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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. Dechen

    Stephen Prothero, it"s a pity that you should attack the very person whose goodness has prevented Tibetans from going into doing so many things that could have gone so wrong with far greater consequential results without any fruitful results but bad enough to make this already terrorist ridden world twice as bad.
    What you are saying is that; let China do whatever she wants, to raise the hell out of six million Tibetan lives.But our brothers and sisters should bear it up in silence and not react to it all.It's okay for you to watch Tibetans suffer and die by the scores, but it's not okay for the Tibetans to resent China's failed policies at all.
    But any way why are you blaming His Holiness the Dalai Lama for the things wronged to the Tibetans by Beijing's utterly failed policies ? Shouldn't you be saying this to Beijing that ; there is problem in Tibet, people are grieving and that Beijing should do every thing withing her power to solve it.You have the courage to blame His Holiness for something He is not even responsible.What, why and how would you suggest His Holiness say to his people to stop self-immolations? What solutions do you have to offer so Tibetans will quit self immolation ? Do you expect His Holiness to say, stop self-immolation. Let Beijing kill you. You all just be willing to die, because the world much rather ignore China's atrocities over you to please the Chinese ? Are you not aware in Tibet you as a journalist aren't even allowed to travel let alone write news from there? How are our brothers and sisters supposed to let the world know things aren't doing well in Tibet? Tibet is a massive prison where there is not a ray of genuine joy can be realized .
    Sometimes, it feels like some people just want to be the first one to criticize the Dalai Lama to look cool.And that's not right.

    To continue or discontinue self immolations is all in the hands of China.Therefore; put the blame where it belongs.CHINA ! If Beijing is willing,every thing can worked out within a day. China is holding tightly on to the lies and you can't even say a thing.

    July 15, 2012 at 2:08 am |
  2. Also a religious scholar

    I am sorry to say but you have really missed the bar here as a reporter and as a religious scholar. You started by comparing these voluntary self-immolations or auto-cremations with person on person violence, thereby beginning your entire article with a horribly misleading comparison that suggests that all these deaths occurred for the same violent reasons. Yes people like to note that suicide is against traditional Buddhist views but it also has a place within Buddhist scripture as an ultimate act of sacrifice and a selfless act. These people are giving their lives the same way that soldiers do, but they are unwilling to harm others with their actions. They are willing to die but not kill. Does that make it right? That is not for us to say, but as a scholar it's your duty not to distory information by presenting it that way, and not to be mislead by others doing the same. Before you should even ask how can the Dalai Lama not dissuade these actions of suicide you should ask why they are happening. Tibet has been occupied for over 60 years, China has only increased its stranglehold on the region, cutting off all tourist access and now trying to cut off all outside information. These individuals are giving their lives to help the millions of Tibetans living in oppression and fear. Have you considered the utilitarianism of this situation? Lastly the fact that you would suggest that it is the Dalai Lama's fault that these Tibetans have given up their lives is not so much offensive (though must would agree it is a little) as it is simply ignorant and reflective of the fact that you don't have a strong knowledge of the Tibetan society. You have painted this whole situation with your own lens and basically insinuated that these people have sinned and harmed the world and then put that negativity on their spiritual leader who has always told them not to use violence against anyone and NEVER encouraged anything like self-immolation. You've betrayed the memories of those men and women who have sacrificed their lives out of compassion for their country by suggesting that it brings negative karma down upon the Dalai Lama and you assume far too much by claiming to know what kind of true effect these actions may have already or in the future. Hope you don't repeat these errors and glad to see others noticed them too.

    July 15, 2012 at 1:10 am |
    • Badda Bing

      "you have really missed the bar here as a reporter" True reporters never miss the bar!

      July 15, 2012 at 1:13 am |
    • Dechen

      For some one writing for CNN; this is at best half witted writing.When I first read I thought may be it's from one of these cheap gossip columns.But, what do you know ?

