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. Amdoyakboy

    Chinese government has turned Tibet into hell on earth. Unfortunately, blind and ignorant person like Prothero has tried to distort the reality or his total unacquaintance of the atrocities and sufferings the Tibetan people have been undergoing has caused him writing such baseless piece of comedy. As a Tibetan born in Tieran and raised in Tibet, I clearly know how much we Tibetans are suffering under the ruthless Chinese government. Mr. Prothero. Please do not swear black is white. Here I would strongly suggest you to apply for a Chinese citizenship and to live in China for sometimes whereafter you will have some good experience of what is freedom and what is repression.

    July 18, 2012 at 4:04 pm |
    • shi chenxi

      Have you ever been there? Have you ever seen such a beautiful heaven with free people who are pilgrimaging to Lhasa?! If not , please shut your mouth up!!!! what else they want/ freedom? basic human right?! dame it!!! in 2008, some Tibet people killed and hurt others but the government did not killed them just because they are Tibet people, and we need to protect them for their small population!!!! What else they want? the freedom of believing religion?! Many people visit there just because there is a great place for "Tibetan Buddhism". monks are highly respected by people!! what you mean hell? people are killed everyday?! I can not image if there is no CHINESE GOVERNMENT, when Tibet people can escape from the serf owners' control!!! what they want? I think they want nothing else if they know the fact!! Just Dalai Lama want to own Tibet as his kingdom! he call on young monk to set themselves into fire!! Do you think a true leader should do like that?! Please close your mouth closely!!!!!! Never try to fool people without the truth and try your best to develop Tibet !!

      November 13, 2012 at 5:28 pm |
  2. Khalid Khan

    Shame on the FREE world for doing business with China. Long live free Tibitans.

    July 18, 2012 at 4:04 pm |
  3. humen has feeling of sad

    When a clan is dying, even an animal feel being hurt. Sorrow, pain, anxious… all of those kind of expression can be seen on its face. Human being can observe this from his pet dogs, his pet cats… Human beings wrote stories and songs for the sad swans that lost their mates…
    We, come here to read this article, because we are losing the Tibetan self-immolators. We are bearing pain and being hurt. While the Tibetan activists in this article state that the self- immolators chose “to hurt nobody but themselves”. This is an insult of human being’s intelligence and feeling.
    Self-immolating is brutal, is inhuman. It has been using as a weapon to against human being’s life.
    No harming anyone? To those fish cool monks and Rinpoches,maybe. Nothing can hurt them, They have no attachment, even their disciple’s lives.
    In the name of freedom, burn yourself and reincarnate back again.

    July 18, 2012 at 4:02 pm |
  4. Chris

    Why does this even need to be said? Stephen Prothero is an idiot.

    July 18, 2012 at 3:52 pm |
    • Busuyi

      I think people should watch the Passion again, the only sacrifice needed was already provided and the Passion is a way of showing that sacrifice. http://www.praise-tube.com

      July 18, 2012 at 4:02 pm |
  5. tibetburning

    Self-immolation is the highest form of political defiance through non-violent mean. Yes, it is a method to regain independence through generating support and mobilizing other Tibetans to do their bit. These are patriotic individuals, and for freedom they chose to give up their bodies. Anyone can choose any path to free their land. H.H the Dalai Lama has chosen non-violence and dialogue. Some day some Tibetan will show his devotion to his motherland in a violent manner. Now the question is whether China, Tibet, the world for that matter want another middle east situation in Asia. Give peace a chance before violence.

    July 18, 2012 at 3:45 pm |
    • Donald Mason

      Self Immolation is non-violent? Can you be serious? What could be more violent? I understand the reasoning of those who do so...most are young monks that have a limited world view of events going on. No doubt the Chinese are ultimately responsible for these actions by slowly destroying the Tibetan Culture but what effects do these self-immolations really have on world opinion or on the Chinee? Absolutely none...The world is basically impotent against the Chinese genocide and China practically owns America so where is the incentive for them to change? There is none...Tibet as it once was is gone forever in its homeland but will live on due to all of the brave beings who fled Tibet for India so secure their culture and Religion for future generations. Tibet will become a tourist spot for the Chinese to make money from and denounce their culture and H.H. The Dalai Lama. The Dalia Lama has on many occassions asked for the monks to stop this practice as it will have no real effect on the insane leaders in Peking.

      July 18, 2012 at 4:22 pm |
  6. Only a tyrant state like Chinese government would blame the Dalai Lama

    It only takes a common sense to see that these self immolations are due to the heavy handed policies of CCP !

