Renowned exiled Tibetan author and poet Jamyang Norbu has one of the most thoughtful analysis of 2011’s epidemic of self-immolations by young Tibetan monks and nuns inside of Tibet – you can read it on his blog Shadow Tibet. His analysis looks at historic instances of self-immolation as a political act by practitioners of Buddhism throughout Asia, as well as the historical Buddha’s confrontational, physical pursuit of enlightenment (in contrast to more passive styles of Buddhism embraced by the West in the 20th century).
The courageous action of the thirteen self-immolators in Tibet must be seen in this specific doctrinal light. I emphatically disagree with the opinion some people are circulating that the monks and nuns burnt themselves in despair because they were not allowed to practice their religion. If that were the main concern of these monks and nuns then the logical course of action for them to take would have been to escape to India, as many others had done so before. Kirti monastery, where most of the young self-immolators had studied, even has a large branch at Dharamshala where they would have been welcome.
Hence we must see the self-immolations in Tibet as action taken for the welfare of others, for the freedom of the Tibetan people and the independence of Tibet (as some of the self-immolators expressly stated). Even the call by most of the self-immolators for the return of the Dalai Lama to Tibet must be interpreted as a call for the restoration of an independent Tibet, as the Dalai Lama is regarded as the legitimate sovereign ruler of independent Tibet, and should not merely be interpreted as a plea for the return of a personal spiritual leader, as those attempting to de-politicize the events have been claiming.
The deed of the thirteen self-immolators is not only Buddhist in an unquestionably absolute sense, but furthermore comes from within a heroic and action-oriented tradition of Buddhism. Some scholars have viewed this approach as truer to the original teachings of the historical Buddha, in contrast to the quietist, passive, even escapist perception of Buddhism which has gained more widespread acceptance, especially in the West.
This is a really important analysis – the whole thing is worth reading, as it undercuts many misconceptions of not only Tibetan Buddhism, but Buddhism on whole.
More importantly, Norbu’s piece strikes against paternalistic responses to these brave, heart-breaking political acts of self-sacrifice. People are killing themselves for freedom because they do not see any other way to affect change under China’s military occupation of Tibet. Those who express confusion about what these self-immolations are about are being just as deliberately obtuse as those who spent months wondering what Occupy Wall Street protesters were upset about. It’s hard not to take a low opinion of anyone who tries to spin these self-immolations into validations of their desire to depoliticize Tibet or make China’s occupation a non-confrontable aspect in a negotiation about cultural preservation.
Lastly, I recommend you read through the comments section on Jamyang Norbu’s post, which seem to be entirely by Tibetans in exile. The post surfaces a lot of the tensions which should be surfaced by a serious discussion of the rash of self-immolations happening inside of Tibet. Jamyang-la’s unflinching look at what is happening casts not only a negative light on China, but on leading officials of the Tibetan Government in Exile, the International Campaign for Tibet and even the Dalai Lama. These are very hard things for many people to confront. But this internal debate must happen if there is ever going to be a cure to the disease which has prompted these self-immolations. Freedom will not come for Tibet without serious reflection of what is happening and why it is happening. Jamyang Norbu is boldly engaging in this discussion and I encourage others to join him.