The Bodhisattva and Those Who Burned: On Self-Immolation and the Silence of the Dalai Lama

On December 4th of last year, Kunchok Tseten made his final decision. Leaving behind his wife and two children, ages three and four, Tseten strode to the center of the Meruma township in Sichuan Province, China. Wearing cotton sheets held fast by metal wires, Tseten lit a match and set himself ablaze. As he burned, his thirty years of life coming to a violent end, he said some last words. He called for Tibetans to return to Tibet, and for the Dalai Lama to return as well.[1] He wished the Dalai Lama a long life and finally collapsed to the ground, hands still folded in prayer.[2]

With hardly a moment’s pause, Chinese authorities swarmed in, intent on removing the body as quickly as possible. For an hour, the people of Meruma held them off, refusing to allow the evidence of Tseten’s act of protest to be spirited away.[3] As finally the authorities did succeed, Tseten was never seen again. His wife and other relatives were held in custody as the Chinese authorities tried to stop the news from spreading.[4]

This attempted cover-up is unsurprising given the onslaught of self-immolations that has struck Tibet and the Chinese provinces that surround it. Kunchok Tseten is one of 133 Tibetans who have set themselves on fire since 2009.[5] These individuals have been monks and nuns, teenagers and adults, men and women. They have acted in front of crowds and in total solitude. What they share is a condemnation of the Chinese government and a plea for the Dalai Lama to return to Tibet.

For centuries, the Dalai Lamas have acted as moral centerf Tibetan life, exerting not just religious authority but immense political and social sway. The Fourteenth Dalai Lama is no exception; in some ways, his half-century of exile has magnified that authority, especially on the international stage. Yet, contrary to the Dalai Lama’s usual willingness to issue moralizing statements (on everything from gay marriage[6] to disarmament[7]), he has been relatively silent on the surge of self-immolations. When he does speak, he takes care to avoid absolute terms. Despite public pressure to call for an immediate end to the immolations, the Dalai Lama has not yet spoken out. Why? I argue that the Dalai Lama has not taken a clear stance because, while the immolators are calling for his return, the immolations are not directed at him. Instead, they serve two goals: sacrificing one’s life for a higher cause and condemning the repression of the Chinese state. The Dalai Lama, for once, is not at the center of this drama.

In May of 2012, the Dalai Lama traveled to London to receive the £1,100,000 Templeton Prize, awarded annually to a living person who “has made an exceptional contribution to affirming life’s spiritual dimension, whether through insight, discovery, or practical works.”[8] In the question and answer period, an audience member posed the following question: “All over Tibetan areas, Tibetans have been setting fire to themselves in protest of Chinese rule. Can you tell us whether you think that they should stop this now or should they continue?”

The Dalai Lama responded, “I think that is quite a sensitive political issue. I think my answer should be zero.”

“You have no message for them? Your people?” the audience member asked, physically taken aback by his non-response.

The Dalai Lama continued to deflect the inquiry, pointing out that he had ceded all political authority. “No answer,” he concluded.[9]

A search for “self-immolation” on yields zero results.[10] In a few cases, the Dalai Lama has been slightly more forthcoming about his opinion. In 2012, he told The Hindu, “The reality is that if I say something positive, then the Chinese immediately blame me. If I say something negative, then the family members of those people feel very sad.”[11]

Some commentators, particularly those in the west, believe that the Dalai Lama’s options are more black and white. Stephen Prothero, a professor of religion at Boston University, argued that one word from the Dalai Lama would end the immolations and his current silence means that “[the immolators’] blood is on his hands.”[12] “The bad karma the Dalai Lama is accruing here extends far beyond Tibet and these particular protesters,” Prothero wrote.

