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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. truthordare7

    Bravo! Mr.Prothero, you have managed to shame the only man who was willing to resolve the Tibetan issue by compromising even Tibet's nationhood with its oppressors. The Dalai lama had been trying to talk genuinely with the communist side for true autonomy for all Tibetans despite all the criticisms from his own people which are rightfully deserved since he is giving away Tibet's legitimate right to independence. He is the one of the few leaders who gave up their political mantle and removed himself from power. Look around the world, it is not common.

    The Dalai lama himself explained the situation very carefully as to the reasons why he can't publicly condemn such acts. Privately, it appears he has repeatedly requested Tibetans to tell them to stop. I am pretty sure every Tibetan and every sane minded individual will never take his silence as encouragement for more self-immolations because no one believes for one second, except for China and their cohorts, that the Dalai lama approves of the acts – more so the individuals engaging in the act.

    And this is not even about religion. Not at all. Most just happen to be monks and nuns who happen to be under severe restictions and live under intolerable conditions (maybe you should do some research there). There are lay Tibetans, teenagers, woman, and people of all ages. They are trying to tell the world something. And I don't think you are hearing it right. All these Tibetans were born after the Dalai Lama has escaped to India and were brought up under the supervision of the Chinese communist system. If the rule under the Chinese is so progressive and uplifting, why are Tibetans engaging in such drastic measures? Tibetan history has no record of self-immolations. None. Therefore, the Chinese colonizers need to take the blame for this, not the Dalai lama. It is afterall the fruit of their labor for the last 50 something years.

    Why don't you, as a religious expert, and hopefully defender of faith, take the Chinese to the task in your next article? Find out how your brothers and sisters in Tibet have to struggle through to practice their faith, things that you almost take for granted here in the west. How would you feel if someone told you to write deriding things about Jesus Christ or whoever you believe in? How would you feel that they are forced to step on the picture of their guru to show loyalty to the state? Actually, this all started when they were conducting 'thought reform' (another thing you might look into) on the monasteries and the situation became unbearable. I think you should be standing up for the Tibetan people, instead of demonizing their courageous acts and equating it with some ridiculous irrelevant practices. What is next? Are you going to compare themselvse to suicide bombers?

    Very dissappointed in this article. I hope you can do better next time.

    July 18, 2012 at 5:31 pm |
    • truthordare7

      Unlike others, I don't blame CNN. It is a platform for people to voice their opinion. You may not agree with the view of the individual blogger but you cannot deny them the right to air it. Harping on CNN is not justified, although I respect your right to do so.

      July 18, 2012 at 5:37 pm |
    • Andrew

      Hope there isn't a next time

      July 20, 2012 at 4:41 pm |
  2. Greg

    "So where is the compassion here?"

    EXACTLY...where is it from the Chinese leaders? From the rest of the world? Tibetan Buddhists represent compassion to a startling degree. Where is it in the rest of the world?

    July 18, 2012 at 3:10 pm |
    • Andrew

      This blog helps publicise the cause for Tibet as it raises the issue despite the huge efforts by China to suppress any negative information regards their illegal occupation and brutality in Tibet, however, strongly you disagree with this person's statement on CNN.
      Unlike in China and occupied Tibet, freedom of speech and the freedom to protest is taken for granted in the US. Clearly, anyone can make an impact with a viewpoint or statement particularly one as ludicrous, insulting and incorrect as the one CNN have allowed. In Tibet, people have to self immolate in an act of selfless, desperation to make a statement for change. That shows immense courage and at the same time incredible sadness that people are suffering so much they feel that it is the one freedom and choice they have, to die. We should support them as heroic, freedom fighters and celebrate their lives, courage and their cause and apologise for the lack of action against Tibet's invader. Until all are free, none of us are free. Long live the Dalai Lama and all who are suffering in occupied Tibet. Let's use our freedom to secure theirs rather than self publicise, sell books and not add value to the struggle for freedom.

      July 18, 2012 at 3:43 pm |
  3. The Woof

    You may be a highly educated scholar but you are to blind to see that any human being will do what they will as long as they justify it in their minds. The Dalai Lama has about as much power over individuals as you yourself over your fellow human beings.

    July 18, 2012 at 2:42 pm |
  4. e.v. de cleyre

    It's easy for a white, male scholar to pass judgement on the Tibetans who have self-immolated in protest against China's repressive regime. My take: don't write an article assuming that you know and understand the motivations behind those acts of self-immolation if you haven't actually lived as a minority under a repressive regime.

