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Self-Immolation and Buddhism

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The Yiddish word “chutzpah”, pronounced “huspa”, has the exact same meaning as the Tibetan word “hamba”, and even shares a passing tonal quality to it. Leo Rosten, the humorist, defined chutzpah as “that quality enshrined in a man who, having killed his mother and father, throws himself on the mercy of the court because he is an orphan.”

Dai Qingli, an official of the Chinese Embassy in Britain brilliantly demonstrated that quality in a letter to the Guardian (25 Nov. 2011) titled “Tibetan Deaths violate Buddhism”. Dai wrote, “The self-immolations of Tibetan monks and nuns were truly tragic. They were also a fatal violation of the spirit of peace and tolerance that defines Tibetan Buddhism. And, as such, these acts have met anger and disapproval from the local people and the religious community.”

Bhuchung K.Tsering of the International Campaign for Tibet (ICT) expressed himself in a similar manner in his article “This Chinese is Right About Tibetan Self-Immolation!”

“Yesterday, i.e. December 1, 2011, I was reading an article in People’s Daily by “renowned Tibetologist” Li Decheng concerning self-immolations by Tibetans in Tibet in which he says these actions are against “core Buddhist code of ethics.” He further says, “In Buddhism, particularly Tibetan Buddhism, scripture has never encouraged killings and suicide, nor has Buddhist dogma incited others to carry out killings or commit suicide.” I have no hesitation in saying I agree with him here.’

Bhuchung went on to request the Chinese that they should pay attention to the self-immolations “as it is an important social issue for China and its future.” Bhuchung also attempts to explain why Tibetans were – and I use his exact word – “indulging” in this behavior. Bhuchung and his colleagues at ICT might not approve of the self-immolations but they should realize that the monks and nuns were hardly “indulging” themselves in any way.

The Dalai Lama chose his words more carefully. In his statement to UPI on Nov 21 he said he didn’t encourage self-immolation by monks and nuns protesting China’s control over Tibet and questioned the usefulness of the acts as a protest tool. He did acknowledge that the monks and nuns had courage, but he gave the impression that it wasn’t a Buddhist thing to do.

So is self-immolation against Buddhist teachings or not?

In 1963, Thich Quang Duc, a Vietnamese monk set fire to himself at a busy Saigon intersection. The famous Pulitzer Prize winning photograph by Malcolm Browne of the burning monk sitting serenely in the lotus position surrounded by flames, became a worldwide sensation and contributed to fall of the Diem regime. At the time Beijing openly praised the action of the Vietnamese monk and distributed millions of copies of the photo (pirated of course) throughout Asia and Africa as evidence of “US imperialism”. Other Vietnamese monks and a nun subsequently set fire to themselves to protest the war.

Self-immolation appear to be an unusual though accepted Buddhist traditio in China and parts of South East Asia. There are numerous cases in Chinese history, especially during the Qing period, of such acts being performed as political protest (see Burning for the Buddha: Self-immolation in Chinese Buddhism by James A. Benn). In 1948 in the city of Harbin a monk seated himself in the lotus position on a pile of sawdust and soybean oil and set fire to himself in protest against the treatment of Buddhism by Mao Zedong’s Communists.

The main inspiration for the practice appears to be based on a teaching in The Lotus Sutra (Tib. dam chos pad-ma dkar po’i mdo). One chapter of this sutra recounts the life story of the Bodhisattva Medicine King who demonstrated his insight into the selfless nature of his body by ritualistically setting his body aflame, spreading the “Light of the Dharma” for twelve hundred years.

But I think that the spiritual motivation for the sacrifice of our young monks and nuns in Tibet might have come from another direction. Forty-five kilometers south-east of Katmandu is one of the most popular pilgrimage sites for Tibetans visiting Nepal. The hill of Namo Buddha (or Tagmo Lujin in Tibetan) is – the Golden Light Sutra (phags pa gser ‘od dam pa’i mdo) tells us – the very place where the Buddha (in a previous incarnation) gave up his body to feed a starving tigress and her four cubs. This is a popular Jataka story with all Tibetans and is often brought up in conversations whenever an example of self-sacrifice or selfless conduct is required. There are other such Jataka or Avadana stories of the Buddha giving up his life for others, a well known one from the mahakapi jataka being the tale of the Great Monkey King who died saving the lives of his “80,000” monkey subjects.

The courageous action of the thirteen self-immolators in Tibet must be seen in this specific doctrinal light. I emphatically disagree with the opinion some people are circulating that the monks and nuns burnt themselves in despair because they were not allowed to practice their religion. If that were the main concern of these monks and nuns then the logical course of action for them to take would have been to escape to India, as many others had done so before. Kirti monastery, where most of the young self-immolators had studied, even has a large branch at Dharamshala where they would have been welcome.

Hence we must see the self-immolations in Tibet as action taken for the welfare of others, for the freedom of the Tibetan people and the independence of Tibet (as some of the self-immolators expressly stated). Even the call by most of the self-immolators for the return of the Dalai Lama to Tibet must be interpreted as a call for the restoration of an independent Tibet, as the Dalai Lama is regarded as the legitimate sovereign ruler of independent Tibet, and should not merely be interpreted as a plea for the return of a personal spiritual leader, as those attempting to de-politicize the events have been claiming.

