News and Views on Tibet

Is Self-Immolation Anti-Buddhism?

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By Tenzin Kun-khyab

China Tibet Online recently published an article in Tibetan, titled “Valuing Life and Upholding Law”, which was authored by a fictitious character. As I started reading the article, what jumped out at me was the absurd irony that those who claim to be atheists are now preaching to us on how self-immolation (as an act of protest) goes against the cardinal principles and values of Buddhism. Even the writer himself must have felt the suffocating contradictions in his religious arguments against self-immolation. But, like all self-serving literature of Chinese propaganda, its total lack of truth and objectivity wasn’t shocking, to say the least.

Whether self-immolation can be considered an act of violence ultimately depends upon the motivation of the concerned person. When an act of self-immolation is guided by negative emotions like anger and hatred or desire for personal fame and glory, it is obviously wrong and can be viewed as an unwholesome action. If, however, one’s motivation is altruistic and for the betterment of dharma and humanity—when one sacrifices oneself in a selfless quest to make society a better place for everyone—such an action cannot be summarily condemned as a religious transgression. In fact, many would argue that they are an act of bodhisattva.

In this regard, according to the Buddhist text The Prayers for the Future of Dharma (Tib: bstan ‘bar ma):

Through giving, out of love, my flesh and blood,
Giving my life away entirely, and
Giving arms and legs and every part of my body,
May the teachings blaze, long into the future!

Similarly, in In Praise of Dependent Arising by Tsongkhapa (Tib: brten ‘brel bstod pa):

In all my lifetimes, may I uphold,
Even at the cost of my body or life,
This excellent system of (you,) the Sage,
Which clarifies reality in terms of dependent arising,
And never loosen (my hold), for even a mere instant.


Because of this,
In different situations,
You gave up your body and your life,
Loved ones and possessions,
Again and again, for endless aeons.

We Tibetans have deep faith in religion. Many altruistic monks (in the past) have renounced their vows to their abbots and enlisted themselves in the Voluntary Army for the Protection of Dharma and fought against foreign invasion. Since their motivation and goal was the collective good and freedom of the Tibetan people and their religion, their actions will always be remembered as highly religious and significant. Here I must clarify that the only reason why I am recounting these bygone events is to provide a historical context to the current crisis. My intention is certainly not to instigate people into repeating the past.

For some years, an unending wave of self-immolation protests has occurred in Tibet, particularly in the eastern Tibetan regions of Kham and Amdo. The fact that these Tibetans were not driven by any desire for personal profit or glory is amply evident from their three most common last slogans: Return of His Holiness the Dalai Lama to Tibet, freedom of religion and human rights, and protection of Tibetan language and environment. They have lit their bodies on fire only to convey the acute urgency of their undying aspirations to the Chinese government. Since the aim of their actions was to seek greater international attention and support for the Tibetan cause, we can never categorically condemn such acts as anti-Buddhism.

One thing that must be stressed here is that their chosen method of protest does not in any way constitute an act of protest, or for that matter, expression of anger and hatred, against the Chinese people in general. Their contention is only against the Chinese Communist regime and its leadership.
There is no one who does not cherish their own life. The prick of a tiny thorn or the mere touch of the glowing tip of an incense stick will suffice to make us shriek in agony. Even though the Tibetan self-immolators were fully aware of the infernal pain that they would be subjecting themselves to once they chose to stage a fiery protest, they still refrained from causing any harm to others. This is certainly not easy. If they had even the slightest desire to inflict harm on others, they could have easily engineered death and destruction with suicide attacks. They however fully understand that such an action would be against their religion.

According to the Jataka Tales, in one of his previous lives, the Buddha offers his own body to feed a starving tigress who is about to devour her own cubs. In another life, he takes the life of a bandit in order to prevent him from (suffering the negative karma of) robbing and killing five hundred merchants. In many of his other previous lives, he assumes aggressive postures and resorts to various unsavory means of persuasion, but all with the motivation of a bodhisattva. Can anyone truly denounce those actions as unwholesome deeds? Therefore, any self-sacrifice made for the good of many others cannot necessarily be condemned as being against Buddhism.

