Self-sacrificing Love

Another type of love which deserves attention is what might be called self-sacrificing love. This is the love that compels individuals to disadvantage themselves, even to risk or give their lives for others. Although giving one’s life out of love for another is rare, it is not as uncommon as might be thought. Perhaps we only hear about it occasionally because the circumstances in which it might manifest itself are, fortunately, not so common. This self-sacrificing love was referred to by the Buddha when he said that a loving friend would “give what is hard to give” [1] or be prepared “to sacrifice his life for his friend”. [2] The Jatakas say something similar concerning one’s family: “Whatever your circumstances, do the necessary to alleviate the suffering of your father, your mother or your sister, even to your last breath.” [3] One is reminded of what Jesus said some five centuries later: “Greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friend.” [4] I doubt that the Buddha would have agreed that this was the greatest love. Giving one’s life for a stranger or for an enemy would probably rank higher in most people’s estimation. But the Buddha would have agreed that such love was a remarkable and noble thing nonetheless.

There are numerous stories in the early Buddhist literature lauding loving self-sacrifice. One of the most famous of these is the Nigrodhamiga Jataka. Once two herds of deer, the Nigrodha and the Saka, lived in the king of Benares’ hunting reserve. The king was very fond of venison and often went hunting to procure it. However, he had decreed that the stag who presided over the Nigrodha herd should never be killed because it was such a fine and handsome animal. Every time the king went hunting, two or three deer were killed but numerous others would be wounded, and still others injured in the panic to escape. One day the Nigrodha and the Saka stags met together to see if they could do something about this terrible situation. They decided that in future they would draw lots amongst themselves and the loser would have to surrender himself or herself to be killed for the king’s kitchen. This way all the needless injuries could be avoided and the terror minimised. Each week one unlucky deer would lay his or her head on the chopping block to be slaughtered by the royal cook.

One day the lot fell to a doe from the Saka herd who was pregnant. She went to her stag and said: “I am pregnant. Let my turn be postponed until I have given birth and then I will go to the chopping block.” The stag was unsympathetic. “We cannot make an exception. Your turn has come and you must go to the block.” Desperate to save her unborn fawn she went to the Nigrodha stag and begged him to do something to postpone her death. Moved by compassion he said: “Go home and I will see what I can do.” Accepting that he could not demand another deer take the doe’s place he resolved to do it himself. The next day he went to the chopping block, laid his neck on it and calmly waited for his grim fate. When the cook came and saw the stag he was surprised. “The king has granted immunity to this stag and yet he lays his head on the block. What can this mean?” He ran off to tell the king, who quickly drove his chariot to the block in the forest.

On seeing the stag the king asked: “You have been granted immunity from being hunted and yet you are here. Why?” The stag told the king and he was deeply moved. “I have never known such forbearance, love and empathy, even amongst humans. Arise! I spare you and the doe.” The Nigrodha stag thanked the king and then said: “You have spared two of us but what about the rest of the herd?” The king thought for a moment and then said: “I will spare the lives of all the deer in both herds from now on.” Then the Nigrodha stag said: “If you can have pity for the deer in your hunting reserve why not for all deer?” Again the king considered the stag’s words and then announced: “From now on all deer in my kingdom shall be protected.” The Nigrodha stag was overjoyed and relieved but then he thought of all the other creatures subjected to hunting. “Why not protect all four-footed creatures?” he suggested to the king. The king agreed to this request too. Then the Nigrodha stag, who I think was pushing his luck, said: “What of the birds in the sky and the fish in the water?” Finally the king announced: “From this day forth no wild animals are to be killed or harassed in my kingdom.”

This story ends on an interesting note. Losing their fear of humans and multiplying exponentially because they were no longer hunted, the deer began eating the crops. The farmers complained to the king but he refused to rescind the ban on hunting. When the Nigrodha stag came to hear of the farmers’ distress he called an assembly of all the deer in the kingdom. Pointing out the great protection they now enjoyed because of the king’s magnanimity, the stag commanded that from this time on no deer should ever eat crops again. And so it was. [5]

This endearing story should not be treated lightly simply because it is an allegory. The message of George Orwell’s Animal Farm is no less powerful because its characters are barnyard creatures, and so it is with this and some other Jataka stories. The messages of the Nigrodhamiga Jataka are several – that one life is as precious as another, that an act of love on the part of one can awaken love in others, and that goodness engenders gratitude. But of course its main theme is self-sacrificing love. Such was the Nigrodha stag’s “forbearance, love and empathy” [6] that he was prepared to give his life for another. Of all love’s many and various expressions, self-sacrificing love is the most remarkable.

