In Tibet, 2012 was the year of great burning. By 10 December, the International Day for Human Rights, ninety-five ethnic Tibetans in the formerly Tibetan now Chinese territories of Qinghai and Sichuan, and in the Chinese-occupied Tibetan Autonomous Region, had set themselves aflame. Of these, seventy-eight are known to have died.
When the first burning happened, four years ago, I posted a Facebook response to a friend’s incredulity at the news: ‘They’ve only begun.’ Though I am a scholar of non-violent resistance, my reply was a gut sense more than anything. Considering the subsequent loss of life, I wish I’d been wrong; at the same time, it is hard not to appreciate the powerful ethical force motivating the acts. The moral ambiguity of self-immolation, both in terms of the act itself and the response it succeeds or fails in eliciting, necessarily informs any discussion of the Tibetan crisis. While we deplore the loss of life, we understand that it signifies the high value of genuine freedom to a sovereign people. We also sense, perhaps less consciously, that the meaning and status of that value has a lot to do with how it is honoured by those still living.
By, in other words, ourselves.
The harbinger of this most recent phase of resistance was a major uprising of thousands of monastic and lay protestors in Lhasa and across the Tibetan plateau prior to the torch relay for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. The paramilitary People’s Armed Police quashed large-scale rioting, arson and looting, killing up to a hundred Tibetans. Some two dozen Han Chinese also died, though none of the casualties were reported in official Chinese accounts.
The first self-immolation inside Tibet, that of a young monk named Tapey, took place in February 2009 at the Kirti Monastery in Sichuan province. His protest followed the 1998 immolation of Tibetan ex-monk Thupten Ngodrup in Delhi, an act that was referenced by subsequent immolators inside Tibet, notably Lama Sobha, a senior monk who self-immolated in January 2012. Tapey’s act led to more immolations in 2011, largely by Buddhist monks and nuns, but also by villagers, a mother of young children, a teenage girl and even nomads whose traditional grazing lands have been appropriated for Chinese mass-settlement programs or resource extraction.
It’s telling that we must repeat the catalogue of abuses: the forced disappearances, the extrajudicial detentions, the summary death penalties, the persecution of lawyers and the torture of activists and their collaborators. The term ‘cultural genocide’ has been increasingly used to describe the long-term oppression of Tibetan ethnicity.
Despite the initial accusations of Chinese officials, the immolations appear not to have been directly affiliated with any of the exiled Tibetan organisations that orchestrated non-violent marches in many global political centres in March 2008.
In terms of scale, the world hasn’t seen anything similar since 1990, when more than one hundred immolations took place across India in protest at government policies discriminating against lower castes. While there is historical precedent for suicide as a political act inside Tibet, there isn’t one for publicly staged self-immolation. Nor are there many examples of the practice within Buddhism itself (apart from the famous Vietnamese cases, the notable exceptions, somewhat ironically, were in early modern China).
The Dalai Lama himself has appealed for the deaths to end, though his judgement has altered since his first condemnation of political suicide as intrinsically violent. Even he perhaps knows the crisis is well out of his hands, and he now formally declines to judge the acts either way. His current public neutrality is interesting also for the contrast it draws with both Gandhi’s acceptance of suicide as a meaningful part of non-violent activism and Vietnamese Buddhist leader Thich Nhat Hanh’s praise, as spelt out in a letter to Martin Luther King Jr, of the self-immolations in 1960s Vietnam.
In November 2012, a month that saw twenty-eight separate immolations, the Chinese authorities condemned the burnings as a form of terrorism: ‘ugly and evil acts intended to achieve the separatist goal of Tibetan independence … used by the Dalai group to incite unrest in an attempt to split the nation.’ But if there is any terrorism being committed on Tibetan territory, it is in the form of violent Chinese policing of Tibetan lay and monastic communities, and recently in the persecution of families of self-immolators. Rather than laying blame with the Dalai Lama, genuine engagement by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) with Tibetan grievances would almost certainly bring the immolations, at least temporarily, to an end.
The immolations aren’t acts of terrorism, nor even of despairing disempowerment, even though it is clear that they emerge from decades of deep frustration. Their dramatic increase appears to demonstrate an absolute and unconditional commitment to freedom. All the existing written statements of the self-immolators make this clear. They are also a form of radical self-determination: no authority can take such sacrifices away from the community on whose behalf they were performed. They are what Oxford University sociologist Michael Biggs calls a legitimate part of the ‘global repertoire of contention’, a form of principled if morally painful action ‘intended to appeal to bystander publics or to exhort others to greater efforts on behalf of the cause’.
Biggs suggests that self-immolation as a political protest came into its own in response to, among other things, the growth of mass media. Its first notable appearance was in 1963 in Saigon with the self-immolation of the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc. Biggs argues that ‘almost all subsequent acts can be traced back to this model’ with ‘knowledge of self-immolation … diffused through the mass media, and not through social networks’.
