The first self-immolation in Tibetan society in the modern era took place in exile in Delhi, India in 1998 as a Tibetan Youth Congress hunger strike was broken up by Indian police. Since then, five more Tibetans have set fire to themselves in exile and a growing number continue to do so in what is considered the occupied territory of Tibet. Since February 2009 more than 100 Tibetans have set themselves of fire within the Tibetan Autonomous Region (TAR). The slogan gathering all these acts of self-sacrifice are gathered in the image in an article published in The Economist last year of ‘Tibet on Fire’. According to such a view self-immolations enact the ‘burning issue’ of the Tibetan issue in order to remind the world about the situation of Tibetans and their long history of exile. But are self-immolations political acts or are they the expression of religious ideals? While the self-immolations have a clear political goal, dramatically calling for attention towards Tibetans from the western world they are also religious acts, deeply embedded in Tibetan Buddhism. That seems to be a paradox, because how can a religion that deeply discourages of violence agree with such an extreme form of suicide?
It cannot be contested that self-immolations are political in nature. Indeed many initiators of such acts call for unity within Tibet: You must unite and work together to build a strong and prosperous Tibetan nation in the future. This is the sole wish of all the Tibetan heroes. In the view of those who agree with this political statement unity is needed in front of the divisive policies of the Chinese government and also in front of the disagreement of how to approach Tibetan independence from exile. The latter extrapolates between the non-violent approach which for the past half of a century has been advocated and implemented under the authority of the Dalai Lama and the more impatient approach of Tibetan youth who feel that non-violence is not an answer.
Violence committed towards the self is not only the middle way between these two options, as it might at first seem. It is a practice that is embedded if not encouraged by Tibetan Buddhism and its ideas of ultimate giving, selflessness, sacrifice of the self for the others. The religious expression of these ideas is the ritual of gCod where the symbolic sacrifice of the body is used as a way of severing attachment to existence (Stott 1989). But an even more pronounced expression of the value of self-sacrifice can be found in Shatideva’s Bodhisattvacharyavatara, a text often taught at public occasions by the Dalai Lama. This text explains in details the attributes and actions of a bodhisattva, the enlightened being who is working for the benefit of other. Here the exchange of the self for others is a main idea:
At the beginning, the Guide of the World encourages/ The giving of such things as food’ Later, when accustomed to this,/One may progressively start to give away even one’s flesh. (Shantideva and Batchelor 1999:63)
In this perception the renunciation to the body and to the flesh symbolizes the renunciation to the self. The self, accompanied by a feeling of individuation is considered the highest impediment on the spiritual path. In order to reach enlightenment the self and its importance must be diminished, destroyed. This can be done through meditative practices but also rather literal forms of self-sacrifice. While in order to attain spiritual benefit renunciation to the self must take place as an offering to the benefit of other, it is foremost the one who makes the sacrifice who reaps the benefits. In this way, as the Dalai Lama turns the argument around, caring for others is the way of being truly selfish. Thus, by sacrificing oneself one can be truly selfish: through thinking only of others and sacrificing the self for other, one can actually reach high spiritual attainments (The Dalai Lama and Cutler 1999).
However, it is not the promise of spiritual attainment that motivates Tibetan self-immolators. Rather it is the ideal of collective freedom and independence that motivates these acts. Although these two seems like articulating a political goal, transforming self-sacrifice into a political act, once more religious and political goals are crossfertilizing each other. Many Tibetans who have contributed to a burning Tibet express a wish for Tibetan unity, wishing to be free to practice Tibetan Buddhism and listen to the teachings of the Dalai Lama. Meanwhile, however, they become heroes who apply in practice the ideal of the bodhisattva while fighting for their rights towards religious practice. With this attitude self-immolations make a superior moral claim upon collective freedom and independence, making it difficult for the Chinese to respond.
Although self-sacrifices through fire are not unique either to Asian cultures nor to Buddhism, the specific intersection of political and religious goals in the Tibetan context is unique. Tibetan self-immolations are actions taken for the welfare and benefit of others. This presents a special case to Talal Asad’s approach in which he considers the religious and political as mutually defining each other (Asad 2003). The case of Tibetan self-immolations throws light on the way categories of religion and politics are constructed and implemented as a transnational political statement made with the help of acts of compassion. The heroism of Tibetans rests on moral superiority of their political statements backed up by religious principles of ultimate giving.
- Asad, T (2003) Genealogies of religion, The Johns Hopkins University Press: Baltimore and London
- Santideva and Batchelor, S. (1999) The Bodhisattva’s way of life, LTWA: Dharamsala
- Stott, D. (1989) Offering the body: The practice of gCod in Tibetan Buddhism, Religion 19:3
- The Dalai Lama and Cutler, H. (1999) The art of happiness, Hodder Paperbacks: Londonreligion