Why the Dalai Lama cannot condemn Tibetans’ self-immolations

“This is a very, very delicate political issue. Now, the reality is that if I say something positive, then the Chinese immediately blame me. If I say something negative, then the family members of those people feel very sad. They sacrificed their own life. It is not easy. So I do not want to create some kind of impression that this is wrong. So the best thing is to remain neutral.” – Dalai Lama
There are discussions and opinions from Westerners that the Dalai Lama should condemn the Tibetan self-immolations. We had these discussions also here on the blog. Stephen Prothero, a Boston University religion scholar and author of “The American Bible: How Our Words Unite, Divide, and Define a Nation,” states on CNN Belief Blog:

I know it is impolitic to criticize the Dalai Lama, a Nobel Peace Prize winner who is revered as a bodhisattva by many Buddhists. But he deserves criticism in this case. Why not “create some kind of impression” that killing is wrong? Why not use his vast storehouse of moral and spiritual capital to denounce this ritual of human sacrifice?

If the Dalai Lama were to speak out unequivocally against these deaths, they would surely stop. So in a very real sense, their blood is on his hands. But the bad karma the Dalai Lama is accruing here extends far beyond Tibet and these particular protesters.

In a reply to it, Tenzin Dorjee, executive director of Students for a Free Tibet, states on CNN blog:

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.

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.

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.

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?

Personally, as a Western Buddhist, I try to be cautious not to condemn others but to start any judgement from first trying to understand the events, situations and background of it. Only if I can understand, if I am able to put myself into the shoes of others, there is the opportunity for a fair judgement of things.

One argument sticks to me as being misleading in this context, and that is that – as Prothero and the Chinese official say – “If the Dalai Lama were to speak out unequivocally against these deaths, they would surely stop.” I think such a belief is based on a wrong mental image that imposes omnipotent powers to the Dalai Lama. This imagination is not based on reality. Why?

First, Tibetans themselves remark self-critically, that they usually never did what their spiritual or political leaders advised them – ‘this tradition’, as Buddhist Tibetans humorous remark – of disobeying the advice of their leaders started already at the time of King Trison Detsen (742–97). The saying goes as follows: Padmasambhava recommended Trison Detsen not to partake in the Tibetan New Year’s annual ceremonies, but Trison Detsen didn’t heed Padmasambhava’s advice (as a king he had to partake, he argued), then Padmasambhava asked him at least not to partake in the horse race, but Trison Detsen didn’t listen. During the horse race he, so it is said, fell off the horse and died. Also the 13th Dalai Lama intensively pleaded to the Tibetans to heed his advice in his “political testament” (PDF):

Therefore take measures now. Maintain friendly relations with the two great powers, China and India, conscript able soldiers to guard the borders and make them sufficiently strong to ward off those countries with whom we have had border disputes. The armed forces should be drilled and disciplined so as to be effective and strong to overcome those who threaten us. These precautions should be taken at a time when the forces of degeneration are most prevalent and when Communism is on the spread. Remember the fate that befell the Mongolian nation when Communists overran the country and where the Head Lama’s reincarnation was forbidden, where property was totally confiscated and where monasteries and religion were completely wiped out. These things have happened, are happening and will happen in the land which is the Centre of Buddhism (i.e. Tibet). So, if you are not able to defend yourselves now, the institutions of the Dalai Lama, venerable incarnates and those who protect the Teachings shall be wiped out completely. Monasteries shall be looted, property confiscated and all living beings shall be destroyed. The memorable rule of the Three Gardian kings of Tibet, the very institutions of the state and religion shall be banned and forgotten. The property of the officials shall be confiscated; they shall be slaves of the conquerors and shall roam the land in bondage. All souls shall be immersed in suffering and the night shall be long and dark.

And what did the Lhasa elite do – especially the conservative wing of the (Gelug) monasteries (most often Shugden proponents btw) – after the death of the 13th Dalai Lama? They reverted almost all of his reforms. Such deep is the “obedience” many superimpose onto the Tibetans and their relation to the Dalai Lamas or their spiritual leaders. Also the case of the 14th Dalai Lama shows many such examples, that while the Tibetans revere him tremendously most often they don’t heed his advice. To take just one example: in 1998 the Dalai Lama personally asked the “Hunger Unto Death” strikers to stop their strike in India. He clearly said that he regards this as violence against oneself and cannot agree with it. Nevertheless, though initially heeding, some of the hunger strikers picked up the political protest again and it ended in the first self-immolation of a Tibetan, the death of Thubten Ngodup.

