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The Practice of Self-Immolation by Buddhist Protestors: Burning for Modern Tibet

Ryann Garcia Study of Religion 199: Senior Thesis June 7, 2013

Study of Religion Honors Thesis Application

Name: Ryann Garcia Faculty Advisor: Natasha Heller Thesis Advisor: Natasha Heller Title of Thesis Project: The Practice of Self-Immolation by Buddhist Protestors: Burning for Modern Tibet Comments from Thesis Advisor: Ms. Garcia's senior thesis analyzes the meaning of self-immolation in contemporary Tibet. She does a thorough job of contextualizing this practice within Buddhist history and within contemporary media. Although historically Buddhist monks have treated self-immolation as a devotional act, the practice also had a long history of as a means to protest the actions of rulers or governments. With careful use of secondary sources, Ms. Garcia traces this history from early Chinese Buddhist examples to self-immolation in the Vietnam War. She then turns to Tibetan cases, and considers how the reception of self-immolation is shaped by who performs it, how it is carried out, and where it is performed. She also examines a wide range of statements about the ethics and efficacy of self-immolation. She concludes that it is an oversimplification to treat Tibet self-immolations solely as a political act. This is a carefully researched and well-written senior thesis.

Final Grade: A Written Paper: Excellent__X___ Great_____ Good_______ Needs improvement______

2 Abstract: Is it possible for an individual to undergo self-inflicted bodily destruction in order to appeal to the masses in a way that would constitute change? Or would this action go completely unnoticed and arouse no public interest? Self-immolation, an extreme act so often associated with political protest, has been a subject of intense cultural controversy. This act has been seen throughout the history of Chinese Buddhism to be performed as a religious ritual, yet more recently there has been an extreme rise of occurrences among Tibetan Buddhists. Though originally used as a means of spiritual enlightenment, recent episodes in the history of self-immolation show that the motivation for this extreme act has shifted. As Tibetan Buddhists struggle to maintain their culture and attempt to halt Chinese rule within their society, the practice of self-immolation has been embraced as form of public protest, and has been viewed as a political tool. A question many have asked is whether or not self-immolation can be considered violent, for these practices elicit appalled reactions. The objective here is to explore the reasons why self-immolation has transformed throughout history, and whether it even has moved completely beyond the sphere religion into politics.1 I find it is essential to explore the incidents of self-immolation throughout Chinas history to modern Tibet in order to view the transformation of the motives of practitioners and the reception of their audiences. I will show that this practice has not completely moved beyond its Buddhist foundations, for even though its modern purpose lies in the political sphere, the essential religious ideology of nonviolence remains the force of power.

On March 26, 2012, the cries of Tibetan exiles resonated loudly as Jampa Yeshi ran through the streets of New Delhi on fire. Yeshi was one of many Tibetans who had gathered in New Delhi during a conference at the European Parliament where Chinese president Hu Jintao was in attendance ("Tibet in Flames Conference 2012). The exiles of Tibet were actively protesting Chinese rule prior to Hus arrival when Yeshi set himself on fire, making a powerful statement as he ran through the crowds. Yeshi transformed himself into a blazing emblem of political resistance as he darted by stunned

The view that self-immolation is used solely as a political act is illustrated within numerous articles, such as The Ultimate Protest: Women Self-Immolate in Tibet,, where Gloria Reviera asserts that the reasoning for these womens immolations is purely political. There are also numerous amounts of articles that simply portray Tibetan immolators only as protestors, and fail to consider religious motivations. For an example, see, Self-immolation in Tibet: The Burning Issue,

3 and horrified protestors who carried signs with statements such as Tibet Is Burning and Tibet Is Not Part of China (Gottipati 2012). His burning body flailed through the demonstration causing a terrifying scene for eyewitnesses. When he finally began to lose momentum, surrounding protestors encircled Yeshi and rapidly worked to put the flames out (GokhaCreed 2012). Ryan Craggs of The Huffington Post reports that Yeshi was taken to a hospital and later died, suffering from burns over 98% of his body ("Jampa Yeshi, Tibetan Exile" 2012). Craggs observed that this Tibetans actions did not go ignored around the world. Images of his scorched body reached the media, allowing his personal demonstration to horrify viewers even in the West ("Jampa Yeshi, Tibetan Exile" 2012). His self-immolation became a unique image of the protests that Tibetans have been carrying out against Chinese control over their former country. The fact that the majority of those who are self-immolating are not religious clergy but rather laypeople implies that there is a sense of growing urgency among Tibetan protestors. Throughout history, this act has typically been performed by advanced members of the religious community as an intensive religious practice. The self-immolations by the common Tibetans imply that they are now acting as leaders trying to defend their culture in the face of oppression. Though many Tibetan exiles have used self-immolation as a means of political protest, there remain mixed feelings about the nature of this act. Though Buddhism is often revered around the world as a religion that generally upholds the tenet of nonviolence, many feel that self-immolation itself is an act of violence, one that may in fact promote further violence. Therefore it is necessary to examine how this practice is rooted in Buddhist scriptures without violent intentions.

4 Tibet has no long-standing history of self-immolation2, as either as a religious or political tool. On the surface, the practice of self-immolation is well known for provoking reactions of shock and fright. As the number of Tibetan self-immolations continues to grow, Chinese authorities have laid much blame for what they exaggerate and refer to as terrorist incitement fomented acts on the Fourteenth Dalai Lama, the religious leader of the exiled Tibetans (Gottipati 2012). However, the Dalai Lama himself has expressed sadness and shock over these acts: "Self-immolation is indeed a tragic and extreme act, one that should be avoided at all costs. But there are moments when this ultimate gesture, that of offering one's body as a torch of compassion to dissipate darkness and ignorance, is the only possible recourse (Buffetrille 2012, 2). As a leader of a people whose national religion is Buddhism, the Dalai Lama implies that this act of protest, though appalling as it is, has grounding in religious tradition. Despite the fact that the ancient practice of self-immolation has been seen throughout the history of Buddhism, it has become a rising issue of controversy in modern Tibet. Most cases of individual selfimmolation show that these extreme actions are being taken as a means of political protest, such as the case of Jampa Yeshi. However, when looking at where this practice originally takes its roots, we see that it had in fact established itself within the sphere of religion rather than politics. The first instance of self-immolation is seen in the Lotus Sutra one of the most popular and significant scriptures of Mahayana Buddhism (Watson 1993, 280-9). So how did a practice that has religious roots in Chinese

Buddhist scholar James Benn makes it clear that self-immolation in its strictest definition actually refers to self-sacrifice, and thus in Burning for the Buddha he studies an array of self-immolations, from burning ones fingers to auto -cremation (Benn 2007, 8). For this study, I wish to make it clear that when I use the term self-immolation that I am strictly referring to auto-cremation: setting oneself on fire.

5 Buddhism make its way to modern day Tibet as a means of political protest that seeks to defend a culture? The issue at hand is a conflict so large that it has fragmented and physically torn apart an entire population. The plains of Tibet are protected by the Himalayas, which acts as a natural barrier to the outside world. The Tibetans who resided there were known for a society that fused politics with their national religion of Tibetan Buddhism. The debate over the control of Tibet has been a major issue for some time now, going as far back as the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries (Goldstein 2012, 84). During this time the Qing Dynasty sought to rule over Tibet; however, in the 19th century this relationship eventually turned into a loose protectorate status, allowing Tibet to become selfgoverning (Goldstein 2007, 186-7). They were permitted to maintain their own independent culture, have their own language, government, and army while providing no taxes to China (Goldstein 2012, 84). However, in 1912 the overthrow of the Qing Dynasty allowed the Tibetans to force out Chinese rule in their region, thus declaring themselves an autonomous nation (Goldstein 1989, xix). Tensions arose as China continued to view Tibet as one of their subjects, feeding off of the fact that their independent legal status was technically undefined. In 1949, the Peoples Republic of China was founded under communist rule, establishing a stronger military power within China (Goldstein 2012, 84). Though the PRC wished to enforce their control over the region of Tibet, they initially sought to do so by legal authority, seeking to establish a formal contract with the Dalai Lama. Conflicts arose as Tibet refused to recognize Chinese authority, and tensions reached an extreme in the 1950s when the PRC invaded Tibet by force (84). The Dalai Lama, unaided by the surrounding

6 countries from which he had requested help, was pressured to accept the Seventeen Point Agreement with China in 1951. It legally stated that Tibet would recognize Chinese authority, yet at the same time it seemingly allowed the Dalai Lama and his government to manage their region (84-5). Though the agreement seemed to have given the Tibetans some of their power back, it has become an issue of controversy in that the Dalai Lama has repeatedly repudiated the legality of this document, knowing that it did not serve the Tibetans best interests. Due to the unstable nature of actually implementing the Seventeen Point Agreement, conflict between China and the Tibetans worsened as the Chinese continued to occupy the Tibetan region for eight years (Goldstein 2012, 85). Tibetans became frustrated and emotionally disturbed as they witnessed massive destructions of their monasteries and temples. The occupation of the Chinese Peoples Liberation Army built up a great deal of internal tension which led to the Tibetan Uprising in 1959. Tibetan troops attempted to overthrow Chinese occupiers, but were unsuccessful due to their undersized army and lack of force against China. This led to exodus of the Fourteenth Dalai Lama and approximately 80,000 Tibetans to Dharmasala, India (84-5). The Fourteenth Dalai Lama, though officially stepping down from his political position in May of 2011, continues to stand at the head of the Tibetan people, and he has become a major figure in the conflict between his nation and the Peoples Republic of China (Dickyi et al. 2012).Though he has long been admired for his nonviolent and peacemaking attitude, he has been openly detested by the Chinese government for his unrelenting willingness to stand up for the autonomy of the Tibetan people.

7 During the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), the destruction of religious symbols and the continuous attempts to degrade Tibetan culture greatly encouraged thousands of more Tibetans to flee. China continued to enforce its policies upon Tibet by arms up until the 1980s, when tensions had again peaked and Tibetans began to fight back. This would come to include the practice of self-immolation, a religious ritual that takes its roots in Chinese Buddhism. The first modern example of self-immolation in Tibet occurred in 1998 when Thupten Ngodup, an ex-Buddhist monk from Tibet, self-immolated in Delhi, India. He intended to take part in a hunger strike along with the Tibetan Youth Congress "to give his life to bring about peace and fulfillment to his unhappy people" (Buffetrille 2012, 1). However, Indian police halted the strikes, preventing Ngodup from publicly fasting till death. Consequently, he made the decision to set himself on fire instead (1). The rising occurrences of self-immolations since then have become an intense topic of controversy. Since Ngodups incident, more than a hundred Tibetans have also selfimmolated, and the number continues to grow. The graphic nature of the act puts Tibetan leaders in a difficult position as they try to defend, explain, or justify the causes behind self-immolation. The Chinese government has continued to use these demonstrations as grounds for criticizing the rule and influence of the Dalai Lama upon the Tibetans. This is due to the fact that his stance on self-immolations remains neutral and he refuses to openly condemn these actions (7). However, because the Dalai Lama continues to promote a nonviolent compromise towards Tibetan autonomy, many exiles themselves have voiced open disagreement with his methods, claiming they are not powerful enough to provide Tibet with the independence it deserves (Goldstein 2012, 92). Tibetan exiles continue to fight Chinese rule with both physical and rhetorical demonstrations. Thus, the

8 practice of self-immolation is largely subject to scrutiny by the public and the media, for the reason that many cannot comprehend why anyone would perform such an extreme action. Though this act had been seen throughout the history of Chinese Buddhism as a religious tool for individual enlightenment, recent events show that there may be new motivations for this extreme act. As Tibetan Buddhists struggle to uphold their culture and challenge Chinese rule within their society, the practice of self-immolation has been adopted as a form of public protest, where individuals utilize this act to make a political statement. In this way we can see how the motives behind self-immolation have shifted to focus on defending cultural freedoms. Therefore, these acts can be viewed rather as cultural self-immolations than strictly political demonstrations. The practice of self-immolation has often incited horrendous reactions, which has led critics and scholars to ask the question: is this Tibetan resistance truly non-violent? Does the act contradict the essential Buddhist ideology of nonviolence and therefore work against itself? As we try to place a religious act under the category of either violent or nonviolent, we must first define these terms. Bruce Lincoln acknowledges that virtually all religions allow for the righteous use of violence under certain circumstances (e.g., self defense), the definitions of which have proven conveniently elastic (Lincoln 1998, 65). Therefore, as an important objective of this study, we must look at how violence is defined in general terms before being able to understand whether or not selfimmolation within Tibetan Buddhism can be considered violent or nonviolent. It is crucial to take into account that our established concept of violence may already be biased by Western influences. Many in the West tend to become desensitized to violence due to its widespread presence in the media. When it comes to religious violence, news

