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. saywhatyoumean@yahoo.com

    Well if the Dalai Lama doesn't think it's wrong, maybe HE should set himself on fire in protest. I love how kings just sit back while the pawns take the fall.

    July 12, 2012 at 9:06 pm |
    • Zara

      and i love how those who have not known suffering and an iota of what the Dalai Lama had done for Tibet...goes to judge and spill ignorance from their lips. No single human being has done anything for Tibet more than this 14th Dalai Lama...so don't point fingers at other when you are swimming in a pool of BS.

      July 18, 2012 at 10:56 pm |
  2. Elliot

    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?

    The author is, first of all, equating doing harm to one's self to "killing" and "human sacrifice", using the most inflammatory and derisive language he can. Second, he is speaking from a Judeo-Christian-Islamic perspective which has a totally different view of life and death (and afterlife / rebirth) than Buddhism does. If he understood Buddha's teachings, he would not have written this article.

    July 12, 2012 at 8:50 pm |
  3. Atheism is not healthy for children and other living things

    Prayer changes things

    July 12, 2012 at 8:48 pm |
  4. Andy

    I believe the Dalai Lama has stated in the past that he does support the practice of self-immolation. To not speak on on a particular incidence of the action does not mean he supports it. The Dalai Lama's words have repercussions. By not making a judgment on a particular action of another individual, the ramifications of such a judgment are not realized. Its important to note that the shocking images and the suffering of people harming themselves in this fashion is aweful indeed. But even though the public denouncement may help end this practice, it may cause a greater harmful impact.

    July 12, 2012 at 8:42 pm |
  5. Mr Probe

    Prothero: Your Holiness, given your authority, surely you bear some responsibility for these self-immolations?
    Dalai Lama: A neutral stance is best in this situation, I believe.
    Also, don't you EVER call me Shirley, you bastard hack journalist!

    July 12, 2012 at 8:33 pm |
  6. Voice of Reason

    If anyone claim spirituality the Tibetan Monks own it, hands down!

    July 12, 2012 at 8:26 pm |
    • Voice of Reason

      claim = claims

      July 12, 2012 at 8:29 pm |
  7. J. Chophel

    OMG Is this report real CNN? Is this not crossing a line, whether it be through ignorance or paid for by the Chinese. We are all aware that Beijing is buying academics to write favorable articles for the CCP, but going this far as to almost fight the battle for the CCP, I don't think so.
    Jesus said that the earth and heaven belongs to the meek and in this case I see the Tibetans as meek, not the Chinese. Really this is so embarrassing to even read, it looks like it was taken right out of the CCP propaganda book.
    Shame on you CNN for letting such a report out. This is akin to condemning the Jewish resistance against the Nazi during ww2. OMG what a tragic misguided piece of writing.

    July 12, 2012 at 8:21 pm |
    • owen

      Are you saying Amerian media should only have one voice on the issue?
      Is this what you call free flow of expression?
      What a hypocrite

      July 12, 2012 at 8:44 pm |
  8. Kunga

    Your lack of understanding is very disappointing and your ignorance is appalling.
    A wise person knows when it is better to say nothing. I hope you find your way through this life peacefully.

    July 12, 2012 at 8:10 pm |
    • owen

      You mean a silent encouragement of self-immolation?

      If you are so desperate to expect something bad to happen in Tibet through the immolation.

      Why don't you be part of them?


      July 12, 2012 at 8:47 pm |
  9. tenwang

    I think writer has not understood the root cause of self immolations,he should blame the chinese government for all the problems not H.H The Dalia Lama. We, tibetans have been suffering for five decades under the evil chinese rule. Our basic and fundamental fight as human being are denied. For your kind information His Holiness alway discourage us from killing anybody.

    July 12, 2012 at 8:07 pm |
    • owen

      Are you kidding me? Tibetans have rights under the rule of the "Holy"? Serious.

      They live like dogs.

      July 12, 2012 at 8:35 pm |
  10. IQMan

    LOL Condemn the Tibetans and the Dalai Lama but lets stay very very quiet on all the Tibetans being murdered and oppressed by the Chinese CCP. Lets stay very quiet about the fact that the Chinese invaded Tibet at razed the country to the ground. Lets stay silent about the Free Tibet movement being non violent.
    How much did they bribe you for writing this piece? Love CCP much Stephen?

    July 12, 2012 at 8:02 pm |
  11. Tenzin

    Stephen Prothero – can you say Free Tibet? Tibetans are dieing because of chines brutality.
    You have no idea about freedom struggle buddy. Seems like you have read few books but you have no sense of it.
    Can you say Free Tibet!