    BRAVO to the writer of this article ! someone who actually is a Tibetan, who actually knows the culture, unlike CCP ! and ill-informed Chinese

    July 18, 2012 at 3:42 pm |
  7. Sergei

    Fine piece of propaganda =_="...

    July 18, 2012 at 3:20 pm |
  8. Flávio Marcondes Velloso, professor

    Believe me, we together can transform this. A true revolution does not mean violence. It means mobilizing the collective consciousness. Do not be afraid. Tibet can be free, as the non-communist China as well. Time is coming! Be together and full of faith. Freedom and human rights will be the prize. There is a way to get them, but mostly the Prime Minister of Tibet can move it, in name of the State of Tibet in exile, with the International Community pressing positively for. Where is he? He knows what I am talking about, as a professor of International Public Law that he is. Have a look, and pass it on: http://tibetparaomundo.blogspot.com ...

    July 18, 2012 at 2:52 pm |
  9. Roger Barriteau

    Clear and logical presentation – not using Buddhist concepts – and thus more easily understood ( and perhaps, more easily accepted ) by those not versed in Buddhism. However, I will study and comtemplate this issue as a means of deeping my Buddhist practice. The Dalai Lama is Buddhism in Action – and he has taught so much about being a man of religion and faith – an honest man who's self-awareness and humor reaches our human condition.

    July 18, 2012 at 2:21 pm |
  10. Celia

    Thanks so much Tendor for this opinion and for the leadership of Students for A Free Tibet. It is so important that students and this new generation of Tibetans and allies be loud and proud in their opinions and perspectives and to speak to encourage HHDL. Self-immolation is so sad and tragic, and indeed we need to find powerful ways to address the root causes of such a powerful act, rather than just ask HHDL to condemn one possible result of these causes.

    July 18, 2012 at 1:45 pm |
  11. TROLL of the Day = Beam Me Up, Scotty!

    Nothing to contribute?

    Had your daily joe yet?

    July 18, 2012 at 1:38 pm |
    • Beam Me Up, Scotty!

      Oh dear! Propaganda services are quite snitty when they are called on it!

      July 18, 2012 at 1:45 pm |
  12. Beam Me Up, Scotty!

    I see the Tibetan exile propaganda service and the Chinese Government propaganda service have discovered the Belief Blog.

    July 18, 2012 at 1:30 pm |
  13. Bootyfunk

    Prothero is worthless and never thinks things through.

    July 18, 2012 at 1:27 pm |
  14. Sangay

    Stephen Prothero\'s article to which this is a response, was actually disjointed one from logical standpoint that was rushed to hit newstands with seemingly sole aim to \"hit the victim to save the face of perpitator\" intent, without giving much thought about what he was writing actually.

    He begins with the Vietnamese monk who self-immolated to protest his govt in 60s which Stephen said drew worldwide attention and was able to bring down the govt within a year! so much for the power of single monk\'s self-immolation! And then Stephen writes next...over 40 Tibetans have self-immolated in Tibet to protest the occupying Chinese govt....and I thought his next logical line would be, \"how come the world is still silient and not rushing to help...when it did to a single Vietnamese monk?\" No, he didnt say that. Just like making an unthought of u-turn from going ahead, he makes a sharp left-turn and says why the world and the Dalai lama re quite and not condemning them!!!!!!

    Condemn them is his intent, so he goes then to equate their act of outmost selflessness, to \"sati\" system and suicide-bombers that take with them 10s of people in the name of religion or paradise whose sole intent is to cause maximum damage to the society as possible! Tell me Stephen, like the suicide bombers, how many lives of innocent Chinese have been taken along by Tibetan self-immolators??? And like the \"Sati\" system, who re forcing the self-immolators, against their will, to burn themselves?

    It just needs a little bit of honesty and bipartisanship and things will become clear, or atleast to a prof like you, that the situation that\'s causing these to protests in the form of self-immolations in Tibet, has Dalai lama suffering too. Dalai lama, the self-immolators and rest of the Tibetans are all in this together – victim of ongoing repressive policy of China and suffereing everyday and forcing us to do so many things. To get you attention so you may write next in your column of our plight, everyone of us wants to protest, in any unimaginable way no matter how life-threatening it maybe, so the world may show some kind of concern it showed to the Vietnamese monk, because we cant take it anymore; your indifference and silence are part to be blamed! And instead of looking at why we are protesting, you want us to condemn each other??????????? Are you sure??????? This is going over-the-board to serve the chinese interest and take-no-prisoner stand on victims!

