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. Peregrinus

    My most sincere and deepest wishes of freedom go out to the Tibetan people, and for the loss of another brother.

    I believe that what most people do not understand and therefore fear, hence their anger and condemnation... is that peaceful non-violent direct action is the only method that can will cease the occupation, for it is the only method that the Chinese government is incapable of dealing with. At least, if they are increasing repression, you understand that they are now fighting, and the next step is that they lose.

    Each self-immolation is an expression of truth, and according to Buddha, "Three things cannot be hidden long; the sun, the moon, and the truth". It is only a matter of time.

    July 18, 2012 at 10:22 pm |
  2. alex2002

    Why should Americans shed our blood and fight for independence of another people?

    July 18, 2012 at 9:49 pm |
  3. Tenzin Choegyal

    Does he "Stephen Prothero" really knows about Tibet's peaceful and non-violent struggle for just cause against the communist Chinese brutality for the last 50+ years? He should meet with our Kalon Tripa (Prime minister of Tibet) who is on US tour now and face one to one, so that Prothero is unbiasedly educated on the peaceful struggle of Tibet.
    My hats off to Tendor for his timely response and corrections..

    July 18, 2012 at 9:03 pm |
  4. alamo

    "Tibetans have chosen a means far more peaceful".
    "Self-immolation . . . represents the final outpost in the spectrum of nonviolent resistance."

    Since when is mass suicide "peaceful" and "nonviolent"?

    July 18, 2012 at 8:06 pm |
    • Von Dresen

      Since when is mass suicide "peaceful" and "nonviolent"? Asks the alamo.
      (Ironic choice of name by the questioner, when one considers the history of the Alamo)

      We are not discussing, "mass suicide," we are discussing individual acts of protest, which are nonviolent, because every other form of protest from the Tibetan's has been met with extreme repression from the Chinese Government, resulting, often, in multiple deaths, kidnapping, and imprisonment, where in many cases we do not know what happens to these victims.

      July 18, 2012 at 9:49 pm |
    • alamo

      "We are discussing individual acts of protest, which are nonviolent . . ."

      Again, how exactly is KILLING YOURSELF nonviolent?

      July 19, 2012 at 5:40 pm |
  5. Cherish

    Free Tibet, Free Eastern Turkistan

    July 18, 2012 at 7:29 pm |
    • The Four Fluffy Kittens of the Apocalypse Wanna PARTY ! ! ! !

      Free Mississississississississippippippippippi from its darkness of religion and strange spelling.

      July 18, 2012 at 7:52 pm |
    • MsKushh

      Please, The Four Fluffy Kittens of the Apocalypse Wanna PARTY ! ! ! !, don't make fun of a nation's struggle. You may not enjoy as much asyou now when this happens to you!! Its alway funny as long as it happens tothe others!!

      July 18, 2012 at 9:33 pm |
  6. Athena AKA Sam yaza

    Free Tibet ,.. for the people,.. not the lama hes a slave master

    July 18, 2012 at 7:25 pm |
  7. chungs

    Stephen Prothero is a professor and the writer, Of course that's his profession and his income.Bottom line is he writes for money,that's great but writing without any knowledge or experience of people struggle is valueless.
    please don't try to advertisement your knowledge in the name of Tibet.
    (wearer know where the shoe pinches)

    July 18, 2012 at 6:57 pm |
    • lie to live

      I understand the selfish of tibetans in exile. So you have to send your same kind to fire. Why don't you start a nation in India tibet? It's not Tibet, It's india now?

      July 18, 2012 at 7:17 pm |
  8. chungs

    Heavensent: my ass laughing so wild on your childish word..dont insult your Jesus.think before you write and don't yell with empty knowledge of self-immolation or the god of all Sentient beings.


    July 18, 2012 at 6:31 pm |
  9. the panda express chicken is made of tibetan people!!!

    it's............TIBETAN PEOPLE!!!!!

