An Unhappy Mother’s Day: Tibetan Self-immolation protests and Splaining over Corpses

sonam tso.jpg

(Tibetan self-immolater Sonam Tso)

Today is Mother’s Day. The day before yesterday, on Friday, the 6th of May, news broke about yet another Tibetan self-immolation protest that took place inside Tibet. This was delayed news, however. The self-immolation took place some two months ago, but Tibetan exile media organizations had only now been able to even verify that it had happened. The woman who self-immolated was a mother of five. I had got up from being asleep and saw the news on Facebook. I shared this link, after quickly making a rough translation of the initial written information in the article:

“News of a self-immolation that took place in Tibet some two months ago but which has only been confirmed now. This time a 50 year old woman and mother. Here’s my half-asleep translation of the text of the news story. OM MANI PEME HUNG

“Sonam Tso of Dzöge self-immolates
Sonam Tso from Akyi Sera monastery district in Dzöge County has self-immolated and died while shouting slogans for the Tibetan cause.
As the incident was further described by reporter Sonam Tobgyal: around the afternoon of Wednesday March 23rd 2016, Sonam Tso, a woman from the Akyi Sera monastery district in Dzöge county of the Ngaba region, self-immolated while shouting slogans for the Tibetan cause. The incident was pointed out by a Tibetan from Tibet, who said that at the time, as soon as she shouted that ‘Tibet must be free’ and that the Omniscient Jewel His Holiness the Dalai Lama must return to Tibet, a monk from the monastery and her husband both carried her after she’d killed herself with fire to the monk’s cell. After that they made a plan to take her to the hospital but it was no use and she passed away.

After the local Chinese police learned of the incident they summoned the monk Tsultrim and her husband both several times. Having detained them, not only did they interrogate them but they forced them to erase all the pictures and so on that were on their phones. Sonam Tso was from the Akyi Dotsa village in Dzöge county Ngaba region, the Szechuan provincial capital. This year she was about fifty years old. Circumstances around this incident were locally restricted. Since a lot of people didn’t see it happen, news of it was late in coming and it didn’t come to our attention until now. *The radio station is continuing to investigate this story.

Transcriber Lubum

Please listen to further details about the story being disseminated from Delhi by reporter Sonam.”

Sonam Tso’s sacrifice now brings the number of confirmed Tibetan self-immolation protests against Chinese rule that have taken place since 2009 inside occupied Tibet to 145. 2009 marks the beginning of a relatively unprecedented pattern of self-immolation protests for Tibetans. While the first recorded self-immolation by a Tibetan as a form of political protest was undertaken in exile, in Delhi , in 1998 by Thupten Ngodup, the current wave of protests is often traced back to the sacrifice on February 27th, 2009, of a twenty-something year old monk from Kirti monastery in Amdo, Ngaba, Eastern Tibet named Tapey (8 Tibetans have so far self-immolated in exile). Elements of Tapey’s protest have become typical features of protests that have followed. Having pre-doused himself with kerosene, Tapey walked alone to the middle of a public spot and set himself on fire. As he burned he waved a home-made Tibetan national flag (these are banned in occupied Tibet), which featured a picture of His Holiness the Fourteenth Dalai Lama. He began shouting slogans. Security forces then shot him, doused the flames and quickly confiscated his body.

While there is no obvious, longstanding tradition of Tibetan self-immolation, Tibetans have drawn on existing cultural, religious, literary, and political traditions to frame and support self-immolation, and to cast doubt on its appropriateness and usefulness. Only a few people commented on my post on Facebook, but all of the initial commentators were white Buddhist converts or white people with an interest in Tibetan Buddhism. The comment of one white South African friend of mine in particular prompts me to write this post.

This friend is someone who is inspired by and practices Tibetan esoteric Buddhism but who does so without a Tibetan teacher and without having ever met or spent time with Tibetans. To my surprise, she wrote a series of long comments on the post explaining how she thought that acts like Sonam Tso’s were ‘religious extremism’ akin to the actions of Christian martyr zealots or Islamic fundamentalist suicide bombers who merely wanted some good result in the next life. She suggested that no genuine spiritual leader would condone such acts, and that articles like the one I had translated felt sensationalized, and were part of typical media manipulations of suffering porn, where people could share an article about something tragic somewhere in the world, testify to having a heart, and then move on without having affected any real change. When I countered, she defended herself by saying she had made it clear this was just her feelings on the matter, and when a Tibetan friend took strongly-worded issue with her statements, she argued that she wasn’t trying to be hostile. She explained that she personally felt suffering all over the world very keenly indeed, but was trying to push the conversation in a different direction.

