THE SHORT LIFE OF JAMPHEL YESHI
A shower of white silk scarves thrown from even the farthest edges of the great crowd, rethrown and rethrown, fluttered inwards to the bier atop which lay the charred body of Jamphel Yeshi, an unknown Tibetan of no country, and no home, his life taken by his own hand.
A week ago he was just a face in the crowds of Delhi, and the laneways of cluttered Majnukatila on the Yamuna banks. Now the whole Tibetan exile cabinet and parliament, as well as the masses, assembled at the main temple, to honour his sacrifice and pray that he may take a human rebirth.
Tibetans are accustomed to hold back their tears, knowing that life is transitory, and to leave the dead undistracted by the wails of those left behind. But this time the tears flowed without restraint, because the hand that lit the match, burning his own body, touched the deepest sadness in Tibetan hearts.
No matter how kind India has been to its Tibetan guests, they remain people without a homeland, citizenship, or any plausible prospect that their pain may end. For once, this grief at the catastrophic loss of the homeland welled up, not a paralysing grief but an empowering one. My Tibetan friends all are energised by Jamphel Yeshi’s sacrifice, his fiery experiment with truth. They speak only of renewed determination to regain freedom, an utter commitment to attain what their elder generation could not, not even the Dalai Lama could achieve, to breathe free in their own land. If will and determination alone could overcome all obstacles, China’s revolution, based on a belief in will alone, might have succeeded. But reliance on will, rather than strategy and planning, led only to famine and disaster.
For a generation and more, the exiled Tibetan cry to the world echoed off the sharp flanks of the Dhauladar, but no-one was listening. Evening after evening they marched chanting, candles in hand down from the old Raj hill station to the market, but with no audience. With the eternal hopefulness so characteristic of Tibetans, they called out for justice to a world without the institutions or will to hear. The called for basic freedoms inside Tibet to worship as they choose, to venerate their lamas, to form their own community organisations, to protect their forests from logging, their pastures from strip mining by voracious gold dredges chewing the land. Hu Jintao made his career over 20 years ago , in command of Tibet, imposing martial law, cracking down hard, depicting all cries for freedom as political plots aimed at tearing China apart.
From my frequent travels in China and India over many years I knew the concerns of the Tibetans were genuine, their frustrations understandable, their patience extraordinary. But even the greatest patience comes to an end.
The world pays heed only to violence, and the unswerving Tibetan commitment to nonviolence relegates the Tibetan issue to an inside page para at best. Even now, as Jamphel Yeshi becomes the 31st to die aflame, already followed, in the mountain towns of eastern Tibet by three more, that commitment to not taking the lives of others remains firm. Perhaps this is the most enduring legacy of the Dalai Lama’s insistence on holding out an open hand of friendship, not enmity, to China.
The human body is mostly water. This we all know. Water is the opposite of fire. When the time comes to light the body, to burn so fiercely that death is certain, a calm mind and resolute will are essential. Only the most powerful of accelerants, kerosene or petrol, can negate life in the short span before others intervene, for whatever reason. It is not enough to pour it. To be sure of exiting this life, heavily padded, absorbent clothing must be worn, to be drenched in fuel, perhaps bound firmly by wire or chain to the body to be burned, the self to flame and light the world. To be absolutely sure, not only is the outside soused, but the petrol is also swallowed. Only then is the match lit.
How can we bear to contemplate such acts? How can we not? We cannot flinch or turn away in horror. To refuse to imagine a fellow human deliberately, carefully, methodically, calmly burning the body, one’s own live body, is to betray those brief flames and refuse their meaning. It cannot be too horrible to imagine, too transgressive of our cocooned lives.
Never in 35 years of working with Tibetans have I seen such determination to regain freedom, at whatever price must be paid. All else has failed. All else has been tried. For the past 25 years the Dalai Lama urged restraint on his people, patience, a willingness to compromise, to do all that is possible to build trust, dialogue, meaningful negotiations with the dictatorship. Delegations went to Beijing and came back with nothing. The Chinese Communist Party’s United Front Department told those delegations the only purpose of the meeting was to receive their unconditional submission to Beijing, there was nothing else to discuss. Not once was there the slightest sign that China would meet the Dalai Lama’s outstretched hand. Only burning the body is left: all else has failed.
Now the Dalai Lama has retired, for there is nothing left he can say. The one enduring success of the Dalai Lama is that, apart from a few moments four years back, there has been no violence against others. China is ready for violence, for riots, with every known technology for quelling the people already deployed on Tibetan streets. But China is utterly unprepared, has no idea how to respond, to those who burn themselves.
A horrified world looks on, unable to read the plainest of messages. This fits no known category. To call the self-immolators crazy, criminal, terrorist, deranged, as China does, is so obviously false. To say these are acts of desperation, as journalists sometimes do unreflectively, is to fail to recognise the calm, utter determination to win freedom, making whatever sacrifice is needed.
Burning the body, while refraining from attacking others, is the uniquely Tibetan experiment with truth, a contribution to the global lexicon of satyagraha. This is the discovery of a new generation, who have barely any memory of what a disaster Tibetan armed resistance to China was, and little positive to say about the past quarter century of Tibetan overtures to China for a middle way. This is something unparalleled, an entire nation scattered across the earth, now girding itself, with utter determination, to make whatever sacrifice is needed to regain freedom, to awaken the deaf, incurious world, cut through the standard categories, declare unmistakably that Tibetans must be free to be themselves.
Both in Tibet, and beyond, this new generation is willing to make whatever sacrifice is needed to awaken world concern, and prod into action governments reluctant to speak plainly to China.
When young Jamphel Yeshi burned himself at Jantar Mantar it was not an impulsive, desperate act of an individual unable to bear the fate of his nation. It was an act of strength. The testament he wrote before burning himself is the will of a calm man, utterly intent on awakening his people and the world, to stand strong and resolute, able to make any necessary sacrifice, for freedom. If human will alone can remove mountains, as the Chinese Communist Party once believed, China will yield and come to its senses.
When the reincarnate lama Sopa Rinpoche burned himself he left a lucid testament of his unconditionally compassionate motivation: “To all my spiritual brothers and sisters, and the faithful ones living elsewhere: You must unite and work together to build a strong and prosperous Tibetan nation in the future. This is the sole wish of all the Tibetan heroes. Therefore, you must avoid any quarreling amongst yourselves whether it is land disputes or water disputes. You must maintain unity and strength. Give love and education to the children, who should study hard to master all the traditional fields of studies. The elders should carry out spiritual practice as well as maintain and protect Tibetan language and culture by using all your resources and by involving your body, speech and mind. . Especially, I pray that His Holiness the Dalai Lama will return to Tibet and remain as Tibet’s temporal and spiritual leader. I am giving away my body as an offering of light to chase away the darkness, to free all beings from suffering, and to lead them to the Buddha of infinite light. My offering of light is for all living beings, even as insignificant as lice and nits, to dispel their pain and to guide them to the state of enlightenment.”
Anthropologist Karin Andriolo says: “Protest suicide is dying with a message, for a message, and of a message. The body becomes the site on which selfdestructive mimesis denounces the wrongs that humans have wrought. Protest suicide is, perhaps, the most radical form of embodied minding.”
Minding, in embodied ways, is what meditators do in their mind training to discover inner strength. The Tibetans are now stronger than ever, a collective strength that is strengthened further by the daily cruelties of a racist overlord. In India too, although Tibetans are barely one in ten thousand on the street, and call centre employment beckons, they retain their culture, inner strength, unutterable sadness and deep determination to be heard.
An edited version of this article was published in Mumbai Mirror by Times of India, on 1 April 2012: