How much should we personally sacrifice in order to fight the complete breakdown of earth’s natural life-support systems? This is a very difficult question. I reflect on it as I discuss the self-immolation of Wynn Bruce, climate activist and Buddhist, on Earth Day 2022 in Washington DC outside the Supreme Court. What would make someone do such a thing? Is there a way we can hear Bruce’s message without condoning his method?



Quicklinks to Article Content:
Reflections on Wynn Bruce’s Earth Day Action
Making the Ultimate Sacrifice for Life on Earth
The Question of Personal Sacrifice for the Greater Good


Reflections on Wynn Bruce’s Earth Day Action

On Earth Day, April 22nd 2022, a 50-year-old Buddhist named Wynn Bruce sat down and set himself on fire in front of the Supreme Court. He died the next day from his injuries. Although Bruce did not leave a letter explaining his actions, he was a climate activist and regular participant at the Rocky Mountain Ecodharma Retreat Center in Boulder, Colorado.[i]

The teachers at the retreat center released a public statement, which can be found on their website:

“Wynn was a frequent volunteer, and participant at retreats at the center. Many of us knew and loved him. We are grieving the death of our friend and preparing a memorial page to honor him.

“We want to be clear that none of us knew about his plans to self-immolate on Earth Day. If we had known, or even had a hint, we would have stopped him in any way possible. That would be our spiritual, moral and legal imperative. Just like everyone else, we are shocked and saddened, and have been trying to process and understand what happened.

“Buddhists take a vow to protect all life and reduce all suffering. We are committed to creative and strategic movement building at the interface of racial healing, justice and climate action. We also lead grief circles so that people can share and work through their trauma in the presence of a loving community. We have never talked about self-immolation, and we do not think it is a skillful protest. Nevertheless, given the dire state of the planet and worsening climate crisis, we can try to understand why someone might do that. While there has been self-immolation in Buddhist history to highlight atrocities committed against Tibetan and Vietnamese people, that is not something that we would ever encourage. We hope we can hear Wynn’s message without condoning his method.”[ii]

Naturally, an action like this is controversial. Within any given group of people, including Buddhists, there are going to be a few who admire Wynn’s action as the ultimate sacrifice and believe that this kind of action, while terribly unfortunate, may be necessary to wake people up to the severity of our crisis. There will be others who are willing to admit Wynn might have had some generous motivation and there might even be some benefit from his action, but that anyone who would self-immolate is also suffering from mental illness. In other words, they probably would have committed suicide anyway, and the climate and ecological crisis just happened to be the problem they fixated on. Others will think killing yourself under any circumstances whatsoever is immoral, negative, and harmful, and that Wynn was pathological, selfish, or both.

I don’t want to debate the merits of these different views. I don’t expect to change any minds, and, generally speaking, opinions on this issue are very charged emotionally.

What I want us to consider, though, is our cultural tendency to blame the individual instead of asking ourselves what is wrong with a society that would lead an individual to do something as radical as self-immolation. A growing number of people in the world are suffering acutely from grief, anxiety, depression, and despair about our climate and ecological crisis and the ways it is impacting their lives or is likely to impact them in the future. When these people seek support and help, they are usually diagnosed with various kinds of mental illness and offered counseling, mindfulness techniques, and medication to manage their “symptoms.” This is easier, of course, than contemplating what we can do about the climate and ecological emergency and sick aspects of our society which have caused it.

If you look at the world as one organism, if you look at human beings as interdependent with nature, then wouldn’t you expect human beings to be showing signs of what we call “mental illness” when so much of the earth is dying? Discussions about the new phenomena of “climate grief” or “climate anxiety” are usually framed as an unfortunate mental health issue that should be addressed with better messaging around the climate issue, or by encouraging people to be more optimistic. But when someone is living surrounded by pollution and they develop a physical illness from it, do we limit our response to treating the person’s symptoms and encouraging them to be strong and optimistic even though they remain surrounded by poison? Oh wait, in most cases that’s exactly what we do.

We can never know what was in Bruce’s mind before his self-immolation, but the questions of motive, and the relationship between the individual and the rest of society, is not at all simple to answer.


