Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Burning oneself as political protest in Vietnam and Tibet

The division of Tibetans in exile around the Dalai Lama in Dharmasala and the larger number in Tibet and Western China makes it hard to organize a campaign of mass, nonviolent resistance, given the fierceness of Chinese oppression. Under Mao, the Chinese made the corrupt decision to repopulate Tibet with Chinese inhabitants, and, at the same time, to further, to an extent, economic development among Tibetans. But the latter policy was at best largely paternalistic, that is, against the seeming recommendations even of Mao'x writings, and corrupt; mainly, China suppressed indigenous culture.

In this context, the emergence of the Lhakar movement which organizes Tibetan actions on Wednesdays – dressing traditionally, eating Tibetan food and the like – while seemingly mild as action, is surprisingly threatening to China (the name means "White Wednesdays" and is the soul day of the Dalai Lama - see here, here and here). For China has engaged in a program of ethnic cleansing and settlement of Han nationals in Tibet, like those of the United States and in the Americas toward indigenous people or like the state of Israel toward the Palestinians….


Since 2009, however, a tradition of setting oneself on fire and burning to death, named, to keep the act at a distance,“self-immolation,” has emerged in Tibet. More than 100 people have done so, many monks but many farmers, including women, as well. These are solitary acts of great outrage at what the Chinese are doing, and express, quite obviously, the sentiments of many, under Chinese oppression, who will not take quite that step. It parallels the sacrifice of Buddhist monks in Vietnam during the Vietnam war.

The suicides are, from the outside, a disturbing, painful, and sorrowful reality (another Buddhist monk immolated himself in Nepal this week). A CNN article here historically casts some further light, from a Buddhist point of view, on the spiritual motivations for setting oneself afire and where it arises in the Buddhist tradition (h\t Naomi Reshotko). This is harder to understand than Christian martyrdom – the latter arising from the image of the crucifixion – whereas the Buddha sitting under the Bodhi tree, achieving enlightenment has no obvious relation to setting oneself aflame; the burning of monks and others has its own specific resonances and impact.


Thich Nhat Hanh is a Vietnamese Buddhist spiritual leader, perhaps someone near in international influence to the Dalai Lama. Tich Nhat Hanh was a colleague of Thich Quang Duc, the man shown burning himself in protest at the Vietnam War in the CNN article, and, more specifically, the South Vietnamese government’s oppression of Buddhists. The US-imposed Catholic dictator Diem spoke at most for Catholics – 10% of the Vietnamese population (the other 90% were Buddhists). Diem banned celebrations of Vesak, Buddha’s birthday, and allowed only festivities on Christmas.

Thich Nhat Hanh speaks of Quang Duc’s protest as bringing down the Diem regime as well as ending his specific practices of discrimination. Nonetheless, this was not a way he chose to follow. He came to the United States to study, and persuaded Martin Luther King to speak out against the war in Vietnam (Vincent Harding, my friend who wrote the first draft of King’s speech at the Riverside Church, April 4th, 1967, spoke about this in introducing a talk by Thich Nhat Hanh a few years ago in Denver). Thich Nhat Hanh had been in touch with King and wrote to King – see his description below - to dispel the American preconception that Thich Quang Duc acted out of despair.

Instead, he emphasizes Quang Duc's freedom, lack of attachment to the body, care for all beings, and protest against banning Vesak.


Thich Nhat Hanh convinced King to break the silence (King mentions a Buddhist of great insight in the speech, referring to Thich Nhat Hanh). King had long opposed the war, but his speaking out on it led to a fierce attack on him by civil rights leaders who sought mainly to curry favor with President Johnson and probably to King's assassination. This was one of the decisive moments in the American and international movement against the war.

Four months before King’s assassination in Memphis, a year to the day after King gave that speech, Thich Nhat Hanh came to a final meeting with King, and told him that “we,” Vietnamese Buddhists, “consider you a Boddhisattva,” someone who waits, out of compassion, before passing into Nirvana until – or sacrifices herself so that - all other living beings can (the Dalai Lama is an avatar of Avalokitesvara, the Boddhisattva of compassion). These movements had some important spiritual and internationalist interplay.


