was a phenomenon known to the Buddha
and commented on by him. On one occasion a group of monks
doing the meditation on the repulsiveness of the body,
without proper guidance, became depressed and killed themselves.
When informed that the two lovers had killed themselves
so that "they could be together for eternity"
the Buddha commented that these actions were based on
desire and ignorance. His attitude to suicide is clear
from the Vinaya where it is an
offence entailing expulsion from the Sangha
for a monk to encourage or assist someone to suicide,
and thus on a par with murder. Consequently, in Theravada
it is considered as a breach of the first Precept, motivated
by similar mental states as murder (loathing, fear, anger,
desire to escape a problem) only directed towards oneself
rather than another.
Mahayana takes a similar attitude
to the more common type of suicide it did encourage suicide
for religious motives. The Lotus Sutra and several other
Mahayana works praise the burning of one's own body, a
sort of human incense stick, as the "highest offering".
Stories of bodhisattvas giving parts of their body or
even their lives, which are immensely popular in Medieval
India, gave self-mutilation and suicide legitimacy. During
certain periods in Chinese history such practices became
so common that the government had to issue edicts against
them. In recent times religious suicide has become rare
and even disapproved of.
Jan, "Buddhist self-immolation in Medieval China",
in History of Religion. No.2, 1965.