    July 18, 2012 at 1:04 pm |
  15. tenchoewangyal

    This was an excellent response to Stephen Prothero's commentary on why Dalai Lama should condemn the self-immolations in Tibet. Mr. Prothero only managed to put the spot light on the trend from a religious angle (and that too on the basis of flawed reasonings covered in detail in the response), Tendor has managed to reach to the core of the issue like a true buddhist. He puts it plainly in the terms of cause and effect. The oppression in Tibet is the cause and the effect is the only one left to the Tibetans inside Tibet and that is to "shine the light" at the issue. Alas, the trend for many years has been economically rising China holding all the cards important to the outside world and dictating that the world turn blind and deaf to Tibetans cry for help.

    July 18, 2012 at 1:00 pm |
  16. RAW Unfiltered News www.Youtube.com/TIBETArchive

    News that China does not want you to see!

    July 18, 2012 at 12:36 pm |
    • shi chenxi

      China just want to see the truth!!!!!!!!!!!

      November 13, 2012 at 5:32 pm |
  17. Katherine

    what a ridiculous fraud it is, i really don't know from when on a monk can be a puppet of politic. If the so called nonviolent movement leaded by Dalai Lama in Tibet is to murder the populace of the Han nationality ,If the alleged "instead of hurt Chinese they commit self-immolation" are Suicide bombings ,If to build railways,power stations ,to set preferential policy for Tibetan ,to try the best they(Chinese government) can now to improve Tibetan's standard of living is to suppress, is tyranny,is atrocity,so tell me what is the hell of Al Qaeda' Suicide bombing ,what's the hell of truth ,what's the hell of America's Human Rights. If Chinese government did't try to improve Tibetan's living condition will you USA? Your so called human rights is to cause chaos in China then you can profit from it ,isn't it?And the most important thing i have learned from this passage is if you can compare Dalai Lama Dalai Lama Gandhi ,well ,i can also compare myself to God ,which seems more suitable.I want to tell you that it is a very bad habit to jump to conclusion and write the things you have never seen. And do not write your business for pleasing your also blind-eyed people.There must be one day world will see the truth the ,real human rights in China .We are a nation which can never be divided.

    July 18, 2012 at 12:24 pm |
    • Shaun Rose

      Sadly, Ms. Chinese National,

      You ARE BRAINWASHED. Go to Tibet yourself and learn the truth.

      July 18, 2012 at 12:57 pm |
    • Who invited me?

      To me China is just a big red flag.....

      July 18, 2012 at 1:01 pm |
    • Lee

      Am I the only one who had trouble following this cmment? I fail to see your point...China has no right to self-impose itself on Tibet to "improve" their standards of living...clearly if they're still around they're doing okay.....The citizens are killing themselves because of the Chinese presence and all you can say it's for their own good?
      Katherine, China brainwashes its people into loving the "homeland".....but chinese citizens don't really have any choices. Notice no one anywhere is making giant leaps to move to China or be under communist rule. The fact China has been for several decades, selectively aborting female babies simply because the patriarchal rule in china feels men are superior to women, is proof enough that China is cray cray. In the last couple of decades women have finally stopped binding their feet, a painful practice once widely practiced by every woman in china simply because chinese men favor small feet and becuase women could run/escape from their oppresive husbands.

      July 18, 2012 at 1:02 pm |
    • Mass Debater

      You might have trouble reading "Katherines" post because "she" is just a shill putting out the rhetoric that China's government wants to spew to hide and mask their abuse of their own people.

      July 18, 2012 at 1:21 pm |
    • Thems be manglewords

      Either that was by an official troll of the Chinese government with the usual language skills (if you have ever been to China, you will see lots of English signs that say, I kid you not, "Watch your foot" when they mean "Mind your step"), or someone went out for coffee and their cat ran back and forth across the keyboard.

      July 18, 2012 at 1:26 pm |
    • R


      July 18, 2012 at 3:46 pm |
    • MsKushh

      If China is a nation which can't be divided...good for you!!! Just leave Tibet to Tibetans...problem solved!! Or

      July 18, 2012 at 9:42 pm |
    • noel

      Katherine, your own words " ....it is a very bad habit to jump to conclusion and write the things you have never seen" show that your rant is just that. Go to Tibet and see what it is really like for Tibetans, and who actually benefits from the improved standards of living

      July 29, 2012 at 10:15 am |
    • shi chenxi

      I can't agree with you more!!!!!!!!!