    July 18, 2012 at 1:24 pm |
  5. tsering

    Dalai Lama on his last visit to London, in an audience talk to Tibetans did tell us to request people in Tibet not to burn themselves... You must understand the fact that, he denies to suggest is because he wants to respect and maintain the political power of Dr. Lobsang Sangey... it lies solely on him and not Dalai Lama.... because he has been the head of politics of tibetans for many years people still continue to see him as a political leader... this outlook of media must change...

    July 18, 2012 at 1:17 pm |
  6. marcon

    Given how long the Chinese have occupied Tibetan land, it's a wonder all they do is burn themselves.

    July 18, 2012 at 12:13 pm |
  7. vittorio

    The Monks are not harming other, they are harming themselves in a time and place that the rest of the world has chosen to forget there hellish conditions of Chinese occupation for reasons of self gratification-cheaper Chinese goods. So it can be said that the monks are burning themselves because of world greed.

    Stephen Prothero is intellectually lazy and has not put this scholarly position at BU to work. His supervisors or Boss should take note. Comparing Sati to whats happing in Tibet is ridiculous. Other than death by fire, one has nothing to do with theother. Prothero seem to look at thing from a western religious perspective only and does a disservice to the scholarship of religion at large.

    Here is excellent responce to Prothero ignorance: http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2012/07/18/my-take-why-the-dalai-lama-cannot-condemn-tibetan-self-immolations/

    Tenzin Dorjee writes," How can the Dalai Lama condemn the self-immolators when their motivation was evidently selfless and their tactic nonviolent? Would we ask Gandhi to condemn activists in the Indian freedom struggle who were killed while lying on the road to block British police trucks? Or the hunger strikers who were starving themselves to death in order to protest the injustices of British rule in India?"

    July 18, 2012 at 10:40 am |
    • tsering

      rightly said!!!!

      July 18, 2012 at 1:18 pm |
  8. jack

    excellent comments on this strange article,thank U all very much 4 immediate response,direct responsibility 4 these desperate acts goes 2 barbarian psychocommunist chinese regim,which will collapse simply because of that,best regards from Poland

    July 17, 2012 at 3:29 pm |
  9. Jacob

    My path, My Dharma. His holyness has taken the only appropriate action in this situation, Immolation is a very drastic measure to take; but in the end it is not the fault of the Dalai Lama since those individuals made the personal decision after consulting their faith. I am in no way supporting the act of self immolation since i myself am a Christian/Buddhist and consider suicide to be an unforgivable sin, however they can not be compared to suicide bombers since their intent is not to harm others but to bring awareness, for the Dalai Lama to condemn these acts would be for him to interject in their personal paths which is not acceptable for any buddhist, expecially the Dalia himself.

    July 17, 2012 at 11:27 am |
  10. b4bigbang

    I'd think that as a progressive liberal, Mr Prothero would support suicide.
    Maybe this case doesn't interest him because it's not physician-assisted.

    July 17, 2012 at 1:42 am |
  11. Real Hero

    Mr. PO-ZERO,
    I am sorry to say but this is how your name sounds after reading your unconscionable invidious article, Mr. Prothero. I am much pained at how easily a "Boston University religion scholar" can be blinded by the whims and the tantrums of the Chinese Communist propaganda. If this is your REAL take on the spate of self immolation in Tibet, then that is exactly what the Communist Government is saying for the umpteenth time now; speciously claiming that His holiness the Dalai Lama is responsible for these drastic act of protest. In a way you are indirectly hand in grease with all the in-humane atrocities the Chinese government has committed so far and still committing in Tibet by ridiculing the poor innocent Tibetans. I won't be surprised if you truthfully admit being the hireling of the communist officials in Beijing.

    Right from the first three paragraphs, i quote " When the Vietnamese monk Thich Quang Duc immolated himself in Saigon in 1963...... ................. ..........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." You have wrongly assumed to relate the act of Vietnamese monk with the Tibetan monks just being Buddhist monks, which though carried out the protest in the same manner but nevertheless are out-rightly independent. Neither is it true to link this as an act in the name of religion as Buddhism preaches the preciosity of each and every human life. Every Buddhist commoner like me can see your sophistry at the very first glimpse that we never consider Buddha as a GOD nor is there anything to serve any higher good. It's all in his teaching that will lead us to attain our own Buddha-hood through the law of karma and the nub of his teaching can simply be put as "principle of Interdependence and practice of no harm". As such your cavalier oversight is beyond my understanding and it affirms my doubt that you are a SCIOLIST when it comes to Buddhism (just knowing few terms like karma and compassion is not enough, in fact, little knowledge is dangerous).