    July 18, 2012 at 6:12 pm |
  10. tibettruth

    We should note too, in addition to the reasoned comments offered by Tendor, the central objectives of those Tibetans who sacrifice themselves, it is too easy to misunderstand and misrepresent the motives of these martyrs as some desperate action, a last fiery stand, with no alternative under China's tyrannical grip. While such factors may apply in some cases they are of themselves not the primary driving force, as revealed by the numerous final statements that have come to light from these Tibetans, their political demands reflected too in the leaflets and slogans that have often been witnessed at these protests. These repeatedly have two main objectives: Tibet's independence and a support for and a demand that the Dalai Lama return to Tibet, such demands illustrate that these self-immolations, far from some act of desperation, a moment of suicidal despair usually associated with some personal crisis, are a very singular, calculated and determined political action. Take the case of Ngawang Norphel and Tenzin Kedhup, who on June 20 in Tibet's eastern region of Kham self-immolated outside an nearby Chinese security office, holding the symbol of Tibetan national independence as the flames swallowed them. Their incredible action was not calculated to lobby for a moderation of China's oppressive policies, nor did they choose a lonely desperate location to which their misery could be swiftly ended, no it was a highly politicized protest of defiance and demand for Tibet's rightful independence. While it is entirely natural and understandable that we recoil uneasily from the shocking sight of such protest we honor best such sacrifice and immense courage by ensuring that the objectives and hopes that propelled these Tibetans to take such a step are not forgotten.

    July 18, 2012 at 6:09 pm |
  11. kinh-luan viet mai

    I thank the author for expressing what I thought but could not put in words. My pity for Prothero's total lack of understandings.

    July 18, 2012 at 6:06 pm |
  12. J Waddell

    I'm sadly confident that the only reason that western nations do not assist Tibet in the matter of occupation by China is simply that there is no financial gain to be found there. Tibet has no oil, nothing to strip mine, nothing to steal from their people, or to be obtained from them otherwise. The United States and all its large corporations tend to only find places rich with gold or other precious metals, gemstones, fossil fuels, etc. to "assist". As an American, i find it sad that in order to be "helped" by us these countries are completely damaged in the name of progress. I hope that in the near future Americans will start insisting that Tibet HAS much to offer! It has so much spirituality and lessons to give to the rest of the world, a strong diversity of wildlife (which will probably be wiped out by the people of china as they have done to their own country) and much more! As a race, I feel that it is our duty to stop this ridiculous rule of tyranny, yet each of us enable it. China is absurd, yet we all purchase their items...why? Each of us in America purchase at least one item daily from their country. Stop supplying the cash to tyrants and you force them to realize that we do not accept the tyranny of one country against another.

    July 18, 2012 at 6:04 pm |
    • Belgian

      While I agree with your conclusion, it is simply not true that there is no financial gain in Tibet. It is the prime reason why China occupied the country ! The Himalayan plateau of Tibet is rich with gold, silver, copper and even more important uranium. Its lakes are filled with lithium. It is the source of many large Asian rivers and whoever controls the water, controls the continent. Modern Tibet is infested with Chinese mines that pollute and poison entire villages. Salt mines are destroying holy lakes. In the past it was very difficult to exploit these riches at such heights, but with the current technology it can be done. China is stealing the water and precious metals from Tibet for years now and it only benefits the Chinese, not the Tibetans.

      July 19, 2012 at 10:58 am |
  13. JNappe

    The author Stephen Prothereo is uninformed and arrogant. It is his Christian religion that displays Jesus as tortured and crucified all over churches. The Chinese have been committing genocide against Tibetans since 1950. That's 62 years. And no one in the Chinese government or the world for that matter, has taken a serious interest in this killing going on. What can a society do to get the notice of the supposedly tuned in world, United Nations?, to stop the genocide of a magnificent culture? Yeah, Americans, numbed and dumbed down by TV and movie violence has definitely destroyed brain centers for empathy. Most Americans don't even know about what's happening to Tibet. Genocide is going on right now in Tibet by the Chinese. The Chinese people are oppressed by a likely 1% of rich overlords and have no say in what their shameless oppressors are doing. Stephen Prothereo, study up a little on Tibetan history.

    July 18, 2012 at 5:45 pm |
  14. James Blumenthal, Ph.D.

    I would just like to thank Tenzin Dorje for such a clear and honest explanation of Tibetan self-immolations. Certainly they are a tragedy, but nothing like the violent tragedy that has been occurring in Tibet under Chinese occupation for more than sixty years!
    James Blumenthal
    Professor of Tibetan Buddhist Philosophy
    School of History, Philosophy, and Religion
    Oregon State University

    July 18, 2012 at 5:35 pm |
  15. SHENG Xue

    shame on you Steven Prothero.

    You do not to condemn the suppression of the tyranny, but to pretend a fair judge;
    You do not to challenge the tyranny of the autocracy, but to blame the messenger of peace;
    You do not to stop the repression, but to attack the silent resistance,
    You do not help the innocent victims, but to make them hurt once again.

