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Tibetan suicide protests violate Buddhist morality

October 12, 2011

Yoichi Shimatsu | 12:01 BeiJing Time,Sunday, October 9, 2011

In just this year, seven monks have torched themselves in protest of restrictions at Kirti monastery, in the Aba district of Sichuan Province. Prior to self-immolation, each monk called for Chinese authorities to permit the homecoming of the 14th Dalai Lama. The burnings follow upon earlier suicides by a dozen monks and a nun.
The Dalai Lama, for whom these lives were sacrificed, has never clarified his position on the morality of suicide as a tactic. With at least 16 followers killed by their own hands and counting, his silence implies that self-immolation is a commendable act.
All religious movements have martyrs who died at the hands of an intolerant foe rather than betray their faith. Deliberate self-sacrifice in religious warfare, as practiced by Muslim suicide bombers, is controversial and opposed by more rationalistic preachers. In totally different circumstances of peace and prosperity on the Tibetan Plateau, the resort to self-immolation raises hard questions about Buddhist attitudes toward suicide.
The infrequent suicidal protests in modern China and Vietnam have been solitary actions and not a policy of Buddhist sects. The most famous incident, broadcast worldwide over television, was the self-torching of 66-year-old Vietnamese monk Thich Quang Duc to confront persecution by the Catholic-run government of South Vietnam. His suicide in 1963 prompted President Ngo Dinh Diem to personal remorse, even if it did not lead to the desired reform. It did trigger the Kennedy White House to launch a military coup against Diem, a step that expanded the war resulting in even more deaths of innocent civilians.
Early End of Boyhood
The Tibetan immolations fail to get across the message. In recent years, Chinese society developed a phobia toward religious fanaticism, largely due to gruesome online images from the outlawed Falun Gong sect, which reinforce the stereotype of religious zealotry as psychosis. Instead of arousing compassion for a cause, human torching has led to ostracism.
A troubling question concerns the age of the suicide victims- all young, some still teenagers, rather than elderly men past the prime of life. With Tibet prospering and monks having the chance to study in India, why would anyone so young throw away a promising future? One answer, based on my travels to many Tibetan monasteries throughout the Himalayas, is the low self-esteem among many young monks is due to the widespread vice of sexual abuse, which for some boys starts before they are teenagers. Aggressive acts against minors contribute to the depression that allows some youngsters to be manipulated into volunteering for suicide.
Tibetan families tend to nervously laugh off the molestation issue since monasteries are respected institutions. The psychological effects of sexual abuse under a monastic seniority system are undoubtedly similar to the lifelong trauma experienced by some victims of the Catholic priesthood. In some cases, the personal shame leads to suicide.
Relation of Mind and Body
Sichuan police officers and paramedics intervened in every immolation event, dousing the gasoline flames and rushing the patient to a hospital and, in most cases, to a morgue. In this year’s first case, the police arrested three older monks who had encouraged a novice to suicide. If found guilty for prompting the victim’s death, they will be sentenced for murder.
The ethical argument for the state  to intervene against religion-sanctioned suicide, which is today universally upheld, was first formulated by Augustine, the bishop of Hippo in 4th century North Africa. As social pessimism gripped the collapsing Roman empire, the Catholic theologian criticized rival Gnostic bishops for urging suicide as a release from the material world, which in their cosmology is a prison confining the free soul. Augustine, an advocate of separation of religion and state, nevertheless called on the Roman governor to arrest the offending prelates since the suicides were not actually voluntary and therefore unlawful.
Augustine, whose reasoned arguments were later twisted by the medieval church for repressive purposes, explained that spiritual experience requires the care and maintenance of the body. A similar doctrine of reasonableness toward biological necessity was developed a millennium earlier by Saka Siddhartha, the historical Buddha, whose “middle way” opposed excessive asceticism and mortification of the flesh.
The relation between the mind and body has been a central issue for Buddhism and Christianity. Both world religions have opposed heretical sects that advocate the anti-materialist theory that the human body is a mere figment of the imagination. Though it can conceive of ideas far beyond immediate physical reality, the mind is made possible by the body – at least in this life.
State Should Intervene
There has been an unfortunate tendency among some practitioners of the Vajaryana tradition of Tibetan Buddhism to venture far beyond the bounds of reason. Some monks have violated the last rites to justify murder and to absolve the assailants of karmic sin, as was done in the 2008 riots. The notion that self-immolation is a sacrifice for a higher cause is rooted in pre-Buddhist rituals of burnt offerings to the deities of sacrificial victims. In the modern age of men, and not of  ancient gods, the immolation of humans is an intolerably cruel crime.
These socially objectionable and unlawful hidden practices, especially the sexual abuse of boys, provoked the modernizing government in Japan’s early Meiji era to ban Tantric Buddhist sects. Their temples were confiscated and turned over to Zen and reformed Buddhist groups, which forbade sex with minors and encouraged priests to be married. Eventually, after the Vajrayana teachers agreed to reject anti-social practices, the much-reduced Tantric schools were allowed to reclaim their major temples. If Buddhism is to survive under the moral norms of a modern society, it must reform – either voluntarily or under state power.
The Dalai Lama’s recent outburst against government pressure for reform is an arrogant attempt, reminiscent of the Vatican’s pedophile issue, to protect lecherous old men in robes. Instead, he should be cooperating with the Panchen Lama to enact sweeping reforms in his Gelugpa sect for well-being and peace of mind among Tibetans and other Buddhists.
The historic Buddha Shaka opposed suicide, considering it a self-deceptive escape from the human condition of suffering and therefore undeserving of karmic merit. In only two rare cases did he exonerate – but not endorse – euthanasia by monks who were physically incapable of caring for themselves due to chronic illness and advanced age.
The Buddha’s Eight-fold Path explains that a troubled world can be positively influenced only through clarity of mind, considerate behavior and ethical relationships.Suicide is off the moral map, since it leads nowhere but back to suffering by others. To young Tibetans and the larger community, Buddhist leaders should therefore be teaching not why to die but how to live. If the Dalai Lama refuses to order his demented supporters at Kirti to stop the torching, then he personally carries the moral burden of a criminal plot to kill boys and young men and that calls into question whether he deserves any respect at all.
Yoichi Shimatsu who is presently Editor-at-large at the 4th Media produced the video documentary “Flight of the Karmapa”.  He has worked in the Aba Tibetan autonomous district in Sichuan Province as an environmental consultant. A version of this commentary for overseas readers was first posted at


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