Making the Ultimate Sacrifice for Life on Earth

Each of us is very different and, fortunately, only a tiny handful of people in the world will ever consider suicide in order to call attention to a cause. Most of us agree that human life is precious and sacred. We agree that suicide is tragic, and we should do everything we can to encourage anyone contemplating it to make the choice to remain alive. This is why mentions of suicide in the media generally include a referral to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline: You can call 1-800-273-8255 for 24/7, free and confidential support. If you are feeling suicidal about anything, including the climate and ecological crisis, please seek support. If general suicide counseling doesn’t acknowledge the validity of your response to our climate and ecological emergency, reach out to the Good Grief Network.

All of that said, the thought of sacrificing your life in order to call attention to a cause is not as unusual or crazy as you might think. On New Year’s Eve 2014, while reading Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, I had what activists tend to call my “climate awakening.” Years of information, statistics, predictions, and personal observations finally broke through my natural human defensiveness like a wave, and the reality of the climate and ecological emergency came crashing down on me.

As psychology experiments have repeatedly proven, our willingness to believe something is an emergency depends largely on how other people are reacting to it. Subjects will sit in a room that becomes permeated with smoke and not say a thing because no one else is reacting.[iii] Before a climate awakening, we’re one of the silent people in that smoke-filled room. When we wake up to what’s going on, we’re suddenly out of sync with almost everyone else. In our alarm, we seem crazy, as I discussed in Episode 13 – Is a “Crazy” Response an Appropriate Response to Climate Insanity? Typically, after waking up to our emergency, we either shut up and suffer our fear and grief in silence, or we accept that being perceived as an annoying and obsessive weirdo is the price we’re willing to pay to try and get other people to act.

On that New Year’s Eve 2014, when I finally was able to grasp the fact that the course humanity was on was leading to the extinction of life on earth in relatively short order, my body and mind were tense with alarm – just as they would have been if I’d found out a tornado or an invading army were on its way. I remember thinking, “Why the f*** isn’t anyone doing anything?! How could this be happening? If people knew what we were facing, everything would change. Now.

Just as I would have if a tornado or an invading army where on its way, I frantically tried to think of what I could do to help avert this disaster. “Should I go to the nation’s capital and set myself on fire?” I wondered. Surely such an extreme, sacrificial act would wake people up to the severity of our emergency! It didn’t even seem much like a sacrifice, given we were all living on borrowed time anyway. There was precedent for self-immolation as protest, after all. In the sixties, Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh wrote to Martin Luther King Jr. about the Vietnamese monk, Thich Quang Duc, who self-immolated to protest the persecution of Buddhists by the South Vietnamese government. Nhat Hanh said, “To burn oneself by fire is to prove what one is saying is of the utmost importance. There is nothing more painful than burning oneself. To say something while experiencing this kind of pain is to say it with utmost courage, frankness, determination and sincerity.”[iv]

You will be happy to know I quickly set the idea of self-immolation aside. However, I didn’t set it aside because I thought it was wrong, I set it aside because I was unwilling to make the ultimate sacrifice unless I could be sure it was worth it – that it would make a substantial difference, that it would turn things around. I wouldn’t even need the payoff to be complete utopia; I would seriously consider giving my life even if the only thing I could guarantee was the long-term survival of the monarch butterfly populations whose migrations are such a wonder of nature. However, I love and appreciate my life and hope it will last a long, long time. I’m not willing to sacrifice it unless I have a guarantee it will result in a tangible and significant benefit – and that’s not the way life works.

There are no guarantees about the outcomes of your actions. In the past, certain acts of self-immolation are widely acknowledge as having had a powerful effect in bringing about change, including those by Vietnamese monks who were protesting the persecution of Buddhists by the South Vietnamese government, and those of two Americans who self-immolated in separate incidents in 1965 to protest the Vietnam war. On the other hand, 150 Tibetans have self-immolated since 2009 to protest Chinese occupation, and there is no sign that China’s approach to the country is going to change. In 2018 David Buckel walked from his home in Brooklyn, New York, to a nearby park, and self-immolated to protest the continued use of fossil fuels.[v] His act barely made the news. In the media sources where it was discussed, it was usually framed, as these things often are, as a result of depression or feeling “despondent.”[vi] Few people seem to consider the possibility that self-immolation might be a sign of hope rather than despair: Maybe, just maybe, the act is performed in the hope that it will wake people up to injustice and motivate them to act, and is therefore based in a hope that change is, indeed, possible.


