Self-immolation Truth: Tibetan Buddhism Kidnapped by Politics

Buddha Sakyamuni has inspired his followers to hang on whatever adversity they might encounter, the series of clergy self-immolations on the Qinghai-Tibetan Plateau, however, are misleading devout Tibetan Buddhists to think that it’s permissible to give up hope and their lives so long as they follow suit.

The Potala Palace in Lhasa [file photo]

In one of most recent cases, Rechok, 35, a mother of three who lived in the Chatuo village of Rangtang of Aba, committed suicide by setting herself ablaze in the afternoon of May 30 and died on her way to a local hospital.

Police investigations showed Rechok had been caught up in a family feud with her alcoholic husband Namsetong. The couple been viciously arguing overnight, which aggravated the mother’s pains from losing his eldest son Dropurang who ran away days before to become a monk despite the mother’s objection.

Rechok’s suicide was not politically motivated, according to police.

Still, her death was branded as a “protest at the growing influence of Han China in the Tibetan plateau” by the Free Tibet, an overseas group advocating Tibet independence, and used as an excuse by the Tibetan government-in-exile to attract international attention to the so-called “Tibet issue.”

In mid-March, Sangpo Dondrup, a third-year student in a middle school of Sertar county of neighboring Ganzi prefecture, was found foaming at the mouth and groaning on the downtown Jingyuan Road, smelling of gasoline.

Police investigations later showed he had attempted self-immolation. The oldest of seven, Sangpo Dondrup felt stressed as his illiterate father had been harshly pressing him to get good grades since he entered middle school in 2009.


Feeling stuck in his study, the teenager stole fuel from his father’s motorcycle. He swallowed some of it and splashed rest of the gasoline on his clothes and then went to the street. However, he failed to set himself alight.

“I didn’ t know that it was so awful to swallow the gasoline,” he said, scratching his hair in embarrassment.

At noon every Saturday, Sangpo Dondrup said he would walk around the nearby pagoda of Padmasambhava who established Buddhism in Tibet in the eighth century to pray.

A young Tibetan monk practising writing. [File photo]

Unwilling to make do with a vocational school, he said he would consider restudying the third year if he failed the entrance exam for senior high schools. “My goal is college,” said he.

Xu Kaiwen, who holds a PhD in clinical psychology from Beijing University, has been involved in suicide intervention for more than 10 years. He said that individual suicides can be contagious. When someone with public influence, such as the Tibetan clergy who are supposed to enlighten the average public to be free from all sufferings, were involved, the demonstration effect will be undoubtedly stronger.

“Teenagers aged 18-22 and the stressed are the most prone to copycat suicides as they are impulsive and lack self-control. Whether they spread mainly hinges upon the public explanation of suicidal behaviors. If suicides are hailed as martyrs or heroes, it can easily cause others, especially teenagers, to follow suit,” said Xu.

To ward off the potential harms of clergy self-immolation to young Tibetans whose formidable ages are spent in a religious climate unparalleled anywhere else in China, the Education Bureau of Sertar County added a course on Life in all schools the following month.

“The objective of this course is to teach students to cherish their lives. Everyone here knows that Buddha Sakyamuni spent his whole life exhorting people to refrain from killing others and committing suicides, we can’ t afford to have this young generation misled,” said Chen Hu, chief of the Sertar Education Bureau.

The worry of parents and teaching faculty spreads, however, on the heels of Tibetan clergy who set themselves on fire. On March 30, in front of a downtown telecommunication outlet in Tuanjie Road of Barkam, the capital of Aba prefecture, Chimed Palden and Nganlam, both from the Caodeng Monastery of Gelug sect, burned themselves while hundreds of students of the nearby primary and junior high schools were on their way home during lunch break.

Li Yong, a teacher of the Barkam No. 2 Primary School, said some students dared not to return to school that afternoon as the sight was too shocking.

“Students are panicky. I keep telling them neither to imitate those monks nor to join the crowd to watch if anything similar happens on their way home or to school,” said Li.

