[Buddha-l] buddha-l Digest, Vol 93, Issue 8
john.whalenbridge at gmail.com
Fri Nov 23 02:35:59 MST 2012
Response to message 1, End of buddha-l Digest, Vol 93, Issue 8,
Response to Joseph O'Leary, et alia.
Joseph's resistance to affirming suicide is noted, and I have to say I
share the feeling...but "it's complicated." I'm just back from the Special
International Meeting of Friends of Tibet in Dharamsala, where I
interviewed Sikyong (Prime Minister) Longsang Sangay, Tempa Tsering
(Speaker of the House, Tib. govt in Exile), and Mr Chimme Rinzin Choekyapa.
By the time the meeting had concluded--the number has been spiking up in
November, around the 18th Congress of Chinese Communist Party, there were
about 78 self-immolations. Approximately half have been committed by lay
people, half by monks/nuns. The activities are not coordinated by any
organization within Tibet and are not directed by Tibetan leadership
outside Tibet. This voluntary, self-determined form of activist resistance
is in line with the "lhakar" movement.
A few words about Lhakar, first. Lhakar means "white Wednesday," as
Wednesday is associated with HH Dalai Lama. Activists choose ways to
resist, meaning to assert Tibetan identity in the face of its repression.
One fits the resistance to the practicalities of the situation--i.e., how
to do it without getting arrested/tortured. This might include wearing
traditional dress (chupa) or a kata (white scarf), or it might involve
speaking Tibetan in situations where Chinese is being forwarded in ways
meant to displace Tibetan language/culture (e.g., educational contexts).
The same kind of repression has happened many times in the world, e.g.,
punishments for speaking Gaelic in Ireland under British rule and
punishments for speaking Okinawan dialect (Hogen) in Okinawa/Ryukyu/Uchina
under Chinese rule. Lhakar is always peaceful, voluntary, and motivated by
the wish to preserve Tibetan culture.
No one who speaks about self-immolation directly has spoken in favor of it,
to my knowledge. The P.M. of the CTA (Central Tibetan Administration, or
govt in exile), Lobsang Sangay, is a Harvard-educated PhD who did his
comparative research on govts in exile. He insists that CTA is not even
encouraging PROTEST in Tibet, since anything like that will result in
political imprisonment and probably torture. There is, therefore, no
lawful way to express "civil disobedience" whatsoever. Furthermore, the
world has more or less lost interest in the Tibetan plight, relative, say,
to the "angry monk syndrome" protests of 2008, around the Chinese Olympics.
Tibetan soft power is running against the wall of Chinese financial
leverage (Confucius Institutes, etc), which, Joseph Nye explained to
Lobsang Sangay, is not the same thing at all as "soft power." Soft power is
the invitation to respond as one will without manipulation or
One might respond: "Okay, the Tibetans are not encouraging
self-immolation, but neither are they condemning it." Prof. Stephen
Prothero has written in the CNN Blog that the Dalai Lama has "blood on his
hands" for not condemning self-immolation absolutely. I asked prominent
Tibetan intellectuals what they made of this. Geshe Lhakdor, director of
the Library of Tibetan Works and Archives, finds it a "precious" response.
His feeling is that some people who have no understanding of the degree of
repression of Tibetans as a whole condemn the violence of self-immolation
without understanding the courageous willingness to take pain on oneself in
order to call attention to the issue in ways that will reduce the suffering
Dr Lobsang Sangay, in his address to the Special International Meeting,
said that his government did not wish Tibetans to self-immolate or even
protest, but, given the fact of such actions, they felt it would
be unconscionable to condemn such selfless self-sacrifice. Going further,
he said it was a "sacred duty" to understand such actions properly in terms
of the real causes, e.g., the rampant repression of Chinese culture.
Extrapolating just a bit, one could say that the most constructive way to
be against self-immolation, since we can't even communicate directly in
closed Chinese Tibet with potential self-immolators, would be to do
everything we possibly can to call attention to the conditions that lead
people--citizens with husbands/wives and children, as well as monks and
nuns, many of them quite young--to self immolate. Calling attention to
these conditions does not mean hating Chinese people--that was emphasized
several times--but, rather, doing everything possible to encourage China to
come to a constructive form of engagement.
There have been ideological attempts in the Chinese media to discredit
self-immolaters, e.g., by saying they are depressed or otherwise mentally
disturbed people. Tibetan spokespersons have been attempting to publish
information of the suicide notes and biographical particulars of the
self-sacrificers in order to counter these claims.