    July 18, 2012 at 5:16 pm |
  16. Dr. Sandra Erickson

    I am chocked to see such uninformed view of Chinese policies towards Tibet an human rights in their own country, as I am always chocked to see how western nations remain silent and blind to the immense injustices being committed against Tibetan. I side with Dr. King said when he expressed the view that what worries him was not the evil done by the bad people, but the silence of the good ones. May people who read this blog get the time to get better information on this issues, and acess http://www.standupfortibet.org to take the right actions the issue demand; peace to all readers.

    July 18, 2012 at 4:29 pm |
  17. T. Thinley

    In a fair world, CNN would run another piece on air. This time a Tibetan would speak of the immolations, their causes and give an accurate account of the Dalai Lama's response to them (he has gravely discouraged them.). If CNN fails to do this thing that would be so simple and easy for them, they are colluding with the Chinese governement which had perpetrated unspeakable horrors on the Tibetan people for decades. With no correction to the ignorance and/or sympathies of Stephen Prothero on air and no response to the Chinese propagandists on this site, then I can only wonder at the accuracy of everything CNN has to say about world events. How can six-million Tibetans efffect 1.3 billion Chinese except through this most grievous form of communication, a most deparate cry for help universally understood by all human beings of good-will? CNN, you should be ashamed and do your part, not in a blog, but on the air to right these propagandistic falshoods and purposeful misunderstandings. Would you have reported with the same sloppiness, deep moral and historical ignorance , lack of perspective and context, were they contemporaneous, on, for instance, the Salem Witch Trials, the Massacer at Wounded Knee, the activities of the Ku Klux Klan, the murder of the Russian Tsar and his family? Get a grip, CNN, on what's really happening!!

    July 18, 2012 at 4:29 pm |
  18. Amdoyakboy

    "兔子逼急了会咬人" is a Chinese saying. it
    Literally means "Even a hare will bite when it is cornered". Mr.Stephen Prothero, much more, we are human beings and the way we express our sufferings is not to harm Chinese or Chinese dogs, but our own bodies. Do you have a human brain to perceive the human world correctly? It is really sad to read the sort of thing you have expressed. You have right to say anything but you have exposed something you have deep in your mind which is immoral and vicious. I admire your courage. Go head, headless Mr. Stephen Prothero.

    July 18, 2012 at 4:27 pm |
  19. Tseten Tashi

    Tenzin Dorji, you knocked down Stephen Prothero with many points and reason, when he wakes up he will realize the truth about China's repression and colonial rule of Tibet. Wake up Stephen! Open your eyes to see the flame of truth from the burning Tibetans, don't be fool of yourself by being puppet of Tyrant PRC.

    July 18, 2012 at 4:23 pm |
  20. nick pearson

    Unitil 1950 when the Chinese Red Army invaded Tibet under pretext of "liberating the country from feudalism" Tibet was a free and independent country and never an integral part of China. At times in the past when dynasties were at their height they made efforts to include Tibet into their tributary system of neighboring countries, but never in two thousand years did Tibet become part of the Chinese Empire. Since 1950 and especially since 1959 when a rebellion against Chinese occupation took place in Lhasa, Tibet has had the status of a colony of China despite the fact that China calls it an "autonomous region." It is hardly autonomous but is rather ruled by a combination of Chinese officials appointed by the central government and Tibetans collaborators who are there as window dressing to give the appearance of the exercise of Tibetan power in their own land. But the fact is that Tibetans are always second class to the Han Chinese occupiers. Hence the constant backdrop of dissatisfaction among the Tibetans. Historically Tibet was remote from China and at an average of 4000 meters above sea level was considered inhospitable for settlement by Chinese immigrants. Different dynasties sent representatives to Lhasa to try to claim suzerainty over the country, but those claims were laughed off by the Tibetans because the Chinese had no way of enforcing them. Now, sixty-two years after the Red Army invasion Tibetans want control of their own land back. When the Chinese communist dynasty falls they will get that control back I believe.

    July 18, 2012 at 4:22 pm |
    • lie to live

      If these tibetan actually try to find something meaningful to do not pray to the half man half god Dalai Lama every day, they will find life is more valualbe than a firing self. Life seems to be cheap to the tibetans or they believe in they will go to the heaven by doing that. It's the fault of the religion.

      July 18, 2012 at 7:03 pm |
    • hawaiiguest

      @lie to live

      Wow, you really don't know much about the religion, beliefs, or the role of the Dalai Lama do you?

      July 18, 2012 at 7:08 pm |
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