The Question of Personal Sacrifice for the Greater Good

For the vast majority of us, the question is very unlikely to arise whether to literally sacrifice our lives to bring about commensurate – that is, proportionate or adequate – action on the climate and ecological emergency. Still, we all face the question of how much of our personal comfort, pleasure, and security to sacrifice for the greater good. We know that the climate and ecological crisis is already here, that there are already millions of people living in hellscapes because of global heating,[vii] and that the problem is only going to get worse unless humanity radically changes it ways. We know that no one will be able to escape the consequences, including our children and grandchildren.

And yet… as long as we are still able to enjoy some measure of peace and prosperity, why should we not take full advantage of it? Life is so short. After we nurture our human relationships, look after our health, take care of our responsibilities, enrich our minds by reading and learning new things, connect with nature, engage in spiritual practice, give back to our community, and express joy through art, music, or creativity, there isn’t much time or energy left for “activism.” When most of us look at our lives, there is little or nothing we are willing to sacrifice in order to make more space for actively participating in the effort to save earth’s natural life-support systems. We’re happy to do things like opt for organic over factory farmed food if we can afford it, but we hope other people will step up to the task of preventing human extinction.

It’s a fallacy to think that so-called “activists” are engaging in activism because they enjoy it. I think sometimes the dominant view in popular culture is that activism – meaning actively participating in the effort to bring about positive change – is like a hobby. Something you do because you feel an affinity for it, and because you get something out of doing it. Sure, there are certainly people who, at times, become ego-identified with being an activist, and there are sometimes rewards for being active with others. But the vast majority of the activists I know would love nothing better than to become completely obsolete. For the world to no longer need them. So they could go happily about their lives, taking full advantage of whatever peace and prosperity came their way.

I would absolutely prefer to leave behind every aspect of activism and simply focus on being a Zen priest. There is more than enough there to fully occupy and challenge me for many lifetimes. Sadly, I live in a time when I am morally compelled to do more. After all, part of my Zen center’s formal and stated mission is “supporting a vital and sustainable Zen center that will be here for future generations.”

I’m determined to do my part in preventing the complete breakdown of earth’s natural life-support systems, at least in part to help my Zen center fulfill its mission. Even so, like anyone I wrestle with the question of how much to sacrifice of my personal life. How much time, energy, attention, emotional investment, and resources should I divert from my personal life to working on climate? I still need to take care of my Zen center, meditate, exercise, rest, and maintain relationships. I am also nourished by spending time with my dogs, playing music, gardening, and watching crime dramas with my husband. During periods when I have worked on climate full time, many other areas of my life have suffered. What’s the right balance? But does it really make sense to be so concerned about the right balance in my life right now given the horrors we are facing in the coming decades? It’s a little like firefighter stopping to do some yoga while a house burns down.

I believe that everyone one of us who could conceivably spend eight hours a week on fighting climate and ecological breakdown did so, our planet would be well on its way to healing. Many hands make light work. But if you started devoting eight hours a week, most people would still be doing nothing. You could devote yourself full time and you would only be more aware of how difficult the task in front of us is.

It really comes down to whether we are willing to make a personal sacrifice for the greater good even though the people around us aren’t doing so. When we have to do their share of the work as well as our own. When the time has not yet come when the climate and ecological crisis negatively impacts everyone’s personal life in such a way that they join the fight. When there is no guarantee our sacrifice will pay off in a way that makes it objectively worth it, or that anyone will even notice it. When sacrificing some of our ease and enjoyment for participating in climate action seems rather silly, given how nice everything still is, for the most part. For us.

Still, if we don’t make the sacrifice, who will? If no one acted, if no one insisted, if no one protested, our governments would not act on climate until it is too late. If our effort helps bring action one day sooner, if it helps prevent the loss of one living thing, isn’t it worth it?

We don’t have to literally give our lives in this struggle, at least not yet. But what are we willing to give? What are we really capable of giving? And are we hoping others will make the necessary sacrifices, so we don’t have to?





[iii] See also:






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