9 outlets frequently portray that these acts are characteristically carried out by individuals who wish to claim religious superiority. The modern issue of religious violence in the West always seem to concern conflict in the Middle East and notions of suicide bombers and terrorists. However, there are varying definitions of violence and nonviolence. Merriam-Webster defines violence as exertion of physical force so as to injure or abuse (Violence 2013). Yet this definition does not take into account that violence can be achieved through nonphysical means. This is an important aspect particularly of self-immolation, for the act was originally meant to evoke nonphysical spiritual changes, but had to be accomplished through physical action upon oneself. That is, ceremoniously setting oneself aflame was established in scripture as a ritual that would transform a mortal being into an enlightened Buddha. We will observe later though that this act does inflict injury that is not physical upon spectators, families, and those who are left to bear the increased pressure cause by this outcry. However, there are still other common examples where violence can affect others in a nonphysical way. In an effort not to exaggerate the use of the phrase nonphysical violence, this study will look specifically at that which includes offensive language or imagery, such as threats and intimidation, as well as familial neglect. Merriam-Webster gives another definition that states that violence is intense, turbulent, or furious and often destructive action or force (Violence 2013). This seems almost too specific, in that violence, often associated with anger and rage, could actually be performed to inspire peace and unity. Nonetheless, we cannot deny that violence does in fact always commit some type of destruction in any case. Similarly, in The Encyclopedia of Religion and Politics, James Aho defines violence as the use of

10 physical force to injure or kill another being (1998, 770). Again, this definition is far too narrow for our study, for it is restricted only to physical injuries. However, Aho does point out the unique relations between violence, religion, and politics. He claims that religions are a social factor that legitimizes certain types of violence by mystifying them, [t]hat is, they take responsibility out of human hands and attribute it to supernatural forces or beings (771). Those who commit violence for the sake of a religious belief or cause often turn to this explanation as a means of justifying their actions. We will later apply this theory to the study of self-immolation to decide if this fits this unique circumstance. For an important viewpoint on how the dictionary definition of violence can be misconstrued, we can look to professor of sociology Mary Jackman who states: ...violence is commonly conceivedboth by scholars and the lay publicas consisting of actions that flagrantly offend the moral, social, and legal precepts governing day-to-day life. Our understanding of violence is infused with moral judgments. We have all learned that violence refers to willfully malicious acts of harm that are socially conspicuous and deviant. Such behaviors are presumed to arouse widespread fear and repudiation. (Jackman 2001, 437-8) She confronts the issue that many of our preconceived notions of violence imply that these acts are performed with specific motives: those that are malicious. However, Jackman also provides an alternative definition of violence that relies on the nature of inflicted injuries. Violence, by her definition, consists of actions that inflict, threaten, or cause injury. Injuries may be corporal, psychological, material, or social. Actions may be corporal, written, or verbal (443). This definition is important in that it does not take physical violence as the only type, and even more importantly it implies that violence is not always malicious. This designation of violence also pertains to the performer of action as well as the one receiving itviolence can be self-inflicted. For that reason,

11 when we define whether an action is violent, we must reflect on its context, motives, and the reactions that it provokes. On a more general level, John D. Carlson emphasizes: violence is a feature of the human condition, found in all peoples. All manners and forms of human communities have been parties to violence, and they have invoked economic, religious, tribal, ethnic, and political rationales (or some combination thereof) to justify their actions. Violence and war neither began nor ended with the secular nation-state. As such, violence is not essentially religious, secular, or even political: it is human. (Carlson 2011, 13-4) Though Carlson stresses that violence is a condition of human life, he also recognizes the other vital factors that play a role in provoking violence. This study will therefore take into account that violence is a essentially a part of human nature, but will focus on looking at violence through the scope of religion. Unfortunately, Jackmans definition of violence is not specifically related to religion in any way. To define a religious practice as violent or nonviolent by a definition that does not take into account religious context would be inequitable. Samuel Klausners entry on Violence in Encyclopedia of Religion frames the term as something that may be religious in form, an end in itself, or a dramatic symbol (Klausner 1987, 268). He goes on to say that violence can therefore be associated with religion, politics, and even economics (268). He bases this on the fact that [r]eligion, when not overly rationalized, engenders an energy that may be experienced as despair or as enthusiasm (268). We see then that this energy, when taken to extreme negativity, is able to produce a violent outcome. Klausner notes that positive enthusiasm occurs when religion promotes hope and celebration (268). He also states some clear examples of negative energy which leads to victim-defined violence, such as riot, assassination, massacre, terrorism, torture, and assault (268). An important paradox that Klausner points out is that [i]deologically, religions invoke violence and also demand peace (268). As this study progresses, it

12 should become apparent that this statement is central to the controversy over selfimmolations in Tibet. How is it that a religion that promotes nonviolence also able to legitimize an act that can be construed as violent? This brings us to the matter laid out by Klausner that when it comes to social violence, it is not violent as such, but the legitimation of violence [that] is the issue (271). This will be the guideline when looking at the practice of self-immolation in modern Tibet, for it will force us to take into account not only the definition of violence but rather how the legitimization of that violence is perceived among different cultures. It is vital then to consider all human aspects of the practice of self-immolation when we try to categorize it as violent or non-violent. A practice that is closely related to religion and often times religious violence is that of martyrdom. Charles Selengut defines a martyr as one who offers his individual corporeal existence for God, but his or her action is enmeshed in an elaborate theological and sociological framework of meaning and expectations (Selengut 2011, 95). MerriamWebster more generally defines a martyr as a person who voluntarily suffers death as the penalty of witnessing to and refusing to renounce a religion and also as a person who sacrifices something of great value and especially life itself for the sake of principle (Martyr 2013). The prior definition given by Merriam-Webster directly implies that the consequence of the martyrs action is death, and that it is religiously motivated. The latter definition states that only something of great value is being sacrificed, but it does not always include the sacrifice of ones life. I believe that both of these definitions, as well as that of Selenguts, are all relevant to religious martyrdom for the following reasons. Selenguts definition takes into account the fact that an act of martyrdom is typically part of a complicated network of ideals that may fall outside of the cultural norm. The actions

13 of a martyr then, may be problematic to those who do not correctly understand the meaning and expectations behind the framework. The first definition by MerriamWebster reinforces the idea that martyrdom is used as a response to religious oppression. The second is less associated with religion, stating that acts of martyrdom are used to stand up for a specific principle. Therefore, the Merriam-Webster and Selengut definitions provide the three concepts that we will take into account when looking at whether or not one who has self-immolated can be deemed a martyr. In response to Selenguts definition, it would be useful then for us to look into the context of specific cases of self-immolations. Therefore, when defining self-immolation as violent or nonviolent, or a self-immolator as a martyr, it will be important to consider all aspects of their action, including motives, the physical action itself, and how others received it. This study will investigate how the intentions behind self-immolation have transformed, and to understand how this practice fits within the sphere of religion or politics. I will therefore begin by taking a look at the establishment of self-immolation within Buddhism, as well as its examples in medieval China to show the transformation of the act. From there, I will focus in on the first modern example of self-immolation that of Thich Quang Duc during the Vietnam War. This will allow us to look at how the West was introduced to this act and how it was perceived. I will then discuss the context of the self-immolations that are occurring in modern Tibet, and then will move on to observe how this practice is being received among various audiences. The study concludes with an application of the terms that we have briefly discussed, such as violent and martyr, as they are put into use in both English and Tibetan when discussing modern self-immolators. Ultimately, this study intends to show that this

14 practice has not moved entirely beyond its religious associations; even though it is currently being used by Tibetans as a sociopolitical tool, it remains grounded in religious ideology. The most fundamental topic I intend to show how a religious practice can be transformed and framed to fit a modern setting which bears no resemblance to its original establishment. I aim to explore these controversial questions as well as shed light on the ways in which self-immolation has created a resurgence of Tibetan nationalism. Despite the fact that these demonstrations can act as political catalysts to boost morale among Tibetan activists, my study shows that self-immolations should be seen essentially as a religious act that does not intend to produce violence, but rather compassion and spiritual enlightenment.

A Brief History of the Origin and Practice of Self-Immolation in China

This study was motivated by the fact that self-immolation in Tibet is considered a modern phenomenon by many scholars. In order to understand why the practice of selfimmolation has become accepted by many as a useful tool in making a political statement, we must first turn our attention towards its origins. Buddhism itself takes its roots in India around the sixth of fifth century BCE through its founder Siddhartha Gautama. He was the man who became known as the Buddha and thus became an exemplary model of how one could attain nirvana (spiritual awakening). There exists numerous Indian stories of his deedsspecifically the ways in which he gave his body as a gift to others. Two of these sourcesthe jtaka and avadna tales3do not include any

The jtaka and avadna tales are part of ancient Indian literature that tell the stories about the past lives of the Buddha, both as a human and animal.

15 examples of self-immolation by setting oneself on fire. This first text that self-immolation appears in is actually a famous Buddhist scripture known as the Lotus Sutra.4 The story of the Bodhisattva Medicine King is portrayed in chapter twenty-three of the sutra. Thereupon he swallowed various perfumesAnointing his body with fragrant oil, he appeared before the Buddha Sun Moon Pure Bright Virtue, wrapped his body in heavenly jeweled robes, poured fragrant oil over his head and, calling on his transcendental powers, set fire to his bodyThe Buddhas in these worlds simultaneously spoke out in praise, saying: Among all donations, this is the most highly prized, for one is offering the Dharma to the Thus Come Ones! (Watson 1993, 282) By the third century BCE, the story of the Medicine King had been well-established through this Mahayana scripture. This enigmatic text had an impact on its audience, namely the monks and nuns who were left trying to incorporate how the scripture was to be translated in their real lives. The sutra explains in detailed text the ways in which the Medicine King had ceremoniously prepared for this ritual so that it would be considered a bodily offering for the benefit of both himself and many others. Many audiences have interpreted this act as a means of fiery transformation. To them, he was not committing suicide but was rather evolving into the higher state of being known as Buddhahood. This practice was therefore seen as spiritual means to achieve nirvana by offering material wealth in the form of his physical body for merit, which could be shared with others according to the Mahayana tradition. Benn explains that in China several of the feelings people may have about self-immolation, even in modern times, can be traced back to this passage (Benn 2007, 57).

According to Burton Watson, the true origins of the Lotus Sutra are unknown. It was probably translated into Sanskrit from an original unknown language, and then was later translated into Chinese. The scripture was certainly in existence by 255 CE, and the version which I am using has been translated from Kumarajivas Chinese version in 406 (1993, ix).

16 The fact that self-immolation takes its origins in a text like the Lotus Sutra leaves many followers of the tradition with an ambiguous view on the foundations of this practice. On one hand, many take this as literal word, and are thus able to justify this practice. On the other, many audiences have understood this to be a metaphorical text. Jane Ardley makes the distinction that whether or not we agree with the use of this practiceas many in the West find it horrifyingthose who perform it have found a rational and legitimate argument by using a literal reading of the Lotus Sutra (Watson 2000, 28). To better understand how self-immolation has been received and played a part in Chinas history, we must briefly look over the course of the records of this practice, both by practitioners and by biographers. Much of the evidence that we have for medieval Chinese self-immolations comes from the biographies known as the Biographies of Eminent Monks, or the genre of Gaoseng zhuan. The first recorded self-immolation in China was committed by a monk named Fayu who lived ca. 352-396 (Benn 2007, 33). The way in which he carried out his self-immolation was to be repeated in the same manner by many who followed. He was a part of the monastic group and is said to have aspired to be like the Medicine King (33). Futhermore, he took it upon himself to first go to the political leader of his timeYao Xuto inform him of his plans to burn his body (34). This was unusual by contemporary standards. Just as others would do after him, Fayu continued on with his plans to selfimmolate even after being dissuaded by his political leader (34). Mirroring the acts of the Medicine King, Fayu ingested incense, wrapped his body in linen, and recited scripture (34). Benn suggests that Fayus self-immolation was characteristic of the standard way in which this practice would be carried out during this age. In the fifth and sixth centuries,

17 the involvement of the monastic community (who were full of grief and admiration), as well as the ceremonial preparation of the body, the chanting of scripture, and finally the public nature of this event were all commonly seen in the biographies that we have of the self-immolators of this time (34). As we trace the biographies of those who have immolated, we can see just how these rituals changed in accordance to their historical settings. Many decades after Fayus self-immolation in 451, a monk named Huishao planned an even more miraculous display. He took advantage of weight of this act, holding a remarkably lavish ceremony to entice crowds and their donations (Benn 2007, 35). Audience members were attracted to these events not only because of the physical extravagance, but also because there was the belief that self-immolators would generate large amounts of merit (35). Huishaos immolation was also connected with the Lotus Sutra, sources say that he recited The Original Acts of the Medicine King as he burned (35). In an earlier incident that took place in 438, the medieval Chinese monk Sengyu made a similar connection to the Medicine King; Sengyus biography gives us a better understanding for this individuals motives to self-immolate. Seventeen years before he committed this act, he had formed the perception that rebirth in the lower realms (hell dweller, hungry ghost, or animal) could only be prevented by ridding oneself of the physical body. This, along with his admiration for the Medicine King, inspired him to build up a pyre, say goodbye to his community, and self-immolate in a calm and composed manner (36). Again, the community responded with much admiration, for they all made prostrations, touching their heads to the ground, as they wished to make karmic connections with him (36).