Yet, Prothero’s argument misses essential context for self-immolation in the Buddhist tradition—which is unsurprising, given his expertise in American religion. Self-immolation has played an important role particularly in Chinese Buddhism, which held that those who set themselves aflame participated in auto-cremation, according to James Benn, Associate Professor of Buddhism and East Asian Religions at McMaster University in Ontario. Auto-cremation—self-sacrifice by starvation, burning off appendages, and even feeding oneself to wild animals—was seen as a “path to bodily awakening.”[13] In the Lotus Sutra, the bodhisattva Medicine King burned his body in homage to the Buddha. The volumes of biographies of eminent monks praised those who immolated themselves with good intentions.[14] Bodhisattvas who self-immolated were promised that after becoming buddhas, they would “be extremely large, live a long life, and possess a marvelously radiant body.”[15]

While as Prothero insinuates, killing is considered antithetical to the teachings of the Buddha, it was understood that the auto-cremators’ intentions made their actions acceptable, even holy. The self-immolators “were understood to be acting not only for themselves but also for the good of others.”[16]

However, the Tibetan Buddhist plight in the twenty-first century is not perfectly analogous to that of medieval Chinese Buddhists. Benn noted that self-immolation was “relatively-common” historically in Chinese Buddhism—so much so that “it was not considered a marginal or deviant act.”[17] In contrast, immolations have been rare in recent history; there were just ten recorded self-immolations in China between 1963 and 2002.[18] Furthermore, today’s immolations are deviant by nature, conducted by people who feel irreversibly marginalized. The Tibetan and medieval Chinese Buddhist immolations are similar in this way and in their motivation: a belief that they act for the good of others. For the modern immolators, that good is the opportunity to draw international attention to the struggle for personal and religious freedom in Tibet.

It should be noted that Tibetan Buddhism has been shaped by influences outside of the Chinese tradition—especially those of India. There, immolation has a different history. Stories of people setting themselves on fire for religious purposes were placed in the realm of myth, considered “more or less imaginative hyperbole, not to be taken literally and certainly not to be imitated.”[19] The twentieth century rarity of self-immolation (echoing Indian precedent) and its twenty-first century resurgence (echoing Chinese precedent) can perhaps serve as a metaphorical example of how Tibetan Buddhism has drawn from a mixture of East Asian traditions.

Buddhist self-immolation as a form of political protest has its own precedent, particularly as a condemnation of the conditions in war-era Vietnam. This era’s first and most celebrated figure is Thich Quang Duc, a monk who self-immolated on June 11th, 1963. His act was in protest of Ngo Dinh Diem, the President of South Vietnam, and his repression of Buddhism.[20] Duc’s story serves as a parallel to the Tibetan outcry for religious freedom. Four years later, a young Vietnamese woman named Nhat Chi Mai self-immolated outside of a nunnery in protest of the war, following in Duc’s footsteps.[21] Mai and Duc’s contemporaries embraced their deviant acts. When Duc lit the match, the other monks stood back. “Some press their hands together, palm to palm, as they witness a holy event, their faces expressing anguish and grief,” Sally King, a professor of philosophy and religion at James Madison University, wrote.[22] “Certainly no one is intervening; on the contrary, the circle of monks and nuns is a barrier against intervention.” In a similar vein, Mai’s family and friends viewed her act as a noble sacrifice. In the words of one of her colleagues, “Her sacrifice had indeed moved the hearts of many people and caused the peace movement to swell like waves in a storm.”[23] Before she died, she wrote a letter to Lyndon B. Johnson’s government stating, in part:

I offer my body as a torch

to dissipate the dark

to waken love among men

to give peace to Vietnam

the one who burns herself for peace.[24]

Like the Chinese and Vietnamese self-immolators of the distant and recent past, the Tibetans are viewed with the type of reverence reserved for those who die heroically. Kevin Carrico, a Cornell University graduate student of anthropology, provided an apt example in translating content from a blog run by Woeser, a Tibetan writer and activist living in Beijing. A young Tibetan commenter wrote the following on the blog in response to the immolations:

I am recording the names, backgrounds, and achievements of each of these compatriots in my diary, as well as deep within my memory. I want to remember the names of these heroic sons and daughters of our nationality. I want to light a lamp and recite mantras for them, as an expression of my deepest reverence and respect.[25]

How could the Dalai Lama condemn the immolators given this deeply emotional praise? The comment also demonstrates another point: The Dalai Lama is not necessarily the ‘audience’ for the immolations. The definition of immolation is “to offer in sacrifice.”[26] Those for whom these sacrifices are made – fellow Tibetans living under repression – accept them, and in many cases, facilitate their success.

