Recalling The Tibetan Identity

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Recalling The Tibetan Identity

One need only say “Tibet” for most people to immediately think of Buddhism. In fact, Tibetans regard themselves as practitioners of the purest Buddhadharma, since their lineages and teachings have been preserved by their geographical isolation, protected by the Himalayan ranges for centuries. Keeping the Dharma untainted is not a responsibility that the Tibetans take lightly; those who rule the country are received as divine sentinels of the purest Buddhadharma, viewed with unquestioning faith in a manner that often seems illogical to the secular, Western world.

Buddhism is an intrinsic part of Tibetan culture. In the Tibet of old, at least one son in each family would become a monk, considering it an act of honor for the family

Given this background, it is not difficult to understand why Tibetans are always deeply concerned about how Buddhist their actions are. It is also not difficult to see how this concern may historically have been manipulated. The combination of concern and unquestioning faith has allowed a secular and self-serving Tibetan polity to play on the people’s piety and implement decisions without much regard for the welfare of the Tibetan people. Without any accountability, their actions have frequently led to unpleasant consequences.

The manipulation is simple – those in power condemn something as un-Buddhist, thus provoking the ire of the Tibetan population because the act has been deemed to be an insult to the Tibetan identity. In the same way Mao would label something “bourgeois” to incite the Chinese population’s hatred against it, such condemnations from Tibetan politicians are also usually sufficient to see that act banned, whether the ban is legally or socially mandated or even ethically right.


A Justifiable Suicide

Considering their influence over the population, it beggars belief that the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA) has yet to condemn self-immolations as un-Buddhist, to prevent further loss of life. More surprisingly, the CTA even published on their website an article in support of self-immolations, titled “Is self-immolation anti-Buddhist?

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Ex-Prime Minister Samdhong Rinpoche says “We should support all those that have sacrificed their life for the Tibetan cause”, an indirect support for the self-immolations happening in Tibet.

If we were to reword the question into something more encompassing, we could also ask,

Does taking away a life become justifiable because the motivation is to benefit others, even though there is no result?

Whilst its “Buddhist-ness” appears to be debatable, what happens during the actual self-immolation is not – self-immolations usually result in the person’s death, whether immediately or from injuries sustained. Therefore, regardless of the person’s motivation, self-immolations are essentially suicides since the act of dousing oneself with a flammable substance before setting oneself alight is not designed for survival. Therein lies the first reason why self-immolations are definitely un-Buddhist – one of the basic Mahayana vows states that we should refrain from taking any lives, including our own.

Jampa Yeshi, like so many others before him, did not survive

In his article, the author Tenzin Kun-khyab opined that self-immolations are acceptable and akin to Buddha sacrificing his life for a starving tigress. It would appear that the author considers the attainments of the self-immolators to be equal to that of Buddha when he sacrificed himself for the hungry animal. If so, on what basis does the author perceive these attainments? The English proverb “It takes one to know one” springs to mind – is the author alluding to his own similar attainments, which allows him to perceive those of the self-immolators? This willful interpretation of the scriptures is worrying, especially when its purpose is to justify the taking of a sentient being’s life and to glorify the unnecessary loss of lives as part of a political strategy which thus far has not proven to be effective. In the case of Tenzin Kun-khyab, the parable has been interpreted in direct contradiction to the original intended moral of the Buddha’s story which was about compassion and non-attachment to one’s physical form. The Buddha never intended the chronicles of his acts of compassion to become justifications and glorifications of suicides.

Tenzin Kun-khyab also likens the self-immolations to the Tibetan defense of their homeland in the 1950s, when monks renounced their vows in order to take up arms against the Chinese. One should remember that the vows were written by Shakyamuni Buddha and designed to train sentient beings towards enlightenment. In renouncing their vows, the monks effectively renounced the teachings Buddha taught for ultimate freedom from suffering, in favor of their involvement in transient geo-political issues. It is therefore worrisome that such an incident is celebrated as a good example of religious faith and significance, when it is quite the opposite.


