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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 • Opinion • Politics • Protest • Tibet • Tibet • Violence

soundoff (268 Responses)
  1. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things.

    July 13, 2012 at 8:37 am |
    • Jesus

      Prayer does not; you are such a LIAR. You have NO proof it changes anything! A great example of prayer proven not to work is the Christians in jail because prayer didn't work and their children died. For example: Susan Grady, who relied on prayer to heal her son. Nine-year-old Aaron Grady died and Susan Grady was arrested.

      An article in the Journal of Pediatrics examined the deaths of 172 children from families who relied upon faith healing from 1975 to 1995. They concluded that four out of five ill children, who died under the care of faith healers or being left to prayer only, would most likely have survived if they had received medical care.

      The statistical studies from the nineteenth century and the three CCU studies on prayer are quite consistent with the fact that humanity is wasting a huge amount of time on a procedure that simply doesn’t work. Nonetheless, faith in prayer is so pervasive and deeply rooted, you can be sure believers will continue to devise future studies in a desperate effort to confirm their beliefs:!

      July 13, 2012 at 10:55 am |
    • Black Betty Bang-a-Lang

      Jesus, you're my cut-n-paste God. I can always depend on you to repeat yourself. It makes me hot. Jesus, Jesus, say it again!
      The same way!

      July 13, 2012 at 8:58 pm |
  2. tentseringc

    Fact of the matter, Mr. Stephen Prothero, is that you will never understand what it is like to be under a suppressed oppressive regime such as the Chinese Communist Party.
    The way you think and the way you express yourself indicates that you need to think beyond your academic qualifications such as a \"Boston University Research Scholar\" and think more as a human being. Put yourself in the shoes of Tibetans who constantly have to live in fear in every miserable day of their lives.
    The rights you possess as a person living outside of Tibet where you can say and write and express what ever is in your mind without any fear of persecution, those rights have been denied for the Tibetans in Tibet. I will never condone the act of self-immolation nor will I glorify it. However I will respect the choices they have made as country men and women of Tibet as their last act of defiance and contribution to the Tibetan cause; the cause at this point not being independence or middle way path but the cause for the right to live a life free of constant eminent prosecutions and penalties for speaking your mind.
    So I feel you are wasting your time, my time and everyone else\'s time but not condemning the Chinese Communist Party and by condemning His Holiness of not condemning the self-immolations.

    July 13, 2012 at 8:02 am |
  3. Name*Chedar

    Mr Prothero, instead of blaming the Dalai Lama for everything which indeed is beyond his control, you should use your pen and intellect to go the source ( the Chinese ) to stop prosecuting the Tibetan. This will be more effective.

    July 13, 2012 at 6:04 am |
  4. mario

    what a strange world we live in. While the oppressed one are being condemed the oppresor are considered absolutely fine. Really upside down.

    July 13, 2012 at 3:03 am |
  5. mario

    total obscene!

    July 13, 2012 at 1:52 am |
  6. Mr Everyman

    While setting yourself on fire is dramatic and effective, it is also wrong to destroy your self or soul. They may believe otherwise but it is murder of your own physical being. Since military and armed resistance is useless, some other means of demonstrating their case needs to be devised. Media people could help with this. If China starts losing trade and money over this issue, maybe it will be more accommodating to the Tibetans.

    July 13, 2012 at 1:16 am |
    • Emerald

      In Buddhism there is no self or soul.

      July 13, 2012 at 10:38 am |
  7. Julius

    The Dalai Lama will not condemn the immolations because this has brought publicity for the Free Tibet cause in a time when Tibet stories has fallen off news pages. Remember, the Dalai Lama is a political leader foremost, and he will not hesitate to milk this to the max.

    July 13, 2012 at 1:07 am |
  8. Sam Singer

    If you cant help the Tibetan cause, at least don't hurt them Mr Stephen. They have enough on their plate as it is with the Chinese on the verge of destroying their culture. Tibetan traditions have been transformed into museum showcases for Chinese and western tourists. Those existing outside this scope is being exterminated as we speak. 60 years ago there were no more than 300 permanent Chinese residents in Tibet (historical Tibet unaltered by CCP), now there are 17 million Chinese to the population of 6 million Tibetans. Has this happened to your culture and country?

