Burning Buddhists: Self-Immolation in Tibet as an expression of Buddhist Nationalism

Article by Hanne Van Regemortel.

Abstract: This article aims to look at the case of self-immolation in Tibet as an expression of Buddhist nationalism. Self-immolation as a form of protest in Tibet has known a remarkable upsurge since 2008. This as a result of the tightening restrictions imposed by China on religious, political and cultural practices in Tibet and the human rights violations that go hand in hand with these restrictions. When looking at the farewell letters of the self-immolators and their principal reasons for choosing such a painful form of protest, it becomes clear that the main motivation can be found within feelings of Buddhist nationalism.

Keywords: Tibet, Self-Immolation, Protest, Buddhist Nationalism
Header image “Tibet” by AK Rockefeller is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.
 

Introduction

This article aims to look at the case of self-immolation in Tibet as an expression of Buddhist nationalism. The first act of self-immolation in recent history which is related to the Tibetan context, took place in 1998 and was carried out by a Tibetan living in India. Since then more than 130 cases of self-immolation have been reported, both inside Tibet as well as in India and Nepal. Most of them are carried out by (former) Buddhist monks and nuns, but also students and other people have put themselves on fire (Mills, 2012). Some self-immolators commit the act on their own, others do it in groups of two or more people (Makley, 2015). Self-immolators who are arrested by the Chinese government disappear and both their fate as well as their whereabouts remain unknown.

Self-immolation as a form of protest in Tibet has known a remarkable upsurge since 2008. This as a result of the tightening restrictions imposed by China on religious, political and cultural practices in Tibet and the human rights violations that go hand in hand with these restrictions. When looking at the farewell letters of the self-immolators and their principal reasons for choosing such a painful form of protest, it becomes clear that the main motivation can be found within feelings of Buddhist nationalism.

 

Self-Immolation as a form of Resistance

2019 marks the 60th anniversary of the 1959 Tibetan Uprising and the exile of the Daila Lama that followed. Ever since, China’s policy towards Tibet has been one of strict control with forced re-education and the banning of certain religious practices and ceremonies. Military and police forces are omnipresent in Tibet and ready to supress the slightest sparkle of protest, whether it is a rally, march or hunger protest. Anyone participating in such kind of protests risks to be arrested (Regalbuto, 2012). This does not mean that throughout these decades the Tibetans have submissively underwent Chinese occupation, they have rebelled against the Chinese occupation in so-called non-violent ways. One of these ways is through self-immolation, or putting oneself on fire in public to protest against China’s policies towards Tibet and also to demand the return of the Daila Lama to Tibet (Soboslai, 2015). Self-immolation is a form of protest that has as goal to create social change and better social and political rights for Tibetans living within the Tibetan area in China. It is also an effective tool to bring more international attention to the violation of human rights in Tibet and the independence claim of the Tibetan people (Abel & Tsering, 2012).

Self-immolation as a means of resistance is not something widely spread or very common in Tibetan culture, nor is it in Buddhism. On the contrary, in Buddhism the act of suicide is rather controversial and most Buddhist scholars agree that this is incompatible with the Buddhist teachings of non-violence and not bringing harm to anyone nor oneself. However, especially in Indian traditions of Buddhism there are multiple examples of Buddhist monks sacrificing themselves – sometimes through immolation – for the greater good, i.e. to save the life of others (Kovan, 2013; Warner, 2014). For example, a particular tale exist about the previous life of the Buddha in which he sacrificed his own life in order to save the life of others through self-immolation. Another notorious case of self-immolation is that of the Vietnamese monk Thich Quang Duc in 1963. He self-immolated on a public square in Saigon (nowadays Ho Chi Minh City) to protest the human rights violations committed by the Diem regime in South Vietnam (Crosby, Rhee, & Holland, 1977). The motivation for committing self-immolation in these two cases bear remarkable resemblances to the self-immolation cases in Tibet.

The first case of the Buddha himself self-immolating is religious in origin and give self-immolators the status of martyr or Buddhist hero since it is a non-violent way to give up one’s own life for the sake of others. This point of view is in contrast with the Chinese propaganda framing these acts as violent and thus non-Buddhist (Soboslai, 2015). Self-immolation thus becomes a violent image which is given a religious meaning as justification (Juergensmeyer, 2017). In the farewell letters of those recent self-immolators we can find the idea of religious sacrifice back. So do many mention that they sacrifice their life in the hope that their deed will attract international attention and thus lead to an improvement of living conditions for those staying behind. However, the act of self-immolation in the Tibetan context is too complex to reduce it merely to a religious act of sacrifice. Similar to the case of Thich Quang Duc mentioned above, it also has a political element since it is a direct outcry against human right violations. Many self-immolators express their wish for an independent Tibetan state and the preservation of Tibetan culture and tradition, which is heavily suppressed by China’s policy. Therefore it becomes clear that self-immolation in Tibet also contains a nationalistic element.

Reasons for Self-Immolation: Martyrs for Tibetan Independence

Mills (2012) distinguishes three main reasons why self-immolators choose this drastic method of resistance. First of all there are China’s oppressive policies and their patriotic education campaigns which makes Tibetan monks denounce the Dalai Lama and accept China’s perception of Tibet as an inseparable part of China, both historically as well as nowadays. Secondly there is the restriction on teaching and learning Tibetan language and religion. This explains the predominance of monks, nuns and students among the self-immolators. Thirdly most acts of self-immolation are centred in specific areas in Tibet. This indicates that the influence of previous self-immolators is big and the fact that they are being perceived as national heroes also contributes to the decision of self-immolation. Self-immolators often obtain the status of martyr after their death, with mass funerals and commemorations where people held posters and photos of the self-immolator (Zarghami, 2012). These posters depict the self-immolators as Tibetan heroes who were striving for independence. Furthermore, they are mentioned in songs and poetry and even some places where self-immolation took place are being referred to as ‘Heroes Road’ (Makley, 2015).

