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'Making sense of self-immolation' -- by Dhondup Gyalpo
Phayul[Wednesday, November 30, 2011 09:46]
By Dhundup Gyalpo

No lie is too big or small for the paid posters of Chinese propaganda, especially when it comes to attacking His Holiness the Dalai Lama and discrediting the peaceful nature of the Tibetan freedom movement. This is perhaps the only logical explanation for the Op-Ed piece published by China Daily on 25 November, which claimed that, following the recent spate of self-immolation in Tibet and outside, His Holiness the Dalai Lama and the Tibetan people in exile have responded by “publishing on-the-scene photos and a list of cash compensation available in the event of a death or injury through self-immolation.”1 The article does not find it necessary to offer even a modicum of evidence or facts to substantiate those serious allegations.

Needless to say, these allegations are outright lies that serve only to add insult to the injury of Tibetan persecution. Like the proverbial case of a thief reprimanding the police (ulta chor kothwal ko daten), it is the Chinese authorities themselves that are openly trying to purchase “social stability” by greasing the palms of Tibetan monks and nuns. In a latest example, the Chinese Communist Party in Tibet has dangled juicy carrots like a monthly retirement pay of 120 yuan for elderly monks and nuns, in addition to promising an annual maximum of 50,000 yuan for their medical expenses per person. (It boggles my mind when I think about how or when a monk can ever “retire” from monkhood in the proper sense of the word. These cash enticements also expose the utter lack of Chinese sensitivity toward addressing the real causes behind the popular unrest in Tibet.)

The aforesaid article signed by Huazi, editor-in-chief of the China Tibetology Publishing House, had gone ballistic in condemning the recent series of self-immolations as “extreme acts of violence” and “religious extremism” that are, it claimed, bound to have detrimental effects on “the reputation of Tibetan Buddhism and its future”. If self-immolation is in Huazi’s opinion an “extreme act of violence” then, I wonder how a suicidal attack will be gauged in his comparative scale of violence.

The modern lineage of self-immolation, particularly as a form of political protest, is generally traced back to 11 June 1963, when the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc, burned himself to death as “a donation to the struggle” against the persecution of Buddhists in South Vietnam. It is therefore pertinent to reflect upon how the world-renowned Vietnamese Buddhist monk and peace activist, Thich Nahn Hanh, had at that time presented their perspective on the phenomenon of monks “using their bodies like a lamp for help”.

Hanh began his interpretation by drawing a clear distinction between self-sacrifice and self-destruction. According to Hanh, “Suicide is an act of self-destruction, having as causes the following: lack of courage to live and to cope with difficulties; defeat by life and loss of all hope; desire for nonexistence (abhaya).”

However, the Vietnamese monks who burned themselves did not embody this definition of suicide. In fact, the self-immolations during the Vietnam War were examples of the Buddhist concepts of selflessness.2

To burn oneself by fire is to prove that what one is saying is of the utmost importance. There is nothing more painful than burning oneself. To say something while experiencing this kind of pain is to say it with the utmost of courage, frankness, determination and sincerity … The Vietnamese monk, by burning himself, says with all his strength [sic] and determination that he can endure the greatest of sufferings to protect his people. But why does he have to burn himself to death? The difference between burning oneself and burning oneself to death is only a difference in degree, not in nature. A man who burns himself too much must die. The importance is not to take one’s life, but to burn. What he really aims at is the expression of his will and determination, not death. In the Buddhist belief, life is not confined to a period of 60 or 80 or 100 years: life is eternal. Life is not confined to this body: life is universal. To express will by burning oneself, therefore, is not to commit an act of destruction but to perform an act of construction, ie, to suffer and to die for the sake of one’s people … Like the Buddha in one of his former lives — as told in a story of Jataka — who gave himself to a hungry lion which was about to devour her own cubs, the monk believes he is practicing the doctrine of highest compassion by sacrificing himself in order to call the attention of, and to seek help from, the people of the world.3

Similarly, the popular Tibetan interpretation also maintains that these seemingly drastic acts of violence may not necessarily yield bad karma if they have been motivated by altruistic intentions. Everything depends on the purity of the motivation of the concerned individual. When the ulterior motivation is not benevolent then, let alone an act of self-immolation, even the seemingly generous act of doling out “retirement pensions” and “medical expenses” may not necessarily yield good karma.

