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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Self-Immolation for the Climate

Air Date: Week of

Wynn Bruce self-immolated on Earth Day 2022 in front of the Supreme Court to protest inaction on climate change. Brother Phap Dung compels us to look beyond his act and think about the message Bruce sought to convey with it. (Photo: US Capitol, Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

On Earth Day April 22 this year Wynn Bruce, a Buddhist, and environmentalist, set himself on fire on the steps of the Supreme Court to protest inaction on climate change. Living on Earth’s Jenni Doering speaks with Brother Phap Dung, a Buddhist Dharma Teacher, about the urgent message behind this extreme action and how to find hope and purpose in the face of the climate emergency.


CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth, I’m Steve Curwood.

On Earth Day, April 22nd a Colorado man set himself on fire on the steps of the US Supreme Court to protest inaction on climate change. Wynn Bruce was airlifted to a hospital but died a day later from his burns. He was a Buddhist and environmental activist. And his protest followed the line of Buddhist monks who self-immolated to call attention to suffering and injustice back during the Vietnam War. More recently some 160 people including Buddhist monks and nuns have set themselves on fire in protest of China’s crackdown in Tibet. Mr. Bruce’s act of self-immolation in front of the Supreme Court came as the justices considered the climate change case West Virginia v. EPA that we talked about before the break. Brother Phap Dung is a Buddhist Dharma Teacher at Deer Park Monastery in Southern California, and he spoke with Living on Earth’s Jenni Doering.

DOERING: Could you tell us a little about the history of self immolation as a form of political protest and moral expression?

DUNG: I'm only 50 something years old. And I knew of it through the war in Vietnam. My parents are from Vietnam, and I escaped as a refugee in the early 80s. And so when I came over here, I came across Buddhists in my college studying that. And now as a monk, we know that there's that way of communicating to give voice and to bring awareness to injustice and violence and so on. In time of the Buddha, there are people who have taken their lives, monastic. But it was not something that we condone, that was actually why the Buddha came up with the precept not to take life, including your own. So in that perspective, you know, people who are Buddhists for monks, or nuns who put fire to their body in a way, it's not like they are killing themselves or suicide, but they're using their body as a way of communicating a message. So this is my own reflection. And it depends on each monk, each nun, each lay person, during the Vietnam War, the media was not covering it, monks and nuns were being killed. So they wanted to bring a violent awareness to it so that the media and the world can look at what's going on. It's so happened, a lot of Buddhists do that, especially in the modern times.

DOERING: What kind of an impact did these acts of self immolation have in Vietnam? And in Tibet?

DUNG: That photograph when it hit the US? It brought a lot of attention. I think it was JFK, the president at that time said that, never before has an image ever brought so much emotion in the American collective consciousness. It's like, I can't imagine the most painful thing that you can do to yourself as a human sensory thing. I sit with it. And then you have to question like, God, what extreme suffering, they must be feeling not for themselves, but for their people What will be so devastating that they inflict that kind of pain on their body on their skin. Think about it, When a house is on fire, and your children are your loved ones in the house. And there is no way they can come out without you going in, would you do that. So it requires a kind of intensity, probably the most intense testing of the human spirit, then again, there are people who actually, they are in despair and in depression, that they also take their life. So that's the other extreme, a meaningless kind of vacuum. Annihile themselves, nothing worth living for. But then there's another one where there is something worth more to live for. And they would put their life on the line for that. And that is peace for the country, peaceful Vietnam for the American to stop bombing. Luckily, you know, they're not like blowing up public arenas and so on. It is another extreme radical form of communication.

DOERING: In this case, would you consider self immolation an act of violence? Or because it is driven and connected to this moral imperative, Is it non violent?

DUNG: It's on a spectrum. And it's definitely a form of extreme communication. You can't dismiss it as oh, he doesn't feel good about life, and he just wants to kill himself because it has a message, it's at the footsteps of the Supreme Court, totally meditated and made sure he would not harm anyone. And maybe that's part of the intention is to be not violent, but be in your face in terms of the public consciousness, the news, the media, and the world, or whoever is in leadership. You can ignore me, you know, when you riot, you loot, and you burn the city, you know, that's very violent. But what is the message? You see, we must not ignore the message, we have to re examine what is insane and what is sane in terms of our policies, and also the communities the ones who are vulnerable. If we don't know our lifestyle, there's somebody paying for it. There's other lives being paid for it, whether it's animal humans, or the elements water, air, the forests that support human life, or animal life or plant life, let alone. Mr. Bruce was a Buddhist and he was environmentalist. And those things are very related in Buddhism, you always look at the conditions that give us our life. The water is in humans, so water rivers, the air is also a living thing, because we depend on it. So when we destroy that we are destroying our own livelihood.