      July 15, 2012 at 6:31 am |
  3. Woeser

    Twitter上对这位教授的评论:

    @pppan777 此文与其宗教研究者的身份不符,就是个普通人道主义网友而已。有辱斯文。

    @pppan777 此人的批评缺乏基本的宗教修养,所以有辱斯文。不了解国内情况倒不是个太大问题,顶多只能说我学养浅。他的批评完全是个外行,普通网友的见解。实在不专业。

    @lotusseedsD 我對他這句話很有意見: So in a very real sense, their blood is on his hands。這是指控呢! 在他推文上有一條: 西藏自治問題就能解決。身為一位學者,至少應該知道不說評不知道的事

    @degewa 这个指控太可怕了,他凭什么这么说!恨不得呸他一脸!So in a very real sense, their blood is on his hands。

    @vicky3355 藏人自焚怎么会赖到达赖尊者的头上,中共还能做什么?颠倒黑白把自己的恶行强加于达赖尊者的身上,长点脑子的人都该看的明白是非。看不明白的,一类是脑袋被中共的魔蹄子踢了,还有一类根本就是没有人性的恶棍,呸!

    @yuewen269 自焚是生活在无比绝望中的人的最强烈抗议。但是目前看又有什么用呢?就如大宝法王曾经委婉的说我们藏人人数有限,必须保护独一的文化和传统。嘉瓦仁波切在这个问题上说与不说,说什么,外界都会有非议,这是不可避免的。

    @fightcensorship 西方人有西方人的思维方式,这是由于他们所处的环境所造成的,这与中国人有中国人,西藏人有西藏人的思维方式一样。在一个民主社会下生活的人是无法完全体会在专制制度下生活的人们的感受。即使是一个专业学者,也有其片面性,以及看问题的盲点。让不同观点同时呈现,这是好事。

    @fightcensorship 我个人理解这个“bad karma”是指宗教道德上的名气。我不会因为某个不妥的词汇影响全文的表达,他说只要达赖喇嘛谴责自焚就可以阻止,这点我也不同意,但自杀是可以传染的,这我同意。我反对自焚,但尊敬达赖喇嘛。

    @fightcensorship 该教授的文章主要针对达赖喇嘛对印度媒体表示,他无法对自焚事件表态是由于这是一个政治事件,如果他说赞成,中国政府马上会进行谴责。如果他说不赞成,那么这些自焚的家属会感到难过。从这一方面来看,我认为达赖喇嘛的观点没有错。而且我也认为这个问题其实是一个无法回答的问题。

    ‏@fightcensorship 这也就是为何西方媒体缺少关注的原因之一,当然主要原因还是信息封锁,但自焚本身很残酷,毕竟这发生在公共场所,西方社会对自焚抗议行为非常不赞同,但西藏的情况很特殊,藏人也是在走投无路的情况下才使用这个方式进行抗议。坦率地说,生活在一个安稳社会的人无法体会他们的痛苦。

    July 14, 2012 at 11:07 pm |
  4. Tsering Woeser

    转Twitter上对这位教授此说法的评论:

    @pppan777 此文与其宗教研究者的身份不符,就是个普通人道主义网友而已。有辱斯文。

    @pppan777 此人的批评缺乏基本的宗教修养,所以有辱斯文。不了解国内情况倒不是个太大问题,顶多只能说我学养浅。他的批评完全是个外行,普通网友的见解。实在不专业。

    @lotusseedsD 我對他這句話很有意見: So in a very real sense, their blood is on his hands。這是指控呢! 在他推文上有一條: 西藏自治問題就能解決。身為一位學者,至少應該知道不說評不知道的事

    @degewa 这个指控太可怕了,他凭什么这么说!恨不得呸他一脸!So in a very real sense, their blood is on his hands。

    @vicky3355 藏人自焚怎么会赖到达赖尊者的头上,中共还能做什么?颠倒黑白把自己的恶行强加于达赖尊者的身上,长点脑子的人都该看的明白是非。看不明白的,一类是脑袋被中共的魔蹄子踢了,还有一类根本就是没有人性的恶棍,呸!

