In the Śikṣā Samuccaya‘s chapter on patient endurance, Śāntideva urges aspiring bodhisattvas to attain a meditative state (samādhi) called the Sarvadharmasukhākrānta, which Charles Goodman translates as “Everything is Covered with Happiness.” Śāntideva makes truly extraordinary claims about what is possible for a bodhisattva who has attained this state. In Goodman’s translation:
Bodhisattvas who attain this feel only happy feelings toward all objects they are aware of, with no feelings of suffering or unhappiness. Even while feeling the pains of the torments of hell, they think only happy thoughts. Even while suffering all the harms of the human condition, such as having their hands, feet, or noses cut off, they think only happy thoughts. Even while being beaten with canes, half-canes, or whips, they have only happy thoughts. Even when thrown into prison… or while being cooked in oil, or pounded like sugarcane, or flattened like reeds, or set on fire like an oil lamp, a butter lamp, or a yogurt lamp, they think only happy thoughts. (ŚS 181-2)
The passage is surprising, and modern readers often approach it with deep skepticism. We cannot imagine someone feeling this way; we think it must be impossible. Surely these are exaggerations? Surely it is psychologically unrealistic for anyone to attain such a state?
I think there is at least one significant empirical reason to believe that these claims are not exaggerated, and his name is Thich Quang Duc.
Thich Quang Duc was a senior Vietnamese monk who attained fame during the early escalation of the Vietnam War in 1963. It is sometimes claimed that he was protesting against the war, but that is not true. Rather, he was protesting the discrimination against Buddhists by the Vietnamese government of the time, under the Catholic leader Ngo Dinh Diem. What earned Quang Duc his fame, though, was not the cause he supported but the act with which he supported it.
In front of eyewitnesses and journalists, Quang Duc sat himself down at a busy Saigon road intersection in a meditative position. A colleague poured gallons of gasoline on Quang Duc’s head, at which point Quang Duc pulled out a match and lit himself on fire. Before this act, he had left a letter outlining the Buddhists’ demands. The act made enough of a media impact to destroy support for the Diem régime, which was overthrown in a coup within the year.
Journalist David Halberstam, an eyewitness, said of Quang Duc: “As he burned he never moved a muscle, never uttered a sound, his outward composure in sharp contrast to the wailing people around him.” That composure is captured in Malcolm Browne’s famous photo of the act, attached here. To all outward appearances, at least, Quang Duc was not mentally affected by literally being on fire. Perhaps it was not the case that Quang Duc thought only happy thoughts, but his negative thoughts and feelings were weak enough to make him appear completely serene while being “set on fire like an oil lamp”, just as Śāntideva describes.
This practice of burning oneself alive in protest has become increasingly common in modern Buddhism: more than a hundred Tibetans are said to have done this in the name of independence from China. For whatever reason, though, reports in Tibet rarely mention what to me is most striking about Quang Duc’s case, over fifty years after his death, which is the self-burner’s mental state. Quang Duc gives us very strong reason to believe that, for some people at least, the kind of radical equanimity described by Śāntideva is actually achievable. A related case is that of Matthieu Ricard, the Tibetan monk who showed record, off-the-charts levels of activity in the centres of the brain associated with happiness.
The point relates to larger questions about the Buddhist path. My students this year wondered whether nirvana could really be possible in this life, as is claimed for the Buddha – for surely, if a rock hit the Buddha on his head, he would experience pain? I brought up Thich Quang Duc in that context, and noted that it may well depend on what we mean by “pain”. Quang Duc was surely experiencing the physical sensations (vedanā) of having his flesh burn. Yet it seems that, as Śāntideva would claim, these sensations did not translate into significant mental discomfort. He had trained himself out of that.
The next important question one should ask is: how could one train oneself so? I have no reason to believe that an ordinary worldling like myself would have anything like Quang Duc’s composure in his situation. And I don’t know what Quang Duc’s own practice was. But I do know Śāntideva’s answer to the questions of why bodhisattvas are still happy when tortured:
Such bodhisattva great beings have practiced this way of life for a long time, after making this aspiration prayer: “All those who may devour me, may they attain the happiness of peace and tranquility. All those who may protect me, treat me with respect, take me as their spiritual teacher, honor me, or make offerings to me, may they attain the happiness of tranquility. And also, all those who curse me, treat me badly, beat me, cut me with knives, or in any way deprive me of life – may all of them attain the happiness of full Awakening. (ŚS 182, Goodman’s translation)
For Śāntideva this is not quite the same as karmic redirection, but it is extremely similar. Such practices of wishing one’s enemies well are unquestionably difficult. And one should be careful about what they do and don’t imply. But I have found them deeply valuable and helpful, on multiple occasions. Such a practice hasn’t got me anywhere near the place where I could think only happy thoughts while being set on fire like an oil lamp. But it would appear that, at least for some people who practise something like it rigorously enough, it can.