DHARMSALA, India — At least three Tibetan Buddhist monks drank gasoline and set themselves ablaze in January, bringing the count of self-immolations to 15 since March 2011.
Lobsang Sangay, the prime minister of the Tibetan government-in-exile, attributes the deaths to restrictions being imposed by the Chinese government on traditional Tibetan practices.
The U.S. State Department has raised concerns over the self-immolations. However, Beijing, which regards Tibet as part of China, alleges that Tibetan exiles are encouraging the monastic community to take this extreme step, disregarding the Buddhist principle of non-violence.
Sangay, a former scholar from Harvard Law School and the political successor of the Dalai Lama, spoke about religious restrictions and self-immolation in Tibet. Some answers have been edited for length and clarity.
Q: Why are monks and nuns self-immolating in Tibet?
A: Repressive policies of China have pushed them to the brink of desperation. Members of the Communist Party of China dictate what monks and nuns should do, how they should pray, and who should be allowed into the monasteries.
Those who give up worldly life to join a monastery see their follow monks as their world, their family. When they see their associates being expelled because they refused to denounce His Holiness the Dalai Lama or to stamp on his photograph, hopelessness sinks in. When they think their sufferings are not being noted, they take such a desperate step.
Q: Does Buddhism allow self-immolation?
A: It’s a complex issue. One could refer to Jataka tales, which concern the previous births of the Buddha. In one story, the Buddha, in a previous incarnation, gives up his body to feed a starving tigress and her four cubs. Some other stories also talk about self-sacrifice by the Buddha.
Although suicide is violent and prohibited in Buddhism, some Buddhists believe it depends on the motivation. If you do it out of hatred and anger, then it is negative. But if you do it for a pure cause … it’s such a complex theological issue. You can’t go either way or have a definitive answer. But the action is tragic, so painful.
Q: Do you discourage monks setting themselves ablaze?
A: My stand on self immolation is the same as that of the Dalai Lama, who has always discouraged drastic actions by Tibetans. He does not even endorse hunger strikes.
Q: Can you stop the wave of self-immolations?
A: I am expected to do something about it, but it has been challenging, difficult and painful. As a human being, it is so difficult to hear someone dying for a cause. And as a Buddhist, it is even more painful.
I went to the United Stated and Europe to get statements of support so that I could send a message of hope to Tibet. I tried my best to get everything I did covered by the Tibetan media. And during my visit — almost until the last leg of my trip — self-immolations stopped. I thought I was able to pass on the message of hope. But when I was in London, I heard there was one more self-immolation. That dampened my mood. I cancelled all my appointments for that morning.
Q: Do you see a solution to the Tibet-China conflict in sight?
A: I do believe so. That’s why I have left Harvard to be in India to lead the movement. The Tibetan struggle has to go on. Had I not moved to India, where I am living on about $300 a month, my life would have been normal and boring.
One Buddhist lesson I have learned is that one who is born has to die. That means what you do is what you leave behind. If you live for yourself, you won’t make much difference. I, as a Buddhist, as a Tibetan, want to live for a cause greater than myself and my life.
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