    After all this fallacious assumptions, you go on to ask "So where are the protests against these Tibetan protesters?" Are you gone nuts? Are you a lunatic? A communist sycophant? How dare can you be so insensitive, irresponsible and obsequious to the issue of A nation's survival? If you are indifferent to the plight of Tibetans, why don't you stay away from the issue at all. Did you protest at the protestors of the Arab Springs? There is no rights that lets you to distort facts and interfere in their lives. The struggle of the six million Tibetan people has been a long on-going battle for more than five decades now. It's not just to make a puerile comment without a thorough research given the depth of the crises. Tomorrow, if somebody abuse, harass, and attack your girl and you being the victims side, protest against it for justice, would you ask for people to protest against you and your girl? Would you like other people to support the perpetrators of the crime? Only then you will feel what it means to be supporting not the victims but the perpetrators. Are you a heartless moron? I hope not. Then, in what sense, can you ask for deprecating the spirit and hopes of the poor innocent Tibetans...... the last thing they expect from a REAL HUMAN SOUL!

    July 16, 2012 at 4:56 pm |
    • The Real Poet

      Comment from a Poet.

      July 17, 2012 at 5:01 am |
  12. Leslie E. Sponsel

    The ultimate cause of self-immolation by Tibetans is not His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet. No doubt he has thought long and hard about this and related extremely complex and difficult matters, and obviously far more so than Professor Stephen Prothero.The cause is not some contagious behavior, a very minor contributing causal factor at most. The ultimate cause is the policy and action of genocide, ethnocide, ecocide, religiocide, and linguicide by the invading and colonizing Chinese regime since 1959. Self-immolation is one form of protest and resistance where very few other measures are available, even though it is terribly disturbing. Blame the Chinese government, not those individuals who in desperation pursue this form of political protest and resistance. Get real Professor Prothero. Get real CNN!

    July 16, 2012 at 2:31 pm |
  13. Brian

    The reporters I just saw on tv appeared to be foolish and definitely not Buddhists.

    July 16, 2012 at 1:03 pm |
  14. lobsang tsering

    Hi CNN, Prothero
    I just come across that you are just putting the event of self immolation in tibet is a matter to be created some kind of impression. Let's me ask you one question. Is it the matter of tibet is for Dalai Lama? I am sure you are just thinking that the self immolation is encouraged by H.H Dalai Lama. No, absolutely not. He is neutral why because Chinese authority is always blaming Him and accusing Him as an torrorist master. Why Chinese side never use to take responsible for making a peaceful dialoque with him? I hope you will study more about tibetan issues and its tratigic non-voilence policy. hope u visit to tibet and see the conditions of tibetans inside tibet.. they are really victim of everything. I am sure if the international community is not taking tibet issue more seriously i m sure there will be more case of selfimmolation and much more worse..

    July 16, 2012 at 7:32 am |
  15. Norgay

    Only a Tibetan can truely understand its desperate political condition and the desire to bring immediate change. Dalai lama might be a Nobel laureate and a Buddhist monk. But he is also a Tibetan. By writing this radical article, Mr. Prothero attempts to draw attention on himself, just like a mischievous kid would do at school to get others attention.

    July 15, 2012 at 7:36 pm |
  16. TheblackJesusmovement

    This author is a fool. Any wise man can see the Dalaï-lama's true opinion in the answer he gave.

    July 15, 2012 at 12:01 pm |
    • The Real Poet

      Dalai Lama is a politician. All he is doing is to manipulate the situation.

      July 17, 2012 at 5:03 am |
  17. Polergiest

    Seriously? Every suicide is a delayed homicide? Is he trying to imply that the Dali Lama is responsible for making sure people know killing themselves is unhealthy? I wouldn't immolate myself in a protest, but if that's what the person wants that's their decision. I hear in America they strap people to electric chairs and pluck the unborn babies straight from women wombs.

    July 15, 2012 at 8:19 am |
  18. kalsang

    CNN and Prothero,
    Shame on you for coming up with such article. I can see big bug pouring on cnn. Wondering if this is truely linked with CNN???? We rely and trust CNN and if this kind of stupid inf. is your output to the world, I am cutting you off!

    July 15, 2012 at 7:19 am |
  19. dadhu baedhar

    Stephen Prothero,
    Go back to journalism class and study the basics... of finding the truth first before writing your next line... READ READ READ STUDY STUDY STUDY – the causes of self immolations first. Can't belief this is on CNN..... shame on you CNN..

    July 15, 2012 at 7:13 am |
  20. Dechen

    Self-immolators included monks, nuns,laymen, laywomen, boys and girls, unfortunately of all ages.

    July 15, 2012 at 2:27 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.