As self-immolation cases often attracted crowds which sometimes could turn chaotic, Tseten Serjig, whose child is among those who witnessed the burnings, said that she was very concerned about the safety of children and hoped the school authorities would strengthen student protection and escort students home.



Stepping into Aba county, where most self-immolations have taken place recently, one can get close to understanding the answer.

A total of 20 Tibetans, including eight monks, two nuns, eight former monks and two lay people, mostly aged from 16-25 except two, had committed self-immolation since Feb 2009 here. Of them, fifteen died and five were under hospital treatment, according to local police.

Across the country, the total number of Tibetans who had committed self-immolation exceeds 30, all in Tibetan populated regions.

The two most well-known people who committed self-immolations are Tapey, who triggered the latest wave of self-immolation by setting himself on fire at the age of 20 on Feb. 27, 2009, and Phuntsog, 19, who ended his life in a pre-meditated self-immolation on March 16, 2011. Both came from a capital-strained single-parent family, received little formal education and grew up in the Kirti Monastery from an early age, according to police.

Tapey is now recovering and refused to touch upon the subject of self-immolation with visitors. The hospital in charge of his medical treatment has paid in advance more than 2 million yuan, but the chances for him to fully recover are slim, doctors said.

In the latter case, police found that days before the self-immolation was committed, Kirti monks Rabten and Dorje had used a desktop of an Internet cafe to communicate with Chodrum, a member of the media relations team of Shiwa Dratsang where the Kirti Living Buddha resides, to send photography of Phuntsog.

With some 2,000 monks, Kirti Monastry is historically connected with 50 or so Tibetan temples, big and small, including the Caodeng Monastery involved in the Barkam tragedy.

Kirti Living Buddha fled with the 14th Dalai Lama after a failed insurgency in March 1959 and has since lived in Dharamshala, India, to orchestrate secessionist activities.

Since the late 1970s, 168 monks have been found to have illegally left to India. A number of them have dedicated themselves to disseminating among young monks a sense of separatism, brainwashing them to confront the government, according to sources with the Aba police authority.

Less than one hour after the self-immolation, Phuntsog was promoted throughout the overseas Tibetan community as “a martyr in protest of the Han Chinese rule and repression in Tibet,” police said.

At that time, however, a competition concerning the life and death of Phuntsog was going on in Aba between the police and Drongzhug, Phuntsog’s uncle and teacher who later admitted to the police that he had arranged for an overnight transfer of his seriously injured nephew from the home of a Tibetan doctor up onto a sky-burial in Yunlong village, a religious site for burial ceremony during which the body of the dead would be dismembered by a burial master and left for birds to feed on.

A temple in Aba. [file photo]

Left unattended in the freezing cold for 11 hours, Phuntsog was only just breathing when he was spotted by the police and sent to the People’ s Hospital of Aba County.

Surgeon Wang Defu said that emergency treatment was crucial in the first few hours. Treatment delay, large-area body surface and respiratory burns led to Phuntsog’s death.

During a public trial, Dongzhug called himself “legal illiteracy,” saying he had never been to school and was unaware of his infringement of the laws. Dongzhug and another two Kirti monks responsible for Phuntsog’s death were accused of homicide and each sentenced to 10-13 years in jail.

“Why did Dongzhug hide Phuntsog? They didn’t want him to be cured otherwise they would be unable to use his death to raise the anti-China morale across Tibetan community,” said an official close to the case.

Criminals were brought to justice but the overseas splitting forces wouldn’t give up. On August 20, Students for A Free Tibet, a New York-based organization advocating Tibet independence, honored Phuntsog together with Tsewang Norbu, a 29-year-old monk of the Nyitso Monastery in Daofu county who died shortly after setting himself on fire on August 15, with the Lhakar Award, praising the two’s “unimaginable sacrifice and courage…in protest of the Chinese government’s repression and for the freedom of Tibet.”

The Tibetan word “Lhakar” literally means “White Wednesday,” a weekday considered special by Tibetans because it is the soul-day of the Dalai Lama, the group has preached, calling for more acts of defiance and resistance in Tibet.

Less than one month later, Phuntsog’s brother Katrang, aged 18, and Kunchok Tenpa, 16, both from the Kirti Monastery, imitated such unimaginable sacrifices but were rescued by the patrolling police on September 26.

