My Take: Why the Dalai Lama cannot condemn Tibetan self-immolations
July 18th, 2012
07:34 AM ET

My Take: Why the Dalai Lama cannot condemn Tibetan self-immolations

Editor's Note: Tenzin Dorjee is executive director of Students for a Free Tibet, a global grassroots network of students and activists working for Tibetan independence. A writer and an activist, he is a spokesperson for the global Tibetan youth movement.

By Tenzin Dorjee, Special to CNN

(CNN)–In a crass display of moral blindsight, Stephen Prothero's blog post on Tibetan self-immolations blames the victim instead of the bully.

Tibetans are stuck in one of the world's last remaining and most brutal colonial occupations. It is through this lens, more than anything else, that we must understand the self-immolations.

Since 2009, at least 44 Tibetans -– monks, nuns and lay people -– have set themselves on fire to protest China's rule; 39 self-immolations have occurred this year alone. Every one of these acts is a direct result of China's systematic assault on the Tibetan people's way of life, their movements, their speech, their religion, and their identity.

Instead of responding to China's oppression with revenge –- a path far more tempting to the basic human instinct -– Tibetans have chosen a means far more peaceful. Without harming a single Chinese, they set aflame their own bodies to shine a light upon the atrocity taking place in their homeland. They sacrifice their own lives not in the name of “God” or “Buddha,” as Mr. Prothero so dismissively suggests, but in an altruistic intention of alerting the world to their people's suffering.

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By demanding that the Dalai Lama condemn these individuals who have shown compassion beyond our imagination, Mr. Prothero has betrayed a colossal indifference to the courage and circumstances of those fighting for the same democratic freedoms and human rights that he himself enjoys.

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?

By every measure, it's the Chinese leaders and not the Dalai Lama who are responsible for the self-immolations in Tibet. They have the power to ease tensions, reverse restrictions, and stop the self-immolations overnight. But instead of seeking a lasting solution to the Tibet issue, they continue to aggravate the situation by intensifying the repression.

No one is more tormented by the self-immolations than the Dalai Lama, whose bond with the Tibetan people goes deeper than language can express. In fact, it is the singular calming influence of the Dalai Lama that has kept the movement nonviolent to date.

An act of faith, desperation or protest: Self-immolations through time

As a universal icon of peace, the Dalai Lama's spiritual influence goes well beyond the Buddhist world. Nevertheless, his moral authority is not an infinite resource. There is an invisible moral rope with which the Dalai Lama has bound the Tibetans to nonviolence for four decades. But this rope is wearing thin as China's escalating tyranny drives Tibetans into a corner.

Self-immolation, which emerged as a tactic from being cornered for too long, represents the final outpost in the spectrum of nonviolent resistance. If this last remaining space for expression, no matter how drastic, is taken away, the rope might just snap. Chaos will ensue, vastly increasing the chances of a full-blown ethnic conflict that even the Dalai Lama will have exhausted his moral capital to stop.

From all of Mr. Prothero's accusations, the most offensive is his comparison of self-immolations to sati – a social system in ancient India where widows were pressured to throw themselves into the funeral pyre of their deceased husbands. Self-immolation – a political act of reason – is the polar opposite of sati – a blind act of superstition.

There is not a single case of Tibetan self-immolation that was prompted by social pressure or religious obligation. Every incident of it, unexpected as it is, shakes the nation, the community, not to mention the family, to its foundations. Every Tibetan prays in his or her heart that the latest might be the last.

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The image of a person engulfed in flames is shocking, often disturbing, to people living in the free world. For all our obsession with violent movies, graphic video games, and live coverage of wars, it still rips our hearts to pieces when we see a human in flames.

Rather than indulging in philosophical investigations into the morality of self-immolations, we must see these actions for what they are: urgent pleas for help from a people pushed to the brink by decades of ruthless repression.

One hopes that most people are focused on the real question at hand: how shall we answer this call?

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Tenzin Dorjee.

