Sunday afternoon two men set themselves on fire outside the historic Jokhang Temple in Lhasa, marking the first time that sort of extreme protest against Chinese repression has been enacted in the Tibetan Capitol.

When asked on a CNN program several weeks ago about the recent self-immolations, (there have been 34 in the past year), the Dalai Lama had this to say:

It seems – of course, it’s extremely sad, very sad. But this is not sort of the something new in China itself. I think in the cultural revolution, one important Chinese monastery — abbot himself burned.

And then Vietnam also you see it happen. And there are sort of cases there.

These are one way they believe non-violence. And then if things are desperate, then in sort of having other they simply to sacrifice their own life. So very sad. So now important thing is not solution that’s expressed, we are very sad. But we must think what’s caused of this so desperate situation.”

Thich Quang Duc photographed by Malcolm Browne

The image of Thich Quang Duc, a Vietnamese monk, burning himself to death on June 11, 1963 has become one of the iconic images of the last 50 years. Duc was protesting Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem and his Roman Catholic government’s persecution of Buddhists. After Duc, five more Buddhist monks self-immolated.

Zen teacher, Thich Nhat Hanh has always maintained that these acts were not suicide, saying “It was because of life that they acted, not because of death.”

In Vietnam, Duc is revered as a Bodhisattva, and he was inspired by the story of the Bodhisattva Medicine King in 23rd chapter of the Lotus Sutra:

Having made this offering, he arose from contemplation and reflected within himself, thus saying: ‘Though I by my supernatural power have paid homage to the Buddha, it is not as good as offering my body.’ Thereupon. . . in the presence of Buddha Sun Moon Brilliance [he] wrapped himself in a celestial precious garment, bathed in perfumed oil, and by his transcendent vow burned his own body. It’s brightness universally illuminated worlds fully numerous as the sands of eighty kotis of Ganges rivers . . . his body continued burning for twelve hundred years, after which his body came to an end.”*

I’ve always thought this story had more to do with the ideal of selflessness than it did with making offerings to the Buddha or the Lotus Sutra. I’m not sure what inspires people in Tibet to set themselves on fire, except as the Dalai Lama indicated, desperation.

Desperation is the raw material of drastic change. Only those who can leave behind everything they have ever believed in can hope to escape.

– William S. Burroughs

Every age yearns for a more beautiful world. The deeper the desperation and the depression about the confusing present, the more intense that yearning.

– Johan Huizinga

*Kato, Bruno, et al, The Threefold Lotus Sutra (New York-Tokyo: Weatherhill/Kosei, 1982), 304-305


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.