Burning hearts

Self-immolation is slowly becoming the go-to way for Tibetans to protest against Chinese oppression. This banalisation of ritual suicide is a devastating trend and should be banned by Tibetan leaders.

David Volodzko
7 November 2012
Pictures of self-immolated Tibetan monks put by protesters in front of the German Chancellery in Berlin. Demotix/Thorsten Strasas. All rights reserved.

Pictures of self-immolated Tibetan monks placed by protesters in front of the German Chancellery in Berlin. Demotix/Thorsten Strasas. All rights reserved.

Police authorities in China's Gannan prefecture are now offering 50,000 yuan (about 8,000 USD) to those with information regarding Tibetan self-immolations or organizers of immolations, claiming these acts have caused social instability in the region. According to the non-profit group International Campaign for Tibet, from 2011 until October 23 of this year fifty-seven Tibetans have immolated themselves. Of these, forty-eight died. One-third were teenagers. In 2011, there were twelve immolations. Half were teenagers. This year the number of immolations has soared, already reaching forty confirmed deaths. So far, one quarter have been teens and three quarters have been under the age of thirty. Suicide is now epidemic among Tibetan youths.

The subject of self-immolation usually brings to mind Malcolm Browne's chilling photograph of Thich Quang Duc, the Vietnamese monk who set himself on fire in 1963 in the middle of a crowded Saigon intersection, just a few blocks from what is now the Reunification Palace. In Malcolm Browne's photograph, one can see the five-gallon gasoline container resting beside Thich Quang Duc as he sits in silent meditation with a fearsome shroud of flames sweeping up around him, enveloping his robes and half his face. It's the kind of image one never forgets, as anyone who has ever seen it can attest. But what the photograph doesn't reveal is that the apparent stillness of the image, the shattering silence one imagines when looking at Thich Quang Duc's darkly stoic face, is an illusion. In reality, there was another monk in the crowd that day shouting in English repeatedly into a microphone, "A Buddhist priest burns himself to death! A Buddhist priest becomes a martyr!" Malcolm Browne later won a Pulitzer Prize for capturing this moment of compassion and courage that seemed to many unlike any other in human history.

I was a boy the first time I saw it, and I remember staring at the black-and-white details in complete disbelief. How could any person sit so calmly, overcoming such great pain, and for what? It wasn't until I was much older that I learned the purpose of this protest had been to draw attention to the brutal persecution of Vietnamese Buddhists at the hands of President Ngo Dinh Diem, whose Catholic government fanatically pursued practitioners. Diem subsequently found himself under enormous pressure from the international community. He claimed efforts were underway to improve matters and that, as a Catholic, he himself did not condone any of the atrocities. But ultimately, he changed nothing. Protests worsened, the government's response became increasingly harsh, and eventually Diem was assassinated. It's breathtaking really, the power of one Vietnamese monk's silent protest. But it isn't entirely true to say that this was unlike any other moment in human history.

Despite religious doctrines against self-harm, self-immolation is in fact a rather well-established practice in Chinese Buddhist tradition, and not just immolation but all manner of self-mutilation and suicide. Known as wangshen ('forgetting the body'), such acts are seen as an expression of one's transcendence beyond the material, evidence that one has attained a level of such sublime discipline that attachment to the physical body is all but entirely gone. But interestingly, political motivations have never been the majority cause. Most were carried out in honor of the Buddha, or merely in a ceremonial display of respect for some particular scriptural passage, as in the case of 10th century Chinese monk Xichen, who had a habit of burning one of his fingers off to commemorate especially fine sutra recitations. Of course, an opportunity was never missed to take these monks' gruesome acts of self-destruction as signs of higher consciousness, even when they weren't. In the case of Thich Quang Duc, when his heart was found unscorched followers decided that this was because he possessed the supernaturally compassionate heart of a bodhisattva, and not because this particular organ is protected from fire by the chest cavity or because it happens to be filled with fluid. In other words, these acts can be noble and brave expressions of belief...or they can become barbaric corruptions of the faith.

But more to the point, what are we to think of the fact that so many young Tibetans are burning themselves to death in protest of Chinese rule? There are billboards in Dharamshala, the seat of Tibet's government-in-exile, with images of the faces of these children displayed as though they were fallen heroes. The billboards even have vulgar representations of flames in the background, just in case passersby don't get the message. These are youths who are drowning in despair, tormented by authorities and deprived of the most basic human rights. But rather than seek to provide them the help they so desperately need, their community has evidently decided to encourage this behavior by giving their hopeless desire for self-harm a political platform.

This is not simply a movement of political protest. This is the glorification of teenage suicide. Thich Quang Duc was 65 when he took his own life. He was an adult who had lived a full life and was making an informed decision to leave the world on his own terms. He was also a master of advanced meditation techniques that allowed him to tolerate, or even transcend, what would otherwise have been an unthinkably excruciating experience. But these Tibetan teens have just begun life, they are without the advanced training that would allow them to transcend the agony of being burned alive, and they are being utterly failed by their community, which rather than step in to provide them the help they need has decided to paint them as political martyrs. As a result, it should be no surprise that the rate of suicide among Tibetan youths is up.

This does not mean that they are not a people profoundly oppressed and brutalized by Chinese rule, or that self-immolation is an inherently misguided means of protest. But it should be practiced by adults, and the adult leaders of the Tibetan community should not be encouraging their children to take part, organizing such events, or putting up billboards to honor them. One of the recent victims was a woman named Dolkar Tso, a mother in her twenties whose children are ages five and two. One can scarcely fathom the loss, but like all the others this is only seen as a symbol of China's brutality, of the heartless limits to which the monstrous Chinese government has pushed these people. But what is not being discussed is that this is also a failure of the Tibetan community itself, one that reaches all the way to the top, as even the Dalai Lama has refused to speak out against this nightmare.

There is an alleged story describing a response given by Mohandas Gandhi regarding the plight of the Jews at the hands of their Nazi persecutors. He was asked whether violence would be a permissible form of defense, and according to the story Gandhi held resolutely to his pacifist principles, replying with a straight face that it would be better if the Jews killed themselves. Not only would this avoid having to take the lives of Nazis soldiers, he said, but it would be a potent form of protest that might alert the world to their suffering. Perhaps it would have made no difference to him whether these Jews were adults or not but I, for one, do not subscribe to this point of view.

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