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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. Tibet Revolution

    ALL SET AND DONE AND EVEN SOME OF YOU SAID TRUTHFULLY THAT EVEN IN THE WORST SCENARIO THE WORLD HAS IGNORED AND NEVER HELPED TIBETANS IN TRUE MANNER. THE ONLY WAY IS TO FIGHT BACK LIKE IN THE MIDDLE EAST. THE CHINESE AND EVEN THE WORLD MIGHT SAY WE ARE TERRORIST BUT WE SHOULD FIGHT BACK IN WHATEVER WAY EVEN VIOLENCE BECAUSE YOU ARE FIGHTING FOR YOUR COUNTRY AND FREEDOM. LET THE WORLD SAY WHAT THEY WANT. ONLY THEN THE CHINESE GOV. AND THE WORLD POWER WILL RAISE THEIR VOICES. UNLESS AND UNTIL DOING SUCH NOTHING WILL HAPPEN FOR TIBET. I SALUTE EGYPTIANS, LIBYANS, TUNISIANS AND NOW THE SYRIANS. ACTION SPEAKS LOUDER THAN WORDS AND PROTEST. THIS IS JUST IF....IF ALL THESE 40 SELF IMMOLATIONS ARE TAKEN INSIDE BEIJING, INSIDE GOVERNMENT ARENA INCLUDING OFFICIALS OR KILLED EVEN MURDERER HU...TIBET'S SITUATION WILL BE DIFFERENT TODAY IN THE WORLD. IT SOUND VERY RADICALS BUT THIS IS THE ONLY WAY AND DON'T CALL ME ANOTHER OSAMA OR TALIBAN OR TERRORIST BECAUSE FOR ANY COUNTRY, THEIR PEOPLE WILL FIGHT IN WHATEVER WAY TO ACHIEVE FREEDOM AND SAVE THEIR COUNTRY. SO WHY NOT FOR FREE TIBET.

    July 19, 2012 at 11:36 pm |
  2. Wangdu Phuntsok

    I have a simple question to Mr Prothero.
    You should have seen the famous Tainamment Square photo, in which a lone man was standing before a line of tankers. Now the question is who would you condemn? Would it be the man? Would be the those who drove tankers? Would it be the man's father? ...,,,,,,,,,,,,,,, or would it be THE ONE WHO ORDERED THE TANKERS?

    July 19, 2012 at 9:13 pm |
  3. Gephel

    Dear Mr. Stephen Prothero,
    With my respect, you have to sorry for Tibetan people to write this article. The dedication of lives in the form of self-burning is not for Buddha or God. Tibetan struggle and self-immolations are for the nation Tibet, its six million people, freedom and preservation of compassionate culture in this planet. These are not in the religious texts; you need to take another view to understand better.
    I am also sorry for you to say that this short article that may have taken for you 10 minutes to write, but deeply hurt millions of people and pleased some world’s merciless Chinese regime and support them carry on their repression arrogantly in Tibet. Sir, Are you satisfied now after you destroyed your value and moral ethics of the World religion while you are Cnn religion reporter? Is the main thing that bothering you gone now? Or you still wish to win some kind of award like “Pulitzer Prize” from the rich Chinese hardliners.
    Sir, I am sorry to say that for you, your short article must be a big fund raising letter which included blaming simple Buddhist monk, most respected world peace leader, HH the Dalai lama; you ignored suffering of Tibetan people. Please, understand that there is Tibetan blood in your money, food, and houses. Because, you gave your hands with bloody Chinese repressors.
    However, human being make mistakes and can do self- correction to live with success and values. You are great learned and have responsible for the universal peace. Please give a hand with the Dalai Lama and stand with Tibet to fight against CCP’s brutal repression over Chinese people and Tibetans. I request you to speak for the justice of Tibetan people when you go to speak public medias.

