In a little over a year, 31 people from the Tibetan communities – monks, nuns and ordinary Tibetans – have set themselves on fire to protest Chinese rule in Tibet. The most recent immolations happened when two Tibetan monks set themselves alight in the western Chinese city of Markhang.
This was just two days after photographs of Jamphel Yeshi, a Tibetan exile who burnt himself to death, running ablaze in the streets of New Delhi, flashed worldwide.
Whereas non-violence reigns as the supreme key to all Buddhist thinking and behavior, the self-immolations of monks and nuns – regarded as an act of violence upon oneself – has started a debate in many Buddhist communities.
“The current self-immolation (by Tibetan monks) is first and foremost an issue of nationalism. It doesn’t directly have to do with Buddhism,” shares a Lama of Ka-Nying Shedrub Ling Monastery at Bouddha who did not wish to be named. “It’s true that suicide or taking one’s own life, be it by monks or ordinary Buddhist followers, is considered an offense. But the dharma (religion) also says to delve into the reasons and motivations behind any act.”
Dr Khenpo Ngawang Jorden, Director at the International Buddhist Academy, also affirms that in Mahayana, a major school of Buddhism, intentions behind an action is significant.
“In theory, according to the Sutra point of view, self-immolation is a form of violence and is thus forbidden,” he explains. “But from the Tantra point of view, you also have to look into the intention. If it’s an act of selfless offering or for a greater good of others and for bigger achievement, it’s justified.”
He refers to how in the past as well, many Buddhist nuns and monks who sacrificed themselves with noble intentions were highly regarded. Even the Buddha Himself in His former lives is said to have offered Himself to a dying tigress so she could feed her cubs.
Another legend that Dr Jorden and many Buddhist experts bring up during conversation on seemingly violent acts and intentions is a story mentioned in the Bodhisattva Sutra.
According to the legend, when the Buddha was still a Bodhisattva (an individual on the path to Enlightenment), he killed a merchant who had planned to kill 499 of his fellow merchants on a ship to acquire their riches during their return voyage.
The reason that the Buddha did this was not out of hatred or ill will but out of compassion to save the innocents. So even though outwardly the killing was a crime and a sin, the intention justifies the act.
They also argue that if the Buddha had not killed the evil merchant, knowing fully well of his intention of murdering the rest 499 merchants, he would have been a part of the crime and thus have committed a greater sin.
“It’s the intention of an act one has to be clear about,” says Dr Jorden. “However, it’s a challenge in today’s world to figure out the actual motivations or intentions.”
In Theravada, another school of Buddhism, self-immolation or any form of suicide is considered a great offense and strictly condemned.
“That’s wrong,” Lama Chandra Kirti of Nagar Mandap Sri Kirti Vihar, a Theravada hermitage in Kirtipur, claims in his short response to self-immolation.
Guruma (Nun) Meena from the Vihar further explains that the Buddha Himself after putting His body through torture by abstaining from food for years to achieve Enlightenment succumbed to the bodily necessity.
“The Buddha teaches that one should not inflict suffering on oneself or others alike. Your actions, be it good or bad, always have consequences on others around you,” she says and adds, “One has to respect one’s body; life is precious. The monks and nuns who immolated themselves must have had selfless and noble intentions, we can never be sure of that, but Buddhism never encourages such act.”
The third school or Vajrayana – the origins of which is still debated as of whether it stems from Mahayana or Theravada or is a different school altogether – also maintains its belief in non-violence against any living creature.
The traditional Buddhism of the Newars of the Kathmandu Valley is also a very ancient form of Vajrayana Buddhism which was once much more widespread, being followed throughout South Asia and beyond, as far as Cambodia, Java, and Bali in Southeast Asia.
“Vajrayana doesn’t really have clear doctrines on self-sacrifice,” says Buddhism expert Min Bahadur Shakya. “But the school itself is said to a part of Mahayana, and though suicide for personal gain is considered an offense, the Doctrine of Skillful Means in Mahayana suggests that a Bodhisattva can’t remain silent amid the sufferings of people and has to act for the welfare of the multitude.”
He reasons that many monks and nuns who sacrificed their lives in the recent immolations thought it their part to call the attention of the oppressors and the world to the sufferings of the Tibetans and to make a point that it has to stop for the welfare of the sufferers.
Immolation or the act of setting oneself on fire in itself is of significance, says Shakya. Many Mahayana traditions and even abolished Hindu traditions like Sati acknowledge burning oneself as showing utmost commitment and seriousness to a cause.
In the past, many monks and nuns burnt one or several parts of their limbs during their ordination ceremony.
“To burn oneself is feeling the climax of any kind of pain. It’s unlike shooting or bombing oneself which is followed by a quick death. And saying something while experiencing such pain is considered a great importance,” Shakya explains. “Moreover, lighting oneself is also a form of strongest self-expression to draw attention to what one has to say.”
Yeshi, who immolated himself at a mass protest ahead of Chinese President Hu Jintao’s visit to India in New Delhi, ran shouting protest slogans while engulfed in flames.
In his hand-written statement, made public by the Tibetan Youth Congress, he also clarified that while some would offer money to help fight for freedom, some would struggle through education, and some who have control over their life like him should sacrifice oneself.
“The fact that Tibetan people are setting themselves on fire in this 21st century is to let the world know of their sufferings, and to tell the world about the denial of basic human rights,” the letter continues.
Shakya adds that self-immolation by lay people or clergies from religious points of view will always be considered violence, but currently it is more of a political issue.
Even His Holiness Dalai Lama, who has been accused by the Chinese government of inciting self-immolations, expressed in his statement to UPI (United Press International), that he did not encourage self-immolation by monks and nuns protesting China’s control over Tibet and questioned the usefulness of the acts as a protest tool.
However, he did acknowledge that the monks and nuns had courage, but he gave the impression that it was not a Buddhist thing to do.
Shakya cites that while in 1963 when Thich Quang Duc, a Vietnamese monk, set fire to himself followed by subsequent self-immolation by other nuns and monks protesting against US imperialism, it became a worldwide sensation. America then was subsequently compelled to withdraw from Vietnam.
Whether the recent self-immolations are regarded an offences or noble acts of self-sacrifice in religion, or acts of altruistic suicides in sociological theory or even as a political protest tool, the debate over its significance will go on.
The Vietnamese Buddhist monk, author and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh, in his open letter to Rev Dr Martin Luther King Jr regarding the then self-immolations by various Vietnamese monks and nuns, surmised it well: “..The Press spoke then of suicide, but in the essence, it is not. It is not even a protest. What the monks said in the letters they left before burning themselves aimed only at alarming, at moving the hearts of the oppressors and at calling the attention of the world to the suffering endured then by the Vietnamese...”