18 As the course of these immolations continued, we see from the biographies that they seemed to become more calculated. Monks would plan these ceremonies for years, even physically preparing themselves by changing to a strict diet. Self-immolations began to draw larger crowds, and those who performed the act would take into consideration the ways in which they could make their display more spectacular and unique. Some planned their immolations on specific Buddhist holidays, and some even abandoned the connection of this act to the Medicine King, making for a more individually-motivated deed (Benn 2007, 40). A specific example can be found with the case of the monk Sengyai (ca. 488-559), who planned to self-immolate during the ghost festival so that he may take advantage of the large crowds (90-1). There were in fact immolations that were done privately as seen with the case of Tanhong in 455. He alone gathered firewood and built a pyre in the secluded mountains near Xianshan si (41). His case depicts an occurrence where the first attempt at self-immolation was halted by his disciples, and thus he survived, only to complete his goal a month later (42). Tanhongs immolation was therefore not intended to be a performance for others but rather an individual offering. The private nature of Tanhongs immolation underscores the fact that this practice was still being utilized as an individual religious experience. As the performances of self-immolations were beginning to vary among the monks, nuns too were motivated to complete this religious act. In 493, two nuns self-immolated together in the same location as a type of combined offering. This incident was followed years later by a sister of one of the nuns, who also burned her body in the same way (44). This is particularly notable, for these types of connected immolations and joint offerings are commonly seen in the incidents of self-immolation in modern Tibet.

19 Huijiao, the biographer who compiled the Gaoseng zhuan (Biographies of Eminent Monks), uses this volume of work to illustrate his own specific moral views about self-immolations in medieval China. His biographies show an admiration for these practitioners as well as a further attempt to assist their cause by connecting this practice back to scripture. Benn explains that Huijaos perceives the effort of longevity to be selfish, notably in that it does nothing for others (Benn 2007, 50). He contrasts this with self-immolators, whose charity arises from the fact that they have realized that the body is merely illusory, a temporary stopping place in samsara (50). In this way, selfimmolators are depicted as selfless and extremely generous (50). Huijao also makes a point that it is only advanced bodhisattvas who should be committing this act. Benn claims that he makes a clear distinction between bodhisattvas who appear on earth in human form and ordinary humans (51). The idea that a self-immolator should be someone of higher spiritual authority is not specific to Huijao or even medieval Chinese audiences. When we move into the modern sphere of Buddhism in Tibet, we will find that these views still exist. However, in the chapter The Original Acts of the Medicine King, the Buddha comments on the acts of the Medicine King and claims that selfimmolation is not restricted to advanced bodhisattvas, but rather any person who wishes to attain nirvana may carry out this practice (61). There are even few accounts of laypeople who decided to burn themselves as well.5 We are therefore presented with various opinions on how to legitimize the type of person who should be performing this act. Audiences had various ways of interpreting whether or not self-immolations were justifiable. One way to determine this legitimacy was if the self-immolation had created relicssomething more characteristic to Chinese immolation during these times. These

See Benn 2007, 76.

20 objects, which were supposedly left behind by those who had burned their bodies and generally cremated, were seen as legitimating objects for self-immolators: without them, auto-cremation might be nothing more than a bizarre form of suicide (61).6 Many accounts describe extraordinary signs that accompanied self-immolation. They were seen as signs from nature, and numerous people interpreted these signs as another legitimizing factor for self-immolation. One such example can be found in the biography of Sengming (fl. ca. 502-519), whose self-immolation was accompanied with healing, spontaneously blooming flowers, and a moving statue (73). Politics also played a key role in self-immolations in China. In many of the prior cases there is evidence for a relationship and cooperation between an emperor or ruler and the self-immolator. Many times, a monk would either inform a ruler or request permission from him to commit this act. During the sixth and seventh centuries, selfimmolation seemed to take on a new role: challenging political authority. In response to the rise of the new emperors such as Zhou Wudi (r.560-578) and Taizong (r. 626-649), many people of the religious community contemplated how to deal with their antiBuddhist rule (Benn 2007, 80). The biographer Daoxuan (596-667) even fled into the Zhongnan mountains to avoid persecution by the emperor (80). He became a vital figure in recording the connections between the self-immolations of this time and the emperors who were oppressive towards Buddhists. He tells the story of monks who utilized selfimmolation as a tool to confront the politics of the time. For example, a man named Puji (d. 581)the disciple of a monk who had immolatedretreated to the mountains. There he made a vow that reveals how self-immolation could be understood as a potential mechanism for political change (80). His vow declared that if Buddhism survived this

Relics included objects such as unburned tongues, intact hearts, skulls etc. See Been 2007, 144-7.

21 oppressive time, he would burn his body as an offering (80). His actions portray that by this time, Buddhists were not afraid to use their bodies to promote change, especially when it came to confronting government powers. The practice of self-immolation therefore was not strictly political, but rather it was an act that relied on Buddhist foundations. A short biography of a man named Hutong (d. 649) depicts an instance in the seventh century where an act of self-immolation was still motivated by the story of the Medicine King (84). These types of incidents imply that the practice of selfimmolation was still being used in various ways, yet seemed always to be grounded in religious principle, whether political or not. In the Continued Biographies of Eminent Monks, Daoxuan makes a point to explain what the biographies say about the practice of self-immolation. Benn notes that essence of Daoxuans argument is that they serve a dual purpose: as warnings to the beginner and as models to the spiritually advanced (Benn 2007, 99). He therefore makes the clear distinctionas we have seen with Huijiaothat the practice of burning ones body should only be performed by figures who have reached a specific religious level. Benn explains: Although Daoxuan points out that, according to the scriptures, self-immolation means exchanging the temporary and impure human body for an indestructible dharma body of a Buddha, he is quick to restate the fundamental dichotomy between advanced bodhisattvas like the Medicine King, who made a powerful vow and had cultivated the paramitas over many lifetimes, and the ordinary people who imitate him but are unable to maintain the same level of determination. (99) It should be clear then, that there were certainly people in medieval China who opposed some instances of self-immolation. Daoxuan straightforwardly emphasizes that a selfimmolation could be a failure, which was betrayed by a groan of pain at the point of

22 death (100). Therefore Daoxuan implies that the self-immolators of correct religious standing permitted them to be seen as guardians of the samgha (community) (102). His views emphasized that self-immolation at many times was not just about the individual, but generated positive karma for the wellbeing of others, especially the Buddhist community. This is the same argument that many modern Tibetans are using for the new wave of self-immolators. The practice is therefore often performed with intentions to sacrifice the individual in order to help the Tibetan people as a whole. One question that many biographers did not explicitly discuss was the matter of suicide. As we have seen through some of the responses of the biographers during these medieval China, many implied that this act was not to be associated with suicidea term which holds violent connotations. Daoshi (596-683), a contemporary of Daoxuan, attempted to tackle the issue of whether self-immolation is suicide or not. He refutes that self-immolation is suicide using examples from Mahayana literature, stating that an immolator has no intention of harming others, but on the contrary will invite merit (Benn 2007, 105). Therefore, because the act is selfless, the intention is pure, and thus the act will not produce retribution. Another defender of this idea was the biographer Zanning (ca. 919-1001). He claimed that that there are two types of suicide. The first is that one kills oneself out of fear of punishmentThe second is that one vows to be reborn in the Pure Land with a powerful and bold mind (113-4). He reinforces the idea that intention is what makes the difference. Yongming Yanshou (904-975) also stressed the importance of intention, teaching that self-immolation was completely legitimate if one practiced it in an empty manner (122). Benn tells us that as long as one is not attached to any particular form of practice, he holds that people can attain complete

23 awakening by means of the single practice of self-immolation (122). Yanshou himself was an important figure in the history of self-immolation in China, for unlike previous biographers, he analyzed this practice from a different perspective. He took into account specific ethical ramifications that were associated with self-immolation (128). He realized the paradoxes and modern issues that many saw within this practice in real life and decided to deal with them by seeking out how the doctrines could be endorsed by contemporaries (128). Yanshou did not deal with self-immolation as a theoretical custom of the past, but rather a living practice that was just as valid as any other path to nirvana (128). The issues dealt by him, like many others of this time, will be brought to light again when we discuss modern Tibet. Self-immolation has been utilized throughout different times and locations to respond to contemporary situations. Though many times individuals would immolate in times of peace for their own purposes, other periods show an obvious correlation of more frequent self-immolations and times of political unrest. In conjunction with each century that witnessed self-immolations, there also existed biographers who were willing to give their various judgments on the practice. As there existed debate among people of medieval China, there exists an even larger debate in modern times across many more countries. The questions that will follow us into modern Tibet will concern the motives, performance, reactions, and effects that self-immolation produces. The question of whether this practice is even relevant or valid has already been answered. Benn masterfully upholds that self-immolation is like any other Buddhist practice because it holds its origins in the scripture of its tradition (Benn 2007, 202). He has traced the history of this practice to display that self-immolation was in fact always considered a

24 legitimate practice. He also refutes the idea that this is merely an act of suicide, stating that their acts were not simply a departure from the world, but an active involvement in it (202). These views will be taken into consideration as we move on to the modern issue of self-immolation in the modern era.

Self-Immolation in Modern Times

On June 11, 1963, over two-hundred Buddhist monks rallied throughout Saigon in order to protest the oppressive rule of the Diem regime in South Vietnam (Yang 2011, 1). Monks who were well-aware of the event about to take place stopped at the intersection of Le Van Duyet Street and formed a circle around the monk Thich Quang Duc (1). Fellow monks along with policemen and various onlookers witnessed Duc sit in the middle of the street, composed in the lotus posture. Spectators watched as he allowed other monks to douse his body in gasoline, then finally he ended his life by setting his own body ablaze (King 2000, 128; Yang 2011, 1). As policeman had struggled to keep back distraught spectators, including many monks, video footage captures the moment when the struggle subsided. A Youtube video titled Buddhist Monk Self Immolation shows the video of Ducs entire demonstration. As soon as Duc lit a match, his body became a fiery spectacle causing an immediate wave of awe to overcome the crowd (Ironclaw 2009). There was no more struggle to save Duc. Instead, the policeman who were barricading the monks trying to get through to Duc simply stopped what they were doing and turned around to watch what was happening before them (Ironclaw 2009). Many monks immediately began to prostrate before Duc as his body burned before them

25 (Ironclaw 2009). The atmosphere then had a sense of calmness, and there were no further attempts to save Ducs life (Ironclaw 2009). American news correspondent Malcolm Browne caught the entire event on camera. Brownes photographs of this historic event catalyzed many significant reactions on a global scale. The photograph won the award for World Press Photo of the Year in 1963. It became such an iconic image, one that both shocked the world and brought international attention to the conflict in Vietnam. This photograph has continued to carry weight, even in the modern world. We should note that the image is not simply just iconic because of the act that it captures. Rather, it has become famous for the power that it had in influencing political action in a time of great unrest. Some even state that his self-immolation marked a decisive moment in the conflict between the Diem regime, who were backed by the U.S. government, and the protestors of South Vietnam (Yang 2011, 2). The most famous of his photographs became one of the iconic images of the Vietnam War. In a modern article looking back on the impact of Malcom Browne, reporters of Yahoo! News recount: The photos he took appeared on front pages around the globe and sent shudders all the way to the White House, prompting President John F. Kennedy to order a re-evaluation of his administration's Vietnam policy. "We have to do something about that regime," Kennedy told Henry Cabot Lodge, who was about to become U.S. ambassador to Saigon. (Ilnytzky & Pyle 2012) Brownes photographs therefore drew the attention that was necessary to the problem in Vietnam. Though many Westerners did not understand the practice of self-immolation, the fact that this act was being used in a political setting showed that times were desperatea concept that can be seen in the modern Tibet situation. Ducs immolation led to American awareness of the conflict within Vietnam, and Diem eventually lost U.S. support which led to the end of his reign (Yang 2011, 4). The fact that Ducs

26 demonstration received this type of response may be a motivating factor for Tibetan selfimmolators today who are also experiencing religious oppression. Though many Americans were shocked and unable to comprehend the act of selfimmolation, there already existed a cultural acceptance that was understood within the Vietnamese Buddhist community. After his death, Ducs home temple, the crossroads that he sat at, and even car that he last rode in were all treated as shrines by the Vietnamese people (King 2000, 142). However, his final act also inspired other acts within those who wished to imitate his bravery in the face of conflict. Buddhist scholar Sallie B. King has traced the incidents of self-immolations within the United States that arose after Thich Quang Ducs demonstration during the Vietnam War. She notes that though there were other self-immolators during the War, Duc was the first, and he was therefore the first to do so in a modern context (127). She brings the scope of these events to America to try to understand the influence that this act has, as well as the individual motives and the ways in which these acts are carried out. She lists examples of American self-immolators with a range of backgrounds, from Quakers to students and even housewives (128).7 King focuses in on the immolation of Norman Morrison, a Quaker who was well aware of the political situation in Vietnam (128). In a letter to his wife he explained that his motive for ending his life was to respond to the injustices against the children in Saigon (128). Another apparent motive for Morrison was that he believed to have received a message from God, who encouraged him to carry out this act (128). This case is significant because of these multiple motivations as well as Morrisons Quaker background, a tradition that has no history of death by ones own hand as an act of

King makes a point to note that other than the eight people she listed, there were others who attempted self-immolation but survived (128).