    July 13, 2012 at 1:05 am |
  9. alber

    Does CNN want to see more immolation cases in Tibet??? A nonsense media with biased view on China.

    July 13, 2012 at 12:45 am |
  10. Dason

    When he rests in peace, Tibet will be in peace.

    July 13, 2012 at 12:20 am |
    • Mskushh

      He is always in peace! Tibet will be at peace when all theTibetans become fidayes and bomb themselve in big chinese metropolis taking atleast hundred thousand chinese with them... that will happen when the Dalai Lama is gone..East Turkisthan, Inner Mongolia, Korean, manchurians will follow the suit and China will be a forgotten history once again!

      July 13, 2012 at 12:29 am |
  11. Reality

    From p. 2:

    " It is true that many exponents of Buddhism, most notably the Dalai Lama, have been remarkably willing to enrich (and even constrain) their view of the world through dialogue with modern science. But the fact that the Dalai Lama regularly meets with Western scientists to discuss the nature of the mind does not mean that Buddhism, or Tibetan Buddhism, or even the Dalai Lama’s own lineage, is uncontaminated by religious dogmatism.

    Indeed, there are ideas within Buddhism that are so incredible as to render the dogma of the vir-gin birth plausible by comparison. No one is served by a mode of discourse that treats such pre-literate notions as integral to our evolving dis-course about the nature of the human mind. Among Western Buddhists, there are college-educated men and women who apparently believe that Guru Rinpoche was actually born from a lotus. This is not the spiritual breakthrough that civilization has been waiting for these many centuries.

    http://www.samharris.org/site/full_text/response-to-controversy2

    And we still don't know what religion Stephen P "professes" to. If he were a financial supporter of DL, DL might pay him some attention. Until then, DL probably considers the "immolaters" martyrs for the cause.

    July 12, 2012 at 11:31 pm |
    • Mskushh

      I think, Shugden ghost is cooking some fries in your brain. Guru Rinpoche kicked Shugden's ass and the later turned into lotus..thats how even the Tibetans believe Guru Rinpooche is lotus born. It doesn't matter what HHDL thinks about the self immolators, they will be immortalized as martyrs in the very front page of the Tibetan history in making!!

      July 12, 2012 at 11:47 pm |
    • PrimeNumber

      Here's a cut and paste for your consideration: “The intuitive mind is a sacred gift and the rational mind is a faithful servant. We have created a society that honors the servant and has forgotten the gift.” – Albert Einstein. A Buddhist is more likely to understand Einstein's comment than the usual orthodox close-minded scientist. (Sorry if I've blasphemed)

      July 13, 2012 at 2:47 pm |
  12. Kyle H. Davis

    Wow... Mr. Prothero claims to be a "religious scholar", yet he is showing his complete lack of knowledge on the subject of Tibetan Buddhism and its theocracy. He seems to have done what many westerns have done and wholly/blindly accepted the idea that he represents peace (it is, after all, why they gave him the Nobel Peace Price... right?).

    I understand the concept of "the lesser of two evils", but when the people (like the Richard Gere's of the world) talk themselves into raising the lesser of two evils into being something "holy", it becomes complete ignorance.

    I suggest that Mr. Prothero take some time and research the Tibetan theocracy over the years. Then he might see how ignorant he sounds when he asks the question "Why not use his vast storehouse of moral and spiritual capital to denounce this ritual of human sacrifice?"

    I am in NO way supporting the PRC in their occupation of the land, but I'm not about to be so ignorant as to put the Tibetan theocracy into the category of something "good".

    The plain and simple fact is: If the PRC were not occupying Tibet, the "grassroots peace effort" for Tibet would still be going strong... against an oppressive theocracy.

