Burning off fingers, and other Buddhist practices.
As we follow our modern Buddhist practices or read the ancient sutras and ponder what "authentic" Buddhist teachings are, it's important to understand that Buddhist practice has evolved greatly over the centuries. Let me illustrate with some fascinating Buddhist history.
Everyone should be aware that the Japanese Zen schools of Soto and Rinzai both came from Masters who studied in China and learned the Chan teachings and practices, returning to establish schools in the 11th and 13th century, respectively. But Chan in China continued to evolve, and in the 17th century Chinese monks came to Japan and established the Obaku school, and the differences between early Chan and the Chan of 300 years later is striking. For one thing, Buddhism in China had continued to evolve in the mother country and introduced mortification of the flesh and rejection of the world as an important element in the practice. In particular, writing sutras in one's own blood was highly praised, as was being sealed into a solitary cell for years at a time, burning incense on the top of one's head to leave scars, and most fascinating, deliberately burning off one's finger as a sacrifice.
An early account tells how it was done. A thin piece of twine was tightly tied around the base of the little finger, and then the hand was buried in mud with only the finger sticking out. Then the finger was smeared with resin and burned like a candle. And the ancient writings praise this as a sign of devotion that will transfer merit and work off karma. Likewise, the copying of sutras in your own blood was highly praised as a way to transfer merit.
Now, we might (one can hope) see this as an outlandish practice that fails the "middle way" test, but to the people of the time, it symbolized something profound about their commitment. The Zen monks already in Japan, by the way, had a few critical words to say about these practices brought over from China.
So when we pontificate about the "authentic" Buddhism or what Buddha really taught, don't neglect to consider that history has shown there is no Buddhist practice, then or now, that will not seem crazy to future Buddhists. That includes our own practice that we consider oh-so-modern and enlightened. http://kanji.zinbun.kyoto-u.ac.jp/~wittern/data/nw-fs/fs-baskind.pdf http://earlytibet.com/2012/05/03/blood-writing/