For information via wikipedia on self-immolation,
The wiki on Tibetan self-immolation is not up-to-date and does not reflect
the dramatic spike in the last month:
Complete list available from International Campaign for Tibet:
One non-Tibetan, a British monk, has self-immolated. I don't know why he's
not listed on the International Campaign page. Some Tibetans in Dharamsala
were worried that his motivations were not proper. It was believed that he
died alone in his room, but this link from the Daily Mail says that he
immolated himself in the monastery garden.
Lobsang Sangay (PM), Tempa Tsering, and Chimme Rinzin (sect. to HHDL) all
insist that we must acknowledge than any self-immolater could have run into
a Chinese shop or otherwise have hurt a Chinese person if the wish was to
do violence against another person. HH Dalai Lama, in his address on 17
November to the Special International Meeting (Nov. 16-18, Tibetan
Children's Village, Dharamsala, HP) acknowledge that there was an element
of violence to self-immolation, but he said we must acknowledge the
context: there is no other way for these Tibetans to call attention to
their plight, and they are specifically tailoring their actions in such a
way that they do not burn other people.
We should recall that there was plenty of ambiguity about monks protesting
in 2008. The question, Is angry-looking protest? looks quite
anachronistic now. We might ask, was it self-violence for Martin Luther
King's satyagraha activists to sit at all-white restaurant counters,
knowing that their actions would lead to abusive and even violent behavior?
That response would be, as Geshe Lhakdor has said, "precious." Oh, look at
me: I'm SO committed to non-violence. Let's go have a latte and talk about
how ambivalent we are about this matter.
When I gave talks at Central University of Tibetan Studies in Varanasi
(March 2012), the Q&A session turned to self-immolation no matter what the
topic was. After a talk on Khyentse Norbu's THE CUP--students wanted to
ask whether I thought self-immolation was Buddhist. I can't really say it
is. I discouraged self-immolation as much as I possibly could--one of
those passionate students might very well be sitting on the fence. That
said, it's a bit stomach-turning, to me personally, to turn around after a
self-immolation and say "That person did a bad thing." One wouldn't wish
death-by-fire on one's worst enemy, but it could be seen as interpretive
violence to construe this act as "violence" when we cannot imagine a better
response than passively allowing the systematic destruction of one's
culture. Anyone who does not understand that China is systematically
destroying Tibetan culture is not paying attention. Repression of language,
ideological conditioning in the schools, displacement of nomadic peoples,
torture and disappearance of activists or even mild resistors, mass
colonization through the influx of ethnic Chinese into the region, and
billion-dollar investments in railroads and theme parks intended to
condition tourist understanding of Tibet--if this is not the systematic
destruction of a culture, what would be?
No one I have spoken to is "for" self-immolation. It is really a question
of how to end it. Tibetans-in-exile will insist that the answer has to
include the amelioration of oppressive conditions for Tibetans in Tibet.
The best way to be "against self-immolation" would be to find ways to help
Joseph, I don't know if the additional information changes your views
anymore, but I hope the "Tibetan context," meaning the thoughts and
aspiration as expressed by Tibetans in Tibet and the views expressed by
Tibetans-in-exile who have a much better time expressing their views, helps
you think about this issue.
If anyone wishes to forward/repost this message, please do. But please
post the whole thing. It is a complicated issue and looking at just a part
of someone's response is, as has been said, a kind of interpretive violence.
BCC to everyone mentioned in the writing & the organizers of the SPECIAL
INTERNATIONAL TIBET SUPPORT GROUP MEETINGS (see www.tibet.net for more info)
On Tue, Nov 13, 2012 at 3:00 AM, <buddha-l-request at mailman.swcp.com> wrote:
> Today's Topics:
> 1. Re: China Tibet (self-immolations) (Joseph O'Leary)
> Message: 1<> Date: Sun, 11 Nov 2012 07:28:07 +0900<>From: "Joseph O'Leary"
> <josephsoleary at hotmail.com>To: <buddha-l at mailman.swcp.com><snip>
> "I was talking in Strasburg the other day about sacrifice in Buddhism and
> mentioned the Vietnam immolations and some western imitators but I did not
> know about Tibetan ones. Please tell me more. (I am totally opposed to
> religious suicide.)"
> <SNIP--end quotation>
English, National U of Singapore
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