Who was Wynn Bruce, the activist who blew himself up outside the US Supreme Court building

Who was Wynn Bruce, the activist who blew himself up outside the US Supreme Court building

Wynn Bruce (Jeffry Buechler via AP)

Wynn Brucea 50-year-old Buddhist and climate change activist, was set on fire outside the United States Supreme Court last Friday, sparking a national debate about his motivation and whether he could have been inspired by the buddhist monks who have blown themselves up in the past to protest government atrocities.

Bruce, a photographer from Boulder, Colorado, approached Supreme Court Square around 6:30 p.m. Friday – Earth Day – sat down and set himself on fire, according to a law enforcement official. Supreme Court officers arrived immediately, but they were unable to extinguish the flames in time to save him.

The investigators, who spoke with the agency PA On condition of anonymity, they said that did not immediately locate a manifesto or note at the scene and that authorities were still working to determine the motive.

On Saturday, Kritee Kanko, a Zen Buddhist priestess who described herself as a friend of Bruce, shared an emotional message on her public Twitter account saying that his self-immolation was “not a suicide” but “a deeply fearless act of compassion to bring attention to the climate crisis”.

He added that Bruce had been planning the act for at least a year. Kanko wrote, “#wynnbruce so touched.” And he received responses of sympathy and also of rejection.

Exterior view of the United States Supreme Court building in Washington (EFE/Michael Reynolds)

Exterior view of the United States Supreme Court building in Washington (EFE/Michael Reynolds)

Kanko and other members of the Rocky Mountain Ecodharma Retreat Center, Boulderreleased a statement on Monday saying “none of the Boulder-area Buddhist teachers were aware of (Bruce’s) plans to self-immolate on Earth Day,” and whether they had any knowledge of his plan, they would have been arrested. Bruce was a frequent visitor to the Buddhist retreat center in the mountains near Boulder, where he meditated with the community, Kanko said.

“We never talked about self-immolation, and we don’t believe self-immolation is climate action”says the statement. “However, given the dire state of the planet and the worsening climate crisis, we understand that someone could do it.”

On Facebook, Bruce wrote about following the Shambhala spiritual tradition, which combines Tibetan Buddhism with the principles of to live “an elevated life, totally engaged in the world”, according to the Boulder Shambhala Center. Bruce also posted eulogies for Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh, a committed Buddhist leader, around his death in January.

Bruce’s act of sitting down and setting himself on fire recalls the events of June 11, 1963, when Thich Quang Duc, a Vietnamese monk, sat cross-legged, burned to death at a busy intersection in Saigon. He was protesting the persecution of Buddhists by the South Vietnamese government led by Ngo Dinh Diem, a devout Catholic.

June 11, 1963: Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc staged his final protest in Saigon by setting himself on fire (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)

June 11, 1963: Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc staged his final protest in Saigon by setting himself on fire (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)

In a letter to the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr., whom Hanh considered a friend, he wrote that he was inspired by the Vietnamese monk’s sacrifice, saying, “To burn with fire is to show that what you say is of the utmost importance. There is nothing more painful than getting burned. To say something while feeling this kind of pain is to say it with the greatest courage, frankness, determination and sincerity.

In Tibet, anti-Chinese activists have used self-immolation as a form of protest. The International Campaign for Tibet says 131 men and 28 women – including monks, nuns and lay people – have set themselves on fire since 2009 to protest Beijing’s strict controls on the region and their religion.

Buddhism, as a religion, does not unilaterally condone the act of self-immolation or suicide, said Robert Barnett, a London-based scholar of modern Tibetan history and politics. “To commit suicide is considered harmful in Buddhism because life is precious,” he said. “But if a person immolates himself out of a higher motivation and not out of a negative emotion like depression or sadness, then the Buddhist position becomes much more complex.”

Activists carry banners and dance as they demonstrate on Earth Day in Jakarta, Indonesia (REUTERS/Willy Kurniawan)

Activists carry banners and dance as they demonstrate on Earth Day in Jakarta, Indonesia (REUTERS/Willy Kurniawan)

If the self-immolation is done to help the world, it could be accepted as positive action, Barnett said. He quoted a story from the “Jataka Tales”, a body of South Asian literature on the Buddha’s previous incarnations in human and animal form. In this particular tale, an incarnation of the Buddha, in an act of selfless compassion, offers himself to an emaciated tigress who was so hungry she was ready to devour her own cubs.

“But this kind of self-sacrifice is not encouraged, developed or talked about for normal people (apart from the Buddha)”he said, adding that this is due to “the immense difficulty of cultivating positive motivation in any situation, let alone sustaining it under stress or in conditions of extreme pain”.

Buddhism emphasizes emotional balance, inclusiveness, kindness, compassion and wisdom, said Roshi Joan Halifax, environmental activist and abbot of Upaya Zen Center in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

(By Deepa Bharath and Colleen Slevin – AP)

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