27 religious witness (129). It was possible this religious background that lead to his deeply sympathetic feelings towards the suffering of others. Like many other self-immolators, the case of Norman Morrison shows us that this act was not based in irrationality and was not planned spontaneously.8 Morrison arrived at his chosen scene of immolationthe Pentagonapparently paced for forty-five minutes, and then committed his final act of death by auto-cremation (130-1). When we compare this incident of self-immolation to that of Thich Quang Duc, or even the many of the Chinese immolators that we have seen before him, there seems to be a striking similarity. The concept of a politically charged immolation that is grounded in religion brings us directly to the movement in present Tibet. On April 27, 1998, Tibet witnessed its first modern self-immolation.9 Thupten Ngodup, a sixty-year old ex-Buddhist monk, was the first known Tibetan to set himself on fire in direct response to Tibets ongoing conflict with China (Buffetrille 2012, 1). According to sources, Ngodups original intention was to participate in a hunger strike until death with fellow advocates of the Tibetan Youth Congress10 in Delhi, India (1). However, on April 27, Indian police began to forcefully remove the protestors, which prompted Ngodup to take matters into his own hands and self-immolate before the crowd

King tells us that Morrisons wife claimed that she and her husband had a normal conversation the morning of his death. He apparently seemed to be in a sane and normal state of mind, and even told her that he had never felt better or more right (King 2000, 130). 9 Before Thupten Ngodup, there were some Tibetans who committed self-immolation in a religious context. Katia Buffetrille references the Bashe, a historical text from the 9th century which focuses on the integration of Buddhism in Tibet and mentions an incident of self-immolation (though possible of a Chinese master). However, in Pawo Tsuglak Trengwas Feast for the Learned, she notes the self-immolation of a monk as a religious ritual in the 11th century (8-9). 10 The Tibetan Youth Congress advocates working towards the independence of Tibet. More information can be found at

28 (1). Jamyang Norbu, a blogger for Rangzen Alliance11 describes video footage that captured the incident in great detail: He avoided the police dragnet one gets a glimpse of him slipping past the police in the video shot by Choyang Tharchin of the Department of Information and International Relations (DIIR) and made his way to the public toilet. He opened a plastic container of gasoline, which he must have hidden there earlier, and dowsed himself thoroughly. Then he struck a match or icked a lighter. Someone who was there told me that he probably did not come out immediately from the toilet and must have deliberately remained a moment or two inside to ensure that he was well lit. That, of course, is conjecture. When he came out he was, quite literally, an inferno. The DIIR video makes that horrifyingly clear. We see him charging out to the area before the hunger strikers tent, causing chaos in the ranks of the police as well as the Tibetans there. A very English female voice off camera screams, Oh my God!, Oh my God!, again and again. With that and other screams and shouts, it is impossible to hear what the burning man is saying. According to someone there, he shouted Bod Gyal lo! or Victory to Tibet!. Others heard him crying Bod Rangzen! or Independence for Tibet!. He also shouted Long live His Holiness the Dalai Lama!. How on earth he managed to shout anything, much less run about as he did is a mystery to me. Every breath he took must have caused live ames to rush into his lungs and sear the air sacs and lining. The burning man then appears to pause and hold up both hands together in a position of prayer. At this point the re seems terribly intense and the cameraman later told me that he could distinctly hear popping sounds as bits of esh burst from Thupten Ngodups body. The cameraman was so shaken that he found it difcult to hold his camera steady. Then policemen and Tibetan bystanders beat at the ames with rugs and gunny-sacks, and nally, pushing Thupten Ngodup to the ground, stied the blaze. (Norbu 1998) Ngodup passed away on April 29, 1998. Before his death he had been taken directly to a local hospital where he received a visit from the Dalai Lama (Buffetrille 2012, 1). The Dalai Lama spoke to Ngodup as he silently rested in bed, suffering from nearly onehundred percent burns on his body (Norbu 1998). He advised him that "he should not harbour any feeling of hatred towards the Chinese, and that his act had created an unprecedented awareness of the Tibetan cause (Norbu 1998). There are many accounts of the Dalai Lamas response to self-immolations in Tibet, and most of his statements


The Rangzen Alliance is a website that offers blogs and articles on the history of Tibet and advocates its independence.

29 seem to avoid both support and complete opposition. Many have struggled trying to decipher whether or not the Dalai Lama actually agrees with these tacticsa topic we will come back to later. Nonetheless, this graphic account of the self-immolation of Thupten Ngodup gives us the sense that this act in the modern political era has taken on new unanticipated and evocative characteristics than what we had previously seen in the history of China. These modern demonstrations are now taking place among unprepared audiences in the public domain. Furthermore, they take on a new dramatic aspect in that many of these immolators are physically active in the midst of the crowdrunning and screaming as opposed to sitting in a meditative state. The responses to this event varied among those who tried to understand why this had happened. Jane Ardley notes that though on one hand, the Tibetan government expressed their sorrow at Ngodups death, they also said that self-immolation was not to be encouraged, implying that it was an extreme act that would be embarrassing for India (Ardley 2000, 21). The Tibetan Youth Congress conversely stated that Ngodup was to be deemed a martyr among the Tibetan people, that his act had sent a message to the world that Tibetans were willing to sacrifice even their lives for a free Tibet, and most importantly that if the Tibetan problem did not receive proper attention, more blood will be shed in the coming days (21). The contrast in the extreme actions taken by the TYC and the Middle Path12 proposed by the Dalai Lama was greatly emphasized after these events. It showed many that Tibet was not unified, and that it was suffering internally from conflicting views on how to solve the conflict with China. Though Tibetans had once found solace in the Dalai Lama as their spiritual and political leader, they have


The Middle Path, advocated by the Dalai Lama, is the use of non-violence to achieve a peaceful resolution.

30 begun to take matters into their own hands. Many of those who witnessed or heard about Thupten Ngodups self-immolation were compelled to make the comparison with the politically charged immolation of Thich Quang Duc in 1963.13 The fact that Ngodup brought this practice to modern Tibet set the precedent for many that this act was now to be used as a political tool. On November 23, 2006, another Tibetan self-immolated in India. This incident came eight years after that of Ngodups, yet held the same political implications.14 The next self-immolation occurred in 2009 by a monk known as Tapey. This particular immolation was significant in that it was the first to have been performed inside of Tibet. Tapey was in his mid-twenties at the time of his death, yet the young monk catalyzed a wave a self-immolations that were soon to occur in the Ngawa region of Tibet (Buffetrille 2012, 4). He also formed his self-immolation as a political demonstration, holding a Tibetan flag and a picture of the Dalai Lama as he self-immolated (4). His protest was aimed specifically at the Chinese authorities who had forbidden prayer ceremony in his monastery (4). This monastery, known famously as the Kirti monastery, would become well known to those who paid attention to the rising tensions in Tibet. It became the location for the next Tibetan self-immolation two years later when Phuntsok, another Kirti monk, set himself on fire on March 16, 2011 (4). Since then at least 40 of the 113 incidents of self-immolation have occurred within the Ngaba Tibetan and Qiang Autonomous Prefecture, Sichuan province, with many having immolated directly in front

For more on this connection, see Remembering Thupten Ngodup, 14 Lhakpa Tsering, President of Regional Tibetan Youth Congress, Bangalore set himself on fire in Mumbai while protesting Hu Jintaos visit to India and Chinas occupation of Tibet. Lhakpa along with 11 other TYC activists charged the gates of the hotel where Hu was staying, waving the Tibetan National Flag and shouting Free Tibet slogans. Tsering survived the attempted self -immolation (Tibetan Activist Attempts 2006).

31 of the Kirti Monastery.15 Most of the self-immolations in the earlier stages (that is, directly following Phuntsok) were performed by monks or nuns. The International Campaign for Tibet website has an active list of the people who have self-immolated within Tibet. They assert that of the 114 self-immolators (starting with Phuntosk), 96 were men, and 18 were women; 36 were monks/nuns or an ex-monk/nun; 1 was a lama; 93 are known to have died following their protest, 23 were 18 or under; 12 were monks at Kirti monastery in Ngaba; 10 are former monks at Kirti monastery in Ngaba; and finally, apart from the 114 within Tibet, 5 self-immolations have been performed by Tibetans in exile ("Self-Immolations by Tibetans" 2013). The statistics given by the ICT website imply specific trends about the self-immolations in Tibet. It seems that two general waves of immolations have taken place. The first were performed by monks and nuns, mostly from the Kirti monastery. The second wave consists mostly of laypeople and monks from other monasteries. Perhaps these waves are able to show that first it was the religious figures who took on this difficult task, and those who followed suit staged protests as acts of support or sympathy for the general principles implied by primary immolators (Barnett 2012, 53). Those who have followed this political movement are aware that new self-immolations are still occurring every week, sometimes multiple times per day. It seems that the wave of these acts have taken over Tibet with such intensity that many are left simply confused and shocked. The fact that laypeople are now predominantly performing these acts implies that the common people are now willing to go to the most extreme measures to help free Tibet, to such an extent that they are prepared to burn themselves to death.


The time frame of these immolations is March 16, 2011 - April 17, 2013.

32 Contexts and Causes for Self-Immolation

It is important to distinguish that the self-immolations that we see in modern Tibet are quite different from those we had seen in medieval China. Starting with the first instance of self-immolation in Buddhist historythat of the Medicine King in the Lotus Sutrawe have seen that this act was initially established as a religious ritual. It had no ties to the modern associations of politics that protestors utilize today. However, Benn does account for some instances where self-immolation throughout medieval China took on the issue of politics in addition to the immolators religious goals. As previously discussed, the biographer Daoxuan gave an account of self-immolation by the monk Puji, which occurred in the sixth century. His description of the incident explains that this monks motives for this act were both to be reborn in a most worthy state and also to make a vow in order to preserve that Buddhism would survive despite the opposing politics of the time (Benn 2007, 81). We can therefore understand that this mixture of politics and religion continued to be motivating factors for self-immolations during medieval China. This idea was made aware to audiences in the modern era by Thich Quang Duc in 1963. Michelle Yang argues that Ducs immolation was not solely political, rather it can be seen as a hybrid protestone that was religiously grounded but also politically motivated, which functioned as a reclamation agency for South Vietnamese Buddhists (Yang 2011, 9). This is an important description of Ducs selfimmolation, for it illustrates that the act has purpose in the modern world yet still keeps its religious foundation. This use of self-immolation by Duc gave the practice attention from international media, leading to its introduction to a variety of audiences. The new

33 audiences for self-immolation now had a chance to interpret this Buddhist act within their own contexts. However, some failed to understand the true spiritual essence of these acts. The self-immolations that occurred in America following Ducs performance are different from his act in that they can be viewed as purely political. Norman Morrison, though a peace-loving Quaker, did not have the same ties to the acts of the Medicine King or even the Buddha as did the Vietnamese immolators. His self-immolation can therefore be contextualized within the politics of the Vietnam War from an American perspective. In the modern era then, we can see that the practice of self-immolation can be utilized in the realm of politics without having any basis in the religion from which it takes its origins. Contextualizing the self-immolations of modern Tibetans will further clarify the nature and intention of these acts. Many who are not familiar with the Buddhist tradition might think that these acts are solely utilized as political demonstrations. Tsering Shakya states, The current spate of self-immolation that is taking place, aimed at protest rather than devotion, is thus a new development in forms of Tibetan protests (Shakya 2012a, 10). Though many of these immolations are occurring in direct response to the political tensions between Tibet and China, the people who have performed these acts have not forgotten their religious heritage. It would be unfair to claim that modern Tibetan immolations lie only within the realm of politics. The monks and nuns who began to carry out these acts in the first wave of self-immolations in Tibet initially utilized this practice because they were aware of the power it held in a religious setting. Some of the Tibetans are even mirroring, whether unintentionally or not, immolations that took place in medieval China. For instance, there was a unique case where two nuns performed a

34 joint-immolation in 493 as a type of combined offering (Benn 2007, 44). It was followed by another immolation from a sister of one of the nuns exactly one year later. These joint immolations have been seen on more than one occasion in modern Tibet. On September 26, 2011, two 18-year old monks from the Kirti monastery self-immolated together (Two More Tibetan Monks 2011). According to some Tibetan sources, one of these monks was a relative of Phuntsok, the monk who had self-immolated on March 16, 2011 (Two More Tibetan Monks 2011). It is quite common to find that some of the Tibetans are related to individuals who have previously self-immolated. It raises the question whether they were inspired by a predecessor or intended to have committed the act nonetheless. This is a question that we cannot answer, for no one has been allowed to interview those who have survived their attempts at self-immolation.16 There is in fact another trend within the evolution of self-immolations in modern Tibet, one which implies that religious figures act as catalysts. Shakya describes that the actions of these monks and nuns reflect[ed] the framing among Tibetans of monks as the guardians of tradition and as moral leaders, also stating, The active involvement of religious figures in protest is an indication that the monks have taken on the onerous task of acting as the defenders of the Tibetan tradition (Shakya 2012a, 34). If we look back to the examples of self-immolation that we had seen in Benns Burning for the Buddha, it is clear that most of the immolations that took place in medieval China that we have evidence of were committed by religious figures. However, in modern Tibet these figures are performing the same act, yet it seems to be charged with entirely different


There has been no form of contact with those who have survived self-immolations due to the fact that Chinese authorities have forcefully taken the bodies away and kept them hidden from the public. Often times, families are not even sure if a person is still alive or not. China has yet to release any attempted selfimmolator.

