I do feel that the central conceptions of Buddhism are empirically verifiable, non-mystical and rational, or at least that they do not stretch credibility to breaking point. By this I mean the Four Noble Truths, dependant origination, kamma and the possibility of human enlightenment. I would maintain that the reality of petas does not come anywhere near an essential teaching of Buddhism and that being a Buddhist does not depend in accepting the reality of petas. As I pointed out, the Buddha considered discussing petas to be a type of useless chatter so their reality or otherwise could hardly be considered important.
Further, we do not have to depend on Buddhadasa for the idea that petas might be just an allegory. The Buddha suggests that purgatory might be taken as a metaphor for unpleasant experiences. ‘Ordinary ignorant people says that purgatory is under the sea. But I say purgatory is a name for painful feeling.’ (S.IV,206). This being so, the peta realm could just as easily be a name for the distress of unfulfilled desire and ambitions. So Scott, I think you can safely reject the idea of petas and still practice the Dhamma and benefit from it. I would encourage you to focus on the essentials.
In a comment on my post of 10th 7th 2010 Alessandro informed us that a Korean monk recently committed suicide in protest at some of his government’s policies and asked me what I thought about this. Firstly it should be mentioned that quite a few Mahayana sutras, starting with the Saddharmapundrika Sutra (Lotus Sutra), praise suicide, usually by self-immolation, where it is done as an offering to the Buddha. There were periods in Chinese history when so many people, mainly monks and nuns but sometimes lay people too, were doing this that several emperors had to outlaw it and threaten punishment for the crowds who usually came to watch, if they did not intervene to stop it - see for example James Benn’s Burning for the Buddha – Self-immolation in Chinese Buddhism, 2007 and Jan Yun-hua’s ‘Buddhist Self-immolation in Medieval China’, HOR, Vol. 4 No 2, 1965, both of which make rather troubling reading. So what this monk has done has a long and scripturally-sanctioned tradition behind it.
I can think of a few situations where suicide could be understandable but certainly not as a protest against environmental or social policies. I consider this, like burning oneself as an act of devotion, to be an example of religion gone mad, a sort of aberration of the type that have infected most religions from time to time. I would take Thich Quang Duc’s self-immolation in 1963 (picture) to be in a slightly different category. He was protesting against a particularly intransigent, cruel and corrupt regime and his sacrifice led directly to changing that regime and a marked improvement in the situation.
Jan Palach’s 1968 sacrifice would be similar. We do not know the thinking or the mental state of this Korean monk before he killed himself but I would assume he was unbalanced in some way. If he felt that the government’s policies were wrong or unjust he could have done more to change them by staying alive and campaigning against them. And to go to such extreme lengths to try change the decisions of a democratically elected government when other channels are available is, to my mind, unnecessary and undermining to democracy by indulging in blackmail.