Also Tibetans in exile worship those self-immolators as heroes. Footage on acts of self-immolation circulate widely in the Tibetan community outside of Tibet together with the testaments of the self-immolators. In Tibetan media outlets they are also referred to as pawo/pamos (heroes/heroines) (Warner, 2014). According to Zarghami (2012) the depicting of self-immolators as heroes in media and public discourse is not that innocent and leads to copycat effects as the concentration of acts of self-immolation in specific areas might prove.

In China on the other hand, these acts of resistance are framed as a conspiracy initiated by the ‘Daila Clique’, a group of separatists who brainwash innocent Tibetans. According to this propaganda the messages of protesters were not their own, instead they were being used by the cunning Dalai Lama who leads a separatist movement in exile to destabilise China and to advocate for Tibetan independence (Makley, 2015). However, the official stance of the Daila Lama is effective Tibetan autonomy within the PRC instead of independence (Hillman, 2014).

These self-immolations are often framed as religious in origin; however one should not neglect their nationalist tendency. In the last words of the self-immolators it becomes clear that their action is not merely a religious act of non-violence, but is also based on nationalistic aspirations for having a Tibetan nation independent from Chinese occupation and control (Soboslai, 2015). Many testaments of self-immolators call for a Tibetan unity and loyalty towards a Tibetan state instead of China. They also urge their readers to only speak Tibetan, wear traditional clothes and to preserve the Tibetan culture and traditions which are in danger because of Chinese oppression and occupation. The influx of mostly Han-Chinese and Hui into Tibet, and their spreading dominance over Tibetan economy also strengthens the believe that Tibetan culture and religion is under threat (Hillman, 2014). This is in line with the rise of Buddhist nationalism in South Asia in general (Mills, 2012; Warner, 2014). Shakya (2012) also agrees on this, self-immolation is a form of Tibetan nationalism that finds its roots within religion. Therefore in the next section I would like to expand more on Buddhist nationalism and how self-immolation is an example of it.

 

Buddhist Nationalism

As Juergensmeyer (2017) argues; religious nationalism is on the rise and Buddhist nationalism is not an exception to this. Juergensmeyer (2017) defines religious nationalism as a combination of beliefs about the modern nation state with traditional religious convictions of a higher moral authority. Buddhist nationalism first emerged as a form of protest against colonization of the West and more specifically in Ceylon (nowadays Sri Lanka) as a response towards the British religious and political power (Borchert, 2007; Scott, 2011). In Myanmar too, Buddhist nationalism first emerged as a means of protest against the British coloniser (Lewy, 1972). Therefore, the upsurge of Buddhist nationalism in Tibet can be perceived as a response to China’s tightening security and oppressive policies against Buddhist religious practices and Tibetan traditions and culture.

Scott (2011) defines Buddhist nationalism as “an ideological movement – that identifies itself as belonging to the Buddhist religious tradition – for attaining and maintaining the autonomy, unity and identity of an existing or potential ‘nation.” It aims to do this by using Buddhist images and language. Buddhist nationalism is not a new phenomenon; it played an important role in the conflict in Sri Lanka as well as in the persecution of Rohingya and other minorities in Myanmar. It also plays a role in the self-immolation cases in Tibet. After China’s unsuccessful attempts to use Buddhism as an unifying factor to incorporate Tibet into a bigger China (Borchert, 2007), and since the last upsurge of protest in 2008, a rise of Tibetan Buddhist nationalism can be perceived through the acts of self-immolation and the testaments left behind.

The call for loyalty towards a Tibetan state together with the plea of the return of the Daila Lama as head of the Tibetan state, is a clear example of Buddhist nationalism (Mills, 2012; Warner, 2014). The demand, made by the self-immolators, to actively preserve and save Tibetan customs, traditions and language is also a clear utterance of Tibetan nationalism. What makes these utterances of nationalism not merely Tibetan but rather Buddhist in nature is first of all the deep intertwining of Buddhism and Tibetan culture. Secondly, the plea for the Daila Lama as head of an independent Tibetan state would make this state Buddhist in nature. Thirdly, the current situation in Tibet has many similarities with previous expressions of Buddhist nationalism in Sri Lanka or Myanmar, since it is a form of resistance against China’s occupation of Tibet. Last but not least, the justification of self-immolation as a Buddhist sacrifice for the greater good, only add to the perception of these deeds as utterances of religious and thus Buddhist nationalism (Juergensmeyer, 2017).

Conclusion

Self-immolation in Tibet knew a remarkable increase that went hand in hand with the tightening of China’s oppressive control of Tibetan territory. Self-immolation is a direct reply to China’s tightening oppression and hostility towards the practice of Tibetan culture, religion and traditions. This bears similarities with other cases of Buddhist nationalism as a mean of protest or resistance against oppressive foreign powers. There are a few reasons why self-immolation in the case of Tibet is first and foremost an expression of Buddhist nationalism. First of all Tibetan culture and Buddhism are deeply intertwined and almost impossible to see apart from each other. This also shows in the plea made by self-immolators for the Buddhist leader the Daila Lama as official head of state of Tibet. Lastly the martyrdom of self-immolators as sacrificing themselves for the greater good of the Tibetan people and therefore according to Buddhist tradition gives these deeds a profound Buddhist nationalistic meaning.

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