Jul 18, 2012
What should the Dalai Lama do about Tibetan self-immolations?
On CNN, we see two dramatically different views on the Dalai Lama’s position on the wave of self-immolations by Tibetans protesting the Chinese occupation of their country and the persecution of their religion and culture.
Stephen Prothero, a Boston University religion scholar, author of “The American Bible: How Our Words Unite, Divide, and Define a Nation,” and regular CNN Belief Blog contributor, calls on the Dalai Lama to condemn the protesters.
Tenzin Dorjee, executive director of Students for a Free Tibet, responds, saying that Prothero’s post is a “crass display of moral blindsight” that “blames the victim.”
Dorjee praises the courage of the self-immolators and compares them to past non-violent protestors:
How can the Dalai Lama condemn the self-immolators when their motivation was evidently selfless and their tactic nonviolent? Would we ask Gandhi to condemn activists in the Indian freedom struggle who were killed while lying on the road to block British police trucks? Or the hunger strikers who were starving themselves to death in order to protest the injustices of British rule in India?
He also rightly calls into question some of the odd rhetoric that Prothero employs.
They sacrifice their own lives not in the name of “God” or “Buddha,” as Mr. Prothero so dismissively suggests, but in an altruistic intention of alerting the world to their people’s suffering.
From all of Mr. Prothero’s accusations, the most offensive is his comparison of self-immolations to sati – a social system in ancient India where widows were pressured to throw themselves into the funeral pyre of their deceased husbands. Self-immolation – a political act of reason – is the polar opposite of sati – a blind act of superstition.
I’m broadly with Dorjee, and think that as well as distorting what’s going on in Tibet and China, Prothero overlooks the complexities of the Dalai Lama criticizing those who protest against China. There are two prominent problems that spring to mind. First, if the Dalai Lama says “stop the protests,” the Chinese are able to say he’s responsible for them. Second, the Chinese can then say to Tibetans that their own leader has turned against them.
The Dalai Lama walks, as he has acknowledged, a fine line. He can’t approve of violent acts, even if they are violent only to the perpetrator but he also can’t walk into the trap of outright condemning the protests. He is also sensitive to the feelings of the protestors’ families:
If I say something negative, then the family members of those people feel very sad. They sacrificed their … life. It is not easy. So I do not want to create some kind of impression that this is wrong.
He certainly hasn’t encouraged the protestors, but in a BBC interview he in fact questioned their wisdom and the effectiveness of their actions:
In an interview with our correspondent, he said he was not encouraging his followers to sacrifice themselves – as alleged by China.
“The question is how much effect” the self-immolations have, the Dalai Lama said.
“That’s the question. There is courage – very strong courage. But how much effect?
“Courage alone is no substitute. You must utilise your wisdom.”
My own view is that the Dalai Lama displays far more wisdom here than Stephen Prothero, who asks, rather absurdly, “Where are the protests against these Tibetan protesters?”
If we’re going to protest against anything, let it be against the oppression and torture that has driven the Tibetan people to such desperate acts of protest.