Fire has long been used in religious rituals; in my illustration, the flashlight depicts the sacred fire. From the infinite earth, materials are gathered; the Many finite, temporal, profane things return to the One infinite, eternal, divine fire. Smoke is the traditional conveyor of prayers; the light beam arises, becoming, with its human holder, the channel of peace that St. Francis sought, between the wheel of the earth and the wheel in the sky (when it’s calm, smoke wheels in the sky may be seen topping the columns arising from chimneys). When the beam of my heartligh bursts into infinity, then how large is my heart?
As with the fuel, fire, and smoke, so too with us.
In baptism by fire, the initiate is required to quit all claim to the former self; suffering is exactly the attempt to cling to the previous form; bliss is burning for all we’re worth, simply hoping that others might be enlightened, not harmed, by our immolation (“This little light of mine, I’m going to let it shine!”). In this spirit, Christ walked willingly to Calvary.
In this spirit, some Buddhists undergo willingly baptism by fire.
Source: flickr via banzainetsurfer.
Which brings us to self-immolation (above is the full version of Malcom Browne’s famous photo of Thich Quang Duc taken in 1963). The most famous episodes of Buddhists self-immolating occurred in Vietnam. As was being done to their external selves all around them, so they did to their selves. In a perfect expression of compassion, a Buddhist nun, Thich Nu Thanh Quang, immolated herself in the city of Hue, May of 1966. She set herself on fire as a way of pointing to the agonies of her country and saying, there by the grace of being aware of my own becoming go I.
The brave monks of Burma likewise have shown us the way. Even though they were ordered not to, the monks of Burma walked the streets of Rangoon in broad daylight, as monks are wont to do. That was their only crime. They themselves knowingly put in play the events that brought about their deaths by beating and burning. That doesn’t lessen the tragedy, it defines it. They didn’t hold their selves, their egos, or even their bodies to be more dear than their freedom.
More recently, the Freedom Flotilla participants have demonstrated the same heart-busting love for people they may never meet.
How is it possible, in a world supposedly based in brutal, blind, mechanistic competition, for one person to sacrifice their own life in such a manner? The surprise of altruistic acts comes from the unfounded assumption that there are two absolutely and eternal divided "things" involved to begin with. Overemphasizing the exclusivity of the self-other divide cellf-imprisons us human selves in cellves of our own mistaken making.
Look at any cell in your body. Where’s all this energy coming from? From a sort of biological fire. Metabolism is the process of burning fuel; each and every one of us is burning alive.
In a roaring fire, where is the line between one flicker of flame and an other?
And the same heat, the same light, the same divine fire burns within us All: We consume the fruit of the earth, arise in its burning, and return from whence we came, our (only apparent) death and disintegration continuing the cycle by returning us into fuel for the divine fire; so, everywhere I look, I know:
There by the grace of God go I.