Sunday, October 7, 2012

A Burning Issue?



Why would anyone want to kill themselves by setting themselves on fire? It must be a horribly slow and hideously painful way to die. Surviving the ordeal would actually worse than dying from it. Nonetheless, people have resorted to self-immolation even in recent history.  I still remember when Jan Palach did it in 1969, and when I was in Prague in 1998 I accidently  came across the memorial on the very spot where he made his sacrifice. The most famous self-immolator in modern times was the Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc. Because the journalist Michael Brown was able to film the whole event and it was flashed around the world it led directly to the fall of the oppressive Diem regime in South Vietnam. 
In the last 12 months more than 50 Tibetans have set themselves on fire. What on earth would compel someone to take this drastic step? Are they lunatics, raving fanatics or pyrotechnic equivalents of  suicide bombers? Are they justified in doing such a thing? Have a look at this balanced and informative explanation of the Tibetan phenomena. 

7 comments:

Gui Do said...

In the case of the Vietnamese monk there is suspicion that he was drugged and prepared by the Communists to serve their strategy, and they obviously succeeded (in weakening support for the US government, e.g.). One has to understand the working of the Western, Christian mind and conscience to imply such methods. For sure, the Vietcong were masterminds in that kind of warfare, as I became convinced when crawling through the remains of their (Cu chi) tunnels once.

Han Keat Lim said...

Although Buddha taught us to be selfless, but self-immolation is definitely a misuse of selflessness. I know the situation there is hard, but Tibetans can treat the incorporation of Tibet into the People's Republic of China as chance for them to practise selflessness. This is the main teaching of Buddha. Isn't it?

william sorlien said...

Thanks for this link.

brahmavihara said...

Although I would not reccomend self immolation to anyone, it's certainly far less harmful(at least Physically) to other people than the suicide bombers of the middle eastern lineage not forgetting The Tamil Tigers campaign too!. But of course it is likely to be emotionally and mentally harmful to those who may be in the vicinity at the time and so it is not entirely harmless to others in this respect.P.T.S.D. I think is the acronym. I honestly don't believe that Thich Quang Duc self immolated in 1963 due to being Viet Cong or NVA connected, I would be surprised if he had these connections or motivations, rather he was trying to lift the oppression of the US backed Diem regime's persecution of Buddhists at the time. As I remember Thich Quang Duc was the first of a series of self immolations at the time. Not all of them Buddhist monks, but there were some laypeople as well if my memory serves me well. I believe Madame Ngu, Diem's wife referred to them as "buddhist barbeques". Anyway this phenomenon of self immolation as a weapon caused me to ponder that maybe "Buddhist culture or values" informed the struggle of the Vietnamese people against a clearly superior Foe (The USA and allies) at the cost of I believe 3 million vietnamese deaths and uncountable injured casualties,birth deformites etc. They fought like tigers but never resorted to crashing jetliners into Manhattan skyscrapers to try and make a point, nor did they play the victim after having defeated their oppressers, they then had to endure a 20 year international trade embargo, the likes of which made the current Iranian embargo and the Iraqui equivalent of the 90's look mild by comparison. Maybe the Tibetan Buddhist culture is showing itself here too in these current protests. I remember reading Walpola Rahula's "Zen and The Taming Of The Bull" in my early years as a Buddhist. He investigated this self immolation phenomenon in one of the chapters therein and seemed to indicate that Mahayana Buddhism had some traceable precedents of this phenomenon back through the centuries. So I am not alone in my "Buddhist cultural" surmising on the subject ie, better to harm yourself rather than take a whole number of other lives in your quest for some sort of paradise populated by a rather limited number of virgins eagerly awaiting your arrival. If you grow up conditioned exclusively and entirely by that particular Middle Eastern tradition, its hardly surprising that you could believe that dispatching innocent lives along with your own could serve some worthwile purpose in progressing your culture and religion. But as i think of it wasn't it the motto of the WWII Japanese Kamikaze was "to die as gently as a cherry blossom falling earthward". At least these Buddhist/Shinto cultured suicide bombers only took enemy combattants with them! We wont mention Nanking. I can only hope that our Tibetan friends have a favorable rebirth, but then of course the Buddha did say that speculation about the machinations of Karma and Vipaka is one of the imponderables! Good night and sleep tight everybody and sweet dreams too!

Yashas said...

In Wikipedia there is an informative article about self immolation, recommended. Apparently there have been more than 500 of self immolators since 1960's, worldwide, and for a variety of different causes.

Ken and Visakha said...

When one is without weapons, without the possibility to carry out protests, without other alternatives, what else to do? As you mentioned, we can vividly recollect the picture of Thich Quang Duc in flames. And it did indeed lead directly to the fall of the noxious Diem regime. Because of their dramatic deaths, the Tibetans are reminding us of the unendurable repression they face in their homeland. Perhaps they reason it is preferable to a long, slow torture in the Chinese Gulag and more effective as well?

brahmavihara said...

One thing i forgot to mention is that Tibet has never really had any true autonomy, even in the pre Communist China times. Tibet has always been supported or dominated by the Dynastic Chinese or the Mongolians. Either of these countries had either garrisons in Tibet or were sanctioned by one of the two due to strategic and political reasons. The Dalai lama was even given the title by the Mongolians if I remember correctly, and that particular Gelugpa Lama was actually in exile and under the protection of The Mongolians at the time. The Dynastic Chinese were backing a head Lama from another sect. The point I am trying to make is that In many respects nothing much has changed in Tibet over the centuries. However the Communist Chinese this time have been more brutal and destructive than in the past centuries and the ethnic cleansing by Han Chinese is fairly new, but remember that even rule under whatever sect of Tibetan Buddhists the life there was fuedal and quite restrictive for the average Tibetan, certainly no "Shangri La" as many might believe.