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"Canada can, within a positive friendly atmosphere, ask the Chinese government to resolve the Tibetan situation."

Self immolation reveals dispair

October 15, 2012

By Melinda Liu

October 15, 2012 - Students of Buddhist history and literature know well the ancient fables about Buddha’s early incarnations, known as the Jataka Tales. In one, he is a prince who encounters a desperate, starving tigress with seven newborn cubs. It’s clear to the prince and his party that the mother will devour her own brood, and perhaps kill other prey, to survive. While his companions ride off to seek food for the beast, the prince slits his own throat and flays his body to feed the tigress and to prevent her from consuming her offspring. After this sacrifice, he’s reincarnated as Buddha—and in another twist of karma, the seven tiger cubs eventually are reincarnated as his disciples.

Frescoes illustrating this famous tale still captivate visitors at 1,400-year-old Buddhist sites along the fabled Silk Road. But the story is playing out in much grimmer metaphorical fashion in Tibetan communities. In January, a Tibetan Buddhist lama named Sobha learned that Chinese authorities had denied him a passport to travel to India to participate in a religious observance led by the exiled Tibetan spiritual leader, the Dalai Lama. Sobha recorded a nine-minute message and hid it in his maroon robes. Then he doused himself with kerosene and set himself on fire outside his monastery in Qinghai province. His suicide note declared he was sacrificing his body “to chase away the darkness … with firm conviction and a pure heart just as the Buddha bravely gave his body to a hungry tigress.”


At least 53 other Tibetans have self-immolated since February 2009 to protest China’s policies that the Dalai Lama has called “cultural genocide.” In the latest case, on Oct. 6, a 27-year-old Tibetan named Sangay Gyatso died after setting himself on fire on the grounds of Dokar monastery in China’s Gansu province. Two weeks earlier, a Tibetan writer in Qinghai named Gudrub also died in a fiery blaze. Back in March, Gudrub had written an article criticizing the Chinese government’s clampdown in Tibetan areas: “[Those] concerned about the welfare of the people are subjected to arbitrary arrests and beatings. Tibetans who refuse to denounce His Holiness the Dalai Lama or accept China’s rule on Tibet are secretly killed or made to disappear ... The pure land of snow is now tainted with red blood.”

Suicide is a desperate act in any community, but even more so among Tibetan Buddhists, who believe that the taking of any life (even one’s own) can make a person ineligible for reincarnation. Yet for those who resort to the taboo act, the allegory of the Buddha and the tigress offers a ray of hope that those who kill themselves “with a pure heart” may yet be reborn.

The current wave of immolations began three years ago in the Qinghai town of Tongren. In 2008, after antigovernment riots rocked the Tibetan capital of Lhasa—during which, Beijing says, 19 people died, mostly ethnic Chinese—officials implemented martial law in many Tibetan communities. They also accelerated efforts to compel the Buddhist clergy to denounce the Dalai Lama and promote a stifling program of pro-Beijing “patriotic education.” The clampdown exacerbated Tibetan resentment. At Tongren’s Rongpo monastery, a number of monks were detained by authorities in the months after the unrest. One of them, a 43-year-old, committed suicide in February 2009, reportedly after being tortured in detention. Since then, a steady stream of self-immolations have taken place, often intensifying around politically significant dates, such as the anniversary of the March 2008 bloodshed or of the abortive 1959 Tibetan uprising that triggered the Dalai Lama’s flight into exile.

The levels of despair evident in the suicides is matched only by the resounding failure of China’s Tibetan policies during the decade-long tenure of President Hu Jintao. The tensions between Beijing and the Tibetan Buddhist community reached a low point during the 2008 violence, which Beijing blamed on the Dalai Lama. Tibet’s hard-line Communist Party secretary at the time, Zhang Qingli, called him “a jackal in monk’s robes,” while the official Xinhua News agency accused him of being a “tricky liar” who advocated policies “similar to the Holocaust” to expel ethnic Han Chinese from traditionally Tibetan parts of China. For his part, the exiled spiritual leader—and winner of the 1989 Nobel Peace Prize—said he was powerless to stop the protests, but vowed to resign as head of state if the violence continued. Later, in an interview after the unrest, he confessed to Newsweek that he had openly wept when he saw cellphone pictures of mangled Tibetan corpses.

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