On self-immolations in Tibet

By John Whalen Bridge, Exclusive to The Buddhist Channel, Nov 26, 2012

DHARAMSALA, India --  I've just returned from the Special International Meeting of Friends of Tibet in Dharamsala and the number of self-immolations had been spiking up in November.

<< This image from video footage released by Students For A Free Tibet via APTN purports to show Buddhist nun Palden Choetso engulfed in flames in her self-immolation protest against Chinese rule on a street in Tawu, Tibetan Ganzi prefecture, in China’s Sichuan Province Thursday, Nov. 3, 2011.

Around the 18th Congress of Chinese Communist Party, there were about 78 self-immolations.  Approximately half have been committed by lay people, half by monks/nuns. The activities are not coordinated by any organization within Tibet and are not directed by Tibetan leadership outside Tibet. This voluntary, self-determined form of activist resistance is in line with the "lhakar" movement.

A few words about Lhakar. First, Lhakar means "white Wednesday," as Wednesday is associated with HH Dalai Lama. Activists choose ways to resist, meaning to assert Tibetan identity in the face of its repression. One fits the resistance to the practicalities of the
situation - i.e., how to do it without getting arrested/tortured. This might include wearing traditional dress (chupa) or a kata (white scarf), or it might involve speaking Tibetan in situations where Chinese is being forwarded in ways meant to displace Tibetan language/culture (e.g., educational contexts). 

The same kind of repression has happened many times in the world, e.g., punishments for speaking Gaelic in Ireland under British rule and punishments for speaking Okinawan dialect (Hogen) in Okinawa/Ryukyu/Uchina under Chinese rule.  Lhakar is always peaceful, voluntary, and motivated by the wish to preserve Tibetan culture.

No one who speaks about self-immolation directly has spoken in favor of it, to my knowledge.  The Prime Minister (PM) of the CTA (Central Tibetan Administration, or govt in exile), Lobsang Sangay, is a Harvard-educated PhD who did his comparative research on govts in exile.  He insists that CTA is not even encouraging PROTEST in Tibet, since anything like that will result in political imprisonment and probably torture.  There is, therefore, no lawful way to express "civil disobedience" whatsoever. Furthermore, the world has more or less lost interest in the Tibetan plight, relative, say, to the "angry monk syndrome" protests of 2008, around the Chinese Olympics.  Tibetan soft power is running against the wall of Chinese financial leverage (Confucius Institutes, etc), which, Joseph Nye explained to Lobsang Sangay, is not the same thing at all as "soft power." Soft power is the invitation to respond as one will without manipulation or power-politics determination.

One might respond:  "Okay, the Tibetans are not encouraging self-immolation, but neither are they condemning it."  Prof. Stephen Prothero has written in the CNN Blog that the Dalai Lama has "blood on his hands" for not condemning self-immolation absolutely.  I asked prominent Tibetan intellectuals what they made of this.  Geshe Lhakdor, director of the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives, finds it a "precious" response.  His feeling is that some people who have no understanding of the degree of repression of Tibetans as a whole condemn the violence of self-immolation without understanding the courageous willingness to take pain on oneself in order to call attention to the issue in ways that will reduce the suffering of others.

Dr Lobsang Sangay, in his address to the Special International Meeting, said that his government did not wish Tibetans to self-immolate or even protest, but, given the fact of such actions, they felt it would be unconscionable to condemn such selfless self-sacrifice. Going further, he said it was a "sacred duty" to understand such actions properly in terms of the real causes, e.g., the rampant repression of Chinese culture.

Extrapolating just a bit, one could say that the most constructive way to be against self-immolation, since we can't even communicate directly in closed Chinese Tibet with potential self-immolators, would be to do everything we possibly can to call attention to the conditions that lead people citizens with husbands/wives and children, as well as monks and nuns, many of them quite young - to self immolate.  Calling attention to these conditions does not mean hating Chinese people that was emphasized several times but, rather, doing everything possible to encourage China to come to a constructive form
of engagement.

There have been ideological attempts in the Chinese media to discredit self-immolaters, e.g., by saying they are depressed or otherwise mentally disturbed people.  Tibetan spokespersons have been attempting to publish information of the suicide notes and biographical particulars of the self-sacrificers in order to counter these claims.

One non-Tibetan, a British monk, has self-immolated. I don't know why he's not listed on the International Campaign page. Some Tibetans in Dharamsala were worried that his motivations were not proper. It was believed that he died alone in his room, but this link from the Daily Mail says that he immolated himself in the monastery garden.

Lobsang Sangay (PM), Tempa Tsering, and Chimme Rinzin (sect. to HHDL) all insist that we must acknowledge than any self-immolater could have run into a Chinese shop or otherwise have hurt a Chinese person if the wish was to do violence against another person.  HH Dalai Lama, in his address on 17 November to the Special International Meeting (Nov 16-18, Tibetan Children's Village, Dharamsala, HP) acknowledge that there was an element of violence to self-immolation, but he said we must acknowledge the context: there is no other way for these Tibetans to call attention to their plight, and they are specifically tailoring their actions in such a way that they do not burn other people.

We should recall that there was plenty of ambiguity about monks protesting in 2008.  The question, "Is angry-looking a protest?"  looks quite anachronistic now.  We might ask, was it self-violence for Martin Luther King's satyagraha activists to sit at all-white restaurant counters, knowing that their actions would lead to abusive and even violent behavior?  That response would be, as Geshe Lhakdor has said, "precious." Oh, look at me: I'm SO committed to non-violence. Let's go have a latte and talk about how ambivalent we are about this matter.

When I gave talks at Central University of Tibetan Studies in Varanasi (March 2012), the Q&A session turned to self-immolation no matter what the topic was.  After a talk on Khyentse Norbu's THE CUP students wanted to ask whether I thought self-immolation was Buddhist.  I can't really say it is.  I discouraged self-immolation as much as I possibly could - one of those passionate students might very well be sitting on the fence.  That said, it's a bit stomach-turning, to me personally, to turn around after a self-immolation and say "That person did a bad thing."  One wouldn't wish death-by-fire on one's worst enemy, but it
could be seen as interpretive violence to construe this act as "violence" when we cannot imagine a better response than passively allowing the systematic destruction of one's culture. 

Anyone who does not understand that China is systematically destroying Tibetan culture is not paying attention. Repression of language, ideological conditioning in the schools, displacement of nomadic peoples, torture and disappearance of activists or even mild resistors, mass colonization through the influx of ethnic Chinese into the region, and billion-dollar investments in railroads and theme parks intended to condition tourist understanding of Tibet - if this is not the systematic destruction of a culture, what would be?

No one I have spoken to is "for" self-immolation. It is really a question of how to end it.  Tibetans-in-exile will insist that the answer has to include the amelioration of oppressive conditions for Tibetans in Tibet.  The best way to be "against self-immolation" would be to find ways to help that happen.

For information via wikipedia on self-immolation,

The wiki on Tibetan self-immolation is not up-to-date and does not
reflect the dramatic spike in the last month:

Complete list available from International Campaign for Tibet:

John Whalen-Bridge is Associate Professor at the Department of English Language & Literature, National University Of Singapore. He is currently co-editing a series of books for SUNY Press with Gary Storhoff called "Buddhism and American Culture.