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Barbara O'Brien

Some Background on the Self-Immolations in Tibet

By February 13, 2013

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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.

Mumon continues,

"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."

Cute. :-)

"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.

February 14, 2013 at 12:44 am
(1) Darwida says:

There are a couple of points which need to be considered. First, Tibetan or Vajrayana Buddhism originated in India. Yet most Indian Vajrayana texts (or all of them?) no longer even exist. So one may conclude that Vajrayana and all its texts were exterminated in India forever. If one wants to read those Indian texts, one must read them in Tibetan which was used in the translation of those Indian texts. So Tibet is pretty much the only place these teachings are still living teachings, transmitted down through time. Yes, there are some colonies of Tibetans around the world and Vajrayana followers. But there is only one place on earth where these teachings are widely practiced and still living teachings and that is Greater Tibet, which is now part of China.

So to be blunt, this is a make-or-break issue for Buddhism in which a large school or schools of Buddhism stand to be totally lost or corrupted by interference. There really is no second homeland for Vajrayana Buddhism, so when it is lost in Tibet, that is pretty much it. No second place to carry on well as Tibet has. And for those who did not know, each teaching must pretty much be handed down in an unbroken lineage and if the lineage is wiped out, then that teaching disappears from the earth.

The second point I wish to raise is a simple question. Exactly what are the people who sacrifice their precious bodies for Buddhism, exactly what are they protesting? Until we are familiar with the conditions that brought them to this sad stage, it seems pretty arrogant to criticize them, especially when they are no longer able to defend their actions in writing or speech. It is a cheap shot at them.

I have often wondered how the Vietnamese monks were able to be so persuasive in their actions, yet this does not yet seem to be the case in China.

I myself tend to feel that it is OVER for a lot of the Vajrayana Dharma, though I would love to believe otherwise.

February 14, 2013 at 8:12 am
(2) Barbara O'Brien says:

Darwida — Most of the major lamas of the several schools of Tibetan Buddhism left Tibet in 1959, taking scrolls and books and artifacts with them. So at this point I don’t think anything would be irretrievably lost if vajrayana in Tibet were lost. It seems to me that in some ways the situation is kind of reversed, with monks within Tibet feeling cut off from the living transmission of the heads of their schools, because those heads are no longer in Tibet.

February 14, 2013 at 8:49 am
(3) A fellow traveller says:

Quoting from your quotation:

“…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…”

This shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the term “the rule of law” and is perhaps why it is difficult for a pro-Chinese stance to understand a Western stance.

The rule of law is not something that can be wielded by the Chinese government and challenged by the Dalai Lama. The rule of law is not something that the dominant force in a geographical space “have” and that someone else can “take”.

The rule of law is something that the government either obey or not in their dealings with the citizens of a place. It is something that can be tested. It was enshrined in Magna Carta and the US constitution (and is widely abused all over the place). My understanding of China is that there is no independent Executive, Legislature and Judiciary and that the citizens do not have the rights that the rule of law enshrines in a Western democracy.

Do I think Western democracies get it right all the time and China is always wrong? Nope. Do I think the monks should set fire to themselves as a protest? Nope.

I worry for the world that China is so big, so strong and has such an impressive grounding in civilisation, yet feels threatened by people who like to sit on cushions and wish better upon the sentient beings of the universe.

February 14, 2013 at 8:56 am
(4) Barbara O'Brien says:

fellow traveler — Thank you for the point. My take on it is that His Holiness isn’t a challenge to much of anything in China, but for years has been a handy scapegoat for the ongoing unrest in Tibet — which is not all about Buddhism — and at this point the government of China is too invested in the “Evil Dalai” meme to let it go. I don’t see any resolution of this situation anytime soon.

February 15, 2013 at 7:06 am
(5) Astraea says:

Barbara, “Human Rights Watch” belongs to George Soros!

The truth is that Buddhism in China and Tibet is flourishing and I wish HH the Dalai Lama had been able to escape his handlers such as Soros and the NED and the CIA – LONG ago.

