’s tight controls on the region and their religion.
Buddhism as a religion does not unilaterally condone the act of self-immolation or suicide, said London-based scholar Robert Barnett of modern Tibetan history and politics.
“To commit suicide is considered harmful in Buddhism because life is precious,” he said. “But if a person self-immolates because of a higher motivation and it’s not because of a negative emotion such as depression or sadness, then the Buddhist position becomes much more complex.”
If the self-immolation is done to help the world, it could be accepted as positive action, Barnett said. He cited a story from the “Jataka Tales”, a body of South Asian literature concerning the Buddha’s previous incarnations in human and animal form. In this particular tale, an incarnation of the Buddha, in an act of selfless compassion, offers himself to an emaciated tigress who was so hungry she was ready to devour her own cubs.
“But this kind of self-sacrifice is not encouraged, developed or discussed for normal people (other than the Buddha),” he said, adding that it is because of “the immense difficulty of cultivate positive motivation in any situation, much less sustain it under stress or in conditions of extreme pain.”
Buddhism emphasizes emotional balance, inclusiveness, kindness, compassion and wisdom, said Roshi Joan Halifax, environmental activist and abbot of Upaya Zen Center in Santa Fe, New Mexico.
“What we see today in many people is despair,” she said. “What we are called to do is not to be handicapped by this sense of futility, but to transform our moral suffering into wise hope and courageous action.”
A Buddhist monk walks near a temple that was destroyed in an earthquake in Tarlay, Myanmar on March 27. (CNS/Reuters/Zoe Zeya Tun)
Despite the pessimism some climate activists may feel, there are reasons to remain hopeful, Halifax said.
“You see people realizing the scale of the climate catastrophe,” she said, noting that countries and companies are moving away from harmful practices and towards clean energy.
“I feel inspired and hopeful by our ability to change and adapt in this ever-changing world,” she said. “My heart is heavy that (Bruce) didn’t have that kind of optimism.”
Those who knew Bruce saw a kind, cheerful and idealistic man – an avid dancer who participated in weekly events. He was also known to ride a bicycle and embrace public transportation.
Bruce, who loved the outdoors, brought intensity to everything he did, said his friend Jeffry Buechler. On Buechler’s wedding day in 2014, Bruce, on a whim, decided to go for a swim in a cold mountain lake early in the morning, he said.
Bruce also suffered lasting effects from a brain injury he suffered in a car crash that killed his best friend about 30 years ago, Buechler said.
Marco DeGaetano, who met Bruce in the 1990s when they both attended a Universalist church in Denver, said “Wynn seemed to have an affinity for people who needed help.”
He remembers Bruce being kind to a mentally ill church member when others distanced themselves.
DeGaetano said he last saw Bruce about a month ago, and seemed outgoing and friendly as always — every time he saw Bruce, “he had a smile on his face.”
[Editor’s Note: Bharath reported from Los Angeles and Slevin from Denver. Associated Press writer Michael Balsamo in Washington D.C. and researcher Rhonda Shafner in New York also contributed.]
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