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. www.youtube.com/TibetArchive

    TibetArchive on Youtube

    July 12, 2012 at 6:23 pm |
  2. Tibet Archive

    For a clear, comprehensive look into past, and modern Tibet, visit http://www.youtube.com/TibetArchive

    TibetAchive on Youtube

    July 12, 2012 at 6:22 pm |
  3. Mskushh

    Professor Prothero..you have an admirable allegiance to your $ source, the CCP. Well done!!! Suppose HHDL requests all the Tiebtans to stop immolation and Tibetans listen. Will the CCP or even yourself(being a CCP sympathizer) shower praise on HHDL. I doubt and I really really doubt. Like a wolf, CCP will jump in to make more unfounded allegations like " see I told you, immolations were orchestrated by him". Please stop this politicization to earn a few extra dollars for your vacation or a visit at a chinese brothel!!!

    July 12, 2012 at 5:39 pm |
  4. Sam Singer

    The bottom line is America does not care about Tibet and to make things worse America's academics like Mr Stephen are rubbing salt into the gaping wounds of a dying country and people. All for the sake of ego and Chinese money no doubt. The norm now seems to be anything but Tibet. I really feel sorry for the Tibetans, they are really trying to do the non violence thing hoping that the world will help their cause but everytime they cry for help, they are trampled down, first by the Chinese and then by the rest of the world.

    July 12, 2012 at 5:26 pm |
  5. Bob Thurman

    Steve Prothero made a mistake in his reasoning when he said "If the DL asked them not to do it, they would stop. Therefore he is to be blamed." This is the same reasoning the Chinese use to blame the DL. But when the first monks from Kirti immolated, they knew perfectly well the DL would not approve of them destroying their precious human lives. He said he didn;t think it was a good idea, not ffective, and tragic, but they continued to step up, because of their sense of powerlessnes at the ordinary level, dealing with dictators and their jack boot police, carrying out the purposeful genocide the Chinese government does out of chosen policy. IN order to keep the land which they have no legal right to occupy, the PRC leaders feel they have to exterminate the Tibetans. They will point to the Euro-American genocide of the Native Americans to justify their poilicy. This is not a mystery. They don't really deny it, just as many Americans will say it's allucky thing the Indians are gone. SO, blaming the DL, though fashionable in academia, and pleasing to the Chinese, is a mistake, and is definitely on the wrong side of humanitarian history.

    July 12, 2012 at 5:11 pm |
    • Moby Schtick

      Prothero's not known for his logic.

      July 12, 2012 at 6:04 pm |
  6. Sam Singer

    OK, Yeah sure Mr Stephen the religion expert. All you have proven is the failure of your proclaimed high status in your so called religious studies.
    So you want the last voice Tibet has to be taken away, because that is what will happen if the DAlai Lama condemns immolations. And then, what are you going to do for Tibet, or do you believe that Tibet is part of China? Do you make money from China, like do you have many Chinese students?
    It would have been far better off if you had written something that made it obvious that the CCP and its practices in Tibet has led to this tragedy, not place blame on someone who has lost their country while you sip your lattes from a comfy office. What planet are you from???

    July 12, 2012 at 5:09 pm |
  7. Joe

    This author lives in an imaginary world.

    July 12, 2012 at 4:53 pm |
  8. Thupten Namdrol

    When the Dalai Lama is not here, then Tibetans will not only burn themselves, they will kill as many Chinese as possible. The Dalai Lama has within all his power stopped Tibetans from doing this in the very face of 1.9 million Tibetans being murdered by the CCP. All you people in America and Europe are partly responsible for Tibet. You all let the PLA raze the country to the ground and when they did not leave, you all agreed that Tibet was theirs. Now look at the mess, oh I forgot, you cant see Tibet, because they locked in down in martial law for over two years now. Do you Know how many Tibetans have gone missing in that time? Why should the DL condemn the only voice that Tibet has? Everything else has been ignored by China and the West, all for profit and greed.

    July 12, 2012 at 4:51 pm |
  9. piodalcin

    II disagree. It is not the Dalai Lama who should stand up for these deaths. He would then become an easy target to the Dictators Communist Chinese Government.