I would like to ask those who wish to form an opinion, to do this carefully, to first take time to fully investigate the background otherwise one risks to elevate oneself over others based on a narrow minded ethical point of view, and this mode of thinking would easily go into the direction of an unfair discrimination of the Tibetans. (Westerners have this tendency – and I think Stephen Prothero might have stepped into this trap too – to place themselves higher than others based on their assumed superior ethical views without understanding the complex background of events and other cultures.) There is also another risk: shouldn’t we be ashamed about the Western countries’ silence to these self-immolations and our moral corruption with respect to the legal rights of the Tibetans as a people? Isn’t there a risk, that we project our own moral failings onto the Dalai Lama and Tibetans, attacking them, instead of asking us: Why are we silent and leave the Tibetans alone, doing nothing about the brutal colonisation of their country? As anthropologist Katia Buffetrille commented:

What is happening in Tibet is very rarely covered by the media, firstly because of the many events that shock the world, secondly, because the Western countries greatly restrain themselves when it comes to anything to say against China. They are afraid that they might miss a business …

And the Tibetan author and writer Jamyang Norbu states in a more desperate mood:

Seventy Tibetans have, one after the other, in relentless and purposeful succession, set themselves on fire for the cause of their people’s freedom. If anything so heroic, selfless, spontaneous, non-instigated, and entirely non-violent* had happened anywhere else in the world, especially in the West or in places important to Western interests, like the Middle East or North Africa, these self-immolations would not only have become headline news but would have been discussed to death (if you will forgive the expression) in TV news-shows, chat-rooms, newspaper op-eds, editorials, blog-rooms, think-tank forums and so on. The issue could even have come up in the American presidential elections, and Tibetan TV viewers watching the foreign policy debate might have been amused by the vision of Mitt Romney scolding president Obama for ignoring the immolations in Tibet and “apologizing” to China – or its equivalent in this alternate reality.

But, of course, nothing of the kind has happened in our space-time continuum. Far from being the subject of international discussion the world media has given the Tibetan immolations the absolutely minimum attention it is possible to give to a major news story, without actually opening itself to the charge of deliberately and cynically ignoring the issue altogether.

I must make it clear that I am not saying that the New York Times, the BBC or CNN have not reported the immolations. Clearly they have all done so, though only to the minimally acceptable extent – CNN being the worst offender. Even the tone of the published reports have been uniformly clinical and impersonal as weather reports. But the big evasion in these reports is the lack of discussion on the fundamental cause for which these Tibetans burnt themselves.

So before we judge another people in despair maybe it’s good to first question our own silence instead of questioning Tibetans, and the Dalai Lama’s supposed silence, isn’t it?

After having done this self-introspection, one might be able to ask in a fairer way why the Dalai Lama cannot condemn Tibetan self-immolations as many Westerners expect him to do.

The Dalai Lama says in The Hindu:

This is a very, very delicate political issue. Now, the reality is that if I say something positive, then the Chinese immediately blame me. If I say something negative, then the family members of those people feel very sad. They sacrificed their own life. It is not easy. So I do not want to create some kind of impression that this is wrong. So the best thing is to remain neutral.

Westerners who are so used to feel compelled to say something, to judge, to give an opinion on everything at hand seem to be unable to tolerate this neutral approach, and subsequently they project – as Prothero does it – that now there would be the self-immolators’ “blood is on his [the Dalai Lama’s] hands”. Hello! The Dalai Lama didn’t kill any body, the Chinese mistreat, kill and torture Tibetans!

Moreover, according to Kelsang Gyaltsen, the Dalai Lama supported the appeals of the elected Tibetan government in Exile (CTA) who appealed to the Tibetans to not grasp to such drastic measures as self-immolations. Dr. Lobsang Sangay, elected prime minister of the CTA, said that while he highly discourages the drastic action, it is the “sacred duty” of the exiled community to support it.

“We have made so many appeals (to stop self-immolations), but they are still doing it,” said Sangay, the political successor of the Dalai Lama, as the number of self-immolations by monks, nuns and others swelled to 68 since March 2011.

I think it is save to say, what the Dalai Lama said already: “This is a very, very delicate political issue.”