The Chinese state is the other “audience” of the self-immolations. Tibetan Buddhists are not alone in using immolation as a means of protesting against the state when official channels for expressing discontent are sealed off. Between 2009 and 2011, 41 Chinese men and women set fire to themselves in protest of the government’s policy of forced eviction as a tool for fostering urbanization. As Amnesty International noted in its 2012 report, “The problem of forced evictions represents the single most significant source of popular discontent in China.”[27] The story of He Mengqing makes another compelling parallel to the Tibetan unrest. In 2013, Mengqing, a rice farmer, received an offer of $33,000 from the government for his land, which would then be developed into factories and apartment buildings.[28] He believed that this offer was deeply unjust. After his demand for $600,000 in compensation was rejected, government officials arrived at his home, prying open the locked door with a crowbar.[29] He then “poured gasoline over his head, opened a tank of cooking gas and lit himself on fire.”[30] According to his sister-in-law, Mengqing believed that he “had run out of options.”[31]

The same is true of the forty other Chinese men and women who were driven to fire as the solution to their problems. In May 2013, Zhou Lijun of Hunan Province self-immolated to protest the demolition of her home. As in the case of Kunchok Tseten, the Chinese authorities attempted to impose a media blackout. The city government in Chenzhou, Zhou’s hometown, blocked the news and ensured that the gruesome photos did not circulate online.[32] That same year, authorities told Zheng Guocun, owner of an animal feed store in Heilongjiang Province, that his shop would be demolished to make way for a new apartment block. After refusing a government compensation package for the store, which also doubled as his home, “hired thugs” arrived to force an eviction.[33] They beat him so badly that he was hospitalized. Two weeks later, he set himself aflame near city hall, literally banging his head against the building before collapsing to the ground.[34] Self-immolation is often political, but in this case, it was viscerally so.

Like the Tibetans, these Chinese targets of government evictions lacked legal protection and safeguards.[35] Both groups reacted to bureaucratic roadblocks using a dramatic tactic. The cases of the Tibetans and the Chinese differ, however, in how the government has responded to the immolations. Whereas the Tibetan self-immolators have been dismissed as mentally ill, emotionally vulnerable, epileptics, terrorists,[36] or foolish tools of the Dalai Lama,[37] the Chinese self-immolators have garnered more sympathy. When he was Premier, Wen Jiabao and other high level officials “publicly acknowledged the gravity of the situation” and pledged reform.[38] The state instituted guidelines outlawing violence in urban evictions and approved new recourses such as public hearings and opportunities to file complaints.[39] The Chinese state has not accommodated the Tibetans with such reform.

The Chinese dismissal of the Tibetan self-immolators demonstrates the state’s disregard for their basic needs. Tibet faces a wide range of social and economic problems, including uneven development and high levels of illiteracy.[40] The Tibetans lag behind the Chinese in metrics like life expectancy, health outcomes, and education.[41] In response to the government’s chronic disregard for their wellbeing, the Tibetans continue to use self-immolation to gain the attention of the world. Morrison writes that the immolations are “acts of extreme violence that seek to delegitimize the state by subverting its monopoly on legitimate violence, demonstrating that the state neither cares for them in life, nor has the power to prevent or influence their death.”[42] The Chinese government has more incentive to address the grievances of the Chinese farmers because their attempts at de-legitimization pose a greater threat to stability. The general Chinese public sees the grievances of the Han majority as more credible and thus more deserving of a concerned response. This dynamic has developed because the Chinese state has worked tirelessly over the past fifty years to undermine the Tibetans, depicting them as fools and troublemakers. For example, during the spring 2008 uprising preceding the Beijing Olympics, the Chinese press accused the protesting Tibetans of “smashing, beating, looting, burning” and “rising up” against the Han.[43] This type of portrayal reduces the Tibetans to caricatures. Their grievances, then, are also minimized—a contributing factor to the Tibetans’ marginalization. Following the 2008 protests, the state placed a renewed emphasis on patriotic education and surveillance of monasteries in Tibet, creating a feeling of ever-tightening control.[44] Members of the Chinese public are either ignorant of this state-sponsored marginalization, or simply choose to turn a blind eye.