The Buddhist scriptures record several real-life examples of where people were prepared to risk much for the sake of others. One such story is told about an individual named Punna. After becoming a monk and mastering the Dhamma, Punna announced to the Buddha his intention to return to his homeland of Sunaparanta, a rather rough part of India, to teach the people there. When the Buddha heard this he was a little surprised and said to Punna: “The people of Sunaparanta are rough and savage. What if they abuse you?”

“I will think how kind they are in that they did not beat me.”

“What if they beat you?”

“I will think how kind they are in that they did not hurl rocks at me.”

“And if they do?”

“Then I will be grateful that they did not slash me with knives.”

“What if they do slash you with knives?”

“Then I will be grateful that they did not stab me to death.”

“What if they do kill you?”

“Then I will think that there have been those who committed suicide while I got myself killed without looking for it.”

The Buddha then praised Punna’s attitude saying: “Good Punna! Good! With such self-control and inner peace you will be able to live in Sunaparanta.” The Divyāvadāna’s retelling of this story has the Buddha saying: “Go Punna! Become free and then free others! Cross over and then help others cross! Be inspired and then inspire others! Attain Nirvana and then help others attain Nirvana!” [7] Apparently this is exactly what Punna was able to do. We do not know the details but his courage and steadfastness must have earned him the grudging respect of the Sunaparantans so that they were prepared to listen to the Dhamma from him.

While early Buddhist scriptures praise self-sacrificing love, they contain very few examples of someone being prepared to give their life and then actually taking the final step, and in each such case they were usually miraculously saved at the very last moment. The most well-known of these is the Sasa Jataka. This story tells of four friends, a hare, a monkey, an otter, and a jackal, who resolved to give whatever food they had as alms to a pious Brahman, really the god Sakra in disguise who had come to test them. As the only food the hare had was grass, inedible to humans, he asked the Brahman to kindle a fire into which he then jumped so the Brahman would be able to feast on roast meat. Satisfied that the hare had passed the test, Sakra made the flames burn cold and the animal emerged unburned. [8] This story marks a slight but significant shift in the Buddhist understanding of self-sacrificing love. The hare did not risk his life, he willingly gave it, and for a rather minor reason some might think, and when other alternatives could have easily been considered. Furthermore, the story clearly states that he took this drastic step to keep a vow he had made, not for the benefit of another.

In the coming centuries the idea of self-sacrificing love became a leitmotif of Mahayana Buddhism. Mahayana scriptures often feature beautiful and deeply moving stories about those who willingly endure hardship and suffering out of compassion for others. However, beside these stories are others that illustrate ideas similar to those found in the Sasa Jataka. Such stories graphically describe characters who had taken the Bodhisattva vow allowing themselves to be roasted, skinned alive, disembowelled or slowly eaten by ravenous animals, for apparently minor reasons. Reading such stories it would be easy to agree with Har Dayal’s comment about them: “The heroes and heroines of these stories give away wealth, limbs, life, wives and children in a spirit of exaggerated and fantastic philanthropy. The lack of a sense of proportion and harmony is a fatal flaw … The Indian thinkers and writers often pushed a good idea to such extremes that it becomes grotesque and ridiculous.” [9]

One is reminded of those early Christians who theatrically courted martyrdom and even sought out the cruellest Roman magistrates in the hope of being tortured to death rather than just fined or flogged for refusing to bow to an image of the emperor. [10] Life is the most precious gift we have and should only be risked when another or others’ lives might be saved. To casually give one’s life is as reprehensible as deliberately taking someone else’s life.

So what appears to be an act of self-sacrificing love may not always be. It could be done out of a misguided sense of duty, because it is expected or on impulse when confronted by a desperate situation. However there are examples of individuals who have risked and ultimately lost their lives while trying to save others out of genuine altruistic love. There have been medical researchers and scientists who took potentially dangerous chemicals, no other way of testing them being available, in the hope of discovering a cure that would benefit all humanity. A few years ago I was walking through the heart of London and I came upon a small pocket of green called Postman’s Park. On one side of this park is a most unusual monument, the Memorial to Heroic Self Sacrifice. This attractive monument is made up of plaques recording the names of people who gave their lives while trying to save others and a brief description of the events. I read every one of the 54 plaques and the tragedies they told of were poignant and yet inspiring at the same time. One I remember concerned a 10-year-old girl who saved three other children from a burning house before succumbing to the flames herself. Sometimes, circumstances can evoke a love and compassion so intense that it brings about a complete self-forgetfulness.

