Buddhism rejected the institution of sacrifice, not only because of the violence against living beings that it entailed, but also because its magical mechanism was alien to the seamless rationality of the Buddhist path. This rejection was not sudden. From the 9th to the 4th century BCE ‘a certain number of spiritual breakthroughs contributed to put in question, among the brahmans themselves, the sacrificial vision of the world.’The limits of sacrifice had become troubling, for who could assure the permanence of its effect in the world beyond death? A religious crisis was marked by the spread of the idea of karma and the reorientation of soteriology toward moksa, liberation from the round of rebirths.
The basic Buddhist virtue of giving, dāna, the first of the six perfections of a bodhisattva, echoes the institutionalized dāna of Vedic sacrificial language, but demythologizes the ideology of sacrifice. A Jātaka from Northern Buddhism of the early Mahāyāna  tells of a king (the Buddha in a former life) who agrees, in order to appease his Brahmins, to perform a Vedic sacrifice to end a drought. But he proposes to choose the victim from those his police detect to be living an unworthy life. The police action brings such an improvement in behavior that no victims can be found. The king then proposes that the sacrifice will take the form of giving generously to the poor. The result is a happy and flourishing society, achieved without any shedding of blood. The text is littered with criticisms of sacrificial logic: ‘And should the victim killed in sacrifice really go to heaven, should we not expect the brahmins to offer themselves to be immolated in sacrifice? A similar practice, however, is nowhere seen among them.’ In other birth-stories, however, the bodhisattva practices dāna in a more literally sacrificial way, offering his own eyes to a blind beggar, or his own body to feed a hungry tigress: ‘Why should I search after meat from the body of another, whilst the whole of my own body is available?’It is hard to read these stories as mere allegories or parables, given that the translator of the tigress story, Āryaśūra, is said to have imitated it: ‘He first gave the tigers his blood to drink, and, when their bodies had taken a little force, offered himself.’
We also hear that ‘the Buddha entered into the Samadhi of fire to achieve his own cremation.’The practice of self-immolation among Vietnamese and Tibetan Buddhists in recent decades has given new life to such notions. Self-immolation by fire is not a recent invention but is found in 4th century China. One of the Vietnamese immolations is shown in Peter Brook’s 1968 film Tell Me Lies: it is a religious ceremony, and the monks gather around and bow respectfully. A monk interviewed in the film says that the first self-immolator (ThichQuangDuc, 11 June 1963) won sympathy in Vietnam but his imitators did not; Buddhism condemns taking life, and the fire that it preaches is the fire that burns up the three poisons. As in Judaism, the dynamics of sacrifice is interiorized and spiritualized in Buddhism, which goes all the way in emptying sacrifice of its physical substance. Thus the perfection of giving, when grounded in the perfection of wisdom, is marked by the disappearance of giver, gift, and receiver. The objectification of any of the three taints the pure freedom of emptiness. The spiritualization of sacrifice is clear in a statement from the Perfection of Wisdom sutras: ‘the passions are burnt in the fire of wisdom’ (T.374.385c16). The entire movement of Buddhist thought, which abandons finite categories and discriminations, or which abandons speech for silence, in order to perceive the nondual and empty thusness of all things, can be seen as a refined sublimation of sacrifice.
Spiritualization plays a key role in Buddhist hermeneutics, as can be seen in Kumārajīva’s version of the four refuges oftenlisted in postcanonicalBuddhism and found in chapter XII of our sutra (L 380). One must lean on the teaching of the sutras not the teacher; the meaning not the letter; the meaning as knowndirectly by jñāna not discursively by vijñāna; the meaning in explicit sutras not in indeterminateones. An example of indeterminatemeaningis the Buddha’sstatement in the Abhidharmasamuccaya: ‘Havingkilledhisfather and mother, the brahminiswithout sin.’ The meaningisclarifiedwhen the Buddha identifies the father as ignorance, the mother as desire, whichgeneratesamsāra; to cutthem off is to befreedfromsamsāra. Why not simplygive the explicit meaning, without the violent imagery? Perhaps the shock value isnecessary to give bite to the imperative, as in the Zen saying, ‘If youmeet the Buddha, slay the Buddha,’ or the gospel sayings about hatingfather and mother (Lk 14:26) or plucking out one’seye (Mk 9:47). But perhapsalsothese calls to radical detachment or sacrificialrenunciationdraw on the old violent dynamics of sacrifice, rechannelingit. Newman’slines, ‘And eachthought and deedunruly/ Put to death, as He has died’ (The Dream of Gerontius) are a modern instance of this quiet persistence of the sacrificial.
