Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Rising From The Ashes


As great the sacrifices and as well intended, no matter from what side I try to look at them, the Tibetan self-immolations don’t feel right. The sight of people burning alive, bystanders who sometimes offer a Khata to the person in flames, compatriots abroad telling me “Tibetans in Tibet are the boss, whatever they do, we must support” - all this seems surreal. To me it feels like we have run out of ideas. The struggle has reached an all-time low.

Distancing ourselves clearly from self-immolation as a political method is not a betrayal of our sacrificing Tibetan brothers and sisters. Not distancing ourselves means approval and indirect encouragement of a method that is neither humanly sustainable nor politically effective.

Self-immolation is not okay even as the ultimate resort.

Little has it served us that the self-immolations are a desperate cry for help in the face of increasing pressure. Hopes that the Chinese will put an end to the self-immolations by making concessions are clearly not materialising.  Nevertheless Tibetan public opinion abroad is that the victims are “heroes”. Tibetan-language channels also refer to Jampel Yeshi, the man who recently set himself on fire in India, as Pawo even though in his case there was no direct Chinese repression involved.

Calling the self-immolators “heroes” arises from our compassion and our empathy. It is meant well. But when the intended political effect of these acts is zero, where is the wisdom part coming in that we know must go hand in hand with compassion?

With all my prayers for the deceased and those left wounded, I fail to see them as heroes. I can follow they believed if only something dramatic would be done it could improve the situation. But a hero personifies an ideal and works to fulfill that in the real world, someone who leads by example and whose actions bring change, a person we can strive to emulate. Politically motivated suicide victims cannot be role models for our society no matter how noble and selfless the goal. These deaths are tragic and the victims´ families deserve all our sympathies, but begging your pardon, they are not “heroes”.

It is also a misconception that the self-immolations are the ultimate “Buddhist” sacrifice. The Takmo L├╝jin (“Sacrificing the body to a tigress”) story sometimes cited in defence is unfortunate because we conveniently eliminate the fact that when our Lamas recount these stories they were not meant for imitation but to illustrate the great compassion of the enlightened mind. Lamas take pains to point out not to take these stories literally because unlike the actions of a Buddha or a Bodhisattva, actions of ordinary beings are always mixed with worldly concerns. So when we cite Buddhism to justify what is essentially a political act, we allow our patriotism and our emotions to cloud our judgment.

Another problematic development is the involvement of the Sangha in the self-immolations.  The spiritual community of monks and nuns represents the third of the “Three Jewels” and seeking refuge in them forms the basis of Tibetan Buddhist practice. Tibetan society holds monks and nuns in high regard. The earthquake in Kyegu two years ago has shown the significant role the Sangha continues to play helping in the rescue, providing comfort, organising prayer services and leading burial ceremonies. When members of the Sangha now begin to set themselves on fire, where does that leave the lay and what message does it send to them? The sacrifices are enormous but will they make it easier for the people left behind to deal with their lives? Who should they turn to for guidance when monks and nuns resort to such drastic measures?

There is one thing though the self-immolations are showing quite clearly and it’s this: Nobody in the world cares. We Tibetans are alone. There is not one country and not the people of one country giving us the kind of support it takes to improve our situation.

Even among the billion Chinese people, many of whom live side by side with Tibetans and know their government’s unscrupulous methods first-hand, there is no one up to the level of humanity to sympathise with the Tibetans. The extreme opposite is the case: Chinese security personnel shoot at self-immolators and physically abuse them while Chinese citizens throw stones at them. Not even among the many Chinese dissidents who live in the free world is there one who has spoken up for their Tibetan brothers and sisters, for that’s what the Chinese say we are: members of one and the same family.

If the Tibetans were free to choose they would long have gone their separate ways, Buddha knows this is the truth. But it’s bad luck or collective Karma: We are not in a position to choose. We are not in a position to negotiate for change either. We are deserted, we are totally outnumbered and we are completely at the mercy of China. It’s like being in a forced marriage with an abusive partner with all the neighbours knowing exactly what is going on but nobody stepping in to offer real support.

So when we are left to fend for ourselves, what would be a better way to beat the odds than setting ourselves on fire?

We could make the strategic decision to be more like the biblical David who beat overpowering Goliath because he refused to fight at the latter’s terms. David avoided direct confrontation because the balance of power was not in his favour. Instead, he used what he was best at: endurance and agility, sustaining himself, sheer determination to survive and outlast the giant.  While Goliath had the physical might of China, David had the long-term view and a sense of timing. Everyone knows David prevailed.


In our context trying to be like David means discontinue the self-immolations without ifs and buts. Being like David means avoiding anything that provokes Chinese retaliation and instead systematically broaden our focus to long-term sustenance. None of us knows when this problem with China will be resolved, so we must prepare ourselves to endure. We must dose our energy wisely because this very sense of urgency that drives us up the wall now has been around for decades and may well continue for more decades. We must plan accordingly and control our impulses.

