Thursday, October 13, 2011

Faith, Fire and the Dalai Lama

Sean Ewart

Imagine the scene: protesters occupying Wall Street are crossing the Brooklyn Bridge, facing a massive police blockade, when - suddenly - two of them jump up on the suspension cables, throw a rope around their necks, and hang themselves in a symbolic reference to the noose of anarchic capitalism strangling the middle class. They are 17 and 18 years old, each wearing a t-shirt of Elizabeth Warren and a sign saying, “maybe now the world will notice.” Certainly the world would notice if this happened. What could possibly motivate a teenager to commit suicide like this; who convinced them that their martyrdom was the only way to achieve international recognition? Imagine if it turned out that the leaders of the occupy Wall Street movement had encouraged this behavior. The response would be swift and decisive. Those responsible would be brought to justice, tried for manslaughter, and the public would be rightly appalled as these monsters defended their actions in the witness box saying something along the lines of, “this exposes how desperate some Americans feel.”

The scene I depicted above is in fact one which has played itself out seven times this year alone in the Tibetan region of China. Young Tibetan Buddhist monks, mostly under the age of 21 and from the Kirti Monastery, have taken it upon themselves to douse themselves in gasoline and set themselves ablaze in public squares in an effort to protest the supposed Chinese occupation of Tibet. While self immolation (suicide by fire) is not an unheard of method of protest, that it has become so common and so closely associated with the Tibetan freedom movement is cause for concern. The Kirti Monastery’s association with the self immolation protests of so many young people has lead the Chinese government to lay siege to the ancient religious center and arrest over 300 monks in association with the incidents. While the tactic has been called brutal by many human rights observers, we can be sure that the reaction in the United States to such horrors would be equally unequivocal - and rightly so.

What possible political motivation could these teenage Buddhists have to set themselves ablaze? The claim is that they are martyrs in the struggle for Tibetan autonomy, the return of the Dalai Lama and a general return to traditional Tibetan culture. 29 year old monk, Tsewang Norbu, was heard calling out, “let the Dalai Lama return to Tibet!” as he roasted alive. As the group Free Tibet has stated, “many more monks are ready to die... to draw global attention to one of the world's greatest and longest-standing human rights crises, no matter what the cost to themselves.”

Tibet is an ethnically distinct region in China which has long been the source of political - and religious - conflict. A bastion of what is known globally as Tibetan Buddhism, the region of Tibet has been controlled by a series of Dalai Lamas starting in the 13th century who acted as vassals to Mongol and Chinese emperors. The list of atrocities, miscarriages of justice and general corruption within the Dalai Lama line of succession is equatable to that of the Pope; However, unlike the Pope, the Dalai Lama is said to actually be the embodiment of the spirit of Compassion. This is the Dalai Lama’s entire claim to power: a young person is chosen by a group of elders to become the next embodiment of Compassion and is then raised to be the ruler of Tibet - all under the careful guidance of the authorities. Needless to say, this belief is lacking evidence and is rife with historical accounts of corruption. These Dalai Lamas, the physical body of Compassion - of which there have been 14 - carried out a series of religious wars which would make even the most blood thirsty Jihadist proud. Over the centuries of absolute rule by the Dalai Lamas, Tibet was host to genocide, forced conversions, corruption and veritable slavery. As Michael Parenti writes: “Drepung monastery was one of the biggest landowners in the world, with its 185 manors, 25,000 serfs, 300 great pastures, and 16,000 herdsmen. The wealth of the monasteries rested in the hands of small numbers of high-ranking lamas.” Clearly the authorities within Tibetan Buddhism had much to lose by any change in the status-quo.

The authoritarian rule of feudal Tibet by the Dalai Lamas was ended in 1959 by a Chinese campaign to reign in the rebellious territory. Long a Chinese proxy state, the communist government sought to exercise total control over the region and abolish the feudal system. It was this move which saw the current Dalai Lama, Tenzin Gyatso, flee to India in an attempt to save his life while carrying on a now decades long attempt to regain Tibetan autonomy. While it is true that Tenzin Gyatso is a man with apparent democratic leanings (he recently seeded power over the imagined Central Tibetan Administration in exile, a group that has no real power in Tibet and is based in India, to the parliament - a system which will be abolished should Tibet successfully succeed from China) he is bent on continuing his campaign towards Tibetan self-rule and a return to tradition ways - which can only be interpreted as a return to the feudalistic control of the territory by the Tibetan Buddhist authority.