- CNN Belief Blog

Filed under: Buddhism

soundoff (164 Responses)
  1. Alex

    setting oneself on fire is not an act on non-violance. it is inflicting violence upon your own body which is still violence. the buddhist principle of "not harm any sentient being" includes of course yourself.

    July 18, 2012 at 11:32 am |
    • vittorio

      Yes you are right in what you say. Things are so bad in Tibet under the Chinese that the Tibetans want to harm the Chinese and then they remember the words that you write about. They are harm themselves with the motivation that the greater world would look into there sufferings out of concern and there hope that their sacrifice would lead to a better tomorrow. They hold themselves back from killing the Chinese.

      And look at what we the living people do, we blame them for killing themselves instead of looking at the core reasons as to why they burnt themselves. What number of burnt Tibetans will it take to pressure the Chinese Authorities to back off.

      If you look at it this way then the table is turned.

      July 18, 2012 at 11:46 am |
  2. vittorio

    Excellent response to the the intellectually lazy Boston University's scholar Stephen Prothero. Well done Tenzin Dorjee. Thanks for putting out the facts as they are. BU should grant you a position on there staff.

    People want to point fingers at the Dalai Lama. We ought to point fingers at ourselves.

    People do not want to face up to the fact that there are in actuality complacent to these deaths as they help keep Chinese economy afloat. The one thing Chinese Authorities respect is money and the power that comes with it. Take that away and they are nothing.

    July 18, 2012 at 11:24 am |
  3. Hypatia

    Prothero was operating (along with many of the commenters here) from the judeo-xian viewpoint on suicide, which is not shared by other faiths. So his objections were based on a moral precept that doesn't exist in a faith he clearly cannot comprehend. Excellent article above if people read it, instead of scan and scream.

    July 18, 2012 at 11:22 am |
  4. td

    Stephen Prothero, for all of his intellect (BU religion scholar, really?), it's pathetic to see a man who fails to see the very basic truth about the self-immolations; the article really reads as if it was written to be controversial for just it's sake. Thanks Tendor for pointing the finger right at the Chinese communist regime and not the self-immolators or the Dalai Lama.

    July 18, 2012 at 11:19 am |
  5. ME II

    Excellent article, thank you.

    The ultimate expression of freedom of expression?

    July 18, 2012 at 11:13 am |
  6. Joe

    I have nothing to say but would like to ask do you Americans really know Tibet(even other countries you attack)? YOU MAKE THE WORLD MESSY WITH RUDE WAYS; YOU ARE THE INITIATOR OF EVIL!

    July 18, 2012 at 11:12 am |
    • William Demuth

      No we don't

      In honesty we don't care. Never have and never will.

      While I know this may seem horrible to you, it is also the truth.

      Even if you light yourself on fire and die the most agonoizing death imaginable, we still wont care.

      Why should we?

      July 18, 2012 at 11:16 am |
  7. William Demuth

    I bet Tibetian candles are even more fun than Roman ones!

    I am reminded of Patton.

    No one ever won a war by dying for his country. You win them by making the other guy die for his!

    Let these folks KILL and then the Chinese will care. Otherswise, nobody cares.

    If you want to roast yourself, at least do it while on a bus filled with your enemies, or do it in an auditorioum during a Chinese grade school graduation.

    The ONLY thing that changes things is body count. Just ask the Palestinian's!

    On a lighter note, It's really a shame this extremist behavior hasn't yet taken hold in Fundamentalist Christianity, because I have no doubt Preacher Crackilings would be mighty tasty!

    July 18, 2012 at 11:10 am |
  8. AmRev

    Just one question: Has the Dalai Lama ever called for an end to the self-immolations?