Self-immolations As A Selfish Act

To determine the second reason why self-immolations are un-Buddhist, consider the result of the Tibetan self-immolations. Since 2009, over 140 people have self immolated and over 120 of these have died in this horrific manner and yet the Chinese government remains unmoved. The Tibetan response to this Chinese wall of silence has been illogical, to say the least – instead of selecting another more effective method, they have instead chosen to remain with the same ineffective method and increase the frequency of the self-immolations in a dramatic show of desperation.

Tibetans monks help Chinese earthquake victims. This is how the world views Tibetans: kind and compassionate towards all sentient beings. The current spate of self-immolations is completely at odds with this image

And yet, despite this increase, the Chinese government remains unresponsive and the international community has remained silent. Compare this to both Vietnam and the Middle East, when the international community acted on the loss of just one life.

It requires the barest of analyses to recognize that self-immolating to raise awareness of the Tibetan plight is an ineffective method. Given the ineffectiveness of the method, any logical individual would consider changing tactics. The Tibetans however, have chosen to remain with the same ineffective strategy. One could therefore reasonably conclude that the Tibetans have failed to adequately evaluate the situation, and what the world is really witnessing is ignorance – that is, ignorance of the situation is leading to their suicides for the greater cause, although it is an act that is both false and foolish because it bears no result at all.

From a Buddhist perspective, ignorance arises from selfishness. Since Tibetan self-immolations arise out of ignorance from lack of proper evaluation, these acts are therefore selfish and contradict the Buddhist aim of increasing one’s compassion and lessening one’s selfishness; in short, when Tibetans self-immolate, it is un-Buddhist.


Silence of the Leadership

To view self-immolations as anything but un-Buddhist would require a very biased interpretation of the scriptures. It is therefore shocking that the CTA, a historically Buddhist government, has allowed on their website an article that defends an un-Buddhist act as a Buddhist one. The CTA’s apparent support for and refusal to prohibit this senseless act shows the self-serving nature of the Tibetan leadership – they will allow their people to die if it suits their purpose.

Is the Dalai Lama’s silence intentional?

The CTA aside, the Dalai Lama’s silence on self-immolations has not gone unnoticed. There is only one logical conclusion for this silence, arrived at in reference to the ban on Dorje Shugden. When the Dalai Lama banned the practice of Dorje Shugden, the world was led to question why this monk, the face of compassion, appeared to be instigating religious discrimination. In not condemning the self-immolations, the Dalai Lama has again led the world to ask why this same monk has not spoken out against so many suicides.

Some might claim the Dalai Lama’s silence reflects his loss of control over the Tibetans. For example, in a 2013 interview, Samdhong Rinpoche stated that it is pointless to discourage self-immolations because the Tibetans are growing increasingly desperate. His belief does not appear to be a commonly held one – Tenzin Kun-khyab himself writes that “It is true that as long as His Holiness the Dalai Lama is alive, Tibetan people will never go against his teachings of non-violence.” Clearly Tenzin Kun-khyab continues to believe in the power of the Dalai Lama’s words and through the Dorje Shugden ban, we already know that Tibetans are still willing to do something illogical just because the Dalai Lama said so.

Therefore, since it is not due to a loss of control, perhaps the Dalai Lama has remained silent in a bid to prepare Tibetans for his eventual passing by lessening their reliance on him and the political elite. Just like how the Dorje Shugden ban revealed the CTA’s hypocrisy and the Tibetan population’s blind faith, perhaps the Dalai Lama is now using his silence on self-immolations to reinforce the same message – think for yourself, and learn to question and contemplate what is around you because that is the only way to guarantee a pleasant future for yourself and others, in this life and beyond.