The CNN article on “Self-immolations through time,” reports the origins of the tradition of self-immolation in the Lotus Sutra in the tale of the Medicine King:

“Enter the Lotus Sutra, considered one of the most significant Buddhist scriptures in East Asia. There's a small passage in one chapter that speaks of a Medicine King, one with great spiritual and moral wisdom.

’The Sutra tells us that as an offering to the Buddha and to display his insight that the body is not a permanent, unchanging self, he poured fragrant oil on himself and allowed himself to be burned by fire,’ wrote Buddhist monk, author, teacher and peace activist Thich Nhat Hanh in his book, ‘Peaceful Action, Open Heart.’

‘This is a quite radical demonstration of his freedom and insight, one that was made out of a very deep love,’ he wrote.

And it was this part of the Lotus Sutra that Vietnamese monks and nuns pointed to when it came to self-immolation in the 1960s.”


Here is Thich Nat Hanh's account of the practice of self-burning in “Peaceful Action, Open Heart”:

“Many people know about the Vietnamese monks who immolated themselves in the 1960s. This practice has its roots in this [the 23rd) chapter of the Lotus Sutra. Because they had realized the insight into their ultimate nature and were no longer attached to an idea of a physical body as the self, the monks were free to use their bodies to deliver a powerful message. Only those who are truly free, who have seen deeply into the ultimate dimension, can make this kind of action. When you realize that your present physical form is not a permanent or fixed entity that you can and will take many forms, they you have the courage to relinquish your body without suffering. (p. 158)

He then turns to Quang Duc, his friend, colleague and perhaps (in certain respects), teacher,

“Thich Quang Duc was involved in the nonviolent struggle to restore freedom of religion. He wrote many compassionate letters, urging the government to stop persecution of the Buddhists, but the suppression continued. One day he asked another monk to drive him to a busy intersection in the Cholon district of Saigon. He poured gasoline on himself, sat down in the street and struck a match.

Within a few hours images of the monk’s burning body had been published in the newspapers in many countries. In this way people all over the world learned about the persecution and suffering of the Vietnamese people. A month or two later the Diem regime was brought down by the military and the policy of discrimination against Buddhists was ended.”

These sentences reveal the protest’s wide and unusual political effect. Most self-immolations have a more limited impact on popular awareness. Nhat Hanh continues:

“I knew Thich Quang Duc personally. As a young monk I practiced with him in a sangha in central Vietnam, and for a time I stayed in his temple in Saigon. In 1963 I was in New York teaching at Columbia University and I learned of his death from an article and picture in the New York Times. Many people asked me, ‘Isn’t such an act a violation of the Buddhist precept of not killing?’ So I wrote Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. a letter explaining that the monk’s act was not suicide. A suicidal person is so overwhelmed by despair that they don’t want to live anymore. I knew Thich Quang Duc loved life, and wished only for his friends and all living beings to live in peace.”

He then draws an analogy with Jesus:

“When Jesus died on the cross, he did so for the sake of human beings. His sacrifice was not made out of despair but out of the wish to help, out of his great love for humankind. This is exactly what motivated Thich Quang Duc.” (pp. 159-60)

He also tells why Nhat Chi Mai, his student and friend, burned herself:

“…we have to understand this kind of offering in its proper context. In a time of great suffering, such as in Vietnam during the war there were many boddhisattvas among us. One of the first six members of the Order of Interbeing [Thick Nhat Hanh’s conception of the interconnection of all beings] in Vietnam was a young woman named Nhat Chi Mai, “one branch of plum.” She was my disciple. Nhat Chi Mai immolated herself to call for the cessation of hostilities between north and south. Massive destruction was taking place everywhere. Many people were dying every day from the heavy bombing. There were 500,000 American troops in Vietnam and American officials had declared that they were going to “bomb North Vietnam back to the Stone Age.” Many in our group were very close to despair. The young people came to me and asked , “Thay, is there any hope that the war will end?” I didn’t know what to tell them. I practiced mindfulness of breathing for a few minutes, and finally, I said, “The Buddha taught that everything is impermanent. The war is also impermanent; it must end one day.”

