A tweet from @KarmaTengye
“Imagine the desperation one must feel to kill yourself in protest, knowing it is totally against your Buddhist philosophy. #saveTibet”
I keep seeing people on various Internet forums ask the question: why are Tibetan monastics taking the radical step of making a political protest via self-immolation? The latest incident, according to the Washington Post’s Keith Richburg, happened Thursday in Tibet proper – the 12th in the last nine months.
One only needs to read Richburg’s dispatch on the Post’s Web site to get some insight into the situation. Government officials asked about the trend say they aren’t allowed to comment on “state secrets.” Hospitals claim to have no information about the victims, despite the fact that reliable sources on the ground in the Tibetan areas of China have seen these men and women taken to specific facilities for treatment or handling of their remains. And now, Chinese troops are apparently carrying fire extinguishers as standard-issue riot gear.
So, the question remains: Why?
I’m not sure I have the proper context to ask myself the question. But…look at the current situation in the United States, where a huge majority of citizens are fed up with the system and have lost faith in their government. Case in point: more Americans now approve of polygamy and porn (11 percent and 30 percent, respectively, in a recent Gallup poll) than Congress (9 percent in a New York Times/CBS News poll). From my perspective, I feel incredibly frustrated with the polarization, political gridlock and near-complete inability of our government to solve our national problems.
Despite that frustration, I simply can’t imagine Americans feeling so bad about our current situation that they would be willing to set themselves on fire in the streets of our cities and towns as their fellow citizens watched, wailing and calling out for relief. I have to think, then, that in exercising the most radical form of political protest, the Tibetans are at a point of indescribable desperation as they watch what’s left of their unique cultural identity get crushed by the Chinese communists.
What’s worse, the Tibetans’ most sacred institution – their 1,000-year-old faith – is being dismantled, twisted and corrupted to serve the means of the Communists and the Han ethnic majority in China. Spies are everywhere; monastics are subject to “political education” and non-stop observation. Monks, nuns and lamas disappear in the night – or in broad daylight. The Dalai Lama is branded as a terrorist and the mere mention of his name can mean immediate imprisonment, torture or worse; the Panchen Lama was kidnapped and replaced by a Communist-approved stand-in. And all of this is in the shadow of the great Communist holocaust, the Cultural Revolution, which brutally dismantled so much of the Tibetan people’s legacy. As I write this entry, new photos leaked from China show the humiliation that Tibetans and Tibetan monastics endure at the hands of the Chinese communists.
It’s a hard concept to wrap one’s mind around…and as I keep turning this question over in my head, I had the unexpected opportunity last week to see a clip of video smuggled out of the Tibet Autonomous Region. In the clip from November 3, the Tibetan nun Palden Choetso was burning on the side of a street, the result of a self-immolation. The video showed the nun standing calmly – almost serenely – as the flames engulfed her body and swirled some 10 feet above her head. Nearby, other Tibetans offered prayers to His Holiness the Dalai Lama. The nun’s body finally collapsed as someone tossed a white offering scarf toward her body. I was, simply put, stunned.
As a student of Tibetan Buddhism, I have a deep appreciation for the gift of this lifetime as a human being — a lifetime when I have the opportunity to study the Dharma and make a heartfelt commitment to living the Bodhisattva vow. In light of this, the trend of monastic self-immolations is even more confounding because I know that these men and women have an even deeper realization of the importance of this precious human life.
At the very least, I imagine these acts are bringing the world’s attention back to the Tibetan issue, and, perhaps, sending a message to people within the Tibetan areas of China. But it seems that the Chinese communists are holding too many of the proverbial cards. Countries that should closely identify with the Tibetan issue, like South Africa, now kowtow to the Chinese, whose growing global economic influence holds sway in points far-flung across the globe.
If anything, the issue of monastic self-immolation begs the broader question: how will China respond when the Tibet issue reaches a true boiling point and the military can no longer contain the matter? And perhaps more troubling, how will the rest of the world respond?