This was a strangely vehement response from my friend. It was also a deeply uninformed one. There were a lot of things, you see, that she did not know.

My friend was not aware that Sonam Tso’s death was one of hundreds. She was not aware that students, taxi drivers, men, women, monks, nuns, lamas and nomads, grandparents, parents and teenagers had all chosen to give their lives in this way. She was not aware that I have Tibetans friends on my Facebook feed who know or are related to self-immolaters and their families. My friend was not aware that every time there is a new self-immolation, Tibetans in exile in places like McLeod Ganj organize candle-lit vigils, public marches, mass prayer ceremonies. She wasn’t aware that Chinese authorities confiscate immolaters’ bodies and cremate them without permission from their families and loved ones, and thereby deny Tibetans the right to conduct the death rites they believe are so very necessary to perform for the deceased. She wasn’t aware that immolaters have taken to preemptively wrapping barbed wire under their clothes to prevent Chinese security forces from easily dragging away their burning bodies. She wasn’t aware of the whole new genre of Tibetan literature that now exists, of the written and recorded testimonies that self-immolaters have themselves left behind explaining their motivations and how they were offering their life for their community, to remind them to continue to be proudly Tibetan, to keep the dream of freedom from Chinese oppression alive. She wasn’t aware that none of these testaments included any reference to a selfish or religiously misguided desire for personal gain in future lives. She hadn’t read the last testament of Lama Soepa, a monk and popular teacher of Buddhism from Amdo who said in his last message prepared before his death in January of 2012:

“This is the 21st century, and this is the year in which so many Tibetan heroes have died. I am sacrificing my body both to stand in solidarity with them in flesh and blood, and to seek repentance through this highest tantric honor of offering one’s body. This is not to seek personal fame or glory…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 – each of whom has been our mother in the past and yet has been led by ignorance to commit immoral acts – to the Amitabha, 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.”

She didn’t know that he offered his body as a “long-life offering to [his] root guru His Holiness the Dalai Lama and all other spiritual teachers and lamas”, and then went on to recite the tantric Buddhist Mandala Offering prayer before setting himself ablaze. She hadn’t heard these lines from Rikyo, a 36 year old mother and nomad from Dzamthang, Amdo,  who wrote in her last testament before self-immolating at the end of May 2012 the following words:

“Prayers for world peace and happiness! To ensure His Holiness the Dalai Lama’s return to Tibet, do not indulge in slaughtering and trading of animals, do not steal, speak Tibetan, do not fight.

Bearing all sufferings of sentient beings on myself, do not resist by fighting if I get into Chinese hands alive, be united, study Tibetan culture.

In fire I burn, my family, do not worry.”

Nor had my friend been aware of the joint message from Choepak Kyab and Sonam, two laymen in their mid-20s who self-immolated together in Amdo too just one month before Rikyo:

“Tibetans are a people who have a unique culture and spiritual tradition. They are compassionate and treat others with respect. However, after the Chinese occupation, Tibetans suffer without basic human rights. It is for this reason, and in order for peace to prevail on earth, we offer our lives by setting ourselves on fire. The suffering of Tibetans without basic human rights is far worse than the suffering that we endure when we set ourselves on fire.

Our cherished parents, family members and relatives, it is not that we do not have love and affection towards you. With equanimity we have taken this decision to set ourselves on fire for Tibet’s freedom, for the Buddha Dharma, for the happiness of all living beings and for world peace.

You must do as we have written – even if we are taken away by the Chinese. Do not do anything; we will be happy if nobody gets harmed because of us. Do not be sad for us; listen to scholars, lamas and khenpos. If you want to be scholars then make sure to take the right path, have affection for your race and by learning about our culture, you must remain united. If you do all this then our wishes will be fulfilled. We earnestly hope that our wishes will be carried out.”

My friend hadn’t read heart-wrenching poems written by Tibetans about the protests, she hadn’t seen the many artworks produced, the protest actions and community outreach and awareness campaigns developed by Tibetans, seen the monuments to the self-immolater ‘heroes and heroines’ (dpa’ bo, dpa’ mo) or martyrs in and around the Dalai Lama’s temple complex in McLeod Ganj, the exhibitions in the small museum here in town.

