In just this year, five monks have torched themselves in protest at Kirti monastery, in the Aba district of China’s 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.
Although the Dalai Lama, for whom these lives were sacrificed, voiced opposition to an act of suicide years earlier, with 17 followers dead and counting, his present silence implies self-immolation is a commendable action.
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.
The Tibetan immolations fail to get across the message. In recent years, Chinese society has developed a phobia toward religious fanaticism, largely due to online images of an alleged Falun Gong member's self-immolation at Tiananmen Square, which the sect claims is a fake, promoting the stereotype of religious extremism as a form of psychosis." Instead of arousing compassion for their cause, human torching led to ostracism.
End of Boyhood
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? As told to me by an ethnic Tibetan detective in Aba county, a police raid on Kirti monastery in the wake of the 2008 riots resulted in the seizure of rifles, ammunition and a trove of pornographic DVDs. The community of 2,000 monks, as provincial officials discovered to their shock and dismay, had been tolerating the banned traditional practice of pedophilia.
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. Aggressive acts against minors have likely contributed to the depression and low self-esteem that allowed some youngsters to be manipulated into volunteering for suicide.
Morality and Law
Sichuan police officers and paramedics intervened in every immolation event, dousing the gasoline flames and rushing the patient to a hospital and later 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 Siddhartha Gautama, the historical Buddha, whose "middle way" opposed excessive asceticism and mortification of the flesh.
Buddhism subdivided into three major movements: Hinayana, based on the exemplary life of the Buddha; Mahayana, incorporating pre-Buddhist divinities and rites; and Vajrayana, practicing anti-dogmatic rituals. Tibetan Buddhism is a branch of Vajrayana, also called Tantrism, which emerged as a distinct school in the 8th century along the Silk Road.
Early Tantric practioners, who assailed the constrictive rules of orthodox Buddhism, pushed the boundaries with sexual rituals and marathon meditation for attainment of visions. In consecrations more literal than the Christian communion with bread and wine, Vajaryana devotees ingested morsels of flesh (hair and nails) and body fluids from their teachers to symbolize the transmission of teachings. These ritualized feasts were a faint echo from the pre-Buddhist past when divinities were appeased with burnt offerings of sacrificial victims.
Sacrifice of one's body by fire is, therefore, seen as the ultimate tribute to a higher cause. This sort of primitivist thinking puts extreme Tantrism and Gnosticism into the category of heresy against the rigorous logic and progressive outlook of original Buddhism and early Christianity.
The Buddha 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 Buddhist 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 Buddhist community, the Dalai Lama should therefore be teaching not why to die but how to live.
Yoichi Shimatsu, former associate editor with Pacific News Service, is a Hong Kong-based journalist who produced the video documentaries "Flight of the Karmapa" and "Prayer Flags." He has worked in the Aba Tibetan autonomous district in China’s Sichuan Province as an environmental consultant.
Ed. Note: An earlier version of this article left out reference to allegations disputing the authenticity of images involving the self-immolation of members of Falun Gong. The current version has been revised to offer a more accurate reflection of the issue.