We would me remiss to discount the very real atrocities committed by the Chinese government against Tibet over the years. Thousands have died by starvation, religious freedom is nearly non-existent, cultural genocide was a very real threat as recently as several decades ago - yet all of these very real grievances are applicable to China generally which, lets face it, is not itself a beacon of freedom and liberty.

This, in a nutshell, is the political motivation for unrest in the region of Tibet. However, while the grievances may be real, the fact that the movement has somehow convinced a sizable number of teenagers to commit suicide for the cause is horrifying. The fact that so many of these teens are coming out of one particular monastery (the Kirti Monastery) is circumstantial evidence, though not unsubstantial, that this form of expression is encouraged by the authorities within the religion. Coupled with the statements of Free Tibet regarding the willingness of the other monks to do the same, it is clear that a culture which celebrates and encourages the self immolation of teenage and young adult monks has been cultivated within the Tibetan autonomy movement. Further corroborating the indictment is a report by the Chinese authority - as far as they can be trusted - that at least one of the monks died from injuries due to self immolation because the monastery would not allow him to stay in the hospital. Phuntsok, the 21 year old monk in question, died of his wounds earlier this year. These actions have even been labeled acts of self sacrifice by the Prime Minister of the Central Tibetan Administration - there simply must be a better way to achieve human rights than by encouraging teenagers to kill themselves.

The campaign for Tibetan autonomy is one based on shoddy historical evidence and a desire by the Tibetan elite to return to a feudalistic system wherein control of the land and wealth is concentrated by the religious establishment.

The Dalai Lama, despite all his warm words about human rights and world peace, has neither condemned the actions these monasteries have taken in his name nor rejected the unjust feudal practices of historical Tibetan Buddhism. In fact, while many Tibetans want to see the return of the Dalai Lama to Tibet, few want to see him established once more as overlord. According to Michael Parenti, “...few Tibetans would welcome a return of the corrupt aristocratic clans that fled with him in 1959 and that comprise the bulk of his advisers. Many Tibetan farmers, for example, have no interest in surrendering the land they gained during China’s land reform to the clans. Tibet’s former slaves say they, too, don’t want their former masters to return to power. ‘I’ve already lived that life once before,’ said Wangchuk, a 67-year-old former slave who was wearing his best clothes for his yearly pilgrimage to Shigatse, one of the holiest sites of Tibetan Buddhism. He said he worshiped the Dalai Lama, but added, ‘I may not be free under Chinese communism, but I am better off than when I was a slave.’”

Just as we would call for an end to practices leading to the sacrificial suicide of protesters on the Brooklyn Bridge, we should call for an end to the monastic environment breeding suicidal youths in Tibet. The Dalai Lama, as the head of Tibetan Buddhism, should be unequivocal in his condemnation of this behavior - yet he is not. Searching for justice in Tibet should not blind us to the realities on the ground and certainly should not mean that we join in the call for a return to feudal Tibetan rule. Of course the current system in China is not ideal, but then, that's why we press for progressive human rights.



  1. I agree that the practice is problematic and should be discouraged, but this is tip of the iceberg when considering China's human rights record. My harshest criticism is still reserved for a communist regime that has done all of what you described above times a million!

  2. While the certainly is true, the point is that China's crime are endemic of the communist regime in general and were not specific to the region of Tibet. China didn't single out Tibet for oppression, this is why a movement for Tibetan justice should be meshed with a larger movement for justice in China generally.

  3. Tibetans do not want the return of feudal rule! The government-in-exile is democratically elected, and the Dalai Lama has formally stepped down from any part of it. He has repeatedly said that when Tibet is free, he would not want to be a part of any future government there. Tibetans want self-determination and freedom. Right now they have neither. This article is tired old propaganda.