She didn’t know that the Chinese Communist Party has also called self-immolaters ‘terrorists’ and ‘religious extremists’ to discredit them, that it has also suggested that they have misrepresented or misunderstood what Buddhism is or should really be about. She didn’t know that Chinese authorities have painted self-immolaters as mentally-disturbed, desperate, as suffering from gambling debts, has also made statements to disqualify them, to deny that there might have been authenticity or careful deliberation that wasn’t just focused on narrow, personal priorities in their acts. She didn’t know that the CCP has blamed the Dalai Lama and his so-called ‘clique’ in exile for masterminding and encouraging the attacks, in their efforts to deny that Tibetans in Tibet could ever of their own accord or volition be unhappy with the status quo. She didn’t know that more than one spiritual leader like Lama Soepa had immolated, how he had left highly informed Buddhist justifications for his decision, and had said he was only sorry he hadn’t been brave enough to give his life sooner. She didn’t know that while the head of the Karma Kagyu lineage of Tibetan Buddhism the Karmapa had in fact made a statement urging young Tibetans to cease self-immolating and wasting their precious human rebirths, His Holiness the Dalai Lama had not recently followed suit (see a follow up statement by the Karmapa here too). She didn’t know that while in the past around the time of the 1998 immolation the Dalai Lama had indeed spoken against forms of self-harming protest as being un-Buddhist, at the moment he has chosen not to categorically condemn or support the immolations, feeling he is not in a position to do so (see also here). She didn’t know that the Dalai Lama himself knows that whether he makes a statement one way or another, China will continue to demonize him as an outside, radicalizing influence, as an enemy of Buddhism and Chinese freedom and internal harmony.

My friend didn’t know any of this. She can be forgiven for not knowing – after all, in 2011, Time magazine called the protests the most under-reported story of that year. Virtually the only reason the world knows about these protests is because of Tibetan civilian journalists and eye-witnesses risking their and their loved ones’ safety to disseminate videos, photos and eye-witness accounts, because of exile Tibetan new agencies tirelessly working to verify reports, and because of people like Jampa Yeshe, a 27 year old Tibetan newcomer to India who took it upon himself to self-immolate in Delhi in front of photographers from all over the world during a mass protest over Chinese president Hu Jintao’s upcoming visit to the country for an international summit.

Yet even so, my friend chose to comment.

Another non-Tibetan commentator on the post mentioned that she understood that the Karmapa had said we should not spread news about the immolations for fear it would encourage more young people to think that giving their lives was an effective strategy for drumming up international awareness and support for Tibet. She mentioned how self-immolaters’ families’ were being punished by the authorities, and asked pointedly what MY thoughts on this were. I chose not to comment. Another non-Tibetan decided to offer his own opinion, however. This person suggested that in that case:

“…the Karmapa should himself follow his own advice and deconstruct the gigantic golden butterlamp memorial in front of the entrance of his monastery in dharamsala that is dedicated to the ‘brave martyrs’ who self-immolate. When I saw it, I got out of there and never came back. I sympathize with the Tibetans who lost their freedom, but I believe politics and religion should be seperated.”

I decided then to respond, and to remind him that, unfortunately, when you are a colonized/displaced person whose community is experiencing massive cultural loss, restrictions, wholesale dispossession and discrimination as a direct result of your community’s cultural and religious loyalties, you don’t really have the luxury of separating your religious life from politics. To practice Buddhism in occupied Tibet and outside it as a Tibetan refugee, to commemorate particular histories, to honour particular teachers, and do particular practices is inherently political for Tibetans. I pointed out that to criticize Tibetans for ‘making things unnecessarily political’ seems directly opposed to sympathizing with the fact of their having lost their freedom. As this person himself made clear in his comment though, if you just don’t really have any skin in the game then you can always just walk away.

One more thing my South African friend didn’t know was that over the years, as my colleagues and I at the University of Colorado have put the time in to give talks, design lessons, and update curricula as part of teaching students (often in virtually real-time) about the self-immolations (or as we have simply brought up the issue with other colleagues, friends, family, people at parties, bars, and on public transport when the opportunity presents itself), we have heard hundreds of different reactions from non-Tibetans, and have noticed certain patterns among these. While the most common and typical general response from students and others has been shock and dismay, and statements to the effect of ‘Wow! I had no idea!’, time and time again my colleagues and I have heard non-Tibetan Tibetan Buddhist converts in particular respond with statements amounting to, “Oh, well that doesn’t really seem very Buddhist, though, does it?”

