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"As long as human rights are violated, there can be no foundation for peace. How can peace grow where speaking the truth is itself a crime?"

Self-immolation first started in China

November 2, 2011

-Tenzin Tsundue
Hindustan Times, 26 November, 2011
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Tibetan Buddhist monk Phuntsok was known among his friends as a quiet and shy novice until one afternoon he marched into the street, soaked in kerosene, and set himself ablaze. Police rushed towards him, beat him to the ground with iron rods and doused the flames. By then the 20-year-old had already been consumed by fire.

This was March 16 in Amdo Ngaba, Eastern Tibet, the third anniversary of the 2008 Tibet Uprising and the killing of 9 in the region bordering China that year. Today, the populace is controlled by armed police 24X7. The relationship between the State and Tibetans is that of fear and suspicion.

Beijing’s armed riot police, the People’s Armed Police (PAP), tried to remove Phuntsok’s charred body – to conceal evidence. Monks, nuns, nomads and farmers immediately formed a formidable wall of a thousand threatened souls. Calling in reinforcements, by evening the PAP laid siege to Ngaba Kirti Monastery – Phuntsok’s alma mater. This 130 years old monastery, with 2,500 monks, is one of the most influential centres of Buddhist learning in Eastern Tibet. It is here that the most recent trend of self-immolation started. The latest and the eleventh in the series was that of Ven. Dawa Tsering, 38, 26th October. Posters on the wall warn: “more coming if the situation persists”.

Protest by self-immolation was made iconic by Malcom Browne’s 1963 black-and-white image of a monk in flames during the Vietnam War. Thich Quang Duc, 66, was protesting the anti-Buddhist regime of South Vietnam’s President, Ngo Dihn Diem. His immolation made history and was quickly emulated by many who later burnt themselves to protest America’s war against Communist North Vietnam. At this time protest by self-immolation was exercised by Catholics, Zen Buddhists and Quakers in America. India annually registers about 1,500 self-immolations, but no one here forgets the flaming protest over the Mandal Commission by Rajiv Goswami on September 19, 1990.

And then, this year a poor vegetable vendor in Tunisia was slapped and humiliated by a municipal official. When the governor refused to see him he warned: “If you don’t see me, I’ll burn myself”. The next day, Bouazizi doused himself with gasoline and lit a match. This ignited an anti-government demonstration which spread like wildfire throughout the Middle East. The President was toppled after 23 years in power, leading to other dictators getting thrown out or killed – like Colonel Gaddafi last week.

Bouazizi’s act of self-immolation inspired a trend across North Africa. The scent of the Jasmine Revolution is still wafting across the sands of the Arab world. But who remembers that the first Buddhist self-immolation by a monk happened in China way back in 397 AD?

India-educated, Canada-based Chinese historian Jan Yun-hua, in his essay “Buddhist Self-immolation in Medieval China”1, quotes two Chinese biographers from the 5th and 10th centuries. Prof Jan records more than 50 monks attempting – or committing – self-immolation. The concept of wang-shen or yi-shen – literally meaning “abandon or lose the body” – was inspired mostly by the Buddhist Lotus Sutra text imported from India. It relates the story of Bhaisajyaraja, who achieved bodhisattva-hood by setting himself on fire; it’s believed that, due to his deep devotion, the fire destroying his body lasted for 1,200 years.

What was only a theoretical act in India, for devout Chinese Buddhists became a literal tradition of the bravest. Then in 570 AD, to protest against anti-Buddhist Emperor Wu of the Northern Chou Dynasty (557-81), monk Tao-Chi and seven friends starved themselves to death in today’s Sichuan Province. All these cases of monk self-immolations and hunger strikes-unto-death happened in China long before Buddhism reached Tibet from India in the 7th century AD.

Last week, Beijing’s Foreign Ministry spokeswoman was labelling the Tibetans desperate calls for freedom as acts of “terrorism in disguise”. Sadly, Mao’s Cultural Revolution rooted-out Buddhism in China. Today’s youngsters in the biggest Buddhist nation (with 450 million practitioners) have to seek Buddhist teachings elsewhere – mostly in Tibet; some even come to Dharamsala. The all-powerful Communist Party is paranoid about religion – whether Buddhist, Catholic or even Falun Gong. But there’s an aching hunger for spirituality in today’s PRC.

For a Buddhist, taking life – both by murder or suicide – is forbidden. Therefore, taking one’s own life amounts to destroying the most sacred life of a human, a life of conscience. Commenting on Thich Quang Duc’s self-immolation, the world-renowned Buddhist master, Thich Nhat Hanh, said: “Like the crucifixion of Jesus, his act expressed the unconditional willingness to suffer for the awakening of others.”2

-Tenzin Tsundue is a Tibetan writer and activist

1 – History of Religions, Vol. 4, 1965 University of Chicago Press
2 – A Review of Socially Engaged Buddhism for the New Millennium, edited by Pipob Udomittipong and Chris Walker

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