In the 1990s a story appeared in the Sri Lankan papers that attracted widespread attention in the country. A Buddhist monk had donated one of his kidneys to a little girl in desperate need of a transplant. Of course people sometimes donate an organ to help save the life of a family member, but in this case the recipient was completely unknown to the donor. And he was so young, only in his early twenties. The monk had read of the little girl’s plight in the newspaper, felt compassion for her and then and there vowed to help her in the only way he could. Apparently he was inspired to do this by the Sivi Jataka, a story in which the Bodhisattva gave his eyes to a blind man. [11] To the monk’s embarrassment, news of his act of extraordinary generosity leaked out and he became something of a celebrity for a while. But celebrity is ephemeral and before long the public’s attention was diverted to other events. Remarkably, a few years later this same monk donated part of his liver to a man who needed it, again a complete stranger.

In an interview some time after recovering from his operation, the man who had received the monk’s liver said of his benefactor: “He never made us feel that we were obliged to him in any way. He never wanted anything from us and did not ask for anything. Although we are greatly indebted to him, he made us feel that we had given him the opportunity to do a good deed.”

It would be unfortunate if we were to think that self-sacrificing love was only genuine when it involved dying for others or spending one’s whole life in their service. On one hand people like Father Damian, Aung San Suu Kyi, Mahatma Gandhi and Master Cheng Yen, who demonstrate a bodhisattva-like self-giving, deeply inspire us. On the other hand their examples can lead us to think that anything self-sacrificing we do for the benefit of others is of no consequence, that it just does not count. This might cause us to neglect or overlook the hundreds of ways we can be altruistic as we live our ordinary lives. Likewise, it might make us forgetful of the many small sacrifices others have made for our benefit.

In the early 1970s the British government was considering changing the policy of volunteerism in the National Blood Service and paying people for donating their blood instead, as was done in the US. The growing opinion at the time was that it was best to leave things to “the market”. During deliberations on the issue, the social researcher Richard Titmuss conducted a detailed study of blood donors, and later published it as a book. His study found that people were more stimulated to help, in this case by donating their blood, by a simple sense of altruism than they were by financial incentives. The fact that they would never know who received their blood, never meet them or be thanked by them, did not lessen their desire to give of themselves. Some of the answers people gave as to why they became donors showed just how widespread and deep altruistic feelings can be. One woman said: “My husband died at 41 and I have been very lonely since then. I thought my blood might save someone from the heart-ache I’ve had.” A blind man said: “I thought it was a small way I could help people, and being blind my opportunities to help others are very limited.”

Comparing the British system with that of the US, Titmuss found that volunteers’ blood was less likely to have pathogens and that more people gave voluntarily than for monetary reward. Such was the impact of Titmuss’ study that the National Blood Service decided to continue relying on volunteers and the debate even brought about some changes in the American system. [12] Over a period of time, small acts of thoughtfulness, kindness, going out of one’s way for others, or putting them first, nourish our ability to love just as much as a single dramatic act of self-sacrifice does.


  1. duddadaṃ dadāti, A.I,286. [back]
  2. jivitam pi’ssa atthāya pariccattaṃ hoti, D.III,187. [back]
  3. Ja.VI,587. [back]
  4. John 15,13. [back]
  5. Jataka No.12. This agreement between the deer and the people is reminiscent of the story of St. Francis and the wolf. According to the legend, the town of Gubboi was being terrorised by a wolf. When St. Francis heard of this he went into the woods, found the wolf, and asked why he was killing people and their livestock. The wolf replied that it was because he was hungry. St. Francis led the wolf into Gubbio and convinced it and the amazed townsfolk to agree to a pact: they would provide it with food and it would stop preying on them and their flocks. Both sides kept to the pact to the benefit of both. Little Flowers of St. Francis XXI. [back]
  6. khanti, mettā and anuddayā, Ja.I,151. [back]
  7. M.III, 268-9; Divyāvadāna, 39. [back]
  8. Ja.III,51-6. [back]
  9. Har Dayal, The Bodhisattva Doctrine in Buddhist Sanskrit Literature, 1932, p.175. [back]
  10. See Arthur J. Droge and James D. Tabor’s A Noble Death: Suicide and Martyrdom Among Christians and Jews in Antiquity, 1992. On the Buddhist idea see Reiko Ohnuma’s Bodily Sacrifice in Indian Buddhist Literature, 2008. [back]
  11. Ja.IV,402-ff. [back]
  12. The Gift Relationship: From Human Blood to Social Policy, 1970. [back]