35 implications. More people seem to be directly motivated by politics rather than personal spiritual attainment. The fact that self-immolation was catalyzed by religious figures in itself should tell us that these acts have not completely moved beyond the realm of religion. Even the trend of the Kirti monastery self-immolations emphasizes that this act was specifically meant to be associated with religion. It is hard to overlook that the staging of these first immolations were intended to occur at or near the Kirti monastery, one of the largest religious institutions in Tibet as well as an important center of political influence (Shakya 2012a, 35). Even the setting of these immolations seems to be a hybrid of both the religious and political spheres. In this way, the Tibetans have contextualized these selfimmolations as both acts of sacrifice and religious acts in that one is giving up their own body for the benefit of others (36). However, this view is being challenged by many onlookers, especially Chinese authorities who believe that self-immolations are acts of violent terrorism. Zhu Weiquin, Vice-Minister of the United Front department of the CCP stated that the Kirti monastery is widely known for organizing bloodshed, sabotage and penetration (Shakya 2012a 35-6)17. Nonetheless, neither Zhu nor the Chinese authorities have found any legitimate evidence that the self-immolations at the Kirti monastery have been prompted by the monastery itself (36). The immolations that occur at the Kirti monastery have become a problem for the Chinese government because of the way in which they are attracting attention and drawing in crowds. Shakya states:


Original source: Investigations show political motive behind self-immolations in Tibetan-populated regions,

36 [the] protests in China often operate at the neighbourhood level, and involve a collective of residents from within that neighbourhood. In the Tibetan areas, it is the monasteries that act like a work unit or neighborhood. (37) Thus, the importance of a single location that held both political and religious associations allowed for demonstrations that could mirror this same context. The Kirti monastery was then vital in propelling the wave of self-immolations that took over Tibet. It continues to act as the religious backdrop for these politically motivated acts, implying that the Buddhist tradition has not left the minds of the protestors. If we recall the self-immolation of Jampa Yeshi on March 26, 2012, we can make a clear distinction between his modern performance and that of a Buddhist monk in medieval China. Yeshis protest took place in the streets of New Delhi, India. It was not staged as a religious ritual and was not performed in front of a monastery or in a religious setting. Yeshi was not a monk, but a layman. He did not even reside in Tibet, but rather lived as an exile in India. Yeshis self-immolation was immediately motivated by the arrival of the political leader Hu Jintao in New Delhi. His protest came in the form of self-immolation, but one that seems quite removed from religion. He shocked crowds as he ran through the streets of New Delhi, transforming himself into a human torch. A writer for GlobalPost reported that following Yeshis immolation, Tibetan students throughout India were confined to their residences and banned from talking to reporters (Deasy 2012). News websites like The Huffington Post and GlobalPost offer brief accounts of Yeshis self-immolation, framing it in the context of political protest. They even offer graphic images of Yeshi as he burned alive. However, Jeffrey Bartholet of National Geographic explored the life of Yeshi in greater detail in order to narrate a

37 fuller story and provide insight to his final acts on earth.18 We learn from the background he provides that Yeshis immolation was not as spontaneous as many media outlets would like to portray. He had proposed that he would self-immolate as far back as 2008 (Bartholet 2012). He was not even completely removed from religious influence, having been a helper at a Buddhist temple in Majnu ka Tilla and having received his education from the monks in a local monastery who taught him to read religious texts (Bartholet 2012). Images of Jampa Yeshis self-immolation have surfaced on the internet, causing his particular act to encapsulate the modern Tibetan movement. However, photographs of a man on fire running through the streets in obvious agonizing pain have become problematic for the Tibetan struggle. It is particularly challenging for Westerners to comprehend that this graphic act could be grounded in Buddhist ritual, notably because we tend to perceive it as a peaceful tradition. When news outlets portray self-immolators like Jampa Yeshi as exclusively political activists, it unfairly degrades the essence of the act. Yeshi was clearly aware of the cultural norms of Buddhist culture and the way in which self-immolation functioned within it. His self-immolation, though not publicly advertised, was nonetheless influenced by his religious background. The issues that arise from immolations performed in the manner of Jampa Yeshi place focus on the physical characteristics of the act. Unlike what the world had known to be the archetypical politically charged and religiously grounded self-immolation specifically that of Thich Quang DucYeshis demonstration had an atmosphere of chaos. He did not have the support of his onlookers in the way that Duc did. On the contrary, many attempted to douse the flames that engulfed him (Bartholet 2012). He did


Though there exists numerous articles and sources on the immolation of Jampa Yeshi, Bartholets article Tibet's Man on Fire remains the most extensive and detailed.

38 not sit peacefully in quiet meditation, but rather ran frantically through crowded streets showing physical signs of pain (Bartholet 2012). The signals of pain, such as facial gestures, body movement, and groans, imply to some that this act is not being performed by a person who has reached the proper level of spiritual attainment necessary for this act to be considered a legitimate ritual by traditional standard. The biographer Daoxuan claimed that only skilled bodhisattvas were able to perform self-immolation correctly. Benn notes that Daoxuan admits, there were certainly cases of people whose selfimmolation was unsuccessful because they had insufficient power or determination. Their failure was betrayed by a groan of pain at the point of death (Benn 2007, 100). Daoxuan was not the only observer who felt this way. This view that only certain classes of people were religiously fit for self-immolation was prevalent among many other biographers who recorded these acts. According to these medieval Buddhists, demonstrations like that of Jampa Yeshi would probably be seen as a deviation from this sacred act. However, the emphasis that many of these critics have is on self-determination. King points out a key problem when one attempts to analyze self-immolations: The crucial point overlooked by the Buddhist commentators is that others cannot see our motivation; they can only see our action (King 2000, 143). This statement presents the barrier of understanding that makes observing the true motivations for individual self-immolations challenging for scholars and the public alike. Robert Barnett ventures into both the possible causes and sources of influences that may have contributed to modern Tibet immolations. He notes that the reason why many attribute these acts to the political sphere is due to the fact that since at least 2008 almost all protests have been primarily expressions of support for the Dalai Lama and in

39 most cases protestors have carried photographs of him (Barnett 2012, 50). It is true that if we simply glance at the list of self-immolations, even those that are still occurring, we will find that most have reference to the Dalai Lama. Many times, an individual will shout for a long life to the Dalai Lama as well as his return to Tibet and a return of his power. If the focus of the motivation for these self-immolators were in fact on the Dalai Lama, then that would simply reaffirm the idea that modern Tibetan self-immolations are both political and religious, for the Dalai Lama is still viewed as a political and religious leader. Barnetts study shows that only nine Tibetan self-immolators had left statements to help explain the cause of their actions.19 Sobha Trulku, a lama who self-immolated in January 2012, left behind a detailed statement as a testament to his actions. In it, he addresses the reasons for his own individual act and what he wishes others to take from it. He specifically calls on his fellow Tibetans: To all my spiritual brothers and sisters, and the faithful ones living elsewhere: You must unite and work together to build a strong and prosperous Tibetan nation in the future. This is the sole wish of all the Tibetan heroes. Therefore, you must avoid any quarreling amongst yourselves whether it is land disputes or water disputes. You must maintain unity and strength. Give love and education to the children, who should study hard to master all the traditional fields of studies. The elders should carry out spiritual practice as well as maintain and protect Tibetan language and culture by using all your resources and by involving your body, speech and mind. It is extremely important to genuinely practice Buddhist principles in order to benefit the Tibetan cause and also to lead all sentient beings towards the path of enlightenment. (Harrowing Images and Last Message 2012). This testament explains that not every immolator expects to solve the Tibetan conflict with China, or even make a dent in politics at all. Trulku advises the people to focuses on cultural unity, education for children in traditional studies, and protection of spiritual and cultural heritage by elder generations. The emphasis is therefore placed on maintaining a

Only nine responses had been left up until Barnetts study, which was published in December 2012.

40 spiritual and traditional culture rather than pushing towards a political platform. In this way, the self-immolators, not the onlookers, have framed their own acts in a cultural context. There is a direct correlation between self-immolation and the call to involve ones body, speech and mind to protect the Tibetan tradition. Their culture is being attacked and repressed, and they have therefore taken it upon themselves to bring attention to this major issue. This testament therefore encompasses an act of the human condition to which all peoples and cultures can relate. Barnett notes that the other testaments articulate similar concerns. They seem to focus more on Tibetan nationality and the unification of the people rather than specific political aims (Barnett 2012, 54). They also emphasize the importance of preserving Tibetan culture and focus on broad, long-term concerns about the erosion of Tibetan culture, religion and education in general and the suffering of living under Chinese rule (54). Some of these testimonies even refer to the hopes that their acts not only benefit Tibetans, but all worldly beings (54). Selfimmolations then parallel the structure of other customary Buddhist rituals that typically include vows for the benefit of all sentient beings. It thus seems apparent that not all selfimmolators view their acts as a political tool. Rather, as people like Shakya have insisted, they have become the guardians of tradition as well as moral leaders. Many modern Tibetans who have never experienced a peaceful Tibet are still aware of the cultural institutions of Tibet and can thus recognize that these carefully planned self-immolations hold more weight than others may understand.

41 Responses to Self-Immolations

An important aspect of the modern practice of self-immolation in Tibet is how people are responding to it. To further this inquiry we must also ask whether or not this act is expected to receive a specific kind of response. That is, do self-immolators or those who support self-immolation expect their acts to have a particular reaction? In addition to this, how do responses vary among different audiences? We will look at how selfimmolations have been received starting with the first modern example of Thich Quang Duc in Vietnam. I will compare this with the self-immolation that followed in America by Norman Morrison so that we may understand how a Western audience initially responded to this action. The case of Norman Morrison is significant because it is seen as an attempt to mirror a foreign act that had no context in America. Thus, how each of these immolations was received will emphasize the importance of the framework of this practice. Next we will look at Buddhist responses to the first immolation in Tibet in 1998, as well as how the Dalai Lama has been responding to these reoccurring incidents. Finally, we will see how modern Chinese attitude towards self-immolation either conflicts with or corresponds to how Tibetans and other contemporaries see this act. Although the Chinese government has taken a staunchly negative attitude on how selfimmolators should be perceived, the reception of these controversial practices has varied among Tibetans. The wave of self-immolations has even received attention in many places outside of Tibet, as was probably intended by those who committed this act. It is vital then, to understand just how these figures are being represented by both the Tibetans and the Chinese, and how the rest of the world perceives this practice.

42 When attempting to study how the reception of self-immolation affects its practice, then we must look back to the origin of this act to understand what was considered a typical response. We have seen from the Lotus Sutra that the Medicine King was revered for establishing the practice of self-immolation as a religious ritual. Those who followed this practice in medieval China were also respected in the same manner by many, but not all. Many times a monk who wished to self-immolate would attempt to receive permission from the ruler or emperor of the time, and many times they were denied. However, they proceeded with their plans in spite of the opposition. Benn provides many accounts where audiences of self-immolators responded with adoration and a sense of awe. He claims that self-immolation was thought of as an act that was capable of generating large amounts of religious merit, and thus were often wellreceived (Benn 2007, 35). Many of the biographies that are discussed imply that the actions of self-immolators were met with approval in their community. For example, after a monk named Huiyi immolated in 463, his audience clicked their fingers [in approval], but also cried, full of sorrow (37). Later in 1740, when a member of a monastery immolated, [t]he onlookers were massed around him like a fence; they all praised him admiringly, amazed by this rare sight (172). The various accounts show that even when people approved of these acts, they still felt pity and sorrow for those who had died. We must remember though, that the majority of the typical audiences for these demonstrations were from the religious communityor at the very least familiar with the religious traditionand they were probably more receptive to the act of self-immolation. Therefore, we must take into consideration who is responding, what is the lens through

43 which they are viewing, and how do various backgrounds affect the ways in which selfimmolation is perceived. Looking back to our first modern example of self-immolation by Thich Quang Duc, one would find that an array of articles and images still exist to remember and often times honor his actions. However, Michelle Yang focuses on the impact of photography and media in events like this, and she suggests that had not the photographer Malcom Browne been present, Ducs immolation would have left a lasting impression on the eyewitnesses, but would not have had a global effect.20 She argues that self-immolation is a rhetorical performance, whether it is captured on film or only experienced by first hand witnesses to the burning and those who learn of it via news coverage (Yang 2011, 3). This practice is therefore encompassing in that it involves the immolator, the photographer, and the viewers (3). However, this view can be dangerous in that it may limit us to see the act of self-immolation as simply an embellished performance. We know from studying the origins of this practice that it was not intended to be simply a rhetorical performance, but was rather loaded with religious purposes. As we had noted in the previous section, self-immolation is surely not used by every Tibetan who performs it as a purely political act. Therefore, to reduce this act of ultimate sacrifice as something that is only rhetorical would be an oversimplification. Rather, we must understand that this act has taken on a rhetorical characteristic in that it expresses something outside of the religious sphere. We know this to be true from Ducs example. Yang herself goes into detail about how Brownes photograph of Duc inspired real political change, which led to the loss of U.S. support for the Diem regime in Vietnam. Duc is therefore still treated like


Malcom Brown was an American news correspondent whose photographs of Duc made him famous. For more, see Yangs article Still Burning: Self-Immolation as Photographic Protest.