If we insist on continuing down the path of the self-immolations instead, our collective anger and frustration at our powerlessness are preprogrammed to increase.  One can already observe signs of frustration with everyone expecting someone else to find the right response. The self-immolators and protestors in Tibet are banking their hopes on their compatriots living in freedom. The ones in freedom are put in a tight spot and overextended by this monumental task, putting all their hopes on foreign governments or the UN. You can hear people saying they are tired of shouting at demonstrations, tired of candle light vigils, frustrated at the world for ignoring Tibetan lives while going overboard for other countries. And in our collective frustration we drive ourselves to lie in wait for each other’s perceived mistakes as if those were responsible for not achieving the political goals.

If we don’t come up with a systematic plan that expands our outlook to include the long-term, increasing internal strife could be the result where the ones in Tibet get frustrated with the ones abroad because they believe the ones abroad don’t do enough to push for political change while they are ready to pay with their lives; the ones in Tibet from areas with demonstrations may accuse the other areas without demonstrations of being unpatriotic, selfish cowards; the areas with no demonstrations may come to resent the areas with demonstrations because due to their “fault”, the Chinese government clamps down on all of them all without discrimination.  Caught up in internal strife, it will only benefit China to maintain the tyranny.

The qualities the biblical David represents are our best bet to beat the odds. They are not a new discovery by the Tibetans but the painful experience from the self-immolations is underlining their effectiveness many times over. People in many parts of Tibet have been successfully sustaining themselves, their families and their communities this way ever since the Chinese took control. These “Davidian” qualities are also embodied in the person whose name the self-immolators consistently call out: the Dalai Lama. His life is truly based on endurance, discipline, concentration, patience but also generosity, wisdom and compassion. He has refined himself over and over again and is a living example of how one can overcome historical events and still not loose faith and give hope to others.  We mentioned “heroes” earlier: Here is a genuine one we can strive to copy, someone positive, someone worthy to emulate on our scale.

By generating in ourselves the values the Dalai Lama represents, we truly begin to carry him in our hearts even when he is far. We no longer need to rely on externalising all our hopes on him but can find hope within ourselves. These values lie dormant in us. They are core values of the Tibetan civilization. Now is the time to become distinctively aware of them, try our best to activate them, nurture them and consciously train in them and pass them on to our children; make them a living part of our culture, internalize them. Armed with these qualities we do not need to fear anything because we have the certainty that we will remain unshaken whatever we have to undergo.

Training in mental skills is tougher and more precious than sacrificing one’s life because it requires sustained effort over an unknown period of time, even over generations. Learning these skills is not a political flash in the pan. They also make our present more meaningful, as it requires a vision and persistent effort. In the long haul, it is these qualities that will prove much more resilient against the might and power of the Chinese domination.

We are from a culture that is used to think in kalpa or aeons. So thinking long-term shouldn’t be a problem, it’s our strength. At some point, just like Goliath, the might cannot be sustained any longer and opportunities will arise when political constellations change. We will not miss them but lie in wait for them and exploit them skillfully.

I was numb over the self-immolations for some time but I am slowly realising that they have served a purpose after all: They have made it plain once and for all that we cannot win if we try to force China to behave in a certain way whether by peaceful protest or through self-immolations. Our only chance to beat the tyrant is by outlasting him through our endurance, David style. No dictatorship can last forever.

But this is not only a time for us to go inward and work on ourselves.  This is also the time to go outward and focus on small tangible goals while not loosing sight of the large, abstract ones. If there is one positive thing that has come out of self-immolations and the sacrifices it’s the Tibetan identity growing stronger all across the homeland. We must now make the most of this renewed sense of identity and use it in constructive ways to give it meaning.

Tibetan policy-makers, political activists, people who work on projects in Tibet, anyone who cares and with some influence must now move to the next level and make smart, long-term plans to carefully work for cultural preservation, strengthening and protecting the Tibetan language, teaching our children the values that we have learned to live, taking care of our own environment, our resources, protect our own habitats, our forests, our rivers, through community action and leadership on the grassroots level. It’s easier said than done, but we still have to do it because it’s our best bet.

We begin with ourselves, extend it to our families, which then flows into our communities. It’s “Lhakar” bottom up, magnified by seven days a week, extrapolated to 365 days of the year, for the rest of our lives. And while each of us individually goes about accomplishing these tasks, we draw on our inner strength and confidence sharing that with our family and our community.

Tibetans have come a long way. Our brave ancestors fought the Chinese. They survived the crazy political campaigns and the devastating famines only to go through the horrors of the Cultural Revolution. A new generation of Tibetans born in an era not affected by political craze is coming of age. We must not loose our patience now but carry on so the sacrifices of the self-immolators are not in vain. We must rise from the ashes with renewed strength, a cool head and a clear vision to absolutely outlive this situation, always prepared to renegotiate the relationship with China once the political constellations change.

Nothing can shake us or make us nervous in the manner of “time is running out”. We have all the time in the world because we’re in charge, not our opponent. Remember David.

May each day bring us renewed strength!
Mountain Phoenix















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