A Return to Buddhism

All this is a very real possibility that is beyond mere speculation, given what has taken place in the last few years with His Holiness relinquishing secular power and stepping down as leader of Tibet in favor of democratic elections. After all, how can the Dalai Lama not say something – anything – as his people continue to burn to death? In not speaking out against the climbing death toll, the Dalai Lama is setting an example to his followers – he no longer comments on secular issues because Buddhist practice is more important than politics.

The sight of monks protesting would have been unthinkable just 50 years ago. Is the Dalai Lama trying a different method to get Tibetans to remember their waning Buddhist identity?

Buddhism relies on logic, understanding, contemplation and practice to bring ultimate liberation to ourselves and others. It would appear that the Dalai Lama is trying to introduce these qualities back to his people who have become so caught up in their fight for a free Tibet, they have forgotten what it really means to be Tibetan: they are peace-loving Buddhist people who act in accordance with the laws of karma. In their desperation for independence, this forgotten aspect of their culture has even led their government to attempt to peddle a clearly un-Buddhist act as a righteous one.

It is precisely this kind of thinking that renders Tibetan independence efforts fruitless because when an act begins with an un-Buddhist motivation, it will end with an un-Buddhist result. We are seeing this clearly with self-immolations – with China remaining unmoved, and the Tibetans having no result to show for their self-immolations, logic infers that the motivation of the acts need to be redefined. It is time the Tibetans take some time to reflect on their actions, and to recall what truly made them unique in this world – a spiritual people who understood the foolhardiness of fighting against karma, trying to reclaim a lost memory and homeland that today seems further away than ever.

Disclaimer: This article was submitted by a third party author and does not necessarily reflect the official opinion of We accept submissions from the public, please send in your articles to [email protected].

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  1. This article is very interesting covering a few crucial issues of Tibet and its people.
    China started invading Tibet around 1950s; the Dalai Lama was forced to leave in 1959. It has now been more then 50 years and despite all the appeals, negotiations, open dialogues or even drastic measures of self immolation has not managed to “return” Tibet , not even autonomous rule option for the Tibetan government.
    The people who could not fled Tibet had no choice but to learn to move on as best possible; their young are growing up conditioned by whatever situation that is made available by the Chinese government.
    As for the Tibetans who managed to fled in the 50s, they too have set up their homes and families in whatever country they had the karma to reside in. Life goes on !
    The most positive and valuable outcome from all the aftermath, is the spread and growth of Tibetan Buddhism in this world. Tibetan Buddhism has grown far and wide and has brought relief and benefit to so many sentient beings !
    This phenomena is worth rejoicing !! Tibetans or Tibetan Buddhists should all rejoice in this result !
    Could this “success” be a result of all the controversies in Tibetan Buddhism ? Would the results be worse or better without the controversies ?
    I guess only the Buddhas will know the truth. However, we should practice despite all the controversies and not politicize the religion that can bring so much benefit to others !

  2. This article discussed a good point on the issue of self-immolation. I have always not able to see Tibetans who self-immolate to highlight Tibet and Tibetans’ cause and plight. It’s too painful. But I never analyses it from the point of view of a dysfunction government and weak leadership of a nation that allow this, encourage this.

    It make me think of suicide attack of Muslims for Islamic cause, which is always misled by selfish politicians who want to achieve their personal agenda or goal, by sacrificing another human and hurting many more non-Muslim and Muslim in the same destructive way.

    However, Tibetan leadership is so “successful” that when you voice up concern that against self-immolation, you would most probably invite fierce attacks from Tibetans. They would think you are against their Tibetan cause. To say self-immolation is un-Buddhist would definitely make you being labelled as “traitor” and “enemy” of Tibetans.

    From my experience, you practice Dorje Shugden you are already a national-level enemy for Tibetans who buy CTA’s ideas… Because propaganda that Dorje Shugden practitioners are spies who with the only goal to harm H.H. Dalai Lama is so successful, and most of the people believe it.

    However, what should be said should not keep it. It’s saying with the goal to get different types of voices coming out in the opinion market. It’s one of the way to open up our heart, listen to balanced views, and clear our ignorance. Citizens with enough knowledge and information living in a more open society, I believe can always make better decisions to benefit themselves and others. That’s another to chase away corrupted and weak leadership, and looking forward for a better tomorrow of Tibet and Tibetans.

  3. The article has brought up very good points of self-immolations. Why is it so that H.H Dalai Lama does not speak up to the Tibetans with regards to the self-immolations that they are doing?

    It is very obvious that what they have done is wrong, yet why is the issue not being raised up? Why is Samdong Rinpoche showing support to what the Tibetans are doing even though the Chinese government shows no sense of sympathy at all.

    With that said, it shows that self-immolation does not work and will not help Tibet be free once again. So why still continue with whatever that they are doing then?

    Through the article it only makes one wonder more. Why does the CTA not do anything to help their own citizens asking them to stop hurting themselves like that. Instead, what they CTA is doing is that they are focusing their energy to put a ban on Dorje Shugden that does not do any good to the Tibetans at all.

    Due to the ban, so many families and friends have been separated. So many Tibetans are suffering because of that. Why does the CTA not target this problem and solve this internal issue first even before they look at getting their land back. The CTA’s actions are just so ironic.

  4. Is a sad to see the Tibethan people being brain wash to kill them as they think by sacrifice themselves they be able to save their country, I hope through social media this group of people will be able to realize self immolation is not the way to get back their homeland .

  5. The topic of self immolation one can’t help but compare to what has happened in South Vietnam, the act of self immolation was done to stop a brutal war between the American and Vietnamese forces, mostly the civilians got caught in the middle. That act was done by a meditation master who is probably is realised and certain he is doing it out of great compassion and the results was it is one of those pictures that people associated with the war and brutality of it. the vietnamese monk was unmoving as he burnt so he probably went into deep meditation the same probably cannot be said of Tibetan immolators.

    I can’t be sure of all the Tibetans who have taken their lives, have compassion as their last thought. I hope many of them do. One thing is for sure, the immolations is not having the results intended. The Chinese may be somewhat embarrassed, but immolations is not moving the Chinese an iota towards giving Tibetan any room for negotiations or dialogue. So since it is a lost cause doing immolations, CTA and the Dalai Lama have a moral obligation to voice out the uselessness of such actions.

  6. It has been taught that every Buddhist action should have good motivation behind it to generate good karma. Yet in the case of Self-immolation, although they had the intention to help with the “free Tibet” cause, their motivations were born out of ignorance. The ignorance that makes them forget Buddha’s teaching of precious human lives. No matter how bad the situation may seem, being alive you could have the potential to do much much more. When you burn yourself to death, well…you are dead and due to the negative karma it is highly probable for you to be reborn in the lower realms.

    Does the action result in the intent? The crowd would have watched in horror, with some tearing. Definitely their family will be heart broken. But sorry to say, as the article mentioned, China and the world are still silent, unmoved. CTA is certainly unmoved as they ignorantly equate these acts as “glorious” which effectively encourages more to commit these sinful acts in the future. Its liken to the terrorists who encourage human bomb as holy act against the Christians.

    Another thing that I wish to bring up is that in Buddhism we have been taught to be unattached to worldly things. Yet why are religious Tibetans displaying such heavy attachment to “their” country? Such heavy attachment that some are willing to “kill” themselves to “win” back what in their mind is theirs. After more than 50 years, this attachments is still as strong as ever. I shudder to think of what realm they may go to, especially those who had done so much negative actions in the name of “free Tibet”.

    I wish the Dalai Lama will speak up on the wrongness of self-immolation and also on the wrong views held by his people, especially CTA who espouses so many wrong acts. Such contradiction of “Tibetan are kind and compassionate Buddhists”. Hmm…could it be that we had been trapped in our perception and now see what is real?

  7. Self-immolation is the taking of a live that is precious according to Buddhism as it is with this hard found precious human life that one can attain enlightenment. It is also viewed as killing. So, that is a bad start.