I wish he could have gone home long ago. Whoever is inciting this horrible suicide epidemic in China will pay an enormous price for it.

I hope the “Tibetan Government in Exile” has nothing to do with it!

February 15, 2013 at 7:54 am
(6) Barbara O'Brien says:

Astraea, dear, His Holiness doesn’t go back to China because the government of China won’t allow it. He’s been in negotiations with them for decades to let him go home, and they won’t budge. In the meantime, His Holiness freely travels everywhere else in the world. No one is “handling” him.

You know absolutely nothing about what’s going on in China and Tibet, and per requests of other blog participants here, future comments by you will be deleted.

February 15, 2013 at 9:52 am
(7) Yuan says:


There are other thriving branches of Vajrayana Buddhism that are not often known in the West. Wikipedia can be an introductory source of information regarding these other branches of Vajrayana Buddhism.

February 15, 2013 at 11:34 am
(8) Susan says:

Your rebuttal to Mumon’s blog post is knowledgeable and concise. Well done. I followed the link and read the original blog, and was dismayed by the arrogance of this man’s assumptions. Several trips to China does not make one an instant expert regarding an incredibly complex and many layered issue. I appreciate your clarity. I don’ t think that the decision to self-immolate is generally an impulsive one, and I think it very unwise to sit in judgement of such profound actions.

February 15, 2013 at 1:38 pm
(9) Mumon says:

I haven’t had much time to have responded more than I have already…but there’s more coming, and it’s not simply pro-China as I infer you’re inferring.

The real issue for me is that suicide itself is problematic, and suicide for a cause is no less problematic. The more I’ve thought of it, the more I think that Thich Quang Duc’s suicide was not the most effective thing to have done. There’s perhaps times and places where it is the thing to do; e.g., the soldier who throws himself on a grenade to save his comrades. But I think the exceptions are rare enough to prove the rule.

Yukio Mishima thought his suicide was justified, too.

February 15, 2013 at 2:24 pm
(10) Barbara O'Brien says:

The real issue for me is that suicide itself is problematic,

It’s problematic for me, too, and if it were up to me it would stop. I just don’t believe in fudging facts to support a thesis. If you want a fact to support a thesis, it would be that the current wave of 100 (by now) suicides is just not catching the world’s attention the way Thich Quang Duc’s did in 1963. I am a bit older than you and well remember that for a time one could not avoid that photograph, even in a small town in the Ozarks. I believe there were two or three other self-immolations in South Vietnam after that, but it was the first one that had the impact. If the Tibetan suicides were going to have a similar impact on world public opinion, I believe we’d be seeing it now, and I’m not seeing it. And without an impact on world public opinion I doubt they will impact Beijing.

February 18, 2013 at 2:47 pm
(11) Keith says:

Just for what it’s worth, in addition to the thriving communities in India and elsewhere, Tibetan Vajrayana is I believe the primary faith of religious believers in Mongolia, and the Buryat and Kalmyk Republics in Russia. I’ believe but do not know that there are Tulku lineages in all three places. And this is to say nothing of Bhutan, Sikkim and Ladakh.

The point is there are numerous places where Tibetan Vajrayana is able to thrive away from Chinese interference.

Also for what it’s worth I’ve seen on Tibetan nationalist sites claims that the relevant parts of Yunnan and Szechwan and just about all of Chinghai ought to be part of an independent Tibet.

February 18, 2013 at 2:57 pm
(12) Barbara O'Brien says:

Also for what it’s worth I’ve seen on Tibetan nationalist sites claims that the relevant parts of Yunnan and Szechwan and just about all of Chinghai ought to be part of an independent Tibet.

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised at that. They were part of Tibet at one time but were absorbed into China some time back; a couple of centuries ago, I believe. That’s why there are large ethnic Tibetan populations in them. But my reading of the history, which is convoluted, really does give China a pretty solid claim to them that it does not have over the “Tibetan Autonomous Region.”

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