China the Unbeautiful


The photo on the right is of the roof of Jokhang Temple in Lhasa, Tibet, founded by King Songtsan Gampo in 642. Atisha, the famous Buddhist master, taught there in the 11th century. The temple is considered the most sacred site in Tibetan Buddhism, a key destination for Buddhist pilgrims who journey to the capitol. Jokhang’s architectural style is a beautiful mix of Indian vihara, Chinese Tang Dynasty, and Nepalese designs. In 1966, during the Cultural revolution, thousands of Chinese youth attacked and sacked Jokhang and adjoining Ramoche temple. Thousands of Buddhist scriptures were looted and burned. But Jokhang survived.

Now, Chinese authorities are demolishing it.

I was alerted to this article by a post a reader of The Endless Further made on Reddit. The article states that “Chinese authorities are planning to destroy the ancient Buddhist capital of Lhasa, and replace it with a tourist city similar to Lijiang,” which was renamed “Shangri-La” to attract tourists.

It’s sad. It’s outrageous. And there’s not a damn thing anyone can do about it.

In Feburary, Phagmo Dhondup, a Tibetan man in his 20s, met a friend at a restaurant in eastern Tibet. He reportedly told this friend, “If Tibet does not get its freedom and independence, China will annihilate Tibetan culture and tradition.”

Should independence ever come, it will surely be too late for Lhasa.

Later that day Phagmo Dhondup drank a bottle and a half of kerosene, went to the ancient Jhakhyung Monastery, doused himself with the remaining kerosene and set himself on fire.

There are plenty of reasons to have a beef with China: its abysmal record on human rights; it’s unfair economic policies, including the currency manipulation, a major reason for our growing trade deficit with that nation which in turn has caused the U.S. to hemorrhage millions of jobs; the conservative stance on multilateral environmental processes; piracy of Western products and theft of intellectual property – the list goes on and on . . .

Both in governmental policy and in business, China acts as though it does not have to play by the same rules others do. One particularly egregious practice is the way Chinese web service companies bombard servers with their hyper-aggressive spiders, hitting websites with thousands of requests per second, eating precious resources such as bandwidth. This has become such a problem on this blog, that I have had to ban the entire country of China.

The U.S., too, at times has acted as though we could play by different rules, and we have plenty of human rights abuses in our past, but we have learned better. In the 21st century, there is no excuse for ethnic cleansing or the destruction of an entire culture.

How a country with such a beautiful heritage became so ugly is something I know there are answers for, but nonetheless it baffles me.

Let China sleep, for when she awakes, she will shake the world.”

Napoleon Bonaparte

Six decades ago, as Mao’s Communists seized power, the question in Washington was, ‘Who lost China?’ Now, as his capitalist descendants stand astride the world stage and Washington worries about decline, it seems to be, ‘Who lost America?'”

Eric Liu

Tibet’s recent history is that of a holocaust in which ideological conquest took the lives of 1.2 million Tibetans, one-sixth of the population; destroyed 6,250 monasteries, the repositories of 1,300 of higher Tibetan civilization; and decimated the forests and wildlife of a previously protected ecology the size of Western Europe.”

John Avedon, In Exile from the Land of Snows

Photo credit: Antoine Taveneaux


The Sacrifice of the Bodhisattva

Buddhist nun Palden Choetso
Buddhist nun Palden Choetso (d. Nov. 3, 2011)

This week two more Tibetans set themselves on fire in the cause for greater freedom and the return from exile of the Dalai Lama. 102 Tibetan monks, nuns and laypersons have set themselves on fire since 2009.

I support not only autonomy for the Tibetan region but independence from China. That, however, is not the subject of this post, just my simple statement of solidarity with the Tibetan people.

While some, the Chinese government, for instance, maintain that the self-immolations violate Buddhist principles, there is another side to that. In traditional Mahayana teachings, the sacrifice is a critical aspect of Bodhisattva path. The Bodhisattva engages in altruistic action with all the forces of body, speech and mind, and in the cause for the liberation of all living beings, there is nothing the Bodhisattva should hold back. A Bodhisattva does not acquire anything that “he would have not the heart to let go,” says the Narayana-pariprccha. That includes “his own hand, his foot, nose, head, limbs greater and lesser, son, daughter, wife, love, servant, mind, ease, house, wealth, country, treasure and all that is his,” according to the Bodhisattva-pratimoksha. The merit the Bodhisattva accrues because of altruistic action is up for grabs. Even one’s own body is but an offering to place on the altar of altruism.