Lest you might accuse me of glorifying self-immolation, I must point out that as far as His Holiness the Dalai Lama is concerned he has always stood against “self-immolation”. In a recent interview with BBC, His Holiness the Dalai Lama not only said that he doesn’t encourage Tibetans to set themselves on fire, but also strongly questioned the effectiveness of self-immolation as a form of protest against China.4 Leave aside the issue of self-immolation, His Holiness is against even hunger strikes as he views them as “violence against self”. Not only that, His Holiness terms even corruption as another form of violence and constantly speaks about the need for eliminating this social evil.5

It is therefore interesting to note that the definition of Tibetan term for violence, tshe ba, includes not merely physical harm, but a whole host of others, including speech and thought aimed at hurting others. Thus, even “sweet words” can be violent when they intend harm, while “harsh and tough action” can be non-violent when its aim is another’s well-being.

In the aforesaid Op-Ed piece, although Huazi acknowledges that “It is sad that these young men and women should feel compelled to take their lives in such a horrific way”, he shies away from revealing the underlying causes behind their compulsions. On the contrary, he takes the easy way out by heaping the blame on a political conspiracy hatched by those “who have long cherished the illusion of Tibetan independence”. He is also extremely condescending in downplaying the recent series of self-immolations as an absurdity of a bunch of “unsophisticated young people”, “who are in their twenties and have never travelled far from their families and monasteries”.

Regarding the question whether self-immolation can be engineered by an organization, Michael Bigg’s paper entitled Dying Without Killing: Self-Immolations, 1963–2002,6 offers a welter of insightful facts and conclusions. After analysing a database of 533 individual acts of self-immolation — including attempts which did not prove fatal — in the last four decades, Bigg’s analysis reveals that self-immolation is most frequent in countries with Buddhist or Hindu religious traditions and that “the clustering of self-immolation in waves reveals how one individual’s action tends to inspire others to imitate it.”

According to Biggs, the orchestration of self-immolation, unlike suicidal attacks, is inherently individualistic and does not usually involve organisation, and it is not induced by organisational indoctrination or heavenly rewards.

Many scholars who study suicide attacks emphasise the supreme importance of organisation. By implication, self-sacrifice is only conceivable after an individual has been subjected to ideological indoctrination and social pressure. In the vast majority of cases of self-immolation, however, individuals acted alone.

Biggs also finds out that while in some cases the decision to commit self-immolation was a product of a lengthy consideration, a great many others took the decision on the spur of the moment, just minutes before they acted. This further corroborates the fact that self-immolation requires no organisation.

Most important of all, unlike a suicidal attack, an act of self-immolation is not intended to cause physical harm to anyone else or to inflict material damage. A great majority of non-violent forms of protest like “strikes, boycotts and sit-ins are effective in large measure because they inflict an economic cost on the opponent.” Self-immolation, however, exacts no apparent cost on anyone but the individual.

[1] Extreme acts of violence, by Hua Zi, published in China Daily
[2] Engaged Buddhism: Buddhist liberation movements in Asia, by Christopher S Queen and Sallie B King | SUNY Press, 1996
[3] Thich Nahn Hanh’s open letter to Martin Luther King, Jr, urging him to publicly denounce the American involvement in the Vietnam War
[4] Dalai Lama questions wisdom of self-immolations in an exclusive interview to BBC News
[5] Corruption is a form of violence: Dalai Lama, Hindustan Times
[6] Michael Biggs’ analysis is chapter 6 of the book Making Sense of Suicide Missions by Diego Gambetta.

The writer is a Tibetan civil servant based in Dharamshala, India.

The views expressed in this piece are that of the author and the publication of the piece on this website does not necessarily reflect their endorsement by the website.
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