    July 12, 2012 at 10:58 pm |
    • Mskushh

      So you seem to know more about Tibetan history than the Tibetan themselves do!! Will you please do a historical favour to interview each and every Tibetan, young and old, male and female, monk and lay about what they have to say about CCP's rule and the Pre-59 the so called theocratic rule..I will give you the answers: During Pre-59 theocratic rule, Nobody died of starvation, not body had to self immolate, everybody was content with what they have, they lived life to the fullest giving more efforts to spiritual perfection, they sang, they danced, they struggled, they bartered, they picnic, they prayed, they mourned, they celebrated, but they died a dignified death. Under CCP: they had famine which was unheard of, they had to slave out at the blow of whistle, they had to hide, thay had to escape, they had to witness the death of their loved ones, they had to unwillingly embrace the ideology of communism, they had to kill their close friends, they had to sing the praise to Mao, they had to demolish the the places they once worshipped, they had to live in constant fear, they had to put the mask of smile, they had to give up their way of live and even the reason to live and worst of all, they had to die in the prisons, under torture, under flame, under detention, under gun.....that is how China has made Tibetans live a living hell!!

      July 12, 2012 at 11:27 pm |
  13. Bob Loblaw

    Did any of you see the official outfit of the American Olympic Team is made in China?

    Ralph Lauren, a true American.

    July 12, 2012 at 10:54 pm |
  14. Laurence Ringo

    I don't often agree with Prothero,but in this case he's right;if the Dalai Lama's Buddhist philosophy can embrace non-action in the face of such carnage,then frankly,I don't see much point in whatever it is he's doing(or not doing.)Maybe it's my"Western"mindset/worldview,but I've never really understood why the Dalai Lama is so revered and respected;what exactly does he do,or has done to garner such acclaim? Whatever it is,it's obviously having little impact in the lives of his beleagured country men.Wafting about smiling,bowing,and pressing your hands together while as a so-called"spiritual leader"you can espouse remaining"neutral"as your countrymen are giving up their lives fighting for freedom doesn't strike me as something he(the Dalai Lama)deserves to be respected for.At the very least,speak truth to power loudly and insistently,even if it's the brutal power of Communist China;after all,even the Chinese aren't insane enough to massacre everyone in Tibet!! Maybe hobnobbing with the security and comfort of those in free nations have made you too soft for real freedom work,like the female freedom fighter from Mynamar,the one who endured all those years of house arrest and imprisonment(her name escapes me at the moment).Now that's a deserving Nobel Prize winner,one who put the so-called"Dalai Lama"to shame,and I don't care if that's politically incorrect.I have no doubt that if need be,she would give her life for her people's freedom-can the Dalai Lama say the same?

    July 12, 2012 at 10:34 pm |
    • hawaiiguest

      I think it really is a more "western" thought process that leads you to agree with Prothero. First, you must look at the way that Buddhism sees actions taken in this world, the history behind the purpose for self-immolation, and the view of Buddhists when it comes to life, and death.

      To condemn these self immolations would mean to demean the intent and purpose that the individuals have put on that action, not to mention their families. Praising it would alienate him from a large amount of the world population that does not really understand the practice. In my opinion, he might be thinking that it is quite possible to obtain and spread negative karma with either decision. He is correct that his best option is to remain publicly neutral to it.

      July 12, 2012 at 10:43 pm |
    • Mskushh

      what makes you believe that all these self immolations are only because of Dalai Lama's neutral stand??? Did you ever, in the remotest part of your polluted brain, tried to find what caused such resentment in the minds of Tibetans that they are so desperate to take such a drastic step of setting themselves alight??? Your projection of HHDL as a wishy-washy individual not worthy of Nobel Prize is the stupidiest thing I have ever come across. You should have done more research on HH before penning down such absurdity. HH can contribute 10000000000000000000 times more to the world peace than caving himself in Chinese Gulag and finally getting killed( though he might get some roses on his headstone from you and some CCP enthusiasts).You know nothng about Tibet, much less the HHDL.So you you should accept in your heart of heart that morally don't deserve the right to comment on HHDL...but ofcourse you can write what ever you like..your freedom of expression!! I would respect that anyway!