    July 19, 2012 at 5:51 pm |
  4. Belgian

    Please note that once again this blog are riddled with commented posted by the so called "50 cent army" : Chinese students who are paid by the government to spread propaganda or discredit opposition. They can be recognized by the poor English and the rehashing of the same old lies like "the Dalai Lama was a slave owner and China liberated the Tibetans" or "The Dalai Lama is a spy of the CIA" and let's not forget the good old "Americans better shut up because they killed the Indian tribes".
    This goes to show how much China is threatening our civil liberties and how it tries to distort the truth to hide the dictatorship and oppression of their communist regime. China is not a free country, not for Tibetans but also not for the Chinese !

    July 19, 2012 at 11:54 am |
    • alex2002

      Please note that this blog is infested with Free Tiber propagandists. Our civil liberty is best served by the openness to listen to both sides of the story.

      July 19, 2012 at 9:50 pm |
  5. China must be immolated

    Very well-thought and well-done article.

    July 19, 2012 at 10:57 am |
  6. Sheila

    This is the single, best analysis to date I have seen of the situation. Thank you so much, Tenzin Dorjee. And thank you to CNN Belief Blog for publishing it.

    July 19, 2012 at 9:45 am |
  7. Daveno

    S.P view is the same as Chinese communist party propaganda line against the peaceful people of Tibet. To self-immolate is ones own choice , if you can help ..do help otherwise its much better to shut tied on the issue.

    July 19, 2012 at 9:25 am |
  8. sonam zoksang

    People like Stephen Prothero promotes Chinese brutal torture of the Tibetan people and the destruction of Tibet's unique culture.

    July 19, 2012 at 8:50 am |
  9. Karze

    I hope at least couple of Tibetans must be studying in Boston University where Stephen P is faculty member of School of Divinity. They should go and gives some Tibetan history 101 since 1950 occupation to that idiot Stephen.

    Tibetans living in Boston have the moral responsibility to educate the Mr Ignorant.

    July 19, 2012 at 6:39 am |
  10. Dechen

    One line for Tendor la: "YOU HIT THE NAIL ON THE HEAD". BHOD-RANGZEN= HAIL TO THE TIBETAN INDEPENDENCE !!!

    July 19, 2012 at 6:19 am |
  11. The Real Poet

    Why you all not open your eyes and minds ? Does the author still worshipping Dalai Lama?

    July 19, 2012 at 5:06 am |
    • The Real Poet

      For all of these, isn't the author still worshipping Dalai Lama?

      July 19, 2012 at 5:07 am |
    • Tsering Dolma

      The author is pure tibetan and he knows very well about tibetan culture, history, chinese occupation of tibet and the present repression going on inside tibet due to chinese failed policies. If the author worship Dalai Lama or not is a personal matter and and you shoundn't be interfering in that matter, it is always better to know the law. 6 million tibetans have open their mind and eyes since 50 years ago. I think you need to open your eye and mind for your sake.You need to do more investigation before you insult someone. Thank you.

      July 19, 2012 at 5:57 am |
  12. johnchax

    What the Chinese Communist Party are doing in Tibet, they are also doing to other minority groups, including Christians (many in free churches in China have been arrested and tortured) and Muslims (also subject to torture and disappearances). Anyone who is against their ideology is under threat. They use very similar tactics to those of the Nazis in the 1930's and 40's to restrict and humiliate those groups that they dislike and Tibet has born the brunt of a huge amount of this since China invaded Tibet illegally in 1950. The self-immolations are no surprise because the World who condemned the Holocaust in World War 2 simply ignores the Tibetan Holocaust that is going on right now right under its nose. How sad that self-immolation is the only way to draw attention to Tibet's plight!
    Prothero has no idea what he is talking about. The West needs to stand up to China, to impose sanctions on her and refuse to do business with China. Then there would be no self-immolations.