The deed of the thirteen self-immolators is not only Buddhist in an unquestionably absolute sense, but furthermore comes from within a heroic and action-oriented tradition of Buddhism. Some scholars have viewed this approach as truer to the original teachings of the historical Buddha, in contrast to the quietist, passive, even escapist perception of Buddhism which has gained more widespread acceptance, especially in the West.

The historical Buddha was a member of the warrior class, a Kshatriya. Though he accepted all classes and castes into the sangha he was given to addressing his followers thus “We are Kshatriya, all”. He did this, of course, not to highlight his own caste, but probably to lay emphasis on the qualities of commitment and courage that he required of his disciples. The sutra’s tell us that Siddhartha was a tall man of powerful build, trained in the martial arts, in which he excelled, even defeating other Shakya warriors to prove his worth for the hand of the princess Yashodhara. The warrior’s fearlessness and commitment were evident in his first attempt to achieve enlightenment, and which is powerfully represented in the Gandhara image of the Buddha, after six years of extreme self-mortification had seen his body reduced to skin and bone.

Even after he realized that his first attempt was a failure his warrior’s commitment and courage were never in doubt. The Buddha’s next method, the “Middle Way” was not an excuse for inaction, weakness or impotence. When Siddhartha finally sat under the Bodhi tree he fixed his resolve on the goal of enlightenment with an unshakable resolution. A beautiful and dramatic verse is attributed to him by some early compilers of the sutras. “Let blood dry up, let flesh wither away, but I shall not stir from this spot till Enlightenment be attained.”

A few of the titles by which Siddhartha was known after his enlightenment appear to acknowledge this heroic quality, as in “jina” or “conqueror” and “mahavira” or “great hero (also the title of the founder of Jainism).

The Bodhisattva as hero is delineated clearly in a passage from the Prajnaparimita Sutra where he is said to fearlessly lead all sentient beings out of the deep forests of samsara, fighting of attacks from “inimical forces”. At the end of this passage he asks his disciple Subhuti “If, then, more and more hostile and inimical forces should rise up against him in that forest, would this heroic man decide to abandon his family and take himself alone out of that terrible and frightening forest?” and Subhuti of course replies, “No, O Lord”.

The historical Buddha himself, when stalked by the bandit and murderer Angulimala, chose not to flee or leave the problems to others. Instead he confronted and subdued the killer through what has traditionally been regarded as magical power. No matter how swiftly Angulimala ran after the casually strolling Buddha, he could not catch up with him. About a hundred years earlier the Greek philosopher Zeno posited such a situation in his “time paradox” of Achilles never being able to catch up with a tortoise. These day physicists might explain it as a “Quantum Zeno effect”, the name which E.C.G. Sudarshan and B. Misra coined to describe “the suppression of unitary time evolution caused by quantum decoherence…”

Then there is the story of how in a previous life the Buddha killed a mass-murderer on a ship to save the lives of the other travelers on board. The context in which Buddha told this avadana story to his disciples is interesting and relevant to the overall point I am trying to make. One day a disciple noticed that the Buddha had received a wound on his feet. The disciple asked how this could happen to some one who had attained nirvana. The Buddha then told his disciples the above story. The lesson being that no one can wholly escape the consequence of a violent deed even if its performance is necessary and righteous. But there is another logical corollary to the story, that if the Buddha had chosen, for reasons of cowardice or ethical fastidiousness, not to kill the murderer and not to save those many lives, he would have committed a more far more immoral and evil act.

It is this essentially non-violent yet nuanced and dynamic interpretation of Buddhist action that is completely absent from the passive, comfortable, sanitized, hands-off, and inherently self-serving interpretation of the Dharma dominating much of the contemporary Buddhist world.

A noticeable aspect of this “New AgeBuddhism is its preoccupation with money, celebrity and a kind of low-maintenance intellectualism disseminated in a plethora of unreadable self-help books with catchy Zen style titles (Watching the Watcher, Silent Mind Holy Mind, Living Through Dying and so on). Something like this is, I suppose, prevalent in institutionalized religions worldwide, and is probably a waste of time to work yourself up about it. But I think Tibetans would wholeheartedly join me in condemning Buddhist teachers charging extortionate ticket prices for their sermons, and Dharma centers discouraging, sometimes forbidding, their members from participating in political action, even for the cause of Tibetan freedom and human rights.

And how can you argue with them when even the former prime-minister of the exile government, a Tibetan lama and learned geshe has not only not participated in any Free Tibet demonstrations but has even ordered Tibetans not to demonstrate against Chinese leaders visiting the West. Yet Samdhong Rinpoche was seen on European TV, in 2006, as one of the leaders of a major demonstration against the Swiss company SYNGENTA in India, a leading agri-business company that Indian environmentalists opposed. So perhaps the spiritual lesson here is that political activism is permissible so long as it is fashionable, profitable and does not upset Beijing. The Dalai Lama has publicly joined the opposition to the proposed oil pipeline from Alberta to Texas. I am enough of an environmentalist not to take issue with the Dalai Lama’s initiative, but I wish His Holiness had been as opposed to the Beijing Olympics or China’s “population-transfer” railway line to Tibet.

Yet the most cynical thing I have seen recently, especially in relation to the self-immolations, is a fund raising letter sent out by the International Campaign for Tibet (ICT), asking people to donate money to it because “…13 Tibetans have set fire to themselves,” This from the organization that opposes the Tibetan independence struggle, and whose senior official wrote in enthusiastic support of China’s condemnation of self-immolation as being against Buddhism.