    @yuewen269 自焚是生活在无比绝望中的人的最强烈抗议。但是目前看又有什么用呢?就如大宝法王曾经委婉的说我们藏人人数有限,必须保护独一的文化和传统。嘉瓦仁波切在这个问题上说与不说,说什么,外界都会有非议,这是不可避免的。

    @fightcensorship 西方人有西方人的思维方式,这是由于他们所处的环境所造成的,这与中国人有中国人,西藏人有西藏人的思维方式一样。在一个民主社会下生活的人是无法完全体会在专制制度下生活的人们的感受。即使是一个专业学者,也有其片面性,以及看问题的盲点。让不同观点同时呈现,这是好事。

    @fightcensorship 我个人理解这个“bad karma”是指宗教道德上的名气。我不会因为某个不妥的词汇影响全文的表达,他说只要达赖喇嘛谴责自焚就可以阻止,这点我也不同意,但自杀是可以传染的,这我同意。我反对自焚,但尊敬达赖喇嘛。

    @fightcensorship 该教授的文章主要针对达赖喇嘛对印度媒体表示,他无法对自焚事件表态是由于这是一个政治事件,如果他说赞成,中国政府马上会进行谴责。如果他说不赞成,那么这些自焚的家属会感到难过。从这一方面来看,我认为达赖喇嘛的观点没有错。而且我也认为这个问题其实是一个无法回答的问题。

    ‏@fightcensorship 这也就是为何西方媒体缺少关注的原因之一,当然主要原因还是信息封锁,但自焚本身很残酷,毕竟这发生在公共场所,西方社会对自焚抗议行为非常不赞同,但西藏的情况很特殊,藏人也是在走投无路的情况下才使用这个方式进行抗议。坦率地说,生活在一个安稳社会的人无法体会他们的痛苦。

    July 14, 2012 at 11:06 pm |
    • Badda Bing

      And a happy birthday to you too!

      July 15, 2012 at 1:12 am |
  5. Tsering Woeser

    想问这位波士顿大学教授Stephen Prothero是失明了?还是失聪了?他批评尊者达赖喇嘛不去制止藏人自焚,可是他怎么就看不见在全藏地到处作恶点火的是中共呢?

    难道这位波士顿大学教授不知道,是毫无人性的殖民者、恶政府点燃了修行僧侣与寻常百姓身上的火吗?!而在这熊熊燃烧的人权火炬面前,中国是沉默的,西方是沉默的,世界是沉默的,这位教授不也是沉默的吗?

    这位教授选择了一个聪明的方式来扮演正义的角色,可是我想问他,当2008年藏人抗议被抓捕被暴虐被判刑,他在哪里?他有没有谴责过刽子手?当自焚的藏人留下遗言说“我们藏民族没有最基本人权的痛苦比我俩自焚的痛苦还要大”,这位教授有没有关注过藏民族没有最基本人权的现实?

    既然是学者,就要有学者的良心。Stephen Prothero教授是假装不懂还是真的不懂,当刽子手不再作恶点火,藏人才有可能不再自焚,而这才是清楚无误的事实。难道不是吗?!

    July 14, 2012 at 11:04 pm |
  6. Jeff

    Stephen Prothero,

    you are shooting Bambi

    July 14, 2012 at 5:54 pm |
  7. CNN Armchair Expert Blogger

    What this logger doesnt understand is that Tibetans will continue, with or without HHDL's approval. What alternatives has this author given the victim (Tibetans who have been under occupation and genocide since 1950)?? I guess it fits in a neater package when people pick up guns and/or march down the street to be slaughtered in the face of Chinese bullets. Either way, this post is an epic failure in research, context.

    July 14, 2012 at 4:45 pm |
    • Mickey1313

      China its evil, but do was the lama caste system. They liked to gouge out eyes and rip out tounges of those who used to oppose them. No theocracy should be suported, or tolerated

      July 15, 2012 at 12:11 am |
  8. Paldon

    If H.H condemns the self-immolation, will the oppression by the CCP on the Tibetan people ease in the Tibet? No. The issue should be discoursed mainly on alleviating the conditions in Tibet, not about whether H.H should condemn it or not.. Ofcourse, deep down H.H The 14 Dalia Lama condemns it, he is known for his compassionate heart.