44 a hero in his country, where it is said that his home temple has become a virtual shrine in Vietnam to which people, either religiously or politically motivated, make pilgrimage (King 2000, 142). Even Norman Morrison, the American man who was inspired by Duc, received similar attention from his self-immolation. Paul Hendrickson, a journalist and author, brings to light just how influential Morrison actually was during the war. In Robert McNamaras21 memoir, In Retrospect: The Tragedy and Lessons of Vietnam, he gives a description of Morrisons immolation which had taken place right outside his window in the Pentagon (137-8). Hendrickson therefore argues that Morrisons acts sensitized the Secretary of Defense and further influenced him to have a change of heart about the war, thus actually inciting political change (138). In addition to this, Morrison became a hero in the eyes of the Vietnamese and received honors by them in a similar manner that Duc had.22 King acknowledges that though these honors were motivated by politics as well as a cultural understanding, no such honors were given to Morrison in the United States (142). In analyzing and responding to her study of self-immolation, Sallie King makes a valuable point discussing her own biases. She states that even though she is in fact a Buddhist, her American cultural influence causes her to think of this practice in a negative light (King 2000, 144). It seems then that people in the West will never be able to fully understand the cultural familiarity that self-immolation has been established in. Nonetheless, not all of those who are a part of this cultural awareness respond with positive reinforcement. King studies responses to self-immolation from Theravada monks from Southeast Asia, Thai Buddhist laymen, an American Theravada monk, a Tibetan

21 22

Robert McNamara was Secretary of Defense during the time of Morrisons immolation. For more, see King 2000, 142.

45 monk, and also the Dalai Lama.23 The first set of responses from the Southeast Asian Theravada monks displayed a lack of consistency. The first two viewed self-immolation as bad, with the first stating that, Burning oneself is not what the Buddha taught, and that it worsens conflicts (144). The second states that though previous self-immolators did have good intentions in not supporting the war, they were still wrong to kill themselves because it is an act of murder (144). The final monk had a different view on the matter. He claimed the self-immolations were dana-paramita; the greatest gift is to give a life (144). The next set group of remarks came from Thai Buddhist laymen, two of whom were former monks; all were scholars and supporters of Engaged Buddhism.24 The first stated, Self-immolation is a ticklish question. Violence is wrong in all forms. But if you feel there is no other way, you make violence against self. Its wrong, but I respect them (144). The second looked at self-immolation specifically as an influence of Mahayana Buddhism, where sacrifice for others is common; he claimed that Theravada Buddhists would not do this (144). The last response agreed that self-immolation can be attributed to Mahayana Buddhism, which made them quite sympathetic towards those who carried out this practice. However, their personal opinion showed that this was an act of suicide, which is discouraged in Buddhism, and that it was also an act full of hate. Though they understand the good intention behind the act, they concluded that this practice would not be seen positively in Theravada (145). The last Theravada view comes from an American monk who had been living in Thailand for seventeen years. Unlike the


These responses were recorded by Sallie King in November and December of 1997 and required the use of an interpreter. For full quotations, see King 2000, 144-146. 24 Engaged Buddhism is a movement, not a sect, within Buddhism that was started by Thich Nhat Hanh. The movement seeks to implement Buddhist teachings with emphasis on a more activist and social manner. For more, see

46 majority of the previous Theravada Buddhists, he had a positive outlook on selfimmolation. He stated: The goodness of self-immolation depends on the intention and mental state and understanding of the situation. Its an extreme act but a country in civil war is also an extreme situation. The self-immolators saw that peaceful actions were not working. I respect these people incredibly. (145). When King inquired about the monks view on imitators, he declared: Any useful tool can be misused. It must be done with dignity, peace; that is the precaution against foolish imitators. I am against it done foolishly or repeatedly. It is not just a political tactic. It is an act of faith in humanity. (145) The monk sheds light on the issue that even though self-immolation is an extreme act, it must be so to respond to an equally extreme situation. Like others have done, he explains that some people in the religious community judge whether a self-immolation is carried out in a right or wrong way. The monk reiterates that there are certain standards that one must have when performing this act, for foolish imitators do not exemplify the same profundity in their actions. The monk makes for an interesting case though, for he seems to shed his Western bias and therefore views self-immolation within the context of the culture in which it was established. Most importantly, he emphasizes that self-immolation is not only a political act, but one that promotes faith in humanity. King finally presents two responses from Tibetans on self-immolations. The first, a monk and scholar who now lives in the West, had a view similar to the last Theravada Buddhist. He understands that self-immolation carries on the Mahayana tradition that bodhisattvas are obligated perform good deeds to other beings (King 2000, 145). He claims that even bad deeds are acceptable if they are done with good intention (145). However, he also follows the belief that only a skilled bodhisattva should carry out this act, stating that only those with these qualifications can be said to truly be all right to do

47 it (145). When asked about imitators, he responded, We need to tell the public not to do this. These are advanced teachings that are not for the public (145). It seems that the eight Buddhist responses portray an understanding of the reason why self-immolation was performed, particularly in the cultural-religious context of the Mahayana tradition. However, there is a lack of consistency in the support of the act because it is not acceptable within Theravada Buddhism. Some reflect the idea that self-immolators are violent killers, while others agree that if the intention is pure, the act is compassionate and cannot be entirely immoral. Those who were questioned about imitation all agreed that self-immolation should only be performed by those skilled bodhisattvas, thus implying that there is a right way for the act to be done. Though this is only a small sample of Buddhist views, it shows the various ways in which people in the tradition respond to self-immolation. The final and most controversial remarks discussed by King are those of the Dalai Lama. After the self-immolation of Thupten Ngodup in April 1998, the Dalai Lama responded by releasing an official statement. He referred to the event as an unfortunate incident which caused him great emotional grief (King 2000, 146). He continued his encouragement of the Middle Way by reminding Tibetans not to use violence in their struggle for independence (146). The Dalai Lama then acknowledged that Tibetans were becoming increasingly frustrated because of the attack on their culture, and therefore concluded with the following: I request the international community to enhance its support to the cause of Tibet in a more substantial way. I request governments and international [forums] to make earnest efforts to resolve the problem of Tibet peacefully. (146)

48 It is truly difficult to comprehend the Dalai Lamas stance on self-immolation by statements such as these. It is not clear whether he is strictly for or against the practice at all. King notes that he does not explicitly state that Tibetans should not self-immolate, but neither does he advocate the practice (147). Later in November 2011, the Dalai Lama spoke with BBC news about his current thoughts on self-immolation. He stated that he did not encourage these practices, yet understood that they took much courage (Dalai Lama Questions Wisdom 2011). He has often made a point in emphasizing his lack of encouragement for self-immolation because he has been under much criticism by the Chinese government who claim that he has done otherwise. This interview with BBC in 2011 showed that the Dalai Lama still refused to advocate for or against self-immolation. He did, however, acknowledge that perhaps these acts were making life harder on the Tibetans due to the fact that the Chinese respond harder each time this act is committed (Dalai Lama Questions Wisdom 2011). Even until now, his position on selfimmolation seems neutral, though many would like to think that he has made hints of approval. In a recent interview with Times Now, an Indian news channel, the Dalai Lama made the following statements: Actually, suicide is basically [a] type of violence but then [the] question of good or bad actually depend[s] on the motivation and goal. I think [as] goal is concern, these [self-immolators] people [are] not drunk, [do] not [have] family problem, this [self-immolation] is for Buddha dharma, for Tibetan National interest but then I think the ultimate factor is their individual motivation. (Dalai Lama Talks 2013) Like the other responses we have seen from Buddhists, the Dalai Lama emphasizes the idea of motivation playing a vital role in ones actions. He claims that from the Buddhist point of view, compassionate motivation makes for a good act, and naturally anger and hatred lead towards a negative one (Dalai Lama Talks 2013). The Dalai Lama

49 continued the interview by bringing up the issue of Chinese criticism against him. He had apparently insisted that both the Chinese and the Indian government do a thorough check of his residence in Dharmasala, showing confidence that they would find him innocent of advocating self-immolation among the Tibetans (Dalai Lama Talks 2013). The Tibetan leader ended the interview by reviewing Chinese censorship to these acts. He stated, 1.3 billion Chinese people have every right to know the reality and once 1.3 billion of Chinese people know the reality, they also have the ability to judge what is right or wrong. Therefore censorship is immoral (Dalai Lama Talks 2013). The Dalai Lama is referring to the fact that Chinese media sources have attempted to hinder the countrys information on the Tibetan immolations. They back this up by constantly criticizing the Dalai Lama and blaming him for the deaths of all the immolators. However, as the Tibetan leader has stated, the Chinese are in fact responding harder with every selfimmolation. They have been known to try to extinguish the flames of self-immolators, then forcibly remove them from an area of protest, and later arresting them and making there whereabouts unknown. This is due largely to the fact that the Chinese do not wish for any Tibetans to make themselves martyrs or heroes in the eyes of Tibetans or the Chinese. Even the bodies of those who have passed away from the flames are still withheld from their families and monasteries. It is for these reasons that we should remain skeptical of how Chinese portray self-immolation. In an attempt to weaken his position among the Tibetans both politically and religiously, Chinese authorities have consistently blamed the Dalai Lama for the movement of self-immolations. If the Dalai Lama is painted as a religious and political figure who promotes both nonviolence and suicide, he will be seen as self-contradictory

50 and thus an improper and inconsistent leader. However, it has been difficult for the Dalai Lama to maintain his neutral stance on self-immolation when members of his Dalai Lama clique are advocating the practice. For instance, he has been blamed for a selfimmolation guide that encourages Tibetans to perform this act, and further gives advice on how to carry it out properly25. In articles published by news sources such as China Daily, it is quite common to hear phrases associated with self-immolation such as desperate insanity. The Chinese authorities are now using the term Dalai clique to describe the Tibetan administration in exile (Barnett 2012, 43). China Daily continues to publish articles with titles such as Dalai clique behind deaths26 and Dalai Lama works against peace and Buddhism.27 There are even accusations from the Chinese that the Dalai Lama is encouraging Tibetans to immolate by offering them a monetary reward.28 This is an irrational accusation because the majority of self-immolations end in death of the immolator. Nonetheless, Chinese-sponsored websites continue to publish articles that accuse both the Dalai Lama and his clique for the wave of Tibetan self-immolations. The Chinese government has also taken advantage of the media to paint a picture of self-immolators in a negative, yet sympathetic view. The immolators are referred to as either criminals or victims, both of which attempt to discredit their actions. The Chinese government therefore uses media outlets such as Xinhua News Agency and China Daily to propagandize the actions of Tibetans and place blame on the Dalai Lama and his clique. They attempt to reduce the actions of the immolators by claiming that they have psychological problems, are criminals, or have experienced problems within their
25 26

For more, see 27 28 For more, see

51 personal lives (Woeser 2012). Global Times, a Chinese tabloid, continues to refer to the immolators as victims and their actions as tragedies (Dalai Uses Suicides 2012). They blame the Dalai group for continuing to commemorate and honor these heroes, even though this act is not in agreement with Buddhist tradition (Dalai Uses Suicides 2012). In an article titled "Dalai Uses Suicides for Political Gain," they state: It is cruel to put political pressure on young Tibetan monks. They are unable to distinguish good from evil in international politics and cannot imagine they have been used. The Dalai group should stop sacrificing these young monks. Those young lives are much more valuable than having the title of hero. Their blood should not be used to extend the political life of the Dalai group in the West. (Dalai Uses Suicides 2012). The article implies that self-immolators are simply victims of the Dalai group, who is only using them to get attention from the West. Articles like these lose their validity when they make obviously false statements such as self-immolation being an unexpected incident in both Chinese and Tibetan history. We know from the historical background that self-immolations were not uncommon in the history China, and were often quite revered. Nonetheless, media outlets like China Daily continue to write stories that try to discredit the religious backing of self-immolation. For instance, an article published by China Daily titled Buddhist doctrine opposes self-immolation attempts to claim that this practice goes against Tibetan religion.29 However, the article lacks any legitimate research of this practice within Buddhism and simply ignores the fact that selfimmolation had its origins as a religious ritual. It is quite characteristic for these news articles to forego any substantial evidence that this practice even violates Tibetan religion.30

29 30

For more, see I would like to note that though self-immolation is the focus of this study, it is not the only issue propagandized in the press. For more on Chinese propaganda, see Chinas Favorite Pro paganda on