Now, it’s only natural that non-Tibetan Buddhists’ priorities and responses should differ from those of Tibetans on a range of topics. This will necessarily be so. But the extent to which I have seen, and was seeing yesterday on Facebook, non-Tibetan Buddhists and other outsiders’ weigh in on the ‘appropriateness’ of the immolations got my blood boiling, and I was moved to sum up my thoughts in another post as follows:

“FYI -when I post a post to inform people about a newly revealed incident of a Tibetan in Tibet premeditatedly deciding to set themselves on fire and sacrifice their life for the cause of their colonized and dispossessed people, I’m not really looking to hear from non-Tibetan Buddhist converts, or anyone who’s not Tibetan really, about how they think Buddhism or religion should be practiced or how they think these deaths and protests should be valued and mourned.

I’m glad that you have an opinion, and you’re entitled to it, but sometimes in some cases, your personal thoughts on other people’s suffering just don’t really count that much. Have enough respect to appreciate how insensitive and dismissive it can be to pontificate about how you, someone who has no skin in the game, think Buddhism or Tibetan politics should be practiced. Especially when even the Dalai Lama has refrained from categorically dismissing or promoting self-immolation precisely because he refuses to speak on behalf of or over Tibetans inside Tibet, even though if anyone would be considered qualified for that job by Tibetans it would probably be him. Splaining is awkward and gross, -splaining over the charred remains of self-immolator protestors is well, beyond gross or awkward. Seriously, you can sit this one out, I promise.”

Another old, non-white South African friend of mine with very little time for whitesplaining commented on this, jokingly: “too much words bro a ‘white people shut up’ would suffice.”

He’s probably right that this is all ‘too much words’, and definitely right that my comments were aimed at encouraging people like white Buddhist converts with the privilege of just ‘getting out of there and never going back’ to think more and speak less. In response to the above-cited Karmapa comment, a Tibetan friend suggested that I ‘stop wasting my time on insensitive asshole comments’ and that I should probably just delete these comments for mine, her, and other Tibetans’ sake. As it turned out, my female South African friend did in fact delete her original comments, and contacted me later privately. She felt ashamed and emotional, and wanted to apologize. She wasn’t sure what had come over her and made her respond this way, but she was grateful that she was able to get more context and rethink her position.

I’m disappointed that she deleted the thread. I have no interest in publicly shaming and humiliating people who say insensitive and misinformed things to make them feel like they are bad or stupid. or just so I can feel smart or superior or something. What I do have an interest in, however, is education. Online exchanges like these can be teaching moments. It’s not Tibetans’ job, or mine, to educate ‘insensitive assholes’ on Facebook. Nonetheless, I know that general understanding about the Tibetan self-immolations and about what has happened and is happening inside Tibet is limited, and that as Sonam Tso’s story shows, such information is precious, and often comes to us at great cost.

The self-immolations need more exposure and engagement. It’s not that non-Tibetans should not be weighing in on the matter at all – it’s that listening to Tibetans’ describe their own experiences, and engaging in respectful dialogue informed by a better understanding of the context and histories of such acts has so much more value than giving free range, in the face of Tibetan suffering, to your personal opinions about how you as an outsider think Buddhism should be.

As anthropologists working as professional educators in university settings, our discussions with students about human histories and diversity are frequently visceral, uncomfortable, and challenging. Talking about colonialism, imperialism, racism, capitalism, and radically alternative ways to live and be in the world is difficult, uncomfortable, and important. It’s a given that at the start of a semester many of my students will come into the classroom with a whole grab-bag of inherited ill-informed, insensitive, and shitty ideas. It’s not my job to shame them for these, but it is my job to offer them opportunities to re-evaluate them. Anthropology, a subject which methodologically encourages the researcher to suspend her preconceptions and humble herself enough to listen to and sit with difference, offers frequently irresistible opportunities for students to -splain the fuck out of things. We encourage students to develop their own strong positions and do not use cultural relativism as a way of shutting down ethical consciousness or caring about the world. But we as educators ask that those positions be informed ones, and encourage students to pause, to consider diversity and radical alterity and alternatives before they view the world through their chosen frames.