    It is us (se call ourselves the FREE world) who should take a stand against the Economic Superpower of the Communist China, yet we are afraid of meeting Him because we fear economic sanctions from them
    Obama refused to meet him on the Oval Office not to make the Chinese mad, so did Sarkozy and many other world's leader.
    The FREE WORLD chickens out in front of the Chiinese impositions. we should be ashamed of ourselves

    July 12, 2012 at 4:45 pm |
  10. Thupten Namdrol

    This writer has no idea why the Dalai Lama is not publicly condemning the spate of immolations in Tibet. First of all, there is no such tradition. Second, for the Dalai Lama to condemn these acts, would for a Tibetan that has burned him/herself would be a terrible thing. Third, this is not about the Dalai Lama, this is about China in Tibet, killing Tibet. If you are not Tibetan and are not suffering like them, then you have no right to proclaim anything. What have you done for Tibet??? What has anyone done for Tibetans and their plight. One person in Egypt burns themself and the world weeps, but 48 Tibetans and all you can do is criticise the Dalai Lama, what about getting out there and confronting the real source of the problem: the reason why they are doing it? These Tibetans have given their lives, the DL will never condemn them for that, are you nuts??? If anyone should be condemned it should be the chinese for stealing our country and looting it and killing off our culture. Get real and pull this story.

    July 12, 2012 at 4:44 pm |
    • BG

      If they pull the story, slanted as it is (Prothero's good at that) they'll also have to pull you comment... and your comment is the best thing about this story.

      July 12, 2012 at 4:53 pm |
    • Joe

      Great points!

      July 12, 2012 at 5:03 pm |
  11. Reality

    " 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.


    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 to the cause.

    July 12, 2012 at 4:34 pm |

    But then again, what the fukc is a real buddhist?

    July 12, 2012 at 4:29 pm |
    • BG

      You've been reading too much wiki again.... You should stop that. You'll grow hair on your palms.


      July 12, 2012 at 4:37 pm |

    Real Buddhists wouldn't self-immolate. Just a bunch of guys that cared (too much) about perceived injustices. Sad, really.

    July 12, 2012 at 4:29 pm |
    • BG


      "Just a bunch of guys that cared (too much) about perceived injustices..."

      Too funny. Tell us, "HOLY JESUS," did you get a nice gift when you joined the commie party? Umbrella? Tote bag?

      July 12, 2012 at 4:41 pm |
  14. Steve

    So in a very real sense, their blood is on his hands

    Thats one desparate writer....right there!

    July 12, 2012 at 4:20 pm |
  15. CNN - the American Bureau of Xinhau


    From the Government of the People's Republic of China

    All you people need to get with the program. Tibet is ours. They live high off the hog up there, despite what the liar, the Dalai Lama, says. Corporate America know that it's in the best interest of both our countries for China to keep Tibet in line, or the next thing you know we'll have unions, massive protests (everything in China "massive"), more separatist religions and people jumping off the Foxconn buildings (last one's ok, we've got lots of workers.) Next thing you know we actually have to pay our people with something of value. Good grief. We may even have to attach value to the Yuan. That'd be like using real money! Yikes! Then the real trouble starts... no more cheap stuff from China!

    So, when it comes down to it, people like Stephen Prothero here are actually doing the world a great service.

    July 12, 2012 at 4:08 pm |
  16. just sayin

    Sounds like the monks find this act cool. If a moron wants to light themselves on fire, more flame to them.

    July 12, 2012 at 3:51 pm |
  17. Kim

    This article is a good example of why CNN has rapidly decreasing viewership.

    July 12, 2012 at 3:49 pm |
  18. chedar888

    Rather than asking Dalai Lama (which is powerless to ask the monk not to self immolate) Potrero should go to the root of why the monks and nun self immolate. Use the power of the pen and convince the communist chinese to give up Tibet and let the people of Tibet fo free and direct their own faith. It is a more powerful tool Mr. Porthero rather than asking someone to do it for you.

    July 12, 2012 at 3:47 pm |
  19. Stephen Prothero

    Another tragic death by fire: http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/11/world/asia/china-43rd-tibetan-sets-himself-on-fire.html?_r=1

    July 12, 2012 at 3:47 pm |
  20. Jason T

    I would like to know if the ones who killed themselves this way are monks or ordinary Tibetans.

    July 12, 2012 at 3:45 pm |
    • Zara

      they are monks, nuns, laymen, women, young teenagers,...from all walks of life. The suffering and the repression is felt by everyone, so the real blame goes to China and its enablers in the form of green dollar.

      July 18, 2012 at 10:54 pm |
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