Apart from being tempted by the heroism played up overseas, police say that young Kirti monks must also cope with senior lamas who pulled the strings from within.

In a seemingly casual talk, Rala Lodro, a 40-year-old painter and lama from Longzang village of Aba county, approached Katrang and Kunchok Tenpa while they were eating sunflower seeds in the monastery courtyard, and advised them to commit self-immolation during the daytime.

“Our life is bad now. It would be better to commit self-immolation to become a wisp of smoke. Do not burn at night otherwise the Communist Party will be happy because America’s cameras above the Kirti Monastery can not capture it,” Rala Lodro was quoted as saying in the oral confessions Xinhua obtained.

A Kirti monk asking not to be identified said that there had been invisible pressure upon the young monks to do something they could.

With most of its registered monks on a two-month-long leave to help their families dig worm grass, a rare medicine herb, Kirti Monastery whose land area has tripled to 18,000 square meters in two decades is now in its most inactive period of the year.

If someone died in surrounding residential neighborhoods, lamas will recite sutras in the morning. In afternoon, Buddhist scripture debating is routinely held. Other than these, those who stay have plenty of time at their disposal.

With the annual worm grass trips normally ending early July, changes will happen to the monastery as some monks may decide to become laymen after being distracted by earthly affairs.

Qiu Ning, director of the Aba United Front Work Department in charge of religious affairs, estimated that about 100 Kirti monks will leave the clergy every year. “However, not every one of them can get accustomed to their new life.”

Among those who commit self-immolation, secularized monks have surfaced as a vulnerable group. Tsering and Darli, both former Kirti monks, burned themselves on January 6.

According to Tsering who survived, Darle had been very upset because he had promised to commit self-immolation together with Tenzi Wangmo, a nun of the Siwai Nunnery of Aba whom he met during last year’s worm grass leave. The 20-year-old girl burned herself last October and died.

“Darle told me he wanted to burn himself too to ask for the forgiveness of the Buddha because he had stolen the golden Buddha statute of the Kirti Monastery. I felt he was so lofty and was inspired by his courage,” Tsering was quoted in this oral confession to the police.

In his deep heart, Tsering had his pains. After leaving the Kirti Monastery, he married and divorced and always pinched pennies. He confessed that one month before committing self-immolation, he and his friend Nyigeme robbed 8,000 yuan from his relative Lokhor who had reported the crime to the police.

Tudong Tarqin, lama and deputy director of the management committee of the Namah Monastery in Kangding county of Ganzi prefecture, felt sorry to hear so many young former clergy had killed themselves.

“Buddha tells us to always observe and think. If someone seeks to convert to Buddhism because of family feud, setbacks in life or out of impulse, we must refuse. Likewise, Buddha instructs the Sangha not to give up on even the vicious one, because on the merit of wearing cassock for one day, ordained monks are sure to attain enlightenment.”

Donggou Living Buddha, deputy director of the management committee of the Kirti Monastery, called himself a “stick-in-the-mud” and “too old to keep the younger generation under control.”

“Each year we see many young Tibetans come in and leave. I don’t have the number of secularized monks,” said the 70-year-old to Xinhua.


Regarded as the root guru of Tibetan Buddhists of the Gelug sect, the 14th Dalai Lama told media on different occasions that he “did not encourage” or “did not condone” self-immolation. But he never explicitly forbids such cruel self-destruction.

Chinese officials have blamed the Dalai Lama for encouraging the self-immolations, saying that the exiled Tibetan religious leader prayed for those who died after committing self-immolation in public and refused to call for an end of a practice that violates a basic Buddhism doctrine — not to kill.

“In the Buddhists’ eyes, the Dalai Lama is their spiritual leader, if he reminds the followers of the doctrine, self-immolation will definitely end,” said Likatesring, deputy head of Huangnan Tibetan autonomous prefecture government of Qinghai province.

It was a different story when Thubten Ngodup, one of his followers, lit himself on fire in a hunger strike organized in New Delhi by the Tibetan Youth Congress in 1998.