    July 18, 2012 at 11:03 am |
    • AmRev

      I found the answer to my own question: http://tinyurl.com/8ypsuhk

      July 18, 2012 at 11:10 am |
    • Tenzin

      No, His Holiness has not called for an end of the self-immolations. He was asked about this two months ago and replied, "No answer." CNN http://articles.cnn.com/2012-05-14/asia/world_asia_uk-dalai-lama_1_tibetan-buddhist-community-dalai-lama-immolations?_s=PM:ASIA

      July 18, 2012 at 11:16 am |
  9. NewsKills

    News Kills.
    Such a supportive comments will only encourage people to kill themselves.
    Why don't the writer or Dalai himself "set aflame their own bodies to shine a light upon the atrocity taking place in their homeland"??
    Turns out they are cowards, or they just want to sitting on other's pain and enjoy their own benefits.

    I still believe the real activists respect lifes, including their own life.

    July 18, 2012 at 10:57 am |
  10. Jason T

    ..".44 Tibetans - monks, nuns, and lay people - " I am very curious about how many "lay people" are there self-immolated.

    July 18, 2012 at 10:52 am |
  11. Bo

    Do these people think the Chinese politicians care if they kill themselves, it may be that they [the Chinese politicians] would just as soon annihilate them and many other religions; Isn't this the way of many atheists think? (Although Buddhism is a philosophy more than a religion.

    July 18, 2012 at 10:26 am |
  12. Dendo

    If we look back at human history, we have been always supportive to causes who had the right. Thatnis why we condem Hitler, Stalin and all those oppressors. Even nowadays, we condem Mubarak, Bashar Al Asaad and Gadaffi of their ill treatments to their own citizen. People backed with the one who self immolated in Egypt. All people of this world condemned Mubarak not the individual. But when it comes to Tibet, why people of the world are condemning His Holiness the Dalai Lama and Tibetans instead of China. Historically we Tibetans have proved we were free country and we have the right to be free. In United Nation human rights watch report 2011, Tibetans inside Tibet are experiencing the least human rights in whole world. Enpven such report, why Tibetans are condemned.

    July 18, 2012 at 10:26 am |
  13. fsuonelove

    Dalai Lama is actually evil. He is just used by our royal elites as a symbol of peace and as the face of to tibetens.. he is actually one of the main enslavers of the Tibetan people.

    July 18, 2012 at 9:49 am |
    • Tenzin

      fsuonelove. Nobody believes when you say these things about His Holiness the Dalai Lama. As the article states, His Holiness in a universal icon of peace. You sound like one of the Chinese guys who have been saying the same bad things over and over for 50 years about His Holiness. Nobody believes this talk about slaves in Tibet. What about all the monks and Tibetans the Chinese beat up and put in jail nowadays? Even if His Holiness had 'slaves' he left Tibet 50 years ago. Seems the Chinese have turned to tables on themselves and now they are the jailers and slave owners in Tibet.

      July 18, 2012 at 10:02 am |
    • Susan

      If dalaï lama is évil thén Mao and Hitler Should be God ? Côme on Man. Be reasonable

      July 18, 2012 at 10:24 am |
    • Bill Deacon

      This is the same reasoning that people use against the Christian Church. Funny how people spring to the defense of the Dalai Lama but swallow hook line and sinker the diatribes against religion in their own culture.

      July 18, 2012 at 11:11 am |
  14. Sherri from the D!

    RL: Yes, is it yours? Don't you have a job or career to do today? Antagonism isn't very prosperous enough for you (now, do you need Webster's link for THAT statement or does that compute enough for you?

    July 18, 2012 at 9:26 am |
    • Tom, Tom, the Piper's Son

      If you're going to pretend that English is your first language, you should actually learn to write it.

      July 18, 2012 at 9:28 am |
  15. Sherri from the D!

    WIM: Wooooow... Deep response. Came we state something mire profound, or is this too much of a challenge? God (nor god) is MY belief, not imposed on others in my comment. I rather believe than not and be condemned to eternal fire & damnation. See, that's how it works when you're FREE to believe ekat you choose and not suffer for it. Which was the POINT.

    July 18, 2012 at 9:15 am |
    • Sherri from the D!

      Sorry for the misspells... Gotta love the SMARTPHONE auto texts – another freedom I enjoy! 🙂

      July 18, 2012 at 9:17 am |
    • Who invited me?