    July 12, 2012 at 7:27 pm |
    • PAUL



      July 12, 2012 at 7:36 pm |
    • owen

      Free yourself first

      July 12, 2012 at 8:37 pm |
  12. The Bloviator

    Prothero's opinions may be out in deep left field but he sure can make a great troll face.

    July 12, 2012 at 7:27 pm |
  13. the Dalai Lama

    hey prothero---
    stfu, noob!
    kthx bai!

    July 12, 2012 at 7:12 pm |
  14. Stark

    Mr. Prothero, how in the world can you get a job at a respected university and still be dumb enough to think that self-immolation is the same thing as suicide bombing and Sati? Suicide bombers kill other people, often innocent bystanders. In the case of Sati, there is substantial evidence to suggest that widows often did not voluntarily immolate themselves, but were coerced or even drugged into doing so. You have also entirely neglected the political element: if these monks want to kill themselves to protest occupation of their country, I may not agree with it, but I believe they have the right to do so. The comparison is completely ridiculous. What is wrong with you?

    July 12, 2012 at 7:10 pm |
  15. barbarianofgor

    So, China offer a major advertiser a deal on the latest round of merchandise for this propaganda piece...?

    July 12, 2012 at 6:57 pm |
    • owen

      So you are so brain-washed by your media for the past decades. and has formed a steretype about China?
      And now you cannot stand any news favor China a little bit which is kind of reasonable article.

      July 12, 2012 at 8:50 pm |
  16. *frank*

    Prothero giving advice on ethics to the Dalai Lama.........lol just lol...........

    July 12, 2012 at 6:50 pm |
  17. James Walker

    Going to have to agree with Trans...You have no idea what your talking about...
    I lived in China for 6yrs teaching english. Tibetans and Uyghurs are persecuted every second of every day. The Tibetans tend to follow the "We're willing to burn ourselves to death rather than suffer under the chinese" form of protest, and the Uyghurs being muslim are slightly more about killing their oppressor..It's sad and pathetic that CNN has started doing Chinese propaganda tho..cause effectively thats what this is ...

    July 12, 2012 at 6:43 pm |
  18. p gibson

    Mister Prothero,

    The Tibetan Buddhists, I'm quite sure, are happy as can be that you take notice of their practices. They are also fairly well established as a "belief system" or philosophy that you may also be aware of. It began well before Christianity was established.

    It is, however, sad to see yet another Christian, as I'm sure you are, criticizing their practices.

    Is it any WONDER that your compassion often appears as something other than compassion ?

    They don't need your assistance in defining their beliefs, any more than you would welcome their ideas to yours.

    And to be sure, the Buddhists are not the type to adopt so very much in the way of rituals from others, as the Christians have shown they are more than willing and ready to transform their religion to both condemn other practices and simultaneously adopt them as their own.

    Christmas, for one, comes to mind.

    It's kind of a biggie, wouldn't you agree?

    The Tibetans probably enjoy reading your ideas, but surely – your voice to the Dalai Lama is like one of a confused sect of seekers still seeking.

    I don't think he's going to start buying into Christianity anytime soon, although he does respect it.

    How about you, Author ? Got time to actually RESPECT someone other than trying to change them ?

    it's a typical response from western christians, I'll admit. But a waste of time with Tibetans.

    i'm pretty sure they know what they're doing.

    as a case in point, it turns out that many are fleeing the traditional churches in the west....and miraculously the rolls at Buddhist temples is enjoying a huge spike in the last decade.

    Food for thought, Author.

    Don't be such a typical, evangelical Christian and you may get somewhere with your understanding.

    I'll submit that that is about as far as you need to go – they are a mature bunch and know what they're doing.

    July 12, 2012 at 6:38 pm |
    • Voice of Reason

      Good stuff there p gibson!

      July 12, 2012 at 6:45 pm |
  19. Tibet News : www.youtube.com/TibetArchive

    Smuggled videos, news from Tibet !
    TibetArchive on Youtube

    July 12, 2012 at 6:26 pm |
  20. Trans

    Mr. Stephen Prothero, you do not seem to feel even 0.0001% of the pain that the Tibetans are experiencing today. It is only when survival of their entire generations to come is at stake that these immolations are happening. What would you do when you are deprived of every right and resource in your life to live freely? Please try to understand the sensitivity of the topic you are addressing here and see on both sides of the story before you put forward your opinions.

    July 12, 2012 at 6:24 pm |
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