    July 14, 2012 at 3:50 pm |
  9. Paldon

    If H.H condemns the self-immolation, will the suppression by the CCP

    July 14, 2012 at 3:43 pm |
  10. Hypatia

    Why. Because it suits your judeo xian mindset?

    July 14, 2012 at 9:41 am |
  11. NotTroll

    In retrospective, would you condemn the self-immolation of Thich Quang Duc?

    July 14, 2012 at 9:31 am |
  12. Old Buddhist

    For Buddhists, it makes no sense to "condemn" a behavior (suicide, in this case). Unlike the Abrahamic religions, Buddhism has no concept of "sin" or forgiveness by a deity. Our behavior either reduces suffering in the world or it doesn't. If you harm others, then you are making a mistake. In the case of the immolators, it's not obvious. You can argue that they are or are not making a kharmic mistake. When someone dies with the intention of reducing the suffering of others, who's to say that is wrong? These people may help save lives by forcing the Chinese to end the the killing and torture of Tibetans. Who know what will happen as a result of their actions? No one does, so here is nothing to condemn.

    July 14, 2012 at 9:26 am |
    • atomD21

      The problem here is that the Chinese government would care if all of Tibet were burned. They won't stop unless they are made to, and unfortunately, no one will do that, as the Chinese government owns quite a bit of the world right now...

      July 14, 2012 at 9:36 pm |
    • atomD21

      Supposed to say the Chinese government wouldn't care if all of Tibet burned...

      July 14, 2012 at 9:37 pm |
  13. Tibet News : www.youtube.com/TibetArchive

    Tibet news DIRECTLY from Tibet !

    July 13, 2012 at 4:30 pm |
  14. Reality

    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 13, 2012 at 4:06 pm |
  15. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things .

    July 13, 2012 at 1:09 pm |
    • 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 1:41 pm |
    • Black Betty Bang-a-Lang

      Jesus, you're my cut-n-paste hero.

      July 13, 2012 at 4:05 pm |
    • Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

      Prayer changes things
      Proven

      July 13, 2012 at 6:54 pm |
    • Jesus

      "Prayer changes things
      Proven"

      No you're the proven liar. 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 15, 2012 at 10:01 am |
  16. jutblade@hotmail.com

    What's wrong with asking Dalai Lama to against self-immolation? If he can save some tibetan lifes by speaking out, why not? You might not like what author said, but call him names really make yourself a role model.

    July 13, 2012 at 11:47 am |
  17. Blue Sky

    What on earth is this author talking about?

    Instead of asking what drives these Tibetans to self immolate themselves, he asks; "So where are the protests against these Tibetan protesters?". People don't just self immolate for fun. Desperate conditions forces people to take desperate measures. If you still didn't know, Tibet was occupied by China more than fifty years ago and for many decades China has been systematically destroying ancient Tibetan culture. The conditions are getting worse and worse in past few years; this led to these desperate protests. It is not the Dalai Lama that caused the self immolation, if it is still not clear to you.

    Tibetans who peacefully protest in Tibet, (I must stress "peaceful" protest. Unlike in most other parts of the world) are beaten, shot at, tortured, imprisoned for years and many die as a result. So if you still want to ask; "So where are the protests against these Tibetan protesters?" you must be either heartless or you just don't do proper research.

    July 13, 2012 at 9:59 am |
    • Opinionated Article

      CNN always has the luxury to keep a (so-called) writer like Stephen while cloaking behind its disclaimer.

      July 13, 2012 at 11:12 am |
  18. Silvia Carry

    Oh, I forgot to ask...are you a DS follower? That would explain your blog. In any event, take care of your Karma...

    July 13, 2012 at 9:42 am |
  19. Silvia Carry

    I guess you don't get it. But ANYTHING HH says on the subject will be twisted by the Chinese and used against him, and exacerbate the problems of the Tibetan people....(it has been happening since YOU were a child), one live and learns

    July 13, 2012 at 9:38 am |
  20. Ex-iReporter

    Just read this article and realized why I quit being an iReporter. CNN has some of the worst bloggers.

    July 13, 2012 at 9:12 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.