“This is the situation in which Nhat Chi Mai chose to make an offering of her own body. She took this action without consulting anyone. She left behind letters to her parents and her friends, as well as written appeals calling upon the warring parties to stop. She knew that the police would confiscate her letters and suppress her appeals for peace and reconciliation, so she had photocopied the letters and given them to a friend to distribute after her death. She sent me a letter which I still have. It reads: 'Dear Thay, please don’t worry. Peace will surely come.' That’s all. She wrote this only a few hours before she burned herself. She was about to die; yet she was thinking only about us; she didn’t want us to worry. It is clear that her act was motivated by pure love, not despair.” (p. 161)


There seem to be six motivations within Buddhism for such an act of sacrifice. The first is the continual meditation on death – the Dalai Lama arises each day at 4 am and meditates on the dissolution of the body – and the profound sense of impermanence. Mortality is part of each human life; the Medicine King’s asceticism and burning of himself is an unusual way of choosing it, making a statement about it. Second, it also illustrates a freedom, as Thich Nhat Hanh says, to design the time and political significance of one’s own death, one’s own sacrifice to help others as Thich Quang Duc did.

The third is a sense of an ultimate reality beyond the self realized as a body (something close to the Buddhist thought of no-self). The spirit is manifest over time in different bodies, different animals or “emanations” (avatars). The fourth, as Thich Nat Hanh’s student, “Tony,” told me in answer to the question of why some Buddhists choose this path, is, powerfully, “loving kindness” or compassion for all living things. The fifth is a cultivated non-attachment to desire, even the intense desire to continue living, given the possibility of helping others. The sixth, as Tony also suggested, is to awaken people to grave harms. This last motivation is an analogy with Mohammed Bouazzizi, the student and flower seller, blocked by a policewoman in a small town in Tunisia from working, whose burning of himself at least partly in despair, set off Arab Spring. This incident again shows that sometimes in difficult circumstances, ones close to a revolutionary situation, such an act can capture the imagination and inspire the action of many people

One should add, however: it rarely has so profound an effect: four people burned themselves in Egypt to little avail, before Asmaa Mahfouz made a viral video, saying she would protest the murder of a teenager on National Police Day and telling those in her family who urged her to say home: “Be men!”


Among Tibetans, as Jose Cabezon has written here, there are other sources, for instance, in the story of the Buddha, in an earlier incarnation, coming upon a starving tiger and her two cubs. He could not bear their suffering and sacrificed himself so that they might eat (the image, crossing species, is worth taking in…). In Cabezon’s words,

“A well-known fourth century text called Ornament to Realizations also mentions 'giving one’s life for the sake of the Dharma (the Buddhist teachings).' Most of the Tibetan monks who have self-immolated would certainly be familiar with this line. In a 2011 post on a Tibetan website, a blogger asks others to comment on what thoughts went through their minds when they first heard about the self-immolation of a monk at the Bodhanath stūpa in Nepal. The first response to his query came in the form of a single line, “I thought of the implications of the line from the Ornament of Realizations that says, ‘Giving one’s life for the sake of the Dharma.’” Obviously, elite texts like the Ornament are, at the very least, part of the background worldview in which the Tibetan the self-immolations are taking place."

"We cannot simply assume that all those have immolated were aware of these classical doctrinal references, but neither can we presume that they were totally ignorant of them. Religious texts sometimes have a way of penetrating into the fabric of a society in ways that one would not have imagined.”


In general, Buddhists strive to do “no harm” to living things (to be a serous Buddhist in the world, however, is to oppose rapacity). A Tibetan monk stressed to me that each of us contains “a hundred Buddhas,” so immolating oneself does violence to the person and each of these possibilities or realities (Cabezon speaks of a Buddhist concern for microorganisms, among all beings…).

But doing violence to oneself out of love for all beings, as the story of the Medicine King and Thich Quang Duc also reveals, is another matter. That can override this prohibition.


Cabezon concludes with the powerful words of Jigmey, a monk jailed for 5 years by the Chinese government for writing them:

“I want to end with the words of one contemporary Tibetan. Jigmey, a Tibetan monk living in Gartse Monastery in the Amdo region of eastern Tibet, who published his views on the self-immolations as part of a broader critique of Chinese government policies.