      July 12, 2012 at 11:07 pm |
  15. Michael

    The dalai lama *has* spoken out against self immolation. Just as he has spoken out against dangerous riots and walks for Tibet through Chinese territory. The fact is, the Tibetans are not listening. Many have decided that the Dalai Lama is weak, and does not care about Tibet, because he is not all-for its governing itself. The fact of the matter is that the Dalai Lama realizes, and he has said this, that Tibet was not a great country, certainly not the paradise many people here in the west believe it was, and that it really stands no chance of ever gaining status as a country. So he is simply asking for autonomous status, an actual state within china. The Tibetans do not like this, so they have stopped listening to him. Thus, he could do very little to stop the self-immolation.

    July 12, 2012 at 10:11 pm |
  16. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things says

    See prayer scientifically work with the power of god at saladandchips.com.

    July 12, 2012 at 9:58 pm |
  17. שמיחזה

    don't give the lama back his slaves they are free now

    July 12, 2012 at 9:56 pm |
    • שמיחזה

      well free-ish

      July 12, 2012 at 9:56 pm |
    • שמיחזה

      definitely free-er then when the were under the lamas rule

      July 12, 2012 at 9:57 pm |
    • Mskushh

      So sad for you, those slaves want to desperately go back to Lama!!! You see, even when they are dying they say Long live HHDL, let the Dalai Lama come back home!!!

      July 12, 2012 at 11:32 pm |
  18. yelix

    Your people blood lies in your hands,please stop the suicide of your people,don't sit and keep quiet?
    As a Nobel Peace Price winner, he always does something anti-peace.

    July 12, 2012 at 9:46 pm |
    • Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things says

      A list of Gods Nobel Peace Prize winners at bagslap.com

      July 12, 2012 at 10:14 pm |
  19. Emerald

    I believe that the author does not have much knowledge of Buddhism and the law of karma. I cannot speak so much for Tibetan Buddhism but as a scholar of Myanmar/Burmese Buddhism, karma has solely to do with the mind, the volition mental factor within the mind. This is karma. Not even so much the action but the volition in the mind at the time of the action. Therefor, the author makes a bold claim by saying the Dalai Lama is accruing bad Karma. When a neutral mind is actually what one should expect from someone as holy in Buddhism as the Dalai Lama. As for self sacrifice, in the Jataka tales the Buddha gave up his life many times in order to help other beings and is actually considered an act of compassion. I don't think the author should compare this act to suicide bombing. I would hope that the author would learn a bit more about Buddhism before making such bold statements.

    July 12, 2012 at 9:27 pm |
    • TBA

      I would like to ask you,will you fire yourself?and if your parents,your sisters,your brothers,your lovers ,all of them fire theirselves,you will stand there just looking at them to kill theirselves?keep neutral? what ridiculous thought in your mind? you are a monster.Boodist won't even kill a small fly,any lives deserve to live in this world.

      July 12, 2012 at 11:01 pm |
    • Name*Chedar

      Well said Emerald. You know your Buddhidm well. I wish I can be your student. The Jatakas tell it all. Porthero is nothing but a mindless charlatans. Your comments sums it up.

      July 13, 2012 at 6:21 am |
  20. Lam weng Wai

    Your people blood lies in your hands,please stop the suicide of your people,don't sit and keep quiet?

    July 12, 2012 at 9:15 pm |
    • hate on hater

      The blood lies on the hands of the Chinese oppressors. If they fought back with violence it would be pointless. Who are you to say their choice to sacrifice their lives to bring change and attention to thier peoples plight is wrong?

      July 12, 2012 at 9:48 pm |
    • CelestialOne

      hate on hater,
      You know fully well self immolation is not going to bring any real change. Sure it may bring some attention but in the end it is not going to change anything or serve any useful purpose.

      July 13, 2012 at 1:48 am |
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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 with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.