The immolations depend upon global real-time exposure for their influence to be felt; a purely domestic response remains all too vulnerable to internal silencing. But where Thich’s self-immolation helped galvanise a Western anti-war and anti-imperialist sentiment, it remains uncertain whether a hundred Tibetan ones will be able to do the same now.
The Tibetan crisis challenges the conscience not merely of the CCP’s leadership and its economic stakeholders but also of developed liberal democracies. The other fact that confirms the Tibetan immolations as a crisis of global conscience is that, for the first time, a non-Tibetan member of one of those liberal democracies, an English Buddhist monk, self-immolated in the grounds of a Tibetan Buddhist monastery in southern France. He was thirty-eight years old , going by the novice monastic name of Venerable Tunden (or Tönden).
Since 2004 I have infrequently visited Tunden’s monastery as a lay-student, sometimes spending a longer time there working on the building projects. The scent of the river that directly bordered the monastery grounds was pungent, the air alive with dragonflies. When the Buddhism got a bit much, I would ride off on the deserted white-dirt roads of the countryside under a fierce southern sun, fields of fire-red poppies often in bloom.
During the first half of 2010, I returned to join one of the monastery’s study programs and came to know Venerable Tunden as one of the two dozen or so monks in residence. We once walked together to a retirement home in the nearby sleepy village to visit an aged yet still vivid French Buddhist pioneer who regaled us with her own tales of a long and richly felt spiritual trajectory. I translated some of what she couldn’t find the English for, things for which no language can ever find the right words. I don’t know if she is still alive or knows about Tunden’s self-immolation, but she was especially tender with him, as if she knew he had a spiritual destiny of his own, one quite unlike that of most – monk or layman alike.
Our default response to this kind of tragedy is to pathologise or psychologise it, to render it explicable as a dysfunction in one way or another. Surely he was already susceptible to … it was an unfortunate reaction to … the organisation and teachings possibly tend towards … All those forms of explanation are relevant, and I’ve left them to be elaborated upon with any number of secondary clauses. Perhaps Tunden had been planning his own demise for months; perhaps it was a spontaneous response to the truly limitless pain of human suffering.
But I recall Tunden as a mellow character, especially amid the mild neuroticism of a mid-sized community of European men all bound by the code of celibacy and renunciation. He also had a ready, wry wit and patience for the foibles of the more overwrought renunciates (the Germans, the Slavs), a cool-headed Englishness that made me think him one of the sanest and most authentic of the monks.
He even possessed a particular kind of uncannily ‘Buddhist’ charisma, as if he’d been in the enlightenment game a long time, perhaps many lifetimes, as indeed Buddhist monastics are taught: this life being a mere rehearsal for the ones to come. To renounce worldliness is a first step in accumulating the virtues and conditions for successfully pursuing more substantial attainments in the many lifetimes inevitably to follow.
On a Thursday afternoon in mid-November, Venerable Tunden went into the garden of the rambling French manor house and its adjoining new gompa (temple) complex, doused himself in petrol and set himself alight.
In late 2010 and much of the following year, when the immolations in Tibet were gaining force, I travelled inside Burma and across its border regions, researching and working for exiled political prisoners unable to return to their country. I was in Rangoon during the phony election of November and the release of Aung San Suu Kyi, and then travelled across the country meeting up with underground (ugyi) democracy workers and members of the then-banned National League for Democracy party. Most of the people I met were former political prisoners who still lived, with their families, in dire conditions of poverty and persecution. On the strength of my Australian passport, they entrusted me with documentation to smuggle out of the country.
They had no legal or institutional protection, not even a passport, but were able to give everything they had; many others had given even their lives. It is these largely unknown people who contributed to a collective movement of resistance against a seemingly intransigent military regime that is only now bowing before political pressures from both within and outside the country.
The lack of a multi-front civil war like that which has raged in Burma for sixty years has perhaps kept media coverage of the recent Tibetan crisis subdued (Time magazine placed the Tibetan immolations first in its list of the most under-reported news items of 2011). Seeing only the false guise of peacetime conditions, many in the West lazily accept the neo-colonial argument that China is bringing economic benefits to a feudal Tibetan economy. Few believe China will be able to reverse the decades of injustice in Tibet – it is, they think, simply too late.
Yet it is only now, during the past year, in this worst (most resigned) of times for Tibetan self-determination, that the resistance has resurged in its most disturbing form.
Many will say that the apparent sacrifice-in-solidarity of a sole English Buddhist monk in the comparative privilege and irrelevance of southern France can’t be understood in the same terms as the Tibetan cases. He is not Tibetan; he doesn’t have the same justification.
But it might be that Ven Tunden intended precisely to pre-empt such qualifications: from his perspective, his act may have been the ultimate appeal to us to question our own resignation, our complicity in the suffering in Tibet. Because we understand his suicide as somehow an unjust, unreasonable suffering. No-one, we think, should endure such a level of suffering that they are driven to self-immolation.