In January of 2013 he was sentenced to five years in prison for the publication of this tract. This is what he wrote (translation my own):

'The Beijing government claims that the act of self-cremation, or the burning of one’s body, contradicts the Buddhist texts, but this is a confused position. According to Buddhism, giving up one’s life for the welfare of others is an act of a bodhisattva. One can know this from the biography of the compassionate Buddha himself. Before he was enlightened, the future Buddha came across a tigress and her cubs. They were on the verge of starving to death. Unable to bear their suffering, he sacrificed his own body as food for the tigress. That act of protecting the life of the tigress and her two cubs by giving up his own life is the central theme of many contemporary religious writings; it is widely known. When one reaches the highest level of Mahāyāna practice—that of “the being of great scope”—one is able to give up everything one possesses for the welfare of sentient beings. For example, if it is necessary, one is able to spend many hundreds of millions of years in hell just for the sake of a single sentient being... For all of these reasons giving up one’s own life for the sake of sentient beings or for the sake of one’s own people does not contradict the Buddhist teachings. Not only does it not contradict them, it is actually a tenet of the Mahāyāna; it is a most excellent doctrine. Hence, no one who is informed about these matters would claim that it contradicts Buddhism—no one, that is, except confused government officials and their lackeys.'”


The Dalai Lama admires the courage of those who sacrifice themselves. As he mentions in Freedom in Exile with regard to Tibetans who went to Nepal and fought against the Chinese in Tibet, he is reluctant to criticize forms of courageous resistance, but he sent them a message saying that their course was unwise. He does not think that burning oneself accomplishes so much (and in nearly all circumstances, it doesn’t). As Cabezon also reports,

"Last week the Dalai Lama talked to Australian journalists about the wave of self-immolations by Tibetan protesters: 'It’s a sad thing that happens. Of course it’s very very sad. In the meantime, I express I doubt how much effect (there is) from such drastic actions.' The Dalai Lama was speaking here about the human (and political) tragedy inherent in self-immolation, but it was only later in the interview that he remarked—almost as an aside—on the ethical aspect of suicide-as-protest"

The Dalai Lama is in a difficult position as the former ruler of Tibet (a kind of genune philosopher-king, prepared through much meditation and argument) as well as a political leader from below. For he wants not to criticize Tibetan resistance but to further a potentially workable, nonviolent path – a genuinely autonomous region in China, not the current, laughable Tibet Autonomous Region. But this view clashes with Tibetan independence (the demand of many Tibetan nationalists, about which there is important division). His aim here is to stop the ethnic cleaning which will make of Tibetans, as he says in Freedom in Exile, but tourist attractions in their own land (6 million Tibetans against 1,000 million Chinese). In this way, as he does not say but seems to have in mind, they would become like the tribes of Native Americans after the American ethnic cleansing.


But the success of the Dalai Lama’s compassion depends also on the wisdom of the Chinese. For the Chinese government seeks to make everything in the great region it encompasses domestically Chinese (it has settled a vast majority in Mongolia, for instance, and now has the majority population – 7.5 million to 6 million roughly – in Tibet. But its fierce oppression of Tibet – and the international opprobrium among ordinary people which it has caused - has enabled America successfully to isolate it up to this point. The existence of the Tibetan community in Dharamsala and internationally (at Naropa in Boulder, for example) is a constant reminder about the emptiness of the Chinese government’s slurs about “splittism” – opposition to Chinese policy toward Tibet, including Mao’s, is, from Mao’s writings, a comparatively communist stance (see, for example “On the Correct Handling of Contradictions among the People” and “On New Democracy,”). The leaders of the Chinese government, not the Dalai Lama, are the oppressors or “splittists,” in this jargon, as well as "the wolf in sheep’s clothing" (The Dalai Lama pretends to nonviolence, the Chinese like to say. while secretly encouraging violence). Chinese policy is oppressive and hideously stupid and counterproductive, internationally and among Tibetans.


To break out of its isolation in the world, the Chinese government could do nothing of greater significance than to behave decently toward the Tibetans (like Israel toward the Palestinians, it would barely have to behave well, just not in the way of ethnic cleansing as it relentlessly now does). It can still do all right for a while, relying on economic development and cornering the green energy market, for instance in solar panels (at least rivaling Germany) while the crippled and decadent US declines. But when economic growth falters and Chinese spring comes, the democrats may well point to Tibet as proof that Chinese “Communism” must go. Doing more decently on Tibet may be a survival question, at least temporarily (it has no future in the long run) for the current authoritarianism in China…


On the Medicine King in the "Flower Sutra," surprisingly beloved of all beings, I found this passage:

"The Wonderful Dharma Lotus Flower Sutra
Chapter Twenty-three: 'The Former Deeds of
Medicine King Bodhisattva'


At that time the Bodhisattva Constellation-King-Flower spoke to the Buddha, saying, "World Honored One, how is it that the Bodhisattva Medicine King roams throughout the Saha world? World Honored One, Medicine King Bodhisattva has undertaken so many hundreds of thousands of myriads of kotis of nayutas of bitter practices, so difficult to practice.