52 At the same time that the Chinese authorities try to minimize these acts, media outlets like the Xinhua News Agency have depicted China as a savior to these immolators, stating that those who try to immolate are rescued by Chinese police and are kept in stable condition (Woeser 2012). Yet, not one person who has attempted to self-immolate has been released by the Chinese (Woeser 2012). Instead, the statuses of those who have survived their immolationsand even those whose bodies were taken away after their deathremain unknown. The Chinese have punished members of the community who have attempted to keep the immolators bodies, forcing some to suffer long prison sentences (Barnett 2012, 45). Many conclude that the actions of the Chinese intend to continue to mislead their country, and possibly even the world (Woeser 2012). One Tibetan activist and writer claims that the reason for these responses from the Chinese are due to the fact that the government is [e]ager to discredit these incidents as anything but acts of resistance to a tyrannical colonizing power, and hoping to hide the fact that Tibetan regions of China are facing unprecedented pressure from the state (Woeser 2012). The self-immolations in modern Tibet have clearly placed both the Chinese and Tibetan governments in an uncomfortable situation. While the Chinese continue to attack this practice, many Tibetan figures of authority have trouble finding a proper response. After the Dalai Lama stepped down from his official political leadership in 2011, the Tibetan government put a new Kalon Tripa, or Prime Minister, into power. Lobsang Sangay, upon his inauguration into office in 2011 was forced to face the difficult matter of self-immolation. In an article by the Huffington Post, Vishal Aurora provides
TibetAnd Why its Wrong, -involved/action-toolbox/chinasfavorite-propaganda-on-tibet...and-why-its-wrong, and also Tibetans shut Chinas propaganda exhibit,

53 responses from Sangay on the current wave of self-immolations by Tibetans. When asked why peoplespecifically monks and nunsare immolating, Sangay replied that it is the oppressive policies of the Chinese that have limited the freedoms of the religious community, causing them to take desperate steps (Arora 2012). When confronted with the religious inquiry of whether or not Buddhism allows self-immolation, Sangay responded: Although suicide is violent and prohibited in Buddhism, some Buddhists believe it depends on the motivation. If you do it out of hatred and anger, then it is negative. But if you do it for a pure cause ... it's such a complex theological issue. You can't go either way or have a definitive answer. But the action is tragic, so painful. (Arora 2012). Sangay then seems to take the sympathetic response towards self-immolation that many others have. He even expressed agreement with the Dalai Lamas view of this practice by discourag[ing] drastic actions by the Tibetans (Arora 2012). By claiming that he agrees with the previous political leader of Tibet, it seems that Sangay is trying to portray a stance of passive neutrality. He is not completely opposed to it, but for political purposes cannot fully endorse it. In this way, Sangay gives the impression more of ambiguity than of actual neutrality. When Sangay was confronted with the issue of whether or not he sees a solution to this problem, he answered in the affirmative, subsequently stating: One Buddhist lesson I have learned is that one who is born has to die. That means what you do is what you leave behind. If you live for yourself, you won't make much difference. I, as a Buddhist, as a Tibetan, want to live for a cause greater than myself and my life. (Arora 2012). When given a response such as this, it is hard to believe that the Prime Minister truly opposes self-immolation. But as he is a political leader, it would be simply impossible to take a clear positive stance on self-immolation when confronted with the Chinese government. Like the Dalai Lama, he remains ambiguous about his support for self-

54 immolation. He therefore has to negotiate with his audience, implying that he is tolerating self-immolation by pointing out its greater causes and motivations. On the other hand, there are Tibetan authorities who blatantly support the practice of self-immolation. On March 10, 2012 the Tibetan Parliament in Exile paid respects to those who had given up their lives through self-immolation for Tibet. The Speaker of Paliament, Penpa Tsering stated: Burning ones body in full consciousness and with conviction involves thorough deliberation with the self, conviction and mental courage, especially when one is motivated by benefit for others through self-sacrifice. Under other circumstances, the tendency is normally to hurt the other. That is not the case in Tibet. (Statement of Tibetan 2012) Unlike Sangay and the Dalai Lama, Tsering is not ambiguous on his stance towards selfimmolationhe openly approves it and presents it as an alternative to harming others. He also addresses the fact that Chinese authorities have attempted to slander these acts, calling self-immolators terrorists so that they may redirect both Chinese and international attention elsewhere (Statement of Tibetan 2012). He also implies that selfimmolation is a part of the unique culture of Tibet, which is rooted in the teachings of the Buddha and therefore intends to only promote compassion and peace (Statement of Tibetan 2012). Tsering is therefore one of many Tibetans who view self-immolation not only as sacrifice, but as an act that still contains religious meaning. He also represents a key response from a political leader, one that is supportive where others tend to be neutral. Aside from the reception of self-immolation by political leaders, it is important to view the popular response of this act among common Tibetans. In response to the wave of politically charged self-immolations, many Tibetans still honor and respect self-

55 immolators as religious heroes. This is the cause of numerous imitations, which many religious authorities have continued to condemn. This, in turn, is the reason why many monks and nuns attempt to distinguish the flames of an individual who has set himself or herself on fire in an attempt to self-immolate. These commoners who would like to achieve the title of hero are not seen as figures who have attained the religious standard to perform this sacred act, and therefore are not viewed as legitimate immolators. These particular self-immolations, which are usually performed by the lay community, are often recognizable by the physical pain that the immolator portrays. The physical pain reveals a lack of spiritual discipline that certain monks and nuns have cultivated from years of meditation practices. We can thus understand why an audience of a self-immolator who is running through the streets in clear agonysuch as Jampa Yeshican be quite horrifying for many onlookers. This has led to a collective understanding that although the practice is terrifying, it is nonetheless necessary to foster attention for the Tibetan people. There do in fact exist alternative movements that attempts to provide ways in which Tibetans can protest that are drastically different from self-immolation. For example, in 2012 a twenty-year old student by the name of Norbu Jorden ran away to New Delhi with the intentions of self-immolating (Bhowmick 2013). Before he was able to perform the act, he was caught and sent to a sanctuary in Dharmasala for Tibetan exiles (Bhowmick 2013). At this sanctuary, Jorden participates in a weekly peaceful protest called Lhakar, or White Wednesday, as an alternative to practices like selfimmolation (Bhowmick 2013). This practice is inspired by Mahatma Gandhis principles of nonviolence and noncooperation (Bhowmick 2013). On these Wednesdays, people

56 speak only in pure Tibetan, listen to Tibetan music, and eat traditional Tibetan food (Bhowmick 2013). It is a tradition that intends to reassert their cultural identity through thinking, talking, eating and buying Tibetan once a week (Bhowmick 2013). After participating in these peaceful protests, Jorden stated, I wanted to do something to be a part of our freedom struggle, and [self-immolation] was the only way I knew. When I came back to school and was introduced to Lhakar, I realized this was a better way (Bhowmick 2013). Though Prime Minister Lobsang Sangay has endorsed Lhakar to many Tibetans, self-immolation still has yet to cease. As a result however, many young Tibetans are taking a different view on self-immolation. An eighteen-year old student at the sanctuary in Dharmasala claimed: Self-immolation will reduce our population further, and until now, it has not achieved any significant reaction from the world community. [Self-immolations] have not been an effective protest. Lhakar will be. There is no way to put a stop to it. (Bhowmick 2013) The Tibetans then, whether supportive or in opposition to self-immolation, recognize that this movement will not end any time soon. Though students of schools like this one in Dharmasala have cultivated more peaceful practices, they have not been very effective in provoking change within the greater Tibetan problem. Despite Chinese opposition and alternative practices for Tibetan independence, self-immolation still garners strong support. Tibetan organizations such as Free Tibet and the International Campaign for Tibet continue to advocate the independence of Tibet by memorializing each individual who has self-immolated for this cause. Many Tibetans understand that the conflict with China concerns an oppression of Tibetan culture, and thus an attack on basic human freedoms. In this way, self-immolation is depicted by many Tibetans as a sacrifice for a greater causethat of Tibetan freedom. However, even

57 among the Tibetans themselves there still remains the problem of identifying what a selfimmolator is. Those who are opposed to this action deem it as a violent practice, even calling it suicide. Those who view self-immolation in a positive light tend to frame these acts as sacrifices, which would make the immolator either a hero or a martyr. Looking at the ways in which these terms frame the practice of self-immolation is vital in understanding the lasting effect that self-immolation will leave on Tibets history.

IV. Is Self-Immolation Violent? Are Self-Immolators Martyrs?

A significant question that is often raised by scholars and critics when dealing with the issue of self-immolation is whether or not it can be considered violent. For obvious reasons, a human being burning to death would likely be an insupportable sight to those who have to witness it. Yet we should remember that it is the individuals choice to perform this act, and none of the immolators that we have looked at so far have intended to physically harm anyone else. However, is it possible to harm another human being through this act that is not physical? When we had defined terms in the beginning of this study, we looked at definitions which implied that violence is a physical action and that it is associated with anger and negative feelings. We took into account though, that violence can be nonphysical through the examples of offensive language or imagery, such as threats and intimidation, as well as familial neglect. To confront this issue in a general framework, I have used Mary Jackmans definition of violence to help us better understand all aspects of what violence is. Again, her description of violence is actions that inflict, threaten, or cause injury. Injuries may be corporal, psychological,

58 material, or social. Actions may be corporal, written, or verbal (Jackman 2001, 443). As we continue, it is essential to taken into account that violence can be defined differently by each individual. Especially when dealing with a religious issue, a religious person may consider many other aspects than a non-religious person would. Looking at Jackmans definition, self-immolation would be considered violent because it does in fact inflict injuries that are corporeal, psychological, material, or social (443). Even if a highlytrained monk or nun meditates throughout the immolation, not feeling any pain, the act is still self-inflicted violence because it causes physical injury to the body.31 As mentioned before, a religious person who frames a self-immolation in the same way as perhaps the Medicine King would not think of this act as an injury against the body, but rather a transformation. Daoshi, the 7th century monk that tackled the issue of self-immolation as suicide, believed that when an individual properly self-immolated, they would leave the realm of worldly suffering and receive the body of a Buddha (Warner 2013, 8). In this situation, Kalusners connection between religion and violence becomes apparent. He states that the most significant way in which religion contains violence is the displacement of the ecstatic in religion by formal, rational law (Klausner 1987, 271). He is implying that we rely on secular rationalization and jurisdiction in order to limit the potentially violent effects of uncurbed religious zeal. Buddhism, however, does not endorse complete resistance to violence altogether. We have seen that scripturally, selfimmolation can be justified within the religious tradition. Though people outside of the Buddhist religion would see self-immolation as clear act of suicide, this though is not all-pervasive in the Buddhist tradition. Many


For more on meditation and self-inflicted injury, see Janet Gyatsos Discipline and Resistance on the Tibetan Plateau,

59 Tibetans have a problem seeing self-immolation as a desperate act. Instead, the person immolating can be characterized as hopeful and not desperate, as a faith in the Dalai Lama and a different future for Tibetans that manifests itself in auto-cremation is an act of extreme energy (Warner 2012, 21). Through this view, many Tibetans have interpreted these self-immolations instead as self-sacrifices. Rarely can one find the term suicide being used within a Tibetan article about self-immolation. Tibetans therefore commonly refer to self-immolations as sacrifices, and further bestow the titles hero and martyr upon themthis we will address further on. Another important issue to keep in mind when claiming that self-immolation is violent is the fact that the individual immolating does not have control over others being affected by their practice. By Jackmans definition, an act is still violent if it inflicts nonphysical injuries upon others. Though many of the Tibetans who have self-immolated are monks and nuns and have an accepting religious community, the majority of selfimmolations are performed by laypeople who have families that are affected by their deaths. When looking through the reports of Tibetans who have self-immolated, one might be surprised to find that many of these individuals are either very youngstill in their teensor are a parent. This either results in the loss of a child for the parents, or possibly even worse, the loss of parents for a child. The immediate consequences of a self-immolation can also put a family in danger of the authorities. For instance, Tsering Tashi, who set himself on fire on January 12, 2013, had a family who wished to perform proper rituals for his body after his death (Authorities Bar Customary Religious 2013). It is reported that Chinese authorities ordered Tashis family to cremate his body immediately, despite their desires to carry out the customary rituals for his death

60 (Authorities Bar Customary Religious 2013). They were further threatened and told that they would be responsible for the consequences if they refused (Authorities Bar Customary Religious 2013). Tashis body was removed from his familys home in the middle of the night by authorities to prevent any type of ceremony (Authorities Bar Customary Religious 2013). The danger that Tashis immolation put his family in is commonly seen in most incidents of self-immolation. The family not only has to experience shock and sadness, but has to struggle to have possession of the deceased, and then subsequently faces threats from Chinese authorities. In this particular case, there is no doubt that Tsering Tashis self-immolation, though unintentionally violent, was harmful towards his family. Looking at these aspects of modern Tibetan self-immolation, even a religious person can understand how the act can be construed as violent. Whether or not a person agrees that the immolator is inflicting violence upon themselves, it is obvious that they have the ability to inflict violence upon others. Even unintentionally, an immolator may cause emotional trauma to a person who unwillingly witnessed this act taking place. However, these views lack the contextual understanding of self-immolation within the Buddhist tradition. Self-immolation as a secular act is fundamentally violent, according to definitions like Jackmans, but as a religiously violent act, we have seen that it is justified within its tradition. Despite the fact that many continue to define selfimmolation as violent, Tibetan activists have not stopped entitling self-immolators as martyrs and heroes. As far as martyrdom goes, we have seen that it can be defined with religious associations and also objectively. Charles Selengut claims that, Martyrdom is, of course, a relative concept. What one community considers legitimate