    If suicide and euthanasia is frowned on by Buddhists, then by the same reasoning, self-immolation should be frowned on.

    And, is the motivation for this act one of benefit to sentient beings? Therefore, this act is very difficult to be of help and have results.

    The old way is to have compassion and kindness and mindfulness as the core of the Tibetan values but wisdom is also needed. Therefore, it is the duty of the government and monasteries to give secular education on the basic human rights and for the monasteries to bring the dharma to the Tibetans.

  8. The Latin adage: “he who is silent is taken to agree”, “silence implies/means consent,” in this case, applies to the Dharamsala leadership in regards to Tibetan people taking their life. One of the tenets of Buddha’s teachings “No Killing” seems to be completely lost in the Dharamsala’s quest for power and cover for their failures. Dalai Lama’s silence is akin to consent, giving his endorsement to the people killing themselves for the Tibetan Cause that had seen zero progress only because Dharamsala FAIL to secure any dialog with Beijing on the issue.

    Dharamsala should stop using own people who are loyal as pawns to play dirty politics and create a show so shallow. Life of people is precious. Stop playing with it.

  9. What will the all the people around the world and in Tibet do now? Dalai Lama says he is happy that Tibet is a part of China and should remain a part of China. So many Tibetans self-immolated for Tibet to be independent and now Dalai Lama did a 360 degree turn and says he wants to go back to Tibet and China and Tibet should be a part of China. So unbelievable. So many are angry and disappointed.

    Tibetans ready to be part of China: Dalai Lama
    Organised by the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA), the event was a part of “Thank You India – 2018″ held by the Tibetan community across India to mark 60 years of its exile in the country.
    Indo-Asian News Service
    Tibetans are ready to be a part of China if guaranteed full rights to preserve their culture, the Dalai Lama said on Friday.
    “Tibetans are not asking for independence. We are okay with remaining with the People’s Republic of China, provided we have full rights to preserve our culture,” the 83-year-old spiritual leader said at “Thank You Karnataka” event here in the city.
    Organised by the Central Tibetan Administration (CTA), the event was a part of “Thank You India – 2018″ held by the Tibetan community across India to mark 60 years of its exile in the country.
    “Several of Chinese citizens practicing Buddhism are keen on Tibetan Buddhism as it is considered scientific,” the Nobel laureate said.
    Born in Taktser hamlet in northeastern Tibet, the Dalai Lama was recognized at the age of two as the reincarnation of the 13th Dalai Lama, Thubten Gyatso. He fled to India from Tibet after a failed uprising against the Chinese rule in 1959.
    China annexed Tibet in 1950, forcing thousands of Tibetans, including monks, to flee the mountain country and settle in India as refugees.
    Since then, India has been home to over 100,000 Tibetans majorly settled in Karnataka, Himachal Pradesh among other states.


  10. Dear Dalai Lama,

    Since you started the cruel ban against the 350 year Dorje Shugden practice, how has it benefit your Tibetan society and Buddhism in the world? Things have become worse and most educated Tibetans can see this. They don’t speak out not because they don’t see your ban as wrong, but you instill fear in them and not respect. It is like fear of a dictator. I am sorry to say so. Everyone is divided. There is no harmony. Before your ban there was more harmony and unity.

    By enacting the ban, you split the monasteries, split so many families, split regions in Tibet apart, split your disciples from you, split your own gurus from you, split Tibetan Buddhism apart. You have created so much disharmony.

    It is not democratic what you have done to ban a religion within your community. You always talk of tolerance and acceptance and democracy and yet you do not accept and tolerate something different from your beliefs. When people practice Dorje Shugden you ostracize them, ban them from seeing you, ban them from using Tibetan facilities. You know you have done that. There are videos that capture your speech and prove this point. You even had people expelled from monasteries just because they practice Dorje Shugden. Some of the monks you expelled have been in the monastery for over 40 years. Many older monks shed tears because of this.