    July 19, 2012 at 4:28 am |
    • johnchax

      This website charts some of the happenings in TIbet – even this is only the tip of the iceberg!
      http://www.tibetinfonet.net/newsticker/entries?province_id=1

      July 19, 2012 at 4:30 am |
    • The Real Poet

      The author himself time and time again has written you all 'have no idea about Tibet'

      July 19, 2012 at 5:09 am |
  13. Jozsef Pildner

    European Citizens' Initiative: EU legal act for protecting national regions!
    http://www.nationalregions.eu

    July 19, 2012 at 4:24 am |
  14. Petra Port

    OM TARE TUTTARE TURE SOHA! I send you all my prayers, tears und deep LOV!E! I open up my heart, my speech and mind for a FREE TIBET, UNIVERSAL PEACE and a NEW WORLD! OM AH HUM BENZA GURU PEMA SIDDHI HUM.

    July 19, 2012 at 3:43 am |
  15. Lyn Macdonald

    Of course it is a sensitive issue but it is nonsense and also offensive to some of us to say people do not care about the opression of Tibet and the Tibetan people. The sad reality is self immolations have no effect on either the Chinese Government or Westerners who do not see suicide as a way forward in the Free Tibet movement and without Western support the movement is nothing. Many people like me are considering ceasing support for the Free Tibet Movement if self immolations continue -such actions are anti Buddhist and a wasted life once filled with opportunities and potential to grow emotionally and spiritually -and to take on the challenge to stay alive and go forward to help others in a difficult world regardless of where that might be or on what soil. I am sick of being told these people are freedom fighters and sacrificing themselves for a cause -they are sacrificing themselves because they are not linked well enough to thinking and perceptions outside Tibet and so are influenced by misleading thoughts thinking their suicide will make a difference and it will not. Other forms of protest however DO influence Westerners -things like marches, blogs, Facebook links, information sharing, mutual interractions instead of separate community conversations and meetings all the times -and also protests like that made by the Yogi Loten Namling who was dragging a coffin with Free Tibet on it around Switzerland. Time to face this emotional happening of self immolations once and for all and discuss why it is wrong -not just accept it and say it is OK -and certainly not cry "free tibet " after each suicide – what it says to me is it is a wasted action, wasting lives once full of potential -and if such a person is caring enough to take that action what a great helper they would make in the terribly unbalanced an needy world that is full of suffering -Tibetans are not the only people suffering – take a look. The world needs compassionate people; not have them commit suicide.

    July 19, 2012 at 2:52 am |
    • Art Rivarez

      People like you, Madam Lyn, and Religion scholar, Stephen Prothero, want the whole world to fit into your world view. Even Tibetans should follow paths shown by you and your ilk. Okay, granted. Please come and join the swelling numbers of Tibetans who are losing their homes, language, culture, country and their sheer existence. The west has for the past 5 decades have supported the Tibetans' cause but look where they are now. The marches, rallies, Facebook and protests all are in order and are continuing. And look where American Barack Obama or British Cameron are. They speak in one voice and act in their narrow self-interest and flatter the Chinese leadership and curry favor with them. Till 2009 only one Tibetan had self immolated. They continued their non-violent protests as prescribed you in your self-righteous mail. Look where they are now and where the Chinese leadership is. And where you are. By joining a protest march and sending a check to a Tibet fund, you may make yourself feel good that you have done your liberal bit, but that would not budge the Chinese. If it were not true things would have changed a long time ago and you would be at the forefront of the movement down at the street, and not in a secure and safe and comfortable sanctuary. This is the trouble with we Westerners, we love moralizing but can't even bear the thought of sacrificing our good life even for a day. We want the world to follow our models and prescriptions. Look at where were are. Despite having everything we are essentially insecure, unhappy, neurotic and caught in self-absorbed pursuits for narrow self-interest. It is time we take a close look at our own moral bankruptcy before lecturing others.

      And look at Stephen Prothero. By writing the earlier post you have not only shown your total insensitivity to a heroic but non-violent struggle of a condemned people facing extinction, through your ivory-tower, safe-house philosophizing but have registered your utter ignorance and incompetence as a religion scholar. You compare sati, a brutal practice by a bigoted and patriarchal society where an innocent widow was beaten into submission to throw herself on the pyre of her husband in medieval India, with self-immolation by oppressed, cornered and peace-loving Tibetans who are crying out for the world to listen to their unbearable agony under Chinese rule. Since your understanding of religion and religious practices are so shallow, perhaps it would be in order to tell you that sati can only be compared with your "lynchings" in America or putting on stake a condemned witch in Europe, not with self-immolation by compassionate and caring Tibetans pushed to the precipice.

