#3 in a series of three blogs on self-immolation and the roots of the blindness of China’s central leaders


The Buddhists of Tibet are used to being misunderstood. Even people who think of themselves as Buddhist often misunderstand Buddhism. Lamas these days write provocative books challenging their students to go beyond using Buddhism as a source of temporary calm, or as a lifestyle statement.[1]

Buddhism exists because people are confused. If there were no conceptual confusion, there would be no need for Buddhism.

The categorisation of religion generally, and especially Tibetan Buddhism, as a set of doctrines embedded in an institution, only adds to the inability of China’s leaders to look anew, and recognise the ordinary and increasingly extraordinary unhappiness of the Tibetans, as a people, caused by seeing their inner life as anti-modern darkness. When the intruding west and its Christian missionaries pushed Japan to categorise religion as a discrete and private realm, when the Japanese shukyo became the Chinese zongjiao, a further hardening of the categories occurred.

The Dalai Lama’s diligent, annual, time-consuming dialogues with neuroscientists has done much, over the past two decades, to erase old prejudices that Buddhism is pessimistic, nihilistic, other-worldly, anti-modern or anti-science. The Dalai Lama often says Tibetan Buddhism is not only open to science but is a science, of the mind, using as its instrument the only tool available, which is mind examining itself, with great care and control.

The prejudice against Buddhism as a church, as an other-worldly, anti-modern institution persists. In post-Christian Europe, where religions –all religions- are quickly seen as problem rather than as solution, where self-expression rules, religion seems at best irrelevant.

The Tibetans will dissolve this prejudice, but it takes time. It might seem the mental obscurations in the minds of Chinese leaders are so solid, fresh thinking is impossible. Yet the natural human sympathy of lawyer Xu Zhiyong, on trying to visit the family of a Tibetan who burned to death, is a reminder that it is not hard to notice when others are chronically unhappy. It does not require a complete mental reset to open one’s eyes to the sufferings of others, even if it your obnoxious attitude that is the cause of their pain.

China’s official mindset has accreted, sedimented, solidified and naturalised over decades and even centuries. Nonetheless it is more variable and more self-contradictory and self-defeating  than it seems.

Christianity has become quite fashionable in prospering areas of China, and has made itself acceptable to the party-state, even a partner of the ruling elite, by emphasising both its morality and modernity. Although the Christian churches continue to experience many restrictions, many Chinese  corporate bosses now find it adds to their image of success, entrepreneurial boldness, respectability and compliance with the slogans of the party-state, to declare themselves Christian.[2] It is not beyond the Buddhists of China to quietly overcome official insistence that Buddhism is a foreign religion which is anti-modern, led by corrupt abbots interested only in money and women. Although the party-state does perpetuate these stereotypes, they are fading, as more and more Chinese discover, or rediscover genuine Buddhism as a meaningful practice.

Perhaps the best opportunity for a fresh approach will be when the new central leaders emancipate their minds from the grip of another set of dogmas that has held them in its grip. What has haunted them is not the spectre of Buddhism but the grip of the security state. Security fundamentalism has been as dogmatic as any religion. According to the hyper security fundamentalists China is in constant danger, from myriad directions, the Tibetans being high on the list. Only ruthless repression can stop China falling into chaos. Under Hu Jintao the security state grew and grew, until its budget was bigger than the armed forces. Party cadres stationed in Tibetan areas knew that the sure way to get attention, and money, from Beijing is to hype up the Tibetans as a security threat.  The result, at its most lunatic extreme on the streets of Kham Ngawa, is the mobilisation of almost the entire Chinese population, armed with fire extinguishers and red armbands declaring they are on official duty, swarming all public spaces to douse the next Tibetan to set him or herself on fire, while armoured personnel carriers roam the streets adorned with banners declaring that Han and Tibetans are eternal friends.

Endlessly intensifying crackdowns are utterly counter-productive. The logic of the security state is that when crackdowns fail to stop protests, the solution is more crackdowns. At a certain point it become obvious that this does not work, and that the long term objective of any state, that its citizens accept its legitimacy, must result in compromise. From 2013, for the first time in many years, the head of the security state no longer sits on the CCP Politburo Standing Committee. China will change.