Elsewhere in the Narayana-pariprccha, it says,

Even so the Bodhisattva must regard as medicine this his frame composed of the four great elements, and say, ‘Let all creatures take it of me as they require it, a hand, for such as need it, or a foot, for such as need it.”

In the Akshayamati Sutra, the Bodhisattva vows, “I must wear out even this my body for the behests of all creatures.” Because the Bodhisattva understands the impermanence of the body, it is not held dearly. The body is shared in any case, shared as we shared the air and the space around us, through interconnectedness. And yet, even though the body is non-essential, to be shared, “worn out,” renounced, the Bodhisattva is nonetheless enjoined to preserve the body, keeping it healthy and strong:

“O Sariputra, one must preserve one’s self when one intends to preserve others.”


The Akshayamati Sutra suggests that it is important for the Bodhisattva to keep the body free from disease, “out of regard for his fellows.” That’s an interesting thought, to maintain good health for the benefit of others.

Medicine King Bodhisattva
Medicine King Bodhisattva

There are a few stories about this extreme form of compassionate effort, such as the jataka tale of the Bodhisattva who made a sacrifice of his body to a hungry tigress. The Mahayana Nirvana Sutra tells of Himalaya Kumara or the Snow Mountains Boy who leaped into the mouth of a demon to receive a teaching composed of eight characters. There are self-immolations, as well, one being the Medicine King Bodhisattva who as an offering to the Buddha set his body on fire and burned for twelve hundred years.

But, these are myths, and as the Japanese priest, Nichiren once pointed out, “Such austere practices are for saints and sages, but not for ordinary people . . . Yet even common mortals can attain Buddhahood if they cherish one thing: earnest faith. In the deepest sense, earnest faith is the will to understand and live up to the spirit, not the words, of the sutras.”

Faith in this sense is not a matter of belief, but sincerity. For those who follow the Buddha way, more important than offerings of incense or money and the like, is the offering of our sincere efforts to live up to the spirit of the teachings. That means to practice kindness, to respect others, to take care of others, and to take care of ourselves.

Most of us, hopefully none of us, will ever find ourselves in a situation that would demand engaging in the ultimate selfless action of setting our body on fire, or any other sacrifice of that nature. Those living in Tibet, however, are living in the worst kind of nightmare.

Recently, Prof. Robert Thurman, in an article, “The Cry of Freedom,” wrote of the self-immolation of the Tibetan Buddhist nun Palden Choetso:

When you destroy your body, you violate your own life, the lives of what Buddhists call “the 84,000 cells” that constitute it. This does seem violent. Yet in this case, the individual sacrifices herself to appeal to her enemy, to convey the perhaps all-too-subliminal message that they have nothing to fear from her, that she will resist their relationship of fear and harm by removing herself from being the target of their ultimately self-destructive, evil behavior. That is true non-harming—perfect resistance by complete surrender.”

Thurman calls these extreme acts “a final appeal for a change in the iron hearts of their oppressors.”

Some critics of the self-immolations say the Tibet situation is not about Buddhism, it must be about politics or something. However, it seems they are missing one of the prime points of the teachings. The Bodhisattva-pratimoksha says, “in all business of life.” The Anantamukha-nirhdradhdrani, “Wherever conflicts arise amongst living creatures . . .” And the Lotus Sutra, “No affairs of life or work are in any way different from the ultimate reality.” It’s all about dharma. Everything.

How one reconciles these teachings on the sacrifice of the Bodhisattva with conflicting Buddhist teachings is an individual matter. My own feelings about the self-immolations are torn. I believe, for instance, that being outside the region, Tonden (David Alain), the British monk who set himself on fire at Nalanda monastery near Labastide-Saint-Georges, might have had more lasting impact and greater influence had he chosen another way to protest. As far as the Tibetans are concerned, they are inside the tyranny, I am not, and therefore I cannot judge them. All I can do is to support their cause in my own meager and ineffectual way.



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