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Barbara O'Brien

Why They Are Burning Themselves

By February 27, 2012

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At the Atlantic there's an interview of Robert Barnett, Director of the Modern Tibet Studies Program at Columbia University, on the recent incidents of self-immolations of Tibetan monks and nuns in China. Barnett has some perspectives on the situation I don't believe I have seen elsewhere.

Barnett spoke of the large demonstrations that broke out in Tibet in 2008, some of which spiraled into violence. The violence allowed the Chinese government to avoid discussion of the underlying issues, he said. The self-immolations send a message to the government that, it is hoped, Beijing will not be able to brush aside because it does not involve unrest or property damage.

Barnett also says many of the current problems can be traced to a change in Chinese policy that began in 1994. Beijing "decided to focus above all on attacking the Dalai Lama by forcing monks and nuns to denounce him and greatly increasing regulations concerning monasteries and religion," Barnett says.

At first this policy was being enforced in what is called the Tibetan Autonomous Region, but in the last ten years it has been applied to Chinese provinces east of the TAR with large ethnic Tibetan populations, notably Qinghai and Sichuan. Most of the 23 reported self-immolations happened in Sichuan.

Barnett says these areas had been mostly peaceful since the 1970s. The current unrest is directly caused by China's decision to institute re-education programs in the monasteries and ban devotion to the Dalai Lama.

Barnett also says the self-immolations are respected by the Tibetans, if carried out by monks or nuns for a selfless purpose. Beijing's attempts to portray the monks and nuns as brainwashed fanatics have so far failed.

Meanwhile, Jamil Anderlini writes in the Financial Times that there has been less unrest in Qinghai than in Sichuan because, for some reason, Chinese officials are more tolerant in Qinghai. Qinghai has had only two self-immolations, Anderlini says, which makes me think the "tolerance" may be a bit relative.

February 28, 2012 at 10:16 am
(1) NofoLalo says:

Once before, there was seen this same initiative; and, it may well have slipped down the ‘memory hole’, or be unknown to those born out of the time.

June 11, 1963, Thich Quang Duc, a Buddhist monk from Vietnam, burned himself to death at a busy intersection in downtown Saigon.

The photos and issues went virile worldwide, paving the way for the downfall of the Diem regime in South Vietnam.

The act also figuratively ignited the blaze of Vietnamese nationalist fervor, the ‘indomitable spirit’ was kindled in the hearts of the Vietnamese people as a result, and consequently brought unconditional victory.


It resounded a stark foreboding then, when this photo was ‘Life Magazine Cover’.

February 28, 2012 at 11:12 am
(2) Barbara O'Brien says:

NofoLalo — I don’t think anyone has forgotten Thich Quang Duc. I can remember when that happened, although I was still in middle school and so didn’t understand much of what was going on.

I remember sometime later making a collage of images from the news as part of a school project, and the collage was hanging in my room until I left for college (at which time my parents took my pictures down and put up wood paneling), and the burning Thich Quang Duc was in one corner. As I remember I had a picture of model Jean Shrimpton in some mod clothes in another corner. The rest of it is kind of a blur.

February 28, 2012 at 10:42 am
(3) Mila says:

Yusef Komunyakaa, who served in Vietnam, writes about this incident in his poem 2527th Birthday of the Buddha.

In relation to “banning devotion,” what’s important to keep in mind — and what makes the notion so ludicrous — is that while external expressions of devotion can be banned, the internal practice lies forever beyond such control. Which of course is part of the message being sent via the self-immolations: even in the face of the most brutal oppression, which perhaps will mean the death of this body, something deeper has already been consumed within the liberating flames of eternal freedom.

March 3, 2012 at 7:12 am
(4) safwan says:

Burning and killing oneself is an act of violence, it is never justified in Buddhism. (If Gandhi was to burn himself who would have benefitted but the oppressors? There are non-violent ways for actions).

Some Buddhist stories speak about great oppression the Buddha Shakyamuni faced by some rulers, and he suffered immensly, but he could prove the validity of his teachings even for the oppressors.

Actions of self immolation should be condemend rather than justifying or romanticising.
What a role model for young people! This is one step closer to fanatic suicide killing of self and others to gain “eternal freedom” in heaven. Let’s have the courage to speak against such actions as non-Buddhist and through this we may help others think deeply and save their precious life.

March 3, 2012 at 11:26 am
(5) Barbara O'Brien says:

safwan — I don’t think anyone is romanticizing the self-immolations. I pointed to the article because it gave a perspective I hadn’t seen elsewhere, and it portrays the decision to self-immolate as anything but fanaticism. That’s not necessarily saying it’s the right thing to do, but it presents the situation in a more understandable way.

March 6, 2012 at 11:23 pm
(6) James A says:

What I gather from the self immolation(s) is, the subject is stating that they are so distraught and believe conditions are so miserable that it is preferable to die by fire that endure.

September 20, 2012 at 11:15 am
(7) criag says:

Protesters in Qinghai province in China have publicly paraded the burnt corpse of a Tibetan Buddhist monk who died after setting fire to himself yesterday, Radio Free Asia (RFA) reported.According to RFA, the monk, identified as 42-year-old Sopa, self-immolated yesterday morning in front of a police station in Darlag county, in Golog Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture. He is said to have distributed leaflets calling for Tibetan independence, then drunk kerosene, thrown it over his body and set himself alight.

It is said that Sopa had a lover named Yabshi. Oncetime Yabshi was discovered when went to Sopa’s home for a tryst. After the disclosure of the amour, Sopa once beg Yabshi’s husband for not publicizing it. Finally, because of the stress from Yabshi’s families, Sopa had his mental breakdown and chose to commit suicide.

September 20, 2012 at 11:57 am
(8) Barbara O'Brien says:

Craig — wake up and stop being a tool.

September 20, 2012 at 11:17 am
(9) criag says:

In order to cover up his amour and preserve his and all his families reputation, Sopa used deception-burni­ng himself-to win the approval of Dalai Lama and the uninitiated. His self-immolation is not for the Tibetan cause at all!

December 23, 2012 at 2:18 pm
(10) Eric Moore says:

Thich Quang Duc was one of the greatest Buddhist of the ages.Reading about him led up to my conversion to Buddhism.

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