Is Tibetan self-immolation an act of love, protest or an act of self-hatred?

By Contributor Steve Lee

As a socially-engaged student of Buddhism, what do I make of self-immolation, a protest method where a person sets oneself on fire?

Some Tibetans choose this practice to protest suppression of their people at the hands of the Chinese government. The Dalai Lama calls it “cultural genocide.”

Here in early 2012, these horrific acts of protest started again late last year and continued last week. And the Chinese crackdown grows ever more violent.

When asked about the self-immolations in November of last year, the Dalai Lama’s thoughts were recorded in a BBC interview.

Read a partial excerpt here:

“There is courage — very strong courage’ by the people who set themselves on fire, he said. “But how much effect? Courage alone is no substitute. You must utilize your wisdom.”

He said many Tibetans of all walks of life have died for a more free Tibet, and the Chinese authorities’ response is to clamp down harder on the population.

“Nobody knows how many people (are) killed and tortured — I mean death through torture. Nobody knows,” he said. “But a lot of people suffer. But how much effect? The Chinese respond harder.”

Dalai Lama
Dalai Lama

The other international pillar of Buddhism—Thich Nhat Hanh—spoke about self-immolation as protest as reported in Matteo Pistono’s blog…

“Fellow monk and countryman Thich Nhat Hanh wrote a few years after the incident, ‘The Vietnamese monk, by burning himself, says with all his strength and determination that he can endure the greatest of suffering to protect his people. What he really aims at is the expression of his will and determination, not death. To express will by burning oneself, therefore, is not to commit an act of destruction but to perform an act of construction, that is to suffer and to die for the sake of one’s people.”

Thich Nhat Hahn
Thich Nhat Hanh

Hmmm… The two most quotable Buddhists of our day disagree on the issue. More reflection on the issue—and a little research—pushed me towards the Dalai Lama’s perspective. As I reflected on the Buddhist precepts that guide moral development, I recalled the interlocking steps of the Buddha’s prescription for liberation, also known as “the cessation of suffering.” These steps are called “The Noble Eightfold Path.” A large part of Buddhist practice consists of learning these steps, practicing them and then, making them “real” in one’s life.

One of these steps is called Right Action. What does the principle of Right Action have to say about self-immolation? Well, nothing directly. The sutras—Buddhist scriptures—appear ambivalent about suicide but not ambivalent about taking life. Right Action is often expressed in terms of abstinence, and the foremost stricture of Right Action is to abstain from the taking of life. Bhikkhu Bodhi explicates Right Action thusly…:

“The “taking of life” that is to be avoided is intentional killing, the deliberate destruction of life of a being endowed with consciousness. The principle is grounded in the consideration that all beings love life and fear death, that all seek happiness and are averse to pain. The essential determinant of transgression is the volition to kill, issuing in an action that deprives a being of life. Suicide is also generally regarded as a violation, but not accidental killing as the intention to destroy life is absent. The abstinence may be taken to apply to two kinds of action, the primary and the secondary. The primary is the actual destruction of life; the secondary is deliberately harming or torturing another being without killing it.”

In researching the question, I found that Michael Attwood in “Western Buddhist Review” has a more nuanced take on suicide, although self-immolation is not specifically discussed either. His article is well-worth a read for its own sake, but one passage stands out for my discussion:

“Violence in any form is not simply a breach of the precepts in a legalistic sense; it actually increases the suffering in the world. In general any action that is based upon unskillful states of mind, such as despair and grief, leads only to more suffering.”

Even if I assume the highest possible intentions behind self-immolation as protest, I still wind up here: the one-who-burns does so because she or he wants things to be other than what they are and is willing to kill in hopes that the killing will change the prevailing social order.

This does not sit well with me. Means and ends are one and the same for me. Just as the wheel follows the ox, so does violence follow violence. Violent means beget violent ends. This is actually happening right now; the Chinese have used increasing force to prevent more immolations.

One other sutra informs this subject, speaking directly to the end of violence:

“The Buddha said, ‘Never in this world is hatred quenched by hatred. By love alone is it quenched; this is an eternal law.’ (Dhp, 5)”

The violence of self-immolation may not be hatred, but it is not love either. Perhaps it even engenders self-hatred in the Chinese oppressor. I could see that. As such, the act of self-immolation could not be an act of love.

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