Unfortunately, the practice of physical self-immolation has found imitators even outside the ranks of Buddhism. A thirty-two year old Quaker, Norman Morrison, imitated the monks by burning himself outside the Pentagon, on 2 November, 1965; his example was followed by Roger Allen La Port, of Catholic Worker, aged thirty-two, on November 10 outside the United Nations building in New York; earlier, eighty-two year old Alice Herz had immolated herself on 16 March 1965 in Detroit; later, Florence Beaumont did the same in Los Angeles, 15 October 1967. On 19 January 1969, a twenty year student, Jan Palach, immolated himself in resistance to Soviet repression in Czechoslovakia. On 13 January, 1998, a thirty-nine year old Sicilian man, Alfredo Ormando, inflicted fatal burns on himself in St Peter’s Square, dying eleven days later, as a protest against church homophobia. The Vatican comment can be summed up in the words, ‘Quid ad nos?’ (Mt 27:4). Indeed, it is doubtful if any of these acts made much impression on their targets, or were long remembered by the populations in whose name they were carried out.
The self-sacrifice of the Kamikaze pilots in World War II offered another occasion for Buddhism to fuse its ideology with violent self-immolation. This is ritually deplored by politically correct scholars of Buddhism, but one may wonder if the same tactics had been used in a struggle against Nazism—if Bonhoeffer, for instance, had drawn inspiration from Zen—whether the same strictures would be applied.In a Catholic context the morality of hunger strikes was much discussed (in The Irish Ecclesiastical Record) in connection with the Terence McSwiney, Mayor of Cork, who starved himself to death in Brixton prison in 1920. This form of suicide has become a sacral tradition among Irish republicans, often with tacit approval from churchmen, and no doubt the Buddhist tradition of self-immolation enjoys a similar dubious status at the fringes of the tradition. Violent acts of self-destruction cannot be countenanced in either Christian or Buddhist ethics, apart from the dimension of moral blackmail that they carry. Can self-immolation be clearly cordoned off from the immolation of others, as in the case of Islamic suicide bombers?
The spate of self-immolations by Tibetan monks, in protest against Chinese domination of their homeland (some seventy-two, most fatal, since 1998), are denounced by lamas and also by western Buddhists. A Tibetan activist in Dharamsala, Tenzin Tsundue, rejects the western comments: ‘In the West, some people adhere to a clinical Buddhism is which almost everything is regarded as violent.’ Comment from the point of view of common sense and rational ethical reasoning cannot be silenced out of respect for a given culture’s interpretation of its religion, and claims of religious privilege that seek to end ethical and political criticism, whether they come from Hindus or Buddhists, Jews or Muslims, must be resisted. Since the immolations are carried out for the freedom of Tibet and the return of the Dalai Lama to Lhasa, he should take his distance from these acts and discourage them. Instead, the Tibetans of Dharmasala point to the story of the tigress and insist that ‘what qualifies the violence of the suicidal act is its motivation. If you commit suicide because of your personal lot, that can be considered violence; but if you commit suicide in the name of the freedom of six million people, then it is not violence.’
In a less troubling form, the survival of ancient sacrificial patterns is most apparent in Tantric Buddhism. The goma ceremony in Japanese Shingon Buddhism is a vibrant survival of the Indian homa ritual. What is burnt in the fire is little pieces of wood on which petitions are inscribed. A deeper and older meaning is that the pieces of wood represent defilements. Celebrated at the New Year this could symbolize leaving the dead past and its attachments behind one and starting the new year purged and energized. The sacrificial fire of the god Agni, and the inner fire of ascetic tapas, are sublimated in this ceremony into the fire of wisdom, more light than heat. The god of fire, Agni, and the figure of Acala (FudōMyōō) are evoked in the homa, which also aims to propitiate inferior divinities, to honor figures such as Śākyamuni, Avalokiteśvara, Amitābha, and to pacify ghosts and demons.
 Michel Hulin, ‘L’Inde du Bouddha,’ in: Le Nouvel Observateur, ed. La Philosophie du Bouddhisme (Paris: Scali, 1908), 101-9; p. 103.
 J. S. Speyer, The Jātakamālā or Garland of Birth-Stories of Āryaśūra (1895; repr. Delhi: MotilalBanarsidass, 1982), 93-104.
 Speyer, 97.
 Speyer, 8-19.
 Speyer, 5.
 Speyer, xxviii.
 The Vinaya of the Mahāsānghikas (T.1425.491a), quoted, Michel Strickmann, Mantras et Mandarins: Le bouddhisme tantrique en Chine (Paris: Gallimard, 1996), 364.
See the documentary Alfredo’s Fire, directed by Andy Abrahams Watson.
Quoted, FrédéricBobin, ‘Les immolations de Tibétains troublent la diaspora,’ Le Monde, 14 November 2012.
See the vivid description in Strickmann, 337-68. The Vedichomahadalreadylostits central importance in classicalBrahmanism; see Louis Renou and Jean Filliozat, L’Inde classique (Paris: Maisonneuve, 1988), I, 564.