Hae Min wrote:
We hear legends of Zen monks doing horribly painful and unhealthy things to themselves: Bodhidharma cutting off his eyelids, Huike chopped off his hand and tossing it at Bodhidharma... And that koan I heard once about the monk who chopped off a guy's finger for mocking him.
How much actual truth is to this sort of stuff? And to what degree was physical abuse and self-mutilation ever actually
a part of Zen Buddhism historically? Is it something constrained to the Linji school?
I'm a monk myself. Though I haven't burned off any fingers, I've met numerous monks from the Korean tradition, and at least one from the Chinese Ch'an tradition that have burned off one or more fingers or sections of fingers. You bind the part you want to burn until it goes completely numb, then dip it in lamp oil and then light it while chanting. The account of this that I read (in Buswell's The Zen Monastic Experience) states that the monks actually feel no physical pain as a result of numbing the finger.
I don't personally plan to do it, but I can't really judge the practice either.
It seems from what you have written that they were not doing it in order to prove that their meditation protected them from pain. I have seen and performed acts in Japanese Martial Arts which are proof to me that even without numbing the finger, one's mental state may eliminate normal pain responses in the body - Mushin (no mind) or Fudoshin (unwavering mind) for example.
A short term gain within the martial arts is the ability to detach anger and fear from association with physical pain, and establish 'fudoshin' as an interim stage towards 'mushin'.
I can guess that perhaps the burning was an offering or that perhaps it was done to show that they had overcome attachment to the body (either to assist their own mind's development or that of others). I hesitate to mention the possibility that such acts may be performed in order to seek a sudden awakening, as I have no evidence of this one way or the other.
My guesses may be very wide of the mark, so please forgive me.
I respect totally that one should not comment on the efficacy or wisdom of such practices, so I restrict my question to intention only:
Did any of the monks explain why they performed this practice, and was there a common purpose they shared?