DOERING: You know, despair and anxiety about the climate emergency are very real phenomenons. And although we will never be able to know exactly what Wynn Bruce was going through, what role do you think that despair may have played in his choice in addition to this act of self image nation, this moral courage?

DUNG: Ever imagined there is some element of despair or helplessness. That there is no other way to wake people up. A lot of young people now, people in general with the media and so on hearing what is happening to environment, all the government leaders and all the affluent nations are not doing anything about it, but even continuing to support the fossil fuel industry. That's why we have this whole increase in climate anxiety. You know, I love it when they first came out with Fridays For The Future, the students skipped school, I love that. You transfer that nausea of nothing is being done to positive action. I participated in a few marches in Paris, in Glasgow and so on. And, and we got to keep doing that we got to keep doing more of that.

DOERING: Right. I mean, speaking of that kind of activism, to what extent is being part of calling for solutions and calling for an end to this climate crisis, is that an antidote to despair, and to this climate anxiety that a lot of us feel?

DUNG: We call that volition in Buddhism, to have a reason to be. We can't be just nine to five workers. We just had a retreat for 110 young adults, they came to the monastery. And of course, they have urban angst, and depression and so on. Some of them cried, because there's too many people, they were like, so afraid. They don't just want to work for money. They want to work for meaning. But there's also learning the tools to take care of our emotion, our anxiety or depression, because in the end, it is just a feeling. And we cannot let that monopolize our mind. Because there's also a wonderful things happening at the same time. Your parents are still alive. You know, your brothers and sisters and your friends are still alive. You have so many other things to be grateful for. You have to nourish yourself with that every time you wake up in the morning, wow, I have 24 brand new hours in front of me. I vow to live today. It was like my last day, when you pour water into your hand you are grateful. So in a way, we also have to hold on to magic to wonder to the miracle of life, as we continue to knock at the door of whatever cause we're doing right. We've had young people come from the XR movement from the Occupy movement.

Brother Phap Dung, a refugee from Vietnam, represented his Buddhist Plum Village community at the COP21 climate conference in Paris. He is committed to restoring our connection with mother nature. (Photo: Courtesy of Brother Phap Dung and Plum Village)

DOERING: XR is Extinction Rebellion, is that right?

DUNG: Yes. When they do a sit in, they have assigned people to go around taking care of each other, make sure that people are not overloaded, right? You need some water. It reminds me of Martin Luther King's Civil Rights movement where they actually rehearsed and prepared themselves mentally, to withstand the violence and the discrimination and the hate. We need that. And that's why they bring music in the bring art in. They are also celebrating life.

DOERING: There is a lot of crisis in the world. But there's also a lot of solace we can find in nature. How can putting ourselves in the path of the beauty and joy in the world help us reorient ourselves to do important climate work?

DUNG: If you know how to see the environment as not separate from ourselves that they are us then a kind of sense of love, reverence, respect will be the inexhaustible source of energy for you to continue. So if you see it as environment, material things to do and organize with science, only, then it's very, very tedious. When you lay on the ground floor of a seqouia forest and touch the archaic time, the timelessness of the planet, when you can touch that kind of insight. You're not bound to human life form or your own lifespan. Even if the humans kill ourselves, the planet will continue. The planet is fine. We don't need to save the planet. I love seeing these lines when I was in Glasgow, we need to save the planet. And I was like no other planet doesn't need we need to save ourselves is more like the phrase. That kind of insight is not negative and depressing and giving up. But actually, it gives you the power to see this wonder that we're moving through the cosmos. We're not the only planet you know.

DOERING: Yeah, it doesn't mean that climate change doesn't matter. We should give up.

DUNG: No, no, no. It gives you energy to know that you want your children and the next generation to also have this wonder and I lay out and look up into the sky at night and I imagine I am the eye of Mother Earth. I am the lungs of Mother Earth looking back at itself. So we are from the Mother Earth. It's so freeing So in a way those kinds of energy gives me not just hope but real practical energy to sit with someone and listen to their suffering.

CURWOOD: That’s Buddhist Dharma Teacher, Brother Phap Dung, speaking with Living on Earth’s Jenni Doering.



Brother Phap Dung’s bio

About Wynn Bruce’s self-immolation

Suicide Prevention Lifeline


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