Unlike the Chinese state, the Dalai Lama “has the power to prevent or influence [the immolators’] death[s].”[45] But since the 1959 invasion, he has also had a stake in undermining Chinese state oppression. Given that, how should he weigh the importance of saving Tibetan lives with the fact that immolations are the most visceral demonstrations of the state’s indifference? At the risk of casting this ‘simple Buddhist monk’ as a Machiavellian figure, one could argue that the immolations further the Tibetan cause in ways that visits to the White House, five point treatises, college commencement speeches, and award ceremonies in London cannot.

This past May, two years after his non-response at the Templeton Prize Ceremony, someone asked the Dalai Lama a similar question on self-immolation while he was in Norway to celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of his Nobel Prize. Were the Tibetans wrong to protest by lighting themselves aflame? “If such a drastic action takes place with full anger, then negative,” the Dalai Lama responded. “But more compassionate, more calm mind, then sometimes maybe less negative.”[46] This is hardly a ringing endorsement of the self-immolations, but it is a stronger statement than, “I think my answer should be zero.” Why the shift? Like the eminent monks before him, the Dalai Lama acknowledges that motivation is key to the self-immolation story. In emphasizing compassion, he links the twenty-first century self-immolators to those exalted by the Buddhist tradition. Additionally, and perhaps unintentionally, he links them to the Vietnamese protestors whose compassion came into sharp relief next to the horrors of war.

That being said, one could argue that the Dalai Lama’s response is too timid. Given the discrimination, degradation, and decades of disappointment the Tibetans have experienced, isn’t rage the most logical response? His people have seen the Chinese state take so much away from them—can they not keep their anger? Aside from the religion’s basis in compassion, the Dalai Lama’s discouragement of anger among Tibetans serves multiple purposes. Anger breeds unrest and unrest breeds instability. Too much Tibetan rage could provoke a violent response from the Chinese state and further degrade quality of life. Plus, compassionate and calm protestors are more likely to retain international support than angry and abrasive ones. Those in the West are accustomed to thinking of Tibet as Shangri-La and the Tibetans as a long-suffering yet graceful people. That image is useful, particularly as China’s economic rise magnifies its political influence. (Note that senior officials in the Norwegian government did not bother to meet with the Dalai Lama out of respect for China,[47] which still portrays him as “a wolf in a monk’s robe.”[48] The Dalai Lama must use his, and the Tibetans’, compassionate reputation as his main source of leverage over China.

Setting aside this speculation on his internal thought process, it should be noted that the Dalai Lama plays a minor role in the immolation story. Foremost are the actors themselves, who choose to make this ultimate sacrifice for their own reasons. Call them devout or desperate or defiant or some combination of the three, but they all have agency in making their final choice. When commentators like Stephen Prothero label the immolations as crimes or sources of bad karma, they play into the hands of the Chinese state in dismissing that agency, in reducing the Tibetans to caricatures. The same is true of commentators who label the immolators solely as victims. True, they are victims of repressive rule, but they are also independent actors crafting their own destiny. When Thich Quang Duc immolated himself back in 1963, the monks invited a reporter from The New York Times to come, knowing that the attention of the international press would amplify their voices.[49] Immolation is not just tragedy; it is also strategy. Undoubtedly, the best-case scenario would be for the Tibetans to find freedom and happiness and live long lives in their homeland, but given the reality of the current situation, the Dalai Lama is hard pressed to condemn their choices. His silence cedes the spotlight to the immolators themselves, so their outcry can be heard clearly around the world.

Azeezat Adeleke (’17) is a Political Science major in Berkeley College.


Works Cited

Benn, James. “Burning for the Buddha.” Tricycle: The Buddhist Review 23:2 (2013): 55-57.