      Secondly, you ask the Dalai Lama to call upon the Tibetans to stop burning themselves. Okay, assuming that the Dalai Lama has such an unflinching hold on the Tibetans, you ask him to do something that would perhaps help your weak heart to stop fluttering at the sight of an image of a burning Tibetan with folded hands. And nothing else. Pray tell me, what else would that help. You don't ask the Chinese to talk to the Dalai Lama. You don't suggest America and other democratic nations of the West drop their hypocrisy and pressure the Chinese Communist leadership to solve the root cause of immolation amicably. Despite your scholarship that should equip you to understand nuances, you don't ask the Chinese to negotiate with the Dalai Lama, whom you think, by your own assumption, have major hold over the Tibetans. Whose purpose do you serve ? Ask yourself. And then you moralize from a pulpit to a threatened nation and a civilization, from whom the humanity has a lot to learn about how to live happily and peacefully without being self-centered and self-absorbed.
      So, Madam and Sir, take a deep introspective look and ask yourself where does your morality stand ? And be respectful and show sensitivity to people who don't enjoy your privileges and you can't even imagine the pain in their heart and the suffering they bear without resorting to violence and aggression.

      Thanks for listening,
      Art Rivarez

      July 19, 2012 at 4:45 am |
    • Sheila

      The world simply doesn't realize how bad it's gotten in Tibet in the past several years. Think about it – in all of the history of Occupied Tibet – over five decades – this kind of thing has not really been seen (though many people did commit suicide in the horror of the 1960s).

      There are marches, and there will still be marches, but the situation has deteriorated rapidly and terribly since 2008 especially, and is now easily one of the greatest emergencies Tibet has ever faced. What is different today is the utterly iron grip the Chinese government has over the media, and the ability to almost completely erase news even as it's being published. We in the west are therefore "surprised" to see self-immolations. If we were in Tibet, we wouldn't be as surprised. Did you know that citizens in China now have their texts censored *as they are writing them?* It's draconian, scary, and beyond Orwell's wildest dreams. Many citizens in Tibet are now prevented from electronic communication altogether. There are distinctly racist policies deeply in place at this point; hotels turn away Tibetans, often.

      One of the men responsible for the most horrific policies against Tibetans, Zhou Yongkang, is in fact out of favor now–and even hardliners are saying he went too far, having caused a deteriorating situation in both China and Tibet with his Himmler-inspired "crackdowns."

      Tibet's Holocaust is (re)escalating at a pace not seen since the Cultural Revolution.

      July 19, 2012 at 10:01 am |
  16. tenzing rigdol

    Who is this Protero? What does he know about Tibet?
    THE CENTRAL ISSUE IS NOT "THE SELF-IMMOLATIONS OF TIBETANS" BUT "WHY IS THERE SELF-IMMOLATIONS IN THE FIRST PLACE?"
    PROTERO dear, what you saw are symptoms and the root cause of these uprising is CHINA's INVASION of Tibet.
    And what is wrong with CNN, couldn’t they even find a single expert on Tibet to discuss such important issues… Or wait… may be all the experts agree with the stand that Dalai lama has taken and therefore CNN has to go after a moron, who, though not intentionally but naturally exhibits his moronity.
    Tendor la thank you. it was a wonderful review.

    July 19, 2012 at 1:22 am |
  17. Ryan Mayes

    Shame on you China !

    SHAME ON YOU !

    Tibetan people will outlive this pitiful Chinese government ! TIBET WILL PREVAIL ! FREEDOM WILL PREVAIL IN TIBET !

    July 19, 2012 at 12:25 am |
  18. Robert Lyons

    Rangzen!