      November 13, 2012 at 5:33 pm |
  18. Buchung R Ngodup

    Well one of the main reason behind self immolation is to show the world that they are not responsible for the violent demonstration happened in 2008. There are concrete evidences to show that pro China Tibetans who got paid by Chinese government to aggravate the violence in Tibet. Self immolation is not violence and it is only kind of demonstration where Chinese government can not get to pay their people to do same and get accuses to dalai lama.

    July 18, 2012 at 12:10 pm |
    • Tim

      Self-immolation isn't violence? What about self-mutilation, self-hanging, shooting oneself? Any other form of suicide? I'm pretty sure they're all violent no matter who's doing the action. Volcano eruptions are violent but if no one's around, no one dies. Saying self-immolation is nonviolent is ignorant. If seeing the person burn makes your heart churn and twist, then it's obviously violent. You can't compare self-immolations to Indians lying on the ground in protest or even the Chinese standing in front of the tanks. Self-immolations means you're setting yourself on fire....They didn't run themselves over with a tank, it's the tank that runs over the person in its way.

      July 18, 2012 at 12:52 pm |
    • shi chenxi

      Self-immolation isn't violence? then you can just do like that!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

      November 13, 2012 at 5:36 pm |
  19. PandoraDoggl

    What, exactly, do the Tibetans hope will come from this gruesome light shining on the Chinese occupation of Tibet? If they are unwilling to inflict violence on anyone but themselves in order to fight for their own freedom, what do they expect to trigger with these self-immolations? Do they hope that some other nation will come to their aid to do violence for them? Do they hope that China cares how many of them set fire to themselves, that they will decide to withdraw simply to stop more people from committing horrific suicide? If they want freedom, they have to take it. It's the only way to get it.

    July 18, 2012 at 12:01 pm |
    • Shaun Rose

      Do you have a clue about the size of the Communist Chinese military? Does anyone understand that Communist China is ruled through its military? I simply cannot comprehend the ignorance. It's been 53 years, people, do a little homework on the issue before you say such ignorant things like " if they want freedom they are going to have to take it". Seriously?
      Do you know how small the Tibetan population is? And, The Chinese have driven them into deep poverty unlike their propaganda would have you believe? It's like an ant going up against and elephant. Unreal! The only hope for Tibet is for the Chinese citizens to rise up against military rule. That's it. Period.

      July 18, 2012 at 1:02 pm |
  20. Jamyang Tashi

    It is sad that some of the people who have commented on this piece are actually trying to prove jokes out of people's suffering rather trying to sincerely share their thoughts. I think the whole purpose of the Self-Immolations in Tibet is to tell the world how much pain Tibetan people are enduring under the Chinese occupation, and that I think have been achieved since the first dose of human flame was lit. Just one Self-Immolation in the middle east was more than enough to revolutionize an entire continent with helps from Western Countries, but we have yet to see an outward support to the Tibetan cause from countries that have a say in the world at large. After all, we are talking about people who are as sensitive to the pain as we are, taking their lives with fiery fire burning their bodies inside out. It is apparent the world is turning a deaf ear to those painful cries for help from Tibet, and we should also began to seriously question the effectiveness of these sacrifices.
    Dalai Lama who Tibetans consider as their symbolic sun, and essentially people are burning themselves alive for His Holiness's return to Tibet. We know how immensely outreaching his messages can be, which I witnessed first hand back in 2008 when Tibetans across Tibet collectively burnt their valuable animal skin ornamentations after just a word condemnation from the His Holiness.To the Tibetan people, Dalai Lama's word is the ultimate law that does have guns enacting it But Dalai Lama had always stood on a firm ground of eschewing from condemning his own people, and that's understandable for aforementioned reasons. Peace and nonviolence was his mantra, and I think those Self-immolations in Tibet have crossed the elastic boundaries of peace and nonviolence.
    In a nutshell, I think Dalai Lama should tell the people in Tibet to stop as we have heard disturbing rumors of more self-immolations are yet to come while not condemning the 44 self-immolations that have already taken place.

    I know there are people out there promoting their own visibility by feeding on these kinds of sad events in Tibet, those people should be condemned. Self-Immolation is not getting Tibetan cause anywhere anymore, so it should be stopped.

    July 18, 2012 at 12:00 pm |
    • Jamyang Tashi

      ***** trying to provoke jokes.******
      ****** who are as sensitive to as we are****
      *****Dalai Lama's word is the ultimate law that doesn't have guns enacting it. ****

      July 18, 2012 at 12:07 pm |
    • HeavenSent

      They are going to burn for eternity anyway and hell will be their home without following Jesus's Truth.


      July 18, 2012 at 12:13 pm |
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