Robert Thurman, a professor of Indo-Tibetan Buddhist Studies at Columbia University who has studied with the Dalal Lama for nearly 30 years, revealed that the Dalai Lama had condemned: “This is violence, even if it is self-inflicted,” according to Canada’s National Post.

Although the Dalai Lama resigned his political role last year, Tibetan Buddhism remains deeply entangled with politics. And that was the fundamental problem plaguing Tibetan Buddhism, officials with the Aba prefecture noted.

The purpose of the series of self-immolations scheme, they said, was to use individual sacrifices to cement and sow hatred among the 16,000 Tibetan exiles, foment strife between Tibetans and the Chinese government, distract the Tibetan-populated regions from the focus of social and economic development and seek international attention to pressure the Chinese government.

“Their ulterior purpose is not to stage a dialogue but to sabotage,” said an official who asked not to be identified.

Although the 14th Dalai Lama kept calling for non-violence, the average Tibetans and the government carders here felt otherwise.

Lei Kaiwei, political commissar of the Public Security Bureau of Aba County, almost lost his life while trying to rescue Lhorang Jamyang, a Kirti monk of the Kewa village of Antou township who set himself on fire on Jan. 14 at the Qiatang West Street.

“When I thought the fire on his body was quenched and was about to disperse the on-lookers, I heard a ‘bang’. The guy rose, surrounded by an even fiercer fire due to his re-exposure to air. Shockingly, he started to catch the eight police officers on the site. Each of them flinched instinctively. It was chaotic. I heard screams and felt the crowd closing in,” he said.

With bare hands, Lei caught the burning waist of Lhorang Jamyang, and a scuffle ensued. Lei said he gathered all his strength to pry open the arms of Lhorang Jamyang from his neck after both fell to the ground.

The 22-year-old died. Lei suffered serious burns on his hands and face. If Luo failed to break loose in 10 to 15 more seconds, doctors said he could have died from either carotid insufficiency or suffocation triggered by laryngeal edema.

“While patrolling the street, rain or shine, I always think it is my duty to come to the rescue of those who commit self-immolation and protect the public from harm. I don’t understand why Dharamsala associated us with military crackdown or suppression. That was mud slinging,” said Lei.

Calling himself a “pure product” of the 2008 riots which broke out in Lhasa on March 14 and then other Tibetan regions including Aba, leaving 19 people dead and many businesses, residences and vehicles damaged or looted, Lei said he felt he owed his family an apology for having taken up a high-risk job.

For average Tibetans, the non-violence strategy advocated by the 14th Dalai Lama appeared to have more to do with hatred and bullying than what Mahatma Gandhi proposed, the power of love and understanding between all.

After the death of its monk Tsewang Norbu, Nyitso Monastery of Gelug sect in Daofu county of Ganzi prefecture sent out words that each household in its diocese must send a representative to pay condolence visit to the families of those who have committed self-immolation and donate money otherwise they could no longer expect the monastery to do any Buddhist services for their families, police investigation showed.

During this year’s spring farming season, leaflets were distributed in the county’s Kongse township, threatening to burn the house of those who dared to follow the instruction of Han Chinese to cultivate lands.

Hu Wenbing, Party secretary of the Kongse township, said that one carder of the Geleg village took the lead to plough his land. His barn housing his cows and tractor was set on fire that night.

“If you don’t follow the monasteries, you go to hell after death.’ This is the most vicious menace as many Tibetans pinned the hope of their next life on monasteries,” said Luo Yuehua, former principal of the Xialatuo Primary School of the Xialatuo village of Luhuo county in Ganzi.

The way to quell public fears, as Fu Shou, Party secretary of the Xialatuo village, noted, was to follow Buddhism doctrines rather than individual lamas.

As no one in Xiatatuo village participated in the riot that took place in Luhuo county on Jan. 23 when dozens of people, including some monks, stormed and smashed some stores and a police station, causing one death and nine injured, separatists threatened “if you don’t follow monastery, your house will be burnt.”

The village committee responded tit-for-tat, “If any house is burnt, everyone teams up to help its owner rebuild.”

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