    July 18, 2012 at 11:51 pm |
  19. dust

    Tibetans are stuck in one of the world's last remaining and most brutal colonial occupations???
    ooo funny and stupid

    July 18, 2012 at 11:16 pm |
    • Peter smith

      You sir are an asswig and learn how to spell. It's so not ooo. On top of that they do, it is one of the last remaining places on earth when some form of cultural and genetic white washing is going on. So think before you typo.

      July 19, 2012 at 12:12 am |
    • Yangchen

      Personally i feel that His Holiness the Dalai Lama commenting on the recent self immolation; in favor or against can have great repercussion. Being itself a highly sensitive issue, it is best to remain silent. However, he did spoke about it to media saying that people should go and see with their own eyes what is truly happening inside Tibet, and they must investigate it. The simple truth that we can draw from these desperate acts is that Tibetan people under the Chinese rule are definitely not happy. It is really difficult for any non Tibetans to really understand Tibetan's devotion to His Holiness the Dalai Lama and his love for his people. It is something that cannot be found in this today's world. Many would think they know it all, but there are certain unexplainable ties which Tibetans have for His Holiness. I feel it is primarily because of this immeasurable deep sense of love and respect that is shared by all Tibetans with His Holiness that produce some one unique like His Holiness the Dalai Lama in this modern world infested with corruption, bribery, betrayal, atrocities and self seeking individuals.
      It is thus millions of Tibetans inside Tibet's wish to see His Holiness the Dalai Lama before it's too late. They have been separated from him for long five decades and it is too much for them to bear. They are also very much aware of His Holiness the Dalai Lama's predicaments. They are also not able to bear His Holiness working strenuously every day for the welfare of Tibetan people even at such age. They are acutely aware of the many huge sacrifices he had made in resolving the issues of Tibet. Despite everything, the world still remains silent. It is with great sense of desperation, frustration and helplessness that they indulge into such acts to plead the world to listen to them and also with their utter helplessness in providing any help for His Holiness but with the wish that at least their family would not die in vain without having a glimpse of His Holiness.

      July 19, 2012 at 1:32 am |
    • Yangchen

      Personally i feel that His Holiness the Dalai Lama commenting on the recent self immolation; in favor or against can have great repercussion. Being itself a highly sensitive issue, it is best to remain silent. However, he did spoke about it to media saying that people should go and see with their own eyes what is truly happening inside Tibet, and they must investigate it. The simple truth that we can draw from these desperate
      acts is that Tibetan people under the Chinese rule are definitely not happy. It is really difficult for any non Tibetans to really understand Tibetan's devotion to His Holiness the Dalai Lama and his love for his people. It is something that cannot be found in this today's world. Many would think they know it all, but there are certain unexplainable ties which Tibetans have for His Holiness. I feel it is primarily because of this immeasurable deep sense of love and respect that is shared by all Tibetans with His Holiness that produce some one unique like His Holiness the Dalai Lama in this modern world infested with corruption, bribery, betrayal, atrocities and self seeking individuals.
      It is thus millions of Tibetans inside Tibet's wish to see His Holiness the Dalai Lama before it's too late. They have been separated from him for long five decades and it is too much for them to bear. They are also very much aware of His Holiness the Dalai Lama's predicaments. They are also not able to bear His Holiness working strenuously every day for the welfare of Tibetan people even at such age. They are acutely aware of the many huge sacrifices he had made in resolving the issues of Tibet. Despite everything, the world still remains silent. It is with great sense of desperation, frustration and helplessness that they indulge into such acts to plead the world to listen to them and also with their utter helplessness in providing any help for His Holiness but with the wish that at least their family would not die in vain without having a glimpse of His Holiness.

      July 19, 2012 at 1:32 am |
  20. Karze

    Stephen Prothero is show total lack of morality and is smitten by Chinese $$$. But Dalai Lama should have condemned the Chinese for the continued oppression and occupation of Tibet by Chinese which resulted in this self immolation.

    His Holiness should speak without hesitation. Being neutral has cast some doubts in the minds of many in the world who have no proper understanding of Tibetan's suffering under Chinese occupation.

    July 18, 2012 at 10:28 pm |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.