The Dalai Lama was in the area this week to give the Anwar Sadat Lecture for Peace at the University of Maryland before 15,000 people.
According to the university’s Web site, the Dalai Lama spoke about how “peace in the world must come from inner peace within individuals and the source of that inner peace is compassion for others.”
Compassion for others is at the root of the controversy over the self-immolation of more than 100 Tibetans who have taken their own lives since 2009 to protest China’s occupation of Tibet. Those who burn themselves to death want to see the Dalai Lama return to Tibet.
Why, people ask, would the Dalai Lama not put a stop to these violent acts of self-destruction in his name? Isn’t self-immolation the very antithesis of what Buddhism is about? How can it be moral or ethical to condone such behavior? Yet the Dalai Lama refuses to condemn it.
In a segment on Times Now, a major Indian news channel, he spoke about this practice. “If motivation [consists] too much of anger, hatred, then it is negative, [but] if the motivation [is] more compassionate . . . then such acts can also be positive. That is strictly speaking from [a Buddhist point of view]. Any action, whether violence or nonviolence, is ultimately [dependent] on motivation.”
As the number of self-immolation cases has risen, so, too, have the mass protests. The Chinese government has cracked down on the protests, arresting and torturing many who speak out. Authorities are especially upset by the self-immolations, because they have caused a lot of bad publicity. Some Chinese police now travel with fire extinguishers on their backs to head off the suicides.
Recently, while traveling in Japan, the Dalai Lama responded to the Chinese repression, saying, according to the Global Post, that the incidents of self-immolation are “a sign of deep desperation; Chinese leaders need to take a look into these incidents more seriously. Ruthlessness only will not be good for all.”
Still, he does not condemn it.
Matteo Pistono, author of “In the Shadow of the Buddha” and a Buddhist scholar who lived and traveled in Tibet for a decade, says that in Buddhism, there is a way to look at self-immolation that is nonviolent.
“It can be seen as a great offering one is making,” he says. “Trying to become, literally, a lamp to illuminate the darkness of the world.”
Pistono says it is an act inspired “philosophically and emotionally, but somewhere in between is political activism trying to bring about change.”
The difference, he says, between this kind of violence and other kinds is that “it doesn’t result in violence against others. You’re not blowing up buildings.”
Pistono says that Mahatma Gandhi made popular the doctrine of nonviolence, or “ahimsa,” a Sanskrit word meaning to do no harm. “Yet what is the motivation here? To bring the Dalai Lama back to Tibet and to bring freedom to Tibet.”
Pistono says the position of some exiled Tibetan leaders on self-immolation is not that the world should ask why people are killing themselves but that the world should ask China to desist from repression, which could stop the cause of the burning.
Pistono points out that the Arab Spring was started by a Tunisian fruit seller’s self-immolation. So such actions can produce results. Yet the Tibetan self-immolations have not resonated with the rest of the world. It has been very frustrating to the Dalai Lama that the United States has not taken a stronger position on the China-Tibet standoff.
In “The Ethics of Self-Immolation” — from “Into the Jaws of Yama, Lord of death: Buddhism, Bioethics, and Death” — Tibetan writer Karma Lekshe Tsomo says that “there are cases of Buddhists who have set their bodies afire as an act of generosity, renunciation, devotion or political protests” and that the Mahayana texts “extol the virtues of offering one’s body to the Buddhas, often by burning.” Later he says, “The spirit of a person who commits suicide out of despair or depression is believed to be intensely dissatisfied and therefore likely to wander as a hungry ghost, whereas self-immolation is believed to be a religious act committed with strong conviction and pure motivation.”
A new form of protest has arisen among Tibetans who feel that self-immolation is too violent. It is called “Lhakar,” which means “white Wednesday” in Tibetan. One day a week is set aside to celebrate all things Tibetan, including music, food and goods. This is a cultural rather than a religious protest and one on which it is much more difficult for the Chinese to crack down.
The question is: Why hasn’t the Dalai Lama embraced the practice of Lhakar rather than refusing to condemn self-immolation?
If the Dalai Lama says stop, the self-immolations will stop. He may not realize the kind of power he has here. Certainly the rest of the world is appalled by the treatment of Tibetans by the Chinese. But most cultures are equally appalled by the suicidal self-destruction of protesting Tibetans. It doesn’t look good for the Dalai Lama. He can talk about peace and happiness and compassion and draw crowds of 15,000 or more around the world. But until he calls for the cessation of this barbaric practice, he will be fighting a losing battle against the Chinese.