      If you are so sure there is a god, and apparently you only believe because of the threat of hell, then why don't you get your god to do something.

      I will continue to tell you that god is a figment of your imagination, or that he isn't worth anything as long as he allows suffering and oppression go unchecked as it has throughout mans history.

      If there is a god, he doesn't give a damn to what is going on on this planet.

      And work on that english...you aren't making sense.

      July 18, 2012 at 9:20 am |
    • Just Claims, No Truth

      The threarof eternal punishment betrays a weak argument.

      July 18, 2012 at 9:48 am |
  16. Sherri from the D!

    Explain what emphasis of which world that doesn't exist... Or maybe you to reread and THINK OPENLY of the comment.

    July 18, 2012 at 9:11 am |
    • Rational Libertarian

      Is English your first language?

      July 18, 2012 at 9:14 am |
  17. Sherri from the D!

    Please, Commentors.... This "commentary" is SOLEY one man's take on a drastic self-decision of Tibetans that feel there is no other way to get the world to see that something is wrong with their government's treatment to their people. No different in comparison to Africans that were taken from their homes/villages throwing themselves overboard from sea ships that were bringing then to the Americas in the Slave Trade. Yes, it is grotesque, most times (to people of a freer world) unfathomable; nut is meant to make you OPEN YOUR EYES to the troubles that great and demeaning to the rest of the world that are not preved to this uncivil treatment. Drastic, apparently deemed necessary to make change. I pray for all the individuals and their families left behind to morn. May God be with us all.

    July 18, 2012 at 9:05 am |
    • Rational Libertarian

      You capitalized to emphasize a word that doesn't exist.

      July 18, 2012 at 9:08 am |
    • Who invited me?

      Perhaps god should open his eyes to what is going on....
      Oh, that's right....god is a figment of your imagination.

      July 18, 2012 at 9:10 am |
  18. Craig Quirolo

    The Dalai Lama is a buddhist monk his job is to preserve and protect all life in a peaceful manner...his logic is flawed and too associated with politics, No life is worth sacrificing for political reasons.

    July 18, 2012 at 8:13 am |
    • Heaven Sent

      Sort of ends war, eh?

      July 18, 2012 at 8:41 am |
    • Bill Deacon

      You demean the lives of American soldiers and others who have made the supreme sacrifice for freedom

      July 18, 2012 at 8:55 am |
    • Rational Libertarian

      No American soldier has died for freedom since WW2.

      July 18, 2012 at 9:03 am |
    • HeavenSent

      Apparently phony heavensent refuses to read what I posted.

      Phony heavensent, you believe yourself to be having fun as you manipulate my handle the last few days writing your nonsense. Mental health professionals know your behavior to be disturbed with narcissistic, anti-social personality disorders. I'll throw in borderline personality disorder just to cover more of the bases with obsessive compulsive disorder to boot.

      Jesus can cure you but, you need to humble yourself to ask Him.

      July 18, 2012 at 9:21 am |
  19. JellyBean


    July 18, 2012 at 8:10 am |
  20. Rational Libertarian

    I wouldn't condemn self immolations, I'd just laugh at the sheer stupidity of the gesture.

    Also, the Dalai Lama is a fame w.hore, wannabe celebrity theocrat.

    July 18, 2012 at 8:05 am |
    • skyi

      The things you said was just far from what your name "Rational libetarian" means. If you don't know well why the self immolation is taking place in Tibet. Then better to stop speak out your meaningless thoughts. And read well the over article.
      if you think their act was stupid,then all those who are sacrificing themselves for the freedom and human right of the their fellow people are stupid?

      July 18, 2012 at 10:55 am |
    • Shaun Rose

      What would you do if your people were becoming extinct? I doubt you have the capacity to imagine such a thing, let alone act for anyone's benefit. Not very rational, sir. Just ignorant.

      July 18, 2012 at 1:07 pm |
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