    Many young educated Tibetans lost confidence in you as they saw the damage the Dorje Shugden ban created and they lose hope. Many have become free thinkers. They reject what you have done. So many people in the west left Buddhism because of the confusion you created with this ban against Dorje Shugden which is immoral.

    You could of had millions of people who practice Dorje Shugden to support, love and follow you, but you scared them away. They are hurt and very disappointed. They loved you and respected you deeply before the ban. It has been 60 years and you have failed to get Tibet back. Your biggest failure is not getting Tibet back after 57 years in exile. Now you are begging China to allow you to return to Tibet to the disappointment of thousands of people who fought for a free Tibet believing in you. So many self-immolated for a free Tibet and now you want Tibet to be a part of China with no referendum from Tibetans. Just like a dictator, you decide on your own. It was your government and you that lost Tibet in the first place. Your policies and style of doing things do not benefit Tibet and Buddhism. You have been the sole ruler of Tibet your whole life and you still have not gotten our country of Tibet back for us. Our families and us are separated. Yet you create more pain by creating a ban to further divide people. Please have compassion.

    No other Buddhist leader has banned or condemned any religion except for you. It looks very bad. You are a Nobel laureate and this is not fitting of a laureate. You should unite people and not separate them by religious differences.

    You said Ms. Aung San Suu Kyi did not do right to the Rohingya people in Myanmar due to religious differences, but you are doing the same thing to the Shugden Buddhists within your own society. There is a parallel in this. You separate the Shugden Buddhists from the others in Tibetan society.

    You have lost so many people who would have loved and supported you. You have lost so much support around the world. The Shugden Buddhists who love you number in the millions. When you are fast losing support from governments and private people, it will not do you well to lose more.

    After you are passed away in the future, the rift you created between the Dorje Shugden and non-Dorje Shugden people will remain for a while and that will be your legacy. Disharmony. You will be remembered for this. Not as a hero but a disharmony creator.

    Dorje Shugden will spread and further grow, but you will be no more as you are a human. No one wishes you bad and in fact we hope you have a long and healthy life, but we have lost so much hope and have so much despair because of you. All the hundreds of Dorje Shugden lamas, tulkus and geshes are maturing and there are hundreds of Dorje Shugden monasteries in Tibet who will not give up Dorje Shugden. You have made a mistake. These hundreds of teachers and teachers to be will spread Dorje Shugden further in the future.

    The gurus that gave us Dorje Shugden as a spiritual practice and you have called these holy gurus wrong and they are mistaken in giving us Dorje Shugden. How can you insult our gurus whom we respect so much? If they can be wrong, then you can be wrong. Then all gurus can be wrong. So no one needs to listen to any guru? You have created this trend. It is not healthy. Your own gurus practiced Dorje Shugden their whole lives. Your own gurus were exemplary and highly learned.

    Dalai Lama you have created so much pain with this ban against so many people due to religion. You are ageing fast. Are you going to do anything about it or stay stubborn, hard and un-moving. You show a smile and preach peace and harmony wherever you go. But will you do the same to your own people? Please rectify the wrong you have done. Please before it is too late. You can create harmony again or you can pass away in the future with this legacy of peace. May you live long and think carefully and admit what was a mistake in having this unethical ban against Dorje Shugden religion.

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.…Instead of turning away people who practise Dorje Shugden, we should be kind to them. Give them logic and wisdom without fear, then in time they give up the ‘wrong’ practice. Actually Shugden practitioners are not doing anything wrong. But hypothetically, if they are, wouldn’t it be more Buddhistic to be accepting? So those who have views against Dorje Shugden should contemplate this. Those practicing Dorje Shugden should forbear with extreme patience, fortitude and keep your commitments. The time will come as predicted that Dorje Shugden’s practice and it’s terrific quick benefits will be embraced by the world and it will be a practice of many beings.

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