Self-immolation of climate activist sparks talk of protest and faith

Wynn Bruce, 50 year old eco-activist and Buddhist set himself on fire in front of the U.S. Supreme Court last weekwhich sparked a nationwide conversation about his motives and whether he might have been inspired by Buddhist monks who had self-immolated themselves in the past to protest government atrocities.

Bruce, a photographer from Boulder, Colorado, walked up to Supreme Court Plaza around 6:30 p.m. on Earth Day Friday, then sat down and set himself on fire, a law enforcement official said. The Supreme Court Police responded immediately, but were unable to put out the flames in time to save him.

This undated photo courtesy of Jeffrey Buechler shows Wynn Bruce in Longmont, Colorado.

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 are still working to determine a motive.

On Saturday, Kriti Kanko, a Zen Buddhist priest who identified himself as a friend of Bruce’s, shared an emotional post on her public Twitter account saying that his self-immolation was “not a suicide” but “a deeply fearless act of compassion to draw attention to climate crisis.” “.

She added that Bruce had been planning this act for at least a year. She wrote: “#wynnbruce I’m so moved.” She received sympathetic responses as well as backlash.

Kanko and other members of the Ecodharma Rocky Mountain Retreat Center in Boulder, issued a statement on Monday saying that “none of the Buddhist teachers in the Boulder area knew of (Bruce’s) plans to set himself on fire this Earth Day” and that if they had known of his plan, they would have stopped him. According to Kanko, Bruce was a frequent visitor to the Buddhist retreat center in the mountains near Boulder, where he meditated with the community.

“We have never talked about self-immolation and do not consider self-immolation an action against the climate,” the statement said. “Nevertheless, given the dire state of the planet and the worsening climate crisis, we understand why anyone would be able to do this.”

On Facebook, Bruce wrote about following the spiritual tradition of Shambhala, which combines Tibetan Buddhism with the principles of a “sublime life fully connected to the world,” according to the Shambhala Center in Boulder. Bruce also praised Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Khanleader of active Buddhism, around the time of his death in January.

Thick Nhat Khan Performing In New York City On May 16, 1966.
Thick Nhat Khan performing in New York City on May 16, 1966.

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 Vietnamese monk sitting cross-legged, set himself on fire at a busy Saigon intersection. He protested the persecution of Buddhists by the South Vietnamese government led by Ngo Dinh Diem, a staunch Catholic.

In a letter to the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. whom Han considered his friend, Han wrote that he drew inspiration from the self-sacrifice of a Vietnamese monk, saying: “To burn oneself in a fire is to prove that what he says is of paramount importance.” There is nothing more painful than burning yourself. To say something in such pain is to say it with the greatest courage, frankness, determination and sincerity.”

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. At A Press Conference In Chicago With Tich Nath Khan On May 31, 1966.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at a press conference in Chicago with Tich Nath Khan on May 31, 1966.

Anti-Chinese activists in Tibet used self-immolation as a form of protest. The International Campaign for Tibet reports that since 2009, 131 men and 28 women, including monks, nuns and lay people, have set themselves on fire to protest Beijing’s tight control of the region and their religion.

Buddhism as a religion does not unilaterally condone the act of self-immolation or taking life, said Robert Barnett, a London-based scholar of contemporary Tibetan history and politics.

“Suicide is considered destructive in Buddhism because life is precious,” he said. “But if a person commits self-immolation because of higher motivation, and not because of negative emotions such as depression or sadness, then the situation for Buddhists becomes much more difficult.”

If self-immolation is done to help the world, it can be seen as a positive act, Barnett said. He quoted a story from the Jataka Tales, a collection of South Asian literature, about previous incarnations of the Buddha in both human and animal form. In this particular tale, the incarnation of the Buddha, in an act of selfless compassion, offers himself to an emaciated tigress who was so hungry that she was ready to eat 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 due to “the enormous difficulty of cultivating positive motivation in any situation, let alone maintaining it.” under conditions of stress or in conditions of severe pain.

Buddhism emphasizes emotional balance, openness, kindness, compassion and wisdom, says Roshi Joan Halifax, eco-activist and abbot of the Upaya Zen Center in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

“What we see among many people today is hopelessness,” she said. “What we are called to do is not to be handicapped by this sense of futility, but to turn our moral suffering into wise hope and courageous action.”

Despite the pessimism some climate activists may be feeling, Halifax said there is reason to remain hopeful.

“You see that people are realizing the scale of the climate catastrophe,” she said, noting that countries and corporations are moving from harmful practices to clean energy.

“I feel inspired and hopeful by our ability to change and adapt in this ever-changing world,” she said. “It’s heavy on my heart that Bruce didn’t have that kind of optimism.”

Those who knew Bruce saw a kind, playful and idealistic person – an avid dancer who participated in weekly events. He was also known for cycling and public transportation.

According to his friend Jeffrey Buechler, Bruce, who enjoyed being outdoors, brought intensity to everything he did. On Buechler’s wedding day in 2014, he said, on a whim, Bruce decided to take a dip in a cold mountain lake early in the morning.

According to Buechler, Bruce also had lasting effects from a brain injury he sustained in a car accident that killed his best friend about 30 years ago.

Marco DeGaetano, who met Bruce in the 1990s when they both attended a Universalist church in Denver, said, “Wynn seems to have a liking for people in need of help.”

He recalled how kind Bruce was to a church member with a mental illness when others distanced themselves.

DeGaetano said he last saw Bruce about a month ago and he seemed outgoing and friendly as always – every time he saw Bruce, “he had a smile on his face.”

Bharat reported from Los Angeles and Slevin from Denver. Associated Press contributor Michael Balsamo in Washington, D.C. and researcher Rhonda Shafner in New York also contributed.

The Associated Press’s religious coverage gets its boost from AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, funded by Lilly Endowment Inc. AP is solely responsible for this content.

If you or someone you know needs help, call 1-800-273-8255. National Suicide Rescue Line. You can also text HOME free of charge to 741-741, 24/7 support from Crisis text line. Outside the US please visit International Association for Suicide Prevention for database resources.


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