"It would be excellent, World Honored One, if you would please explain a bit. All the gods, dragons, yakshas, gandharvas, asuras, garudas, kinnaras, mahoragas, people, nonpeople, and so forth, and the Bodhisattvas who have come from other lands, as well as the assembly of Hearers, on hearing it, will rejoice."


This chapter talks about the very bitter and difficult ascetic practices of Medicine King Bodhisattva. These are ascetic practices most people could not do. He has already been certified to the fruit and become a Bodhisattva. Before, he wasn't called Medicine King Bodhisattva; he was called the Bodhisattva All Beings Delight in Seeing. When beings saw him they felt happy in their eyes, happy in their ears, happy in their noses, happy in their mouths, happy in their bodies, and, of course, even happier in their minds. Why? It was because this Bodhisattva developed affinities with all living beings, and so they all liked to see him. No matter whether they believed in the Buddha or not, they liked to see him. And so he was called the Bodhisattva All Beings Delight in Seeing. When they saw him, their hearts felt happy. Even children loved to see him. Perhaps he always gave them candy. In any case, he never gave the kids hot peppers, so they liked him. Not only did people like him, but all the animals liked him, too.

This Bodhisattva used his body as an offering to the Buddha. How did he do this? He didn't cut off all his flesh and offer it to the Buddha for a meal, or lie in front of the Buddha on the altar as an offering. He drank a lot of fragrant oil, wrapped his body in oil-soaked cotton, lit it on fire, and sat there like a human candle as an offering to the Buddha.

"Did it hurt?" you ask.

I believe it hurt, yes, but he could bear it. He could offer up his body to the Buddha. I also believe it didn't hurt. Why not? Because he has already forgotten all about his own body. The light of the wisdom of his self-nature had come forth. He knew that the body is just a false combination of the four elements-earth, air, fire, and water-and so it didn't hurt. In general, hurting or not hurting, he could give up his body as an offering to the Buddha. This is a genuine offering to the Buddha with nothing false in it at all. And so the text says, "This is true vigor." To say nothing of burning up our whole bodies, we couldn't even burn off an arm. Sometimes people burn off one, two, three, four, five, or six fingers for the Buddha. But no one has ever burned off an arm.

"Okay, I'll try it out," you say.

Don't try it out. First cultivate patience. When you have true samadhi power, you can do something like this. If you don't have true samadhi power, it's going to hurt, and it will be useless because you won't be able to practice true ascetic action.

Medicine King Bodhisattva made a vow to cure all living beings of their illnesses. No matter what sickness you have, he wants to help you, because he is very compassionate. His former deeds refer to the actions he cultivated in the past, the ascetic practices he undertook.

At that time the Bodhisattva Constellation-King-Flower spoke to the Buddha, saying, "World Honored One, I heard about Medicine King Bodhisattva in the Shurangama Sutra Assembly, but there are a few things I haven't completely understood. How is it that the Bodhisattva Medicine King roams throughout the Saha World? How is it that he has such affinities with the living beings in the Saha World? World Honored One, Medicine King Bodhisattva has undertaken so many hundreds of thousands of myriads of kotis of nayutas of bitter practices, so difficult to practice. He cures living beings illnesses. In past lives he must surely have cultivated many ascetic practices, making vows to save living beings from the pain of sickness. These bitter practices were beyond the capabilities of ordinary people.

It would be excellent, World Honored One, if you would please explain this a bit. You don't have to tell the whole thing; that would take too long. Just give us a general idea. All the gods, dragons, yakshas, gandharvas, asuras, garudas, kinnaras, mahoragas, people, nonpeople, and so forth, and the Bodhisattvas who have come from other lands, as well as the assembly of Hearers, on hearing it, will rejoice. They all want to hear about the bitter practices of Medicine King Bodhisattva."

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