It is been over 64 years since China invaded Tibet. And in the 54 years since the complete colonization of Tibet in 1959, China claims to have brought infrastructure development and a new happy society in the country. There is however an elegant saying in Tibetan about happiness:

To be one’s own master is counted as happiness. 

To be in the power of others is held to be misery.

If happiness is in such abundance, why would any Tibetan still sacrifice their life in such agony? What separates man from animal is his intelligence. A full belly and some measure of physical comfort may suffice to keep animals happy, but the humans require much more than that: they also need freedom and human rights.

Further, for the people to uphold the law, the government must first govern in accordance with the law. If the Chinese Communist regime continues its authoritarian rule, there is no way to foster peace and stability. The fact that China’s spending on internal security exceeds that of its national defense proves the regime’s deep anxiety over the gravity of its domestic problems and challenges.

Tibetan self-immolations are essentially an act of protest against China’s oppressive rule. The protesters have so far refrained from causing even the slightest harm to the leaders and cadres of the Chinese government or to the military camps and industrial centers. They have sacrificed themselves only in the pursuit and belief of doing something meaningful with their lives for the common cause. They have as yet not chosen the path of mutual destruction with suicide attacks. There is as such a great value in the significance of their deaths.

We Tibetans are deeply anxious about China’s continued rejection of reasonable Tibetan demands, which is further aggravated by the world’s dismal failure in demonstrating a meaningful support for truth and justice in Tibet. If a world compromised by power, greed and deceit continues to neglect Tibetan cries for help, there is absolutely no guarantee that they will in desperation not tread the path of mutual destruction. There is a famous Tibetan saying, if you keep pinning a dog to a corner, at some point, it will be forced to jump back at you. Who knows, it might bite as well!

The current crisis in Tibet may also escalate to such a point of dog jumping back at you unless China seriously starts paying heed to Tibetan grievances. As they say, one country’s terrorist is another country’s freedom fighter, the so-called terrorists are not born out of nothingness, without any rhyme or reason. The roots of many present-day terrorist movements often lead to a long history of having suffered oppression, discrimination and humiliation. When those who are oppressed fail to receive the support that they truly deserve, they are often left without options. No one is born a terrorist, and neither do they willingly or happily turn to terrorism for the fun of it.

If in the future the peaceful Tibetan freedom struggle degenerates into violence, the blame will fall plainly and squarely on the hardline intransigence of Chinese Communist regime. Some blame will also fall on the United Nations and international organizations for their inaction.

It is true that as long as His Holiness the Dalai Lama is alive, Tibetan people will never go against his teachings of non-violence. His Holiness the Dalai Lama therefore offers the best opportunity for the Chinese Communist regime to mend their hardline policies and resolve the Tibet issue in a mutually acceptable and beneficial way. This is in the long term interest of both Tibet and China. Otherwise, as long as the Tibet issue is not resolved, the Tibetan people will not sit mute and hushed.

If China believes that the Tibet issue will fizzle out once His Holiness the Dalai Lama is no longer in the scene, it would be a disastrous error of judgment. At that time, the peaceful Tibetan self-immolation that we have been witnessing so far may worsen to an entirely different route.

Further, China cannot wash its bloody hands by simply accusing “the Dalai clique” for masterminding the current crisis in Tibet. Their spurious allegations will not be tenable in the court of international public opinion. Many therefore believe that their mindless accusations against “the Dalai clique” are primarily targeted to mislead the domestic Chinese audience who are denied freedom of speech and press. If China truly had any concrete evidence of outside involvement in the string of self-immolation protests across Tibet, they would have publicized them with the full might of their propaganda machinery.

If we take into account the meager size of Tibetan population, the unending wave of self-immolations that we have witnessed in Tibet constitutes one of the largest in the recent world history. The loss of these many patriotic Tibetan men and women is indeed extremely regrettable and heart-wrenching. It is thus my ardent appeal to our Tibetan brothers and sisters to please refrain from committing drastic actions like self-immolation.

N.B. This article is adapted from the original in Tibetan (to be) published in Tibetan newspapers in exile.


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