Carrico, Kevin. “Self-Immolation and Slander.” Fieldsights – Hot Spots. Cultural Anthropology Online, April 8, 2012. Accessed April 15, 2014. <>.

Greene, Richard Allen.”Dalai Lama Ducks Question on Monk Self-immolations.”, May 14, 2012. Accessed April 23, 2014. <>.

Gyatso, Tenzin. “Disarmament for World Peace.”, January 1, 2010. Accessed April 22, 2014. <>.

International Campaign for Tibet, “Tibetan Father of Two Sets Fire to Himself in Ngaba,” SaveTibetorg, December 3, 2013, accessed April 20, 2014, <>.

King, Sallie B. “They Who Burned Themselves For Peace: Quaker And Buddhist Self-Immolators During The Vietnam War.” Buddhist-Christian Studies 20 (2000): 127-50.

Krishnan, Ananth. “Dalai Lama Speaks of Dilemma on Spreading Self-immolations.” July 9, 2012. Accessed April 17, 2014. <>.

Langfitt, Frank. “Desperate Chinese Villagers Turn To Self-Immolation,” National Public Radio, October 23, 2013. Accessed April 22, 2014. <>.

Lutz, Jaime. “Dalai Lama Says He Supports Gay Marriage.” ABC News, March 8, 2014. Accessed April 23, 2014. <>.

Morrison, Chas. “Tibetan Self-Immolation as Protest Against Chinese State Repression.” In Conflict, Violence, Terrorism, and Their Prevention, J.M. Ramirez, C. Morrison, and A.J. Kendall, ed. (Cambridge: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2014).

Prothero, Stephen. “My Take: Dalai Lama Should Condemn Tibetan Self-immolations.” CNN Belief Blog. July 12, 2012. Accessed April 16, 2014. <>.

“Search Results: Your Search Returned No Results.”, April 29, 2014. Accessed April 29, 2014. <>.

“Self-immolations by Tibetans – International Campaign for Tibet,” International Campaign for Tibet, April 16, 2014. Accessed April 17, 2014. <>.

“Situation in Meruma Tense after Latest Self Immolation Protest,” Phayul, December 9, 2013. Accessed April 20, 2014. <>.

“Standing Their Ground: Thousands Face Violent Eviction in China.” Amnesty International. January 1. 2012. Accessed April 19, 2014. <>.

Templeton Foundation. “Templeton Prize – Purpose.” last modified November 6, 2014. <>.

Tsering Shakya. “Self-Immolation: The Changing Language of Protest in Tibet.” Review D’Etudes Tibétaines 25 (2012): 23.

“† immolate, adj.,” OED Online, September 2014. Accessed April 15, 2014. <>.

Gladstone, Rick, and Henrik Libell. “Dalai Lama Urges Outside Inquiry Into Spate of Self-Immolations Among Tibetans,” The New York Times, May 9, 2014. Accessed October 29, 2014. <>.

Ching-Ching Ni. “China Steps up Criticism of Dalai Lama over Tibet.” Los Angeles Times, March 20, 2008. Accessed October 29, 2014. <>.

Taylor, Mark Lewis. “Review: Oriental Monk as Popular Icon: On the Power of U.S. Orientalism.” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 79, no. 3 (2011): 735-46.


[1] “Situation in Meruma Tense after Latest Self Immolation Protest,” Phayul, December 9, 2013, accessed April 20, 2014, <>.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] International Campaign for Tibet, “Tibetan Father of Two Sets Fire to Himself in Ngaba,” SaveTibetorg, December 3, 2013, accessed April 20, 2014, <>.

[5] “Self-immolations by Tibetans – International Campaign for Tibet,” International Campaign for Tibet, April 16, 2014, accessed April 17, 2014, <>.

[6] Jaime Lutz, “Dalai Lama Says He Supports Gay Marriage,” ABC News, March 8, 2014, accessed April 23, 2014, <>.

[7] Tenzin Gyatso, “Disarmament for World Peace,”, January 1, 2010, accessed April 22, 2014, <>.

