The Dalai Lama’s Self-Immolation Firestorm

Tibet’s Buddhist monks keep setting themselves aflame. Why?

Tibetan monks pray during a candlelight protest march in New Delhi to mourn recent self-immolations in Tibetan areas. (Photo: Parivartan Sharma/Reuters)

Allan MacDonell is TakePart’s News + Opinion editor, with a focus on social justice.

The branding imagery of Tibet’s Buddhist monks incorporates visuals of prayerful, saffron-robed acolytes grouped on a remote Tibetan moonscape, an ancient stone monastery in the background, while an audio track plays rhythmic chanting of praise and blessings directed to all living things, paramount among them the beatific Nobel Prize laureate and world-peace envoy His Holy Highness the 14th Dalai Lama. A petrol stench, saffron robes eaten by flame, screeches of agony, and a sneaking after-scent of charred human flesh are entirely off message.

In 2011, so far, 10 Tibetan Buddhist monks have lit themselves on fire—at least five fatally so—in what China calls the Tibet Autonomous Region in the western province of Sichuan. The latest, monk Dawa Tsering, 38, drenched himself in gasoline and self-ignited during an annual religious ceremony.

The Dalai Lama is at odds with China’s official view of his personal reincarnation.

How to explain this violent disconnect from the conventional conception of Buddhist principals?

1) China’s Incursions Extend to Selecting the Next Dalai Lama: China rolled into what many of the people living there had assumed was the Himalayan kingdom of Tibet in 1950, flexing its burgeoning Communist muscle, and has entrenched itself in the ensuing decades. Since 2002, according to Human Rights Watch, expenditures for prisons, police and “other parts of the public security apparatus” in the Tibet Autonomous Region have increased sixfold. Chinese troops fired on Tibetan protesters in 2008, and the region now resembles Northern Ireland at the peak of its troubles. Claims of forced reeducation and clearing out of Buddhist monasteries are widespread. China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman, Hong Lei, further contends that the next Dalai Lama must be born in an area of Tibet under Chinese control, with the designation, “Dalai Lama is conferred by the central government and is otherwise illegal.” The 76-year-old 14th Dalai Lama, forced into exile after a failed 1959 revolt against Chinese rule, is at odds with the official view of his personal reincarnation. His Holiness announced in September 2011 that at the age of “about 90” he will leave written instructions revealing whether or not the Dalai Lama designation is to carry on, and how to select his successor, an enlightened being who may, perhaps, be a woman.

2) Like Suicide Bombers, Flaming Monks Trend Young: Of the nine monks and one nun listed on Free Tibet’s self-immolation commemorative page, only the latest, Dawa Tsering, is over 30 years old. The nun, Tenzin Wangmo, was only 20 when she lit herself on fire on October 17, reportedly marched in flames for seven to eight minutes, calling for religious freedom and the return of the Dalai Lama, fell and died. Six of the monks were teenagers, and another was 21. The 10th self-immolator, Tsewabg Norbu, was 29 when he drank and sprayed himself with gasoline, set himself on fire, shouted slogans for 10 minutes, collapsed, and died at the scene.

3) The Dalai Lama and Other Leading Buddhists Are Seen to Approve: The Dalia Lama fasted and led hundreds of monks and nuns in prayers on October 19 to honor 2011’s first nine self-immolated monks. The Chinese government condemned the Dalai Lama—who in a single incarnation has won more Nobel Peace prizes than the combined Chinese government has in perpetuity—contending that his prayers gave a blessing to “terrorism in disguise.” Kirti Rinpoche, the exiled head of the restive Kirti monastery, home to most of the 10 scorched protesters, countered that sacrificing one’s life to the Buddhist cause is not considered violence. “Throughout your successive rebirths,” said Rinpoche, “never relax your vigilance in upholding the truth of the Buddha’s excellent teaching for a single moment, even at the cost of your own life.”

4) An Ethnic Factor Is at Play: The ethnic Tibetan herders and farmers in Sichuan identify as members of a wider Tibetan population, a nation apart, ranging beyond the demarcated Tibetan Autonomous Region and throughout the expansive highlands of west China. Mass migrations of the Han Chinese majority into these regions are seen as diluting the cohesion of the Tibetan culture.

5) Self-Immolation Is a Time-Honored Form of Self-Expression: On June 11, 1963, Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc set himself on fire in Saigon in response to persecution by South Vietnam’s Ngo Dinh Diem administration. By 1971, The New York Times had reported almost 100 similar self-immolations.

Sources: El Paso Inc. | Shanghaiist | Huffington Post | Reuters | Tibetan Center for Human Rights and Democracy

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