Self-immolation is a strong subject that inspires all sorts of equally strong and often knee-jerk reactions. Tibetans certainly have all kinds of feelings about this pattern of protest. Pretty much all Tibetans I know are devastated by these deaths. Yet many are also awed by the incredible sacrifice of their kinsfolk, by the bravery of such ‘heroes’ and ‘heroines’. And still, I haven’t   come across any Tibetan who is strongly hoping that these protests will continue. Only about two months ago, a sixteen year old Tibetan exile boy in Dehradun gave his life this way, sparking a whole new round of discussions about how young Tibetans feel they can best contribute to the Tibetan cause, and what Tibetan exile authorities are doing to promote particular visions of the future and agency for young Tibetans in exile. Before he passed away in hospital from his injuries, the boy, Dorjee Tsering, stated that he had hoped that self-immolating would bring international attention and redress to the cause of Tibet.

It remains dubious whether Tibetan self-immolations will dramatically tip the scales for Tibetans and their current lot under occupation by the PRC. Personally, I feel neither sufficiently qualified nor entitled to make any categorical statements condemning or celebrating these acts. What I can say is that this is a deeply complex and painful issue that demands careful and informed consideration, and has been woefully under-reported, and not really because of fears that spreading news of these events will encourage more protests. Thus, as my Mother’s Day gift to Sonam Tso, I offer this piece and the few links below, as an initial resource for people unfamiliar with this issue to educate themselves.

Hopefully this will help them to begin to get acquainted with what’s happening. Through this, if nothing else, I hope that I can contribute in some small way to one less thoughtless comment appearing on Facebook, for Sonam Tso’s sake.

RESOURCES: operates a regularly updated fact-sheet of self-immolaters with photos, facts, and links. It is a good go-to source.

In April of 2012, my adviser Carole McGranahan, along with Ralph Litzinger, edited the second edition of the journal Cultural Anthropology’s new ‘Hot-Spots’ feature, which gets anthropologists and others working in particular areas or on particular subjects to provide short, completely open-source essays on topical issues. The collection, ‘Self-Immolation as Protest in Tibet’ gathers together reflections from Tibetan and non-Tibetan researchers on the issue of the self-immolation protests, and collectively offers an enormous amount of information, insights, and resources.

At the end of the same year, Revue D’Etudes Tibetaines put out their own open-source edited collection of essays on the topic. Essays in the collection address somewhat more directly the reasons for the preponderance of self-immolations in the traditional province of Amdo in Eastern Tibet, and also address the Buddhist dimensions or precedents for the practice.

An English translation of Tibetan blogger activist Tsering Woeser’s Mandarin Chinese-language book on the  Tibetan self-immolation protests went to press earlier this year. The NYR Daily recently published an excerpt here.

This site offers a small selection of English translations of protesters’ last testaments, translated by Tibetan writer Bhuchung D. Sonam.

Tibetan writer Jamyang Norbu offers some reflections on the first exile immolater Thupten Ngodup, who was also a veteran of the Tibetan armed resistance, here. Carole McGranahan, who became an inadvertent ethnographer of Tibetan self-immolation after Thupten Ngodup’s death in the 90s, without knowing self-immolations would later continue, offers some reflections too in the Chapter 9, ‘A Non-Violent History of War’, in her 2010 ethnography on the Tibetan armed resistance, ‘Arrested Histories: Tibet, the CIA, and Memories of a Forgotten War’.

Here is a decent, hour-long documentary covering the self-immolations.

While the idea has been repeated that self-immolaters are primarily attempting to communicate with international pres or ‘Western’ media, a case can be made that this is not their primary, or at least only audience. As my colleagues Carole McGranahan and Dawa Lokyitsang have shown, self-immolaters’ audience for their acts is just as much Tibetans in their own communities and Tibetans in the diaspora globally. See here for an online essay from 2013 by Dawa that discusses this point, and here for a 2014 talk by Carole at Harvard University covering some of these issues.

This is only a tiny selection of resources and opinion pieces, a selection skewed by my own disciplinary focus and networks. I encourage readers to do their own research, and hope that the links in this piece will be of benefit.

  • For those interested, I offer some even more personal reflections on the weirdness of mourning and commemorating death on social media, and the issue of delayed news of passing here and here on this blog, as well.