[8] Templeton Foundation, “Templeton Prize – Purpose,” last modified November 6, 2014, <>.

[9] Richard Allen Greene, “Dalai Lama Ducks Question on Monk Self-immolations,”, May 14, 2012, accessed April 23, 2014, <>.

[10] “Search Results: Your Search Returned No Results,”, April 29, 2014, accessed April 29, 2014, <>.

[11] Ananth Krishnan, “Dalai Lama Speaks of Dilemma on Spreading Self-immolations,”, July 9, 2012, accessed April 17, 2014, <>.

[12] Stephen Prothero, “My Take: Dalai Lama Should Condemn Tibetan Self-immolations,” CNN Belief Blog, July 12, 2012, accessed April 16, 2014. <>.

[13] James Benn, “Burning for the Buddha,” Tricycle: The Buddhist Review 23:2 (2013): 55-57.

[14] Sallie B. King, “They Who Burned Themselves For Peace: Quaker And Buddhist Self-Immolators During The Vietnam War,” Buddhist-Christian Studies 20 (2000): 127-50.

[15] Benn, “Burning for the Buddha,” 57.

[16] Ibid., 106.

[17] Ibid., 55.

[18] “Standing Their Ground: Thousands Face Violent Eviction in China,” Amnesty International, January 1, 2012, accessed April 19, 2014, <>.

[19] King, “They Who Burned Themselves for Peace,” 133.

[20] Ibid., 127-128.

[21] Ibid.

[22] Ibid., 134

[23] Ibid., 137

[24] Ibid., 126

[25] Kevin Carrico, “Self-Immolation and Slander,” Fieldsights – Hot Spots, Cultural Anthropology Online, April 8, 2012, accessed April 15, 2014, <>.

[26] “† immolate, adj.,” OED Online, September 2014, Oxford University Press, accessed April 15, 2014, <>.

[27] Amnesty International, “Standing Their Ground,” 4.

[28] Frank Langfitt, “Desperate Chinese Villagers Turn To Self-Immolation,” National Public Radio, October 23, 2013, accessed April 22, 2014, <>.

[29] Ibid.

[30] Ibid.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Langfitt, “Desperate Chinese Villagers Turn to Self-Immolation.”

[33] Ibid.

[34] Ibid.

[35] Amnesty International, “Standing Their Ground,” 4.

[36] Chas Morrison, “Tibetan Self-Immolation as Protest Against Chinese State Repression,” in Conflict, Violence, Terrorism, and Their Prevention, ed. J.M. Ramirez, C. Morrison, and A.J. Kendall (Cambridge: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2014), 85.

[37] Morrison, “Tibetan Self–Immolation,” 95.

[38] Amnesty International, “Standing Their Ground,” 4.

[39] Amnesty International, “Standing Their Ground,” 4.

[40] Tsering Shakya, “Self-Immolation: The Changing Language of Protest in Tibet,” Review D’Etudes Tibétaines 25 (2012): 23.

[41] Ibid.

[42] Morrison, “Tibetan Self–Immolation,” 85.

[43] Kevin Carrico, “Chinese State Media Representations,” Fieldsights – Hot Spots, Cultural Anthropology Online, April 8, 2012, accessed April 20, 2014, <>.

[44] Shakya, “The Changing Language of Protest,” 34.

[45] Morrison, “Tibetan Self–Immolation,” 85.

[46] Rick Gladstone and Henrik Libell, “Dalai Lama Urges Outside Inquiry Into Spate of Self-Immolations Among Tibetans,” The New York Times, May 9, 2014, accessed October 29, 2014, <>.

[47] Gladstone and Libell, “Dalai Lama Urges Outside Inquiry.”

[48] Ching-Ching Ni, “China Steps up Criticism of Dalai Lama over Tibet,” Los Angeles Times, March 20, 2008, accessed October 29, 2014, <>.

[49] Mark Lewis Taylor, “Review: Oriental Monk as Popular Icon: On the Power of U.S. Orientalism,” Journal of the American Academy of Religion 79, no. 3 (2011): 735-46.