The Dalai Lama’s compassion disconnect

The Dalai Lama was in the area this week to give the Anwar Sadat Lecture for Peace at the University … Continued

The Dalai Lama was in the area this week to give the Anwar Sadat Lecture for Peace at the University of Maryland before 15,000 people.

According to the university’s Web site, the Dalai Lama spoke about how “peace in the world must come from inner peace within individuals and the source of that inner peace is compassion for others.”

Compassion for others is at the root of the controversy over the self-immolation of more than 100 Tibetans who have taken their own lives since 2009 to protest China’s occupation of Tibet. Those who burn themselves to death want to see the Dalai Lama return to Tibet.

Why, people ask, would the Dalai Lama not put a stop to these violent acts of self-destruction in his name? Isn’t self-immolation the very antithesis of what Buddhism is about? How can it be moral or ethical to condone such behavior? Yet the Dalai Lama refuses to condemn it.

In a segment on Times Now, a major Indian news channel, he spoke about this practice. “If motivation [consists] too much of anger, hatred, then it is negative, [but] if the motivation [is] more compassionate . . . then such acts can also be positive. That is strictly speaking from [a Buddhist point of view]. Any action, whether violence or nonviolence, is ultimately [dependent] on motivation.”

As the number of self-immolation cases has risen, so, too, have the mass protests. The Chinese government has cracked down on the protests, arresting and torturing many who speak out. Authorities are especially upset by the self-immolations, because they have caused a lot of bad publicity. Some Chinese police now travel with fire extinguishers on their backs to head off the suicides.

Recently, while traveling in Japan, the Dalai Lama responded to the Chinese repression, saying, according to the Global Post, that the incidents of self-immolation are “a sign of deep desperation; Chinese leaders need to take a look into these incidents more seriously. Ruthlessness only will not be good for all.”

Still, he does not condemn it.

Matteo Pistono, author of “In the Shadow of the Buddha” and a Buddhist scholar who lived and traveled in Tibet for a decade, says that in Buddhism, there is a way to look at self-immolation that is nonviolent.

“It can be seen as a great offering one is making,” he says. “Trying to become, literally, a lamp to illuminate the darkness of the world.”

Pistono says it is an act inspired “philosophically and emotionally, but somewhere in between is political activism trying to bring about change.”

The difference, he says, between this kind of violence and other kinds is that “it doesn’t result in violence against others. You’re not blowing up buildings.”

Pistono says that Mahatma Gandhi made popular the doctrine of nonviolence, or “ahimsa,” a Sanskrit word meaning to do no harm. “Yet what is the motivation here? To bring the Dalai Lama back to Tibet and to bring freedom to Tibet.”

Pistono says the position of some exiled Tibetan leaders on self-immolation is not that the world should ask why people are killing themselves but that the world should ask China to desist from repression, which could stop the cause of the burning.

Pistono points out that the Arab Spring was started by a Tunisian fruit seller’s self-immolation. So such actions can produce results. Yet the Tibetan self-immolations have not resonated with the rest of the world. It has been very frustrating to the Dalai Lama that the United States has not taken a stronger position on the China-Tibet standoff.

In “The Ethics of Self-Immolation” — from “Into the Jaws of Yama, Lord of death: Buddhism, Bioethics, and Death” — Tibetan writer Karma Lekshe Tsomo says that “there are cases of Buddhists who have set their bodies afire as an act of generosity, renunciation, devotion or political protests” and that the Mahayana texts “extol the virtues of offering one’s body to the Buddhas, often by burning.” Later he says, “The spirit of a person who commits suicide out of despair or depression is believed to be intensely dissatisfied and therefore likely to wander as a hungry ghost, whereas self-immolation is believed to be a religious act committed with strong conviction and pure motivation.”

A new form of protest has arisen among Tibetans who feel that self-immolation is too violent. It is called “Lhakar,” which means “white Wednesday” in Tibetan. One day a week is set aside to celebrate all things Tibetan, including music, food and goods. This is a cultural rather than a religious protest and one on which it is much more difficult for the Chinese to crack down.

