The meditative inner process of collapsing all categories has been interrupted. Inner discovery of the openness, clarity, sensitivity, receptivity of the heart, and its intimate connectedness to all hearts, has been violently disrupted by state power at its crudest, by technologically supercharged instruments of bodily governance that insist on categories, ever multiplying categories, proliferating conceptions, stiflingly detailed regulations.

This is a new kind of violence, more extreme even than the truncheon and the shoulders torn from sockets in the prison cell. This is the most pervasive, intimate violence, a policing of the mind, an absolute refusal of inner life, walling off the life of the mind with electric fences, electronic surveillance and endlessly chanted slogans. The mantra that reveals all is replaced by mandatory recitation of the new mantra of opposing splittism, embracing the motherland, thanking the Party, denouncing one’s guru.

Openings to intuition, into awareness that is boundless and deeply unites us all, are displaced by sirens and denunciations, beatings, expulsions, betrayals, interrogations, confessions. Reality now is categorisation as a good patriotic monk who betrays others, or a bad green-brained splittist monk who refuses to spit on his lama.

We cannot possibly know their minds, and never will. They have gone beyond. That is one reason the Buddhists here, in Dharamsala, have little to say on those who burn their bodies. But they are deeply shocked that anyone would take their own life, a precious life, a rare opportunity to persist with the inner path, no matter what obstacles arise. Because we are all profoundly alike, by nature all of one awakened heart, killing another person or killing oneself is much the same, even if the political world reads them very differently.

As I walked to a great prayer assembly at the Tsuglhakang cathedral, the day after the latest death, with the entire exile government at prayer, a colleague said: “Just as well we have our Tibetan culture to keep us strong at such a time, otherwise I would get depressed.” That it has come to this is shocking. Most people I know are in pain, living the pain, not flinching and not reducing this cry for religious freedom to the political slogan cutout of the martyr figure.

Is there a point in the life of a deeply immersed meditator caught in the blaring hell of patriotic re-education, when it become obvious that continuing to live is meaningless, that the persistence of life is mere habit, merely the habit of taking food in one end and shitting its wastes from the other? Under the klaxon blare and glare of shouting slogans and coerced denunciations of all that is pure, does one come to see that the Chinese are so obsessed with control, there can be no let up, the indoctrinators will never relent, one is at a definitive dead end? The only option is to exit. To persist in living is mere animal habit. That is meaningless.

China insists that all is outer, there is no inner. To go inwards is actually illegal. This is as delusional as is imaginable. When entirely surrounded by delusions so impenetrable and implacable, so institutionalised and elevated to an ideology, so persistently insisted upon as to leave no space, place or time for inner life, then exit, a meaningful death, becomes an alternative. Burning the body is opting to begin again, in a different embodiment, picking up once again the task of many lifetimes, of fully awakening to reality and its infinite possibilities.

At what point does it dawn that the alternative, of ending life, is far more meaningful? To burn the body is a declaration that China’s fear-crazed obsessions have stoppered the heart of inner life. Exit is thus meaningful, an unmistakable message to others to also live meaningfully, or not at all. To exit deliberately, in flames, unmistakably challenges the hounds of hell, armed not only with electric prods but insanely parsed regulatory governmentality. Burning the body declares that neither electric jolt nor administrative detention can touch the inner being. This is the ultimate reproach, the final and irrefutable answer of truth to power. Where full awakening in this life is made impossible by outer obstacles, those hyper-reified political outer obstacles are to be cleared externally and directly, by burning the body.

For the meditator bent entirely on clearing the far harder inner obstacles internally, and secret subtle obstacles secretly, to be dragged physically back to a world of outer obstacles is not only anguishing, but profoundly sad. Yet, as monastic friends have reminded me, there were meditators who somehow survived the Cultural Revolution in prison, and later told the Dalai Lama those years were the best time in their lives for unswerving meditation practice. To a confident, experienced meditator with the inner strength of realising the nature of reality, prison walls are empty, compulsory slogans are just noise.

Routinely, we call such deaths anguished, despairing, desperate. That may be so: who can know the mind of one who is able to pour petrol over the body, even swallow it to be sure of dying, and set the flame?

But are anguish, desperation and despair all? Clearly there is extraordinary courage, perhaps also an extraordinary confidence in the nature of reality and what makes life meaningful, and a calm willingness born of confidence in ultimate reality, that makes it possible to strike the match. We are too quick with our words, reaching too readily for synonyms of despair. Something much deeper is happening here, something beyond the power of even the most powerful state. The conventional response is to reduce the profundity of their exit to politics: as martyrs if we are inspired by them, as terrorists in disguise, to use a Chinese phrase, if we revile them.

The more singular, final and uncompromising their act of burning the body, the more we cannot bear to look, and instead take refuge in clichés. Let us honour those who burn their bodies by understanding the utter profundity, the existential truth, of what they do, and do again, one after another, until we finally awaken.