This reflection on the self-immolations and the blindness of China’s leaders began with three questions: why the immolations? Why does the world pay so little heed? Why can’t China’s leaders see their policies are counter-productive. It seemed the first question was answerable, the other two less so. Yet, in considering the factors underlying public events, we could reconsider those initial responses.

In reverse order, the third question: why are China’s leaders so stubbornly blind to the pain, alienation and invigorated solidarity among Tibetans? China’s leaders are blinded by seeing Buddhism as institutionalised doctrines that compete with the party-state. However, Tibetan and Chinese Buddhists can dissolve the prejudice that Buddhism is an anti-modern religion that threatens state power, just as the boss Christians of China are doing.

The second question was why does the world pay so little attention to 100 Tibetans publicly flaming to death? One answer is that free media self-censor, on top of China’s rigid censorship which denies access to Tibet by foreign journalists. But there is a deeper reason. In the West, where life is comfortable and predictable, it is almost impossible to imagine that anyone could calmly burn themselves. We can only imagine this as the act of someone in utter despair, or mentally ill, or deluded by religious fanaticism. It is too shocking to think about. It is easier to say to ourselves they must be mad, or religious zealots in the grip of extreme dogmas, like the suicide bombers of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq. We have fully accepted the definition of religion as a set of arbitrary doctrines, and recoil from religious institutions, even as we seek spirituality. This has become so naturalised we don’t even notice we are making big assumptions. The result is that many in the modern world just don’t want to know about calm Tibetans making heroic sacrifice of their life, to keep Tibetan civilisation alive and strong, because we can’t imagine how it could be possible to make such sacrifice.

Finally, back to the first question: why immolations? While Westerners struggle to face the reality of a willingness to die, Tibetans everywhere recognise this as heroic sacrifice. But for what?  If we understand their motivation solely as a cry for religious freedom, we miss a lot. Religion, throughout Tibet’s Buddhist millennium, has always meant far more than a set of doctrine. Buddhism embraces all aspects of life. The freedom to lead a religious life is also freedom to effectively protect the environment, mother tongue, livelihoods, mobile land use, prevent industrial pollution and mining. There is much to be protected, and much to be avoided.  Those who burn the body in sacrifice offer up to us a total response to the total assault on that which is to be protected.

If we are in a position to help others to understand why Tibetans burn themselves, we should mention not only religious freedom but also the threats to Tibetan language, the displacement of nomads, the indoctrination in schools, the environmental costs of mining. Usually, when we speak of these threats, we list them as rights. If we use only the language of rights we get entangled in all the complexity of competing rights, incompatible rights, those rights which China has ratified or hasn’t ratified, and whether this any recognised right at all to security of livelihood, or education in the mother tongue. China too is quick to proclaim its rights as a state, chiefly the right to sovereignty and non-interference by outsiders. The result is all too familiar: stalemate, and most people tune out.

Most of those who died in flames were deeply influenced by their personal experience of Buddhist practice. Since Buddhism is not a religion, in the sense of a dogmatic set of beliefs, but is a training in going within to discover the power and fluidity of mind, all the issues that cause Tibetans to grieve and even burn themselves are Buddhist issues.

Police on the streets, snipers on the roofs, “democratic management committees” interrogating and humiliating monks and nuns; mining, pollution, pasture degradation and nomad removal are the outer and inner obstacles to getting on with what matters most in life, which is to discover abiding strength in the nature of mind. It is that inner strength that is the secret weapon of the Tibetans. This is what has enabled Tibetans to endure six decades of arrogant, racist persecution. This is what gives the immolators the strength to do what they must.

[1] Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse, Not for happiness, Shambhala, 2012-12-16

Dzongsar Jamyang Khyentse, What makes you not a Buddhist, Shambhala, 2008

Chögyam Trungpa, (1973). Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism. Shambhala

[2] Nanlai Cao, Constructing China’s Jerusalem: Christians, power and place in contemporary Wenzhou, Stanford University Press, 2011

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