The question is: Why hasn’t the Dalai Lama embraced the practice of Lhakar rather than refusing to condemn self-immolation?

If the Dalai Lama says stop, the self-immolations will stop. He may not realize the kind of power he has here. Certainly the rest of the world is appalled by the treatment of Tibetans by the Chinese. But most cultures are equally appalled by the suicidal self-destruction of protesting Tibetans. It doesn’t look good for the Dalai Lama. He can talk about peace and happiness and compassion and draw crowds of 15,000 or more around the world. But until he calls for the cessation of this barbaric practice, he will be fighting a losing battle against the Chinese.

Sally Quinn
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  • Bhuchung

    The writer is a seasoned journalist and would know that things are not just in black and white. The issue needs to be looked at from a wholistic perspective rather than looking for soundbites.

    The Dalai Lama is very saddened by the self-immolations. He admires the courage of the self-immolators but is not encouraging them. He even wonders about the effect of the self-immolations saying, “Courage alone is no substitute. You must utilise your wisdom.”

    The self-immolations are not the result of a sudden development but a result of more than three decades of repressive policies of the Chinese leadership. The only solution is not condemning them, whether by the Dalai Lama or others, but addressing the underlying issues, as the United Nations has said.

    The Chinese Government is in direct control of the Tibetan people and the Chinese authorities have the responsibility to seriously investigate into the causes of the self-immolations and initiate steps that will not make the Tibetans undertake them.

    The Dalai Lama has said, “If I say something negative, then the family members of those people feel very sad. They sacrificed their … life. It is not easy. So I do not want to create some kind of impression that this is wrong.”

    Therefore, one cannot look for simple acts like condemnation to address these deeply emotional actions.

    Bhuchung K. Tsering

    Washington, D.C.

  • fenria14

    Sally Quinn, are you obtuse on purpose or by accident? These people are setting themselves on fire because they have NO other way to make their voices heard. Do you think a people with media outlets at their disposal would self immolate? A better question is not what the Dalai Lama is doing about it, but why powerful nations like the US don’t condemn China’s treatment of the Tibetan people and why we don’t allow their voices in our media. Once again, the root of the weed is avarice and greed. The US makes money trading with China, thus the people of Tibet are allowed to go voiceless and must turn to outrageous acts like self immolation to be heard. The Dalai Lama is nothing more than a red herring in all of this.

  • Tenzin Bhuchung

    In condemning Tibetan self immolations as a “barbaric act”, Sally has exposed her insensitivity, arrogance, and utter disrespect to the Tibetans (especially the self immolators and their families) and her ignorance with respect to faith in general and Buddhism in particular. As a responsible journalist, if you want to touch issues of faith and belief, you should have done a little bit nuanced assessment of self immolation within the context of utter social, political and religious repression that has been going on for the last 60 years in Tibet and the failure and lack of political will on the part of the Chinese government and the international community to do anything about it. Within such a context, self immolators have truly thought that their brave acts will draw attention to the issue and make a huge difference to the entire Tibetan people and Buddhist culture. In the Buddhist practice, “self sacrifice” in varying degrees is recommended when it is to help others. it could be from giving that seat to the pregnant woman standing in a bus next to you to giving your life when it makes sense and when it is done out of great compassion. To describe this as a barbaric reflects utter ignorance and arrogance. it is the same kind of logic that would say that Jesus giving His life on the cross so that others could be saved has no spiritual significance, that such an act is barbaric. And look how that very act has galvanized the Christians into acts of great compassion through out the ages! No one is encouraging self immolations. His Holiness is the Dalai lama is not. And if we really care about the lives of Tibetans, not just the self immolators, but the great majority of Tibetans who are being imprisoned, tortured, killed, made to disappear, their culture destroyed, we have to take the issue with the Chinese government. Judging sacrifice of others as barbaric is not humanity but reflects one’s ignorance, arrogance and insensitivity.