But what of those who have been? Ven Tunden might well have considered, in his Buddhist meditations on universal compassion, those thousands of anonymous bodies in Tibet and elsewhere that are ignored in all the white noise of the mediatised world. They are bodies that are, usually, black or brown or another shade of not-white – they could be Rohingya, Kurds, Hazara, Palestinian, East Congolese, Karen, Kachin, Uygur, Sarawak Indian or the Indigenous everywhere.
The millions of Tibetans persecuted for more than sixty years have never received much airtime; their struggle is somehow irrelevant in a world that only sees their difference, their apparent passivity, their hopelessly unworldly, naive and apolitical religion. Even now, those burnings aren’t fully seen inside the narcissism of self-interested, racially conditioned and materially anaesthetised ethical immunity. If those hundred self-immolators were, all other conditions being equal, Catalan or Basque, Flemish or Walloon or Québécois, we would doubtless be sending diplomatic missions to their respective representatives and have peacekeepers on the ground within twenty-four hours.
It may be that Ven Tunden recognised this predicament and wondered what it might mean to redress the disparity. The solidarity of the act is not merely that he chose to do what ninety-five Tibetans have done; it was but in the fact that, from the comfort of an obscure French Buddhist monastery, he was willing to immolate as an obscure, unimportant white man, with no political leverage beyond the extremity of the act.
Tunden is the first non-Tibetan to self-immolate in the context of the Tibetan crisis. He might have thought, at the very least, that some effect would be inevitable and that, if his Buddhist motivation was sure, selfless and compassionately grounded, this effect could only be positive. He almost certainly felt that his own violence to himself might lead others to consider why he would harm himself and to question their own existential security, as well as embolden them to prevent such suffering elsewhere – including, very reasonably, the suffering so many are now laying down their lives as witness to in Tibet. All of that is entirely possible.
The word ‘redeemed’ might seem a bit too religious for many. But redemption is not about some unseen deity magically balancing the cosmic credit and debit account of universal guilt. It signifies a purely human self-awareness that irrevocably transforms what has been hitherto assumed. The redemptive act makes us understand who we are, recovers something in and outside us that has been lost – a sense of courage, or of bold simplicity.
In this it shares something with great art. Many thinkers have concluded that (despite their mutual dependencies) the ethical imagination trumps the aesthetic in its appeal to our deepest apprehension of truth. The spectacle of nearly a hundred self-immolations makes it easy to see why. It is a radical defiance of the acceptable, carried out even against the wishes of the Dalai Lama himself. Yet in its extremity, this spectacle opens the door to a potential freedom, inviting an ethical watershed that reconfigures the nature of power. It has happened before: famously in Gandhi’s India and in Tutu’s truth and reconciliation project in South Africa, among other places.
Critically, it hasn’t yet happened in Tibet.
Authentic freedom would also require an attention, a consideration, from a spiritually diminished secularity that can’t conceive the meaning of such sacrifices anymore, but can only pity them. Tunden’s act of sacrifice – not to the Tibetan cause alone but to ethical amnesia generally – poses the question whether even burning oneself alive can pierce our slumber. Tonight there are a dozen new big-screen films on offer and every fifteen minutes the TV autistically advertises a bargain-price, multi-functional refrigerator with optional accessories; the world wide web is a wormhole of the grotesque and irreal; the news is all of the royal pregnancy. But there is no mention of the Tibetan immolators who have died, let alone of the suicide of Tunden, an English monk formerly of Monastère Nalanda, Labastide St. Georges, France.
Some weeks after Tunden’s immolation, sources inside the monastery informed me that he carried a Tibetan flag – his shroud of pride – with him when he went to his death. This has been suppressed in all releases to the public, and therefore all the formal coverage of the immolations.
What, then, (to repeat) does it take to be heard, and seen, if burning oneself to death can’t achieve it? Ven Tunden’s act offers up silently, this single question. In this post-religious world, when few still believe in the old resurrection miracles, we’ve rightly learnt that if redemption means anything, it is purely because of what we make of it. Perhaps, also, real miracles are the ones that masquerade in ordinary, mortal dress.
No-one – not even the Chinese leadership, I believe – wants the self-immolations to continue, but even the authorities in Beijing probably know that they will only stop when there is no possible reason for them to continue. The Tibetans who burn to death thereby contest an absolute truth-claim on global attention – and their challenge is not easy to dismiss. We might even make a new secular moral norm out of that observance of cause and effect. All of this is part of how the ambiguity of the immolations potentially resolves itself and redeems the suffering, and perhaps even the hubris of the CCP that provoked them: a miracle of a kind, but not an impossible one.
I’m merely relaying Ven Tunden’s question. It always depends on the living what kind of phoenix will, eventually, rise from the ashes.
Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.
Subscribe | Renew | Donate November 9–16 to support progressive literary culture for another year – and for the chance to win magnificent prizes!