Our blogger buddy Mumon is criticizing the ongoing self-immolations in Tibet. I appreciate that Mumon is more sympathetic to China's position vis a vis Tibet than I am; diverse opinions do help keep us all honest. I agree with him that the issue of political independence for Tibet is not about Buddhism. But there are some factual points I believe he is missing.
First, I want to address this: "I mean, after all, did the Buddhist monk in Vietnam who burnt himself achieve his objectives? No, no he did not. It took the NVA and the Vietcong to achieve their objectives, which weren't necessarily the monk's objectives."
This is a reference to Thich Quang Duc, the Buddhist monk who burned himself to death on the streets of Saigon in 1963. Measured by results, the act was quite successful. But you have to understand precisely what the monk was protesting, which was not the division between North and South Vietnam.
At the time, South Vietnam was being governed by a Catholic family, headed by Ngo Dinh Diem. Diem was attempting, more or less, to make Catholicism the official state religion of South Vietnam.
In May 1963, protests erupted after Buddhists in Hue, where Diem's brother served as Catholic archbishop, were prohibited from flying the Buddhist flag during Vesak. The crackdown on the protests was harsh; nine protesters were killed by the South Vietmaese military. Diem blamed North Vietnam and banned further protests, which only inflamed more opposition and more protests.
In June 1963, Thich Quang Duc burned to death while seated in meditation in the middle of a busy intersection in Saigon. A photograph of this became one of the most iconic images of the 20th century and caught the world's attention. The John Kennedy administration withdrew support from the Ngo regime, and in November 1963 Ngo Dinh Diem was deposed and assassinated.
So, actually, Thich Quang Duc succeeded. His sacrifice didn't succeed all by itself, but it was part of a chain of events that brought about the end of the Ngo regime, which was even more than he probably had hoped. (For more background, see "Buddhism in Vietnam.")
I'm not saying that I support such protests. If the Tibetans were to ask me about it, I would tell them to stop. I'm just saying that's what happened in Vietnam in 1963.
Now, on to Tibet. Although westerners supporting Tibetan Independence possibly think otherwise, I don't believe the self-immolations are primarily about political independence, if they are about that at all.
First: the large majority of these acts have not occurred in the Tibetan Autonomous Region, the area in contention for independence. Rather, "ground zero" for the self-immolations is Kirti, a Gelugpa monastery in Sichuan Province, Aba County, China. And nobody is arguing that Sichuan Province is not part of China. Some portion of the self-immolations have occurred elsewhere, of course, but I believe it's still mostly happening in the vicinity of Kirti. And most of the unrest is being fueled by local grievances, not any over-arching political agenda.
For the past five years, an escalating cycle of protests and government suppression of protests has gripped the area around Kirti Monastery, with Beijing applying tighter and tighter screws to both monks and their lay supporters. I regret I don't have the time right now to write a recap of everything that's been happening, but as I understand it the clash is over the free exercise of Tibetan Buddhism, not political independence. You can read about the latest developments at Human Rights Watch.
What oppression? Mumon writes, "But what about the Dalai Lama? Nobody can carry pictures of the Dalai Lama! What a violation!"
It's really more than that. Monasteries have been stopped from holding important ceremonies and other observances for capricious reasons, for example. But China's insistence on choosing high lamas is particularly egregious.
Something I didn't appreciate until I did the research is that in Tibetan Buddhism, the reborn lamas are thought to play a mystical role in transmitting the dharma to succeeding generations. In Tibetan understanding, if the legitimate succession of lamas is broken, the dharma itself may be lost. As zennies we may choose to disbelieve this, but it's not our tradition. And I appreciate that the way high lamas were chosen in the past often smacked of political favoritism rather than mysticism.
Even so, from a Tibetan perspective, for the government to choose high lamas from the sons of loyal party members is a bit like the government handing out Chan dharma transmissions to political cronies and not allowing authentic transmissions to be recognized. It irreparably screws up the tradition. For Gelugpa monks in China, including the Tibetan Autonomous Region, being cut off from the Dalai Lama is being cut off from full transmission of dharma. This is why it is a Big Deal; dismissing it as just not being allowed to carry a photo is callous.
"Of course, in the Chinese point of view a) China is a multiethnic state (which it is, whether folks in the West like it or not),"
I hadn't noticed anyone saying otherwise. That's not the issue here.
"and b) the Dalai Lama is kind of like Jefferson Davis or Huey Newton on the lam."
"Governmental entities enjoy the supremacy of political power in their domains, in all senses of the word "enjoy." Some might be worse than others, but this is a fact. And because of that it means that the Dalai Lama is a challenge to the supremacy of the rule of law by the government of the People's Republic of China, and they will behave accordingly, just as the US government is over-stepping its boundaries with Wikileaks phenomena. And just as I might add, the Dalai Lama is doing with his pretense of authority in Tibet (it being a pretense because he actually doesn't exercise authority in Tibet - and that's a fact.)"
Hmm. Well, the Dalai Lama made a big point of relinqishing all claims to political authority, of all kinds, within and without Tibet, a couple of years ago. So I don't know what you think he is pretending. He's been saying for years that in the case of Tibetan independence he favors an elected democratic government for Tibet rather than the old theocracy.
As far as what His Holiness has been offering -- the most recent developments I know of are described by Nicholas Kristof -- see "An Olive Branch From the Dalai Lama" (2006). He basically conceded to China everything it wants except authority within Tibetan Buddhism itself. That was seven years ago. I don't think anything else has happened since, except for his final abdication of his political role.
You can argue that China has a right to make its own decisions about matters within its borders, and I suppose it does. And the monks of Kirti have a right to not like it. So there you are.
Finally -- I know there have been a lot of calls for the Dalai Lama to order the self-sacrifices to stop. But that puts him in a bind, because Beijing claims these burnings are happening on his orders. If he ordered them to stop, and they did stop, that would add fuel to Beijing's contention that he is the secret evil mastermind behind all protests regarding Tibet.
He's made several public statements that he would rather the self-immolations stop. Whether the monks of Kirti know this, I do not know.