Kelsang Gyaltsen, the Dalai Lama’s special representative for Europe, explained in an interview with the German radio station Deutschlandfunk (mp3 file, 01. December 2012, translation by Tenpel – sorry for the mistakes):

HEUER: At the moment, people are dying in Tibet. China now says one word of the Dalai Lama were sufficient to stop self-immolations. Why doesn’t he say anything?

GYALTSEN: The Dalai Lama is very, very worried about the situation in Tibet. And the whole world knows his attitude to non-violence and also violence towards oneself. The Dalai Lama has clearly emphasized, when the first case of self-immolation 1998 in Delhi took place that also violence against oneself is an act of violence and should be avoided.

HEUER: But that’s 14 years ago. Why doesn’t he say anything now?

GYALTSEN: Why now he says nothing about it? If the Dalai Lama in this situation cannot offer Tibetans any alternatives in how they can achieve their rights then he simply cannot prohibit the Tibetans to protest against the Chinese’s policy of oppression. Since years he offered to engage in talks [with China].

He makes clear that he doesn’t strive for independence and separation but for a genuine autonomy within the People’s Republic of
China. But the Chinese government is not responding to this offer. If the Chinese government would give any sign that the Chinese leadership is willing to address the concern of the Tibetans, the dissatisfaction of the Tibetans seriously, then I’m convinced that the Dalai Lama would offer every help and cooperation.

HEUER: Mr. Gyaltsen, but then I understand you correctly: As long as that is not the case, the Dalai Lama approves the suicides because they are a protest against Chinese rule and because they create publicity?

GYALTSEN: That’s not the case at all. There can be no talk of his [supposed] endorsement! He must offer an alternative to the Tibetans,
how they can gain their [basic human] rights without immolating themselves. Tell me this alternative!

HEUER: I can not tell you any, but it is clear that people continue to kill themselves. And that you do not do anything against it, that the Dalai Lama does not intervene.

GYALTSEN: But! That’s not right. The elected Tibetan leaders have repeatedly appealed to the Tibetans in Tibet, not to resort to such drastic forms of protest. And the Dalai Lama has supported all of these appeals from the elected Tibetan leaders [in exile].

HEUER: Mr. Gyaltsen, the international community is predominantly silent given to what we’re seeing now in Tibet.
I want to focus this on Germany. We have last experienced that Angela Merkel has publicly criticized Russian President Putin and has tangled with him. Do you wish something like this in dealing with the Chinese Government?

GYALTSEN: Of course! The question, Ms. Heuer, in the frame we are discussing had to be: What does the Chinese government do to stop the self-immolation of Tibetans? What does the international community do to convince the Tibetans thereof not to resort to these forms of protest? You can not, as the Chinese do, blame the Dalai Lama for all the problems that exist in Tibet. The Dalai Lama lives since 50 years outside of Tibet. About 95 percent of the Tibetans who live in Tibet have never seen the Dalai Lama. And still the Chinese explain that for every protest in Tibet, for each of these self-immolations the Dalai Lama as the culprit. I think in this context, of course, Germany is in a very good position, to take effect on China. Germany is China’s largest trading partner in Europe and has a major impact. And an active involvement of the German government, to relax the situation in Tibet and to create a real Dialogue between the Tibetans and the Chinese leadership, would be seen by us Tibetans as being very, very welcomed.


So, why the Dalai Lama cannot condemn Tibetan self-immolations? Ask this yourself but please based on an informed perspective. In my opinion it is strange to expect from a person to condemn actions that are the last means of an oppressed people against their oppressors, a means that does not inflict harm on the oppressors but “only” on themselves. How can I condemn this or expect others to do this?

However, based in the immense suffering self-immolation is creating for oneself and the families, I would highly welcome any action that can stop the self-immolations, right now. This is even more so, since more than 100 self-immolations of Tibetans haven’t turned any thing to the better but only increased China’s oppression. The more than 100 Tibetan self-immolations have not achieved any similar result to the self-immolation of Quảng Đửc, or the self-immolation of Tunisian Mohamed Bouazizi that became the catalyst for what has become known as the Arab Spring.

It was the Dalai Lama himself who – besides his known stance on non-violence – also questioned the effectiveness of the Tibetan self-immolations. He said, that these actions would lead to increased repression (see Katia Buffetrille).

Self-Immolations in Perspective

Appeals to Stop Self-Immolations

The Power of the Dalai Lama in Perspective

Further Readings

On this blog

Last edited by tenpel on August 17, 2014 at 2:35 pm

UPDATE Feb, 05, 2016