61 martyrdom can be seen as criminal behavior by another (Selengut 2011, 96). This applies to the Tibetan case, for though the Tibetan activists continue to deem these immolators as martyrs, the Chinese authorities instead title them as criminals. We must keep in mind, though, the language barrier between Tibet and the West. Cameron Warner notes that the terms martyr and martyrdom when translated from English to Tibetan are shown to indicate a hero who has passed away, and one who has abandoned life in pursuit of truth (Warner 2013, 22).32 The fact that there is no one-to-one translation of the English word martyr in Tibetan captures the difference in perception of such a sacrifice as well as the reception of it. The diction used to describe this act has a much more specific and rewarding connotation in Tibetan than in English. Another issue has been calling self-immolators heroes. The term pawo/pamo used by Tibetans has been translated in English as hero/heroine, in a non-religious sense (22). Using just this term for a self-immolator however does not imply a sense of sacrifice in English that it would to the Tibetans. Tsering Shakya points out that there is no direct translation in Tibet equivalent to the English word sacrifice (Shakya 2012b). Rather, the closest phrase is rang srog blos btang which translated as giving up ones life (Shakya 2012b). However, none of the translations for these terms in English give the sense that there is a connection with religion or even the concept of surrendering oneself for the benefit of others. Finding the correct terms for these new waves of self-immolations has caused many problems within their reception. Even in the Tibetan diaspora, honoring self-immolators as heroes is kept alive by Tibetan activists. Some people in the West have witnessed the honors given to these

The translation of pawo to hero comes from Melvin Goldsteins Dictionary of Modern Tibetan, while the English-Tibetan translation of martyr and martyrdom come from the dictionary Dbyin yig sna mang tshig mdzog (Warner 2013, 22-3).

62 immolators as well. After Thupten Ngodrup self-immolated in 1998, the Tibetan community in North America established an annual basketball tournament in honor of Ngodrup, and Tibetan exiles granted him the title pawo. Also, the Regional Youth Congress of New York and New Jersey created a memorial to the Tibetans who had immolated before December 2011 in the form of a calendar (Warner 2013, 12). It is known as the Water Dragon Year 2012, Martyrs Memorial Calendar,33 and visually advocates the idea of Tibetan independence through colors and images (12)34. This calendar seems to be geared for both Tibetan activists and sympathetic Americans, for it provides information of self-immolators in both English and Tibetan. It also lists both Tibetan and American holidays, but focuses on the dates which commemorate major political anniversaries (13-4). In English, the immolators are referred to as martyrs, but in Tibetan they are Patriotic Heroes and Heroines,35 which again implies that exact terminology has been difficult to find. In English, the term martyr carries a different and simpler connotation than the proud description of patriotic heroes and heroines. The Tibetan phrase explicitly asserts that these individuals are to be respected and revered for what they have done for their country. The day on which Thupten Ngodup self-immolated is commemorated as Tibetan Martyrs Day, and is among many other dates that are dedicated to remembering the fight for Tibets independence (14). The calendar seems to function as a reminder to both Tibetan activists and American


Bod rgyal lo 2139 rab gnas chu brug loI rgyal gces dpa bo dpa mo rnams kyi dran rten lo tho (Warner 2013, 12) 34 Warner notes that the background of the calendar is green, which is the color that the TYC uses to represent the political unity of Tibet. There are also images of the TYC and Tibetan national flags (Warner 2013, 12-13). 35 Rgyal gces dpa bo dpa mo rnams (13)

63 sympathizers of the struggle that continues today in Tibet, as well as a legitimizing commemoration of those who have self-immolated for the cause. Just as all Tibetans may not view self-immolation as nonviolent, not all Tibetans believe that self-immolators are heroes and therefore would not associate pawo/pamo with someone who has committed the act. Some Tibetans perceive that self-immolation is only being used as a political tool, and has deviated from its original purpose. Tibetans often make themselves heard via the internet, utilizing blogs, Facebook, and YouTube Video and News article comments to show their opposition or admiration of selfimmolation.36 Warner shows that the results of his interviews with Tibetans in America and Nepal do not reflect ideas of self-immolations as heroic. He recalls that about thirty layman from outside of Lhasa stated that self-immolations made life more difficult for those Tibetans living inside of Tibet (Warner 2013, 22). One man in particular indicated that self-immolation has also made live worse for exiles, claiming that the Nepali authorities have further oppressed Tibetans within Nepal (22). Again, this shows that self-immolation is often seen as violent within the context of modern Tibet, because it has a ripple effect that has now put pressure on those lying outside of political hotspots. The purpose of understanding why and how these terms are being used for selfimmolation in Tibet is one way to observe how the context and reception of this practice has changed over time. To recognize whether an act is violent or notespecially within a religion that is known to the general world for its precepts of nonviolencecan alter the way that the act functions in a particular setting. In medieval China, self-immolations

Tsering Shakya uses the example of a Tibetan internet forum where a debate on self-immolation has taken place, see An example from a news website can be found in a Huffington Post news article at An example from YouTube can be found at

64 were clearly not seen as something inherently violent in the sense that it caused negative injuries to the immolator or to others. On the other hand, the self-immolations in modern Tibet which are based in more than just religion, can be denoted as violent acts according to Jackmans definition. How an individual perceives self-immolationwhether violent or notseems to directly affect how they respond to the act. Those who use the terms pawo, hero, martyr, or sacrifice surely do not view self-immolation as something intentionally violent, even if it subscribes to the general definition of violence. Instead, they see it in the context of religious violence that can be justified. For those who recognize that the act is violent, but that it is not motivated by anger or hatred, there is an understanding that self-immolations are not to be viewed as acts of terrorism. Rather, these acts are meant to promote compassion and freedom, ideals not typically associated with violence. It is also important to recognize that violence, especially on the scale of mass self-immolations, can be seen as a signal of social unrestparticularly social oppression. In the case of Tibet, this can be seen as motivation for the wave of selfimmolations that continue to take place.

V. Conclusion The purpose of this study was to observe how self-immolation has changed over time and to ultimately attempt an understanding of the context of the practice in modern Tibet. In the West, the challenge for many scholars who take on this task is simply how one should write about an act that is completely foreign to us. Self-immolation is by no means a simple act of death. It is a practice that takes religious origins in Chinese Buddhism and yet it an act that is simultaneously politically charged, emotionally

65 fraught, visually graphic, individually grounded, [and] collectively felt (McGranahan & Litzinger 2012). All of these aspects have been taken into consideration in order to answer essential questions about self-immolation. The issue that initially prompted this study was how a religious practice like selfimmolation could be utilized by Tibetans in a modern context. In other words, I wanted to find out if the practice had completely moved beyond the realm of religion, and if it had, why? This initial query opened up an array of new topics that required my attention. The study started with a brief review of self-immolation through the history of medieval China. We saw that it was established specifically as a religious practice, and survived through time within the tradition. As time progressed, self-immolation began to be used in new contexts for various purposes, specifically being utilized to respond to times of political unrest. The evidence presented chronologically, from Benns Burning for the Buddha, to the famous Vietnamese immolator Thich Quang Duc, and finally to modern Tibet, has presented us with certain shifts in the use of this practice. We observed that self-immolation had in fact been established in the Buddhist scripture the Lotus Sutra and was practiced for hundreds of years in China in order to imitate the original immolation of the Medicine King. It also carried political implications in times of sociopolitical unrest. However, the use of self-immolation both as a religious and political tool clearly survived to modern times. It was the demonstration of Duc during the Vietnam War in the 1960s that brought this hybrid act to international attention in a time of political unrest. This is likely the reason that many modern audiences who are not aware of the religious background of self-immolation instead associate it with politics. We therefore looked at how this practice was received in Vietnam in comparison to how it was

66 received in the West. The self-immolation of Norman Morrison implied that this act was greatly misunderstood in America. We saw that as this practice became launched as a modern movement in Tibet, the first examples of self-immolation were still largely rooted in religious tradition. As Tibetan monks and nuns began to self-immolate in an effort to guard their tradition and culture, numerous laypeople joined this movement, leading to hundreds of immolations. This led us to attempt to understand why so many Tibetans took it upon themselves to perform this act. We therefore looked at the context of these self-immolations to try to see how these Tibetans were framing their demonstrations. Audiences are generally only left with the visual impact of the act, so it is therefore vital to understand that not all self-immolations are motivated by the same factors and that as an outsider looking in, we can never see the internal motivation and determination behind the act. Though it is impossible to truly understand the details of how an immolator is motivated, we saw that many felt that they were responding to social oppression. My research led me to discover a new aspect of self-immolation, that of a cultural self-immolation. This is an immolation that lacks focus on political change, but instead intends to incite action that will defend or preserve a culture. Many of the testimonies that are provided by the immolators themselves as well as witnesses and activists claim that these demonstrations continue to take place because of the perpetual oppression of Tibetans by Chinese authorities. It is not simply the politics of the conflict, but rather an attack more focused on taking away the established traditions of Tibetans which they believe contain their basic human rights. Some Tibetans therefore try explain that self-immolation is an act that must be comprehended beyond its perceived violence. This is the reason why it was essential to look at possible motivations for self-immolation

67 in modern Tibet. The testimonies and evidence that we have from Tibetan immolations implies that those performing these acts are not doing so simply to fight against the Chinese. Rather, they are viewed by many as peaceful demonstrations which call upon the humankind to recognize the problem at hand. Many Tibetan activists would like to portray the image that Tibetans are united in their acceptance and admiration of self-immolators. However, we have seen that not all Tibetans agree that self-immolation is an ethical practice. Though the negative views of self-immolators as terrorists, criminals, and even victims comes from the Chinese side, it is apparent that many Tibetans also disagree with this act, or remain inconclusive. For instance, the Dalai Lama has remained quite ambiguous on his stance towards selfimmolation, due largely to the fact that a positive reinforcement would allow the Chinese to accuse him of inciting murder. Conversely, a negative stance would cause an upset among a large portion of the Tibetan community. The issue remains that self-immolation is a complex and multifaceted issue that cannot be easily dealt with by authorities. As this study illustrated that not all common Tibetans take a unified stance in how they receive the immolators, we saw that though numerous activists tend to heroize these acts, there are those that would disagree with these titles. Therefore, I found it necessary to look at self-immolation and those who practiced it in the context of terms such as violent, hero, martyr, and sacrifice. This could only be properly executed by taking into account how this practice has shifted over time. We have observed that there have been numerous accounts on how one is able to legitimize or denounce the act of selfimmolation by using these terms. Samuel Klausner addressed that the issue of social violence is not whether or not something is actually violent, but how it is legitimized

68 (Klausner 1987, 271). Thus, the act of self-immolation can be categorized as violent by certain definitions, yet it is still legitimized by those within the tradition. The concern then is not whether or not the act is inherently violent, but rather how it is framed by those who perform it and receive it. Whether an action is perceived to be violent or nonviolent certainly affects how it will function in society. Those within the tradition are aware that this act intends to promote compassion and thus respond to it with admiration, while those who are outside tend to see self-immolation as a self-inflicted act of violence. Prior to his own self-immolation, Thich Quang Duc stated, there are moments when this ultimate gesture, that of offering ones body as a torch of compassion to dissipate darkness and ignorance is the only possible recourse (Warner 2013, 10). This message lives on through the modern Tibetan immolators. Preceding his own selfimmolation on Jan 8, 2012, Lama Sobha stated, I am giving away my body as an offering of light to chase away the darkness, to free all beings from suffering (Harrowing Images and Last Message 2012). It seems that in both instances, the selfimmolator wishes to illuminate the minds of those they can reach, so that audiences can be more receptive to the purposes of this act. Whether or not those who have immolated are supporters of the Dalai Lama or the current Prime Minister, they have certainly felt the need to take matters into their own hands. Catalyzed by the monks and nuns of the Kirti monastery, who were well-aware of the powers and implications of self-immolation, many others have and continue to follow suit. There is no end in sight to the wave of selfimmolations in modern Tibet. As numerous laypeople continue to burn themselves alive, they are taking it upon themselves to act as the guardians of tradition and moral leaders. More importantly, they are making an extreme attempt to keep alive a culture

69 that is being attacked by using a traditional practice that had been firmly established within Buddhism. Self-immolation then is an example of a religious practice that had been performed in a traditional ceremonial matter, which transformed throughout time so that it could be utilized to function in a modern context of political and cultural conflict. The Tibetan case illustrates to us that despite the fact that self-immolation can be used as a sociopolitical tool, it should be respected as an essential religious practice that is associated with compassion for humanity.

70 References

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