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My Take: Dalai Lama should condemn Tibetan self-immolations
Tibetans at a protest in Taipei in 2011 display portraits of people who killed themselves by self-immolation.
July 12th, 2012
09:28 AM ET

My Take: Dalai Lama should condemn Tibetan self-immolations

Editor's Note: Stephen Prothero, a Boston University religion scholar and author of "The American Bible: How Our Words Unite, Divide, and Define a Nation," is a regular CNN Belief Blog contributor.

By Stephen Prothero, Special to CNN

When the Vietnamese monk Thich Quang Duc immolated himself in Saigon in 1963 to protest the persecution of Buddhists by the South Vietnamese government of Ngo Dinh Diem, the world took notice. Malcolm Browne’s photograph of the monk becoming a martyr won the Pulitzer Prize, and Diem's Roman Catholic regime fell before the year’s end.

Today, Tibet is witnessing an epidemic of self-immolations. In fact, since March 16, 2011, more than 40 Tibetans have followed Thich Quang Duc’s lead, setting themselves on fire to protest the Chinese occupation of Tibet.

Westerners react with revulsion to sati, the Hindu practice of widow-burning outlawed by the British in 1829, and of course to Islamist suicide bombers. The New Atheists are right to protest all this killing in the name of God (or the Buddha) the way believers both prompt violence and justify it in the name of some higher good.

So where are the protests against these Tibetan protesters?

When asked about the recent spate of self-immolations in Tibet, the Dalai Lama has offered the response of no response. In a July 9 interview, the spiritual leader of the Tibetan people said he wanted “to remain neutral,” telling The Hindu:

This is a very, very delicate political issue. Now, the reality is that if I say something positive, then the Chinese immediately blame me. If I say something negative, then the family members of those people feel very sad. They sacrificed their own life. It is not easy. So I do not want to create some kind of impression that this is wrong. So the best thing is to remain neutral.

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I know it is impolitic to criticize the Dalai Lama, a Nobel Peace Prize winner who is revered as a bodhisattva by many Buddhists.  But he deserves criticism in this case. Why not "create some kind of impression" that killing is wrong? Why not use his vast storehouse of moral and spiritual capital to denounce this ritual of human sacrifice?

If the Dalai Lama were to speak out unequivocally against these deaths, they would surely stop. So in a very real sense, their blood is on his hands. But the bad karma the Dalai Lama is accruing here extends far beyond Tibet and these particular protesters.

In an important article on suicide in the Boston Globe, Jennifer Michael Hecht has noted that suicides beget suicides. “One of the best predictors of suicide is knowing a suicide,” she writes. “That means that every suicide may be a delayed homicide.”

And so it goes with self-immolations. The suicide by fire of Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi is widely seen as a key catalyst of the Tunisian revolution and the wider Arab Spring. Less well known is the fact that over a hundred Tunisians later set themselves on fire in copycat incidents.

I understand that there is a tradition of self-immolation in Buddhism dating back at least to the fourth century. But there is also a strong ethic of compassion. So where is the compassion here?

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The Dalai Lama isn’t just a Nobel Peace Prize winner. He is also a man of peace. It is time in this crisis that he started to act like one.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Stephen Prothero.

- CNN Belief Blog contributor

Filed under: Asia • Buddhism • China • Dalai Lama • Death • Ethics • My Take • Opinion • Politics • Protest • Tibet • Tibet • Violence

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    February 16, 2013 at 7:18 am | Report abuse |

    Peace

    May 5, 2013 at 9:47 am |
  6. Cork

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    September 18, 2012 at 12:57 am |
  7. Julia

    I feel so sorry for those people who felt so despirate they took to something drastic like that. Unthinkable.

    September 2, 2012 at 1:16 pm |
    • greg

      This Author doesn't get it, Neither do I, but whatever it is The Dali Lama has chosen to be neutral on something there religion completely understands, We should accept that.

      And But out!

      September 7, 2012 at 6:40 pm |
  8. CARLOS

    Outlaw powerlessness and despair while you are at it.

    August 26, 2012 at 12:09 pm |
  9. Escape from The Land of the Snows the movie

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    August 22, 2012 at 4:31 am |
  10. daveyoung

    Slef immolation perpetrators should burn in h e l l according to Biden. He has the Catholic thing all figured out.

    August 20, 2012 at 4:06 pm |
  11. cacique

    How could he..? That has to be the ultimate and most extremist self-expression. If the one that is to incinerate himself has decided it, no one can stop him. If he could only write a poster size note explaining his determination and a deliberate condemnation of the Chinese regime...

    August 14, 2012 at 11:22 pm |
  12. Robert

    I don't think these young, naive monks realize how bad this self-immolation hurts. I bet all of them wish they had never struck the match about 20 seconds into it.

    August 10, 2012 at 1:17 pm |
  13. tsering ngodup

    tsering ngodup
    tsering ngodup
    In the human history, the 14th Dalai Lama is a rare soul. Today, the Dalai Lama is a global icon: respected, revered and looked up to by people all over the world for his great moral authority, for his tireless work and teachings on world peace, compassion and harmony among the different religious faiths in today's world. The Dalai Lama message is very simple yet very powerful in today's troubled world. His message is consistent: always the same.

    Now coming to Stephen Prothero's blog on the self-immolations by the brave and courageous freedom fighters in occupied Tiibet and his demand that the Dalai Lama condemn the brave Tibetan self-immolaters. Excuse us(Tibetans) , Mr. so called blogger Stephen Prothero, how can the Dalai Lama condemn the brave freedom loving Tibetan self-immolaters ln occupied Tibet. Not a single self-immolaters: some of them were teenagers, some were monks & nuns and some everyday folks with kids and family, had NOT resorted to any forms of voilence NOR harmed anyone. All of them made the ultimate and the supreme sacrifices of their precious lives for freedom and human diginity in Tibet. Their common demand is freedom in occupied Tibet and the return of His Holiness the Dalai Lama to Tibet.

    Majority of the 44 self-immolaters were born after 1959, the year communist China invaded and illegally occupied Tibet. Even after well over 50 plus years of Chinese communist rule ln Tibet, the Chinese rule has utterly and miserably failed to win the hearts and the minds of the Tibetan people. This clearly shows that China's repressive Tibet policy and treatment of Tibetans is a huge failure.

    Mr. blogger Stephen Prothero, before blogging about the brave and courageous Tibetan self-immolaters, get your facts right and please don't add salt to wounded Tibet.The practice of sati in ancient India and self-immolations by Tibetans in occupied Tibet under the presen dayt repressive and draconian Chinese communist rule are totally totally different for your information.

    Please have some respect and show some compassion and human dignity to the souls of the brave and courageous 44 self-immolaters from the roof of the world.

    August 4, 2012 at 10:16 am |
  14. oleg

    the ones to blame is Communist party of China. Tibet is within Chinese jurisdiction. Dalai Lama is not allowed to enter Tibet, so how in the world he is gonna influence the people of Tibet??? I think the writer is miss informed, or just another communist paid troll within CNN ranks...

    July 31, 2012 at 8:47 pm |
  15. CARLOS

    Yes and while we're at it why don't we outlaw being desperate and, powerless too.

    July 30, 2012 at 11:41 am |
  16. BigDaddyBlumpkin

    Willy Wonka...yeah i said it. You mad Bro?

    July 28, 2012 at 1:06 pm |
  17. BigDaddyBlumpkin

    The Dalai Lama should make a lemonade stand and call it dalai lemonade...thats how you save lives...GOD Damnit.

    July 28, 2012 at 12:58 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke and Eric Marrapodi with daily contributions from CNN's worldwide newsgathering team.