On the Ethics of the Tibetan Self-Immolations

Last week the Dalai Lama talked to Australian journalists about the wave of self-immolations by Tibetan protesters: “Its a sad thing that happens. Of course it’s very very sad. In the meantime, I express I doubt how much effect (there is) from such drastic actions.” The Dalai Lama was speaking here about the human (and political) tragedy inherent in self-immolation, but it was only later in the interview that he remarked—almost as an aside—on the ethical aspect of suicide-as-protest. Here, José Cabezón gives us much-needed background. –the Eds.


As I write this piece, 119 Tibetans have set themselves on fire, choosing to end their lives to further the cause of the Tibetan people. Tupten Ngödrup, a former monk and the first Tibetan to immolate, took his own life in India in 1998. The next such act would not take place until 2009, when the monk Tapey set his body on fire, this time in Tibet. The year 2011 saw thirteen Tibetans giving up their lives through “the burning of the body in fire” (ranglü merseg), as Tibetans now refer to this act; all but one of these individuals hailed from eastern Tibet.

The locus of the protests has therefore shifted from the Tibetan exile community to Tibet itself. An interactive map and timeline of the self-immolations can be found on Al Jazeera. As one moves the arrow forward on this timeline, it is heartbreaking to think that each dot on the map represents the loss of a human life. Almost all of the Tibetans who self-immolated through mid-2012 were members or former members of the Buddhist clergy—monks, ex-monks, and nuns. Since the middle of 2012 Tibetan lay people are increasingly found among the ranks of those who have chosen to give up their lives in this way. The story of the Tibetan self-immolations has failed to garner much attention from the Western media. Time called it the most under-reported story of 2011, and the coverage has not improved, despite more than 100 additional deaths since the end of 2011.

There is a profound sense of desperation and frustration on the Tibetan plateau. This is known to all who are familiar with the tragic situation in contemporary Tibet. The Tibetans who engage in the drastic act of taking their own lives are obviously trying to draw the world’s attention to their plight. But several recent commentators have argued—rightly, it seems to me—that these Tibetans are not so much reacting to their plight out of a sense of despair as they are proactively trying to bring about change. The Tibetans who have chosen this path have given no single, unanimous reason or motive for their actions. But most of the individuals who have left behind written statements or “testaments” (khachem) tell us that they have given up their lives to unite the Tibetan people, for the return of the Dalai Lama, and for the preservation of Tibetan culture, which they see as steadily eroding.

Remarkably, few if any evince in their written statement a sense of what a Time reporter has called Tibetans’ “new, nihilistic desperation.”

Two issues of important academic journals have been devoted to the Tibetan self-immolations: Cultural Anthropology and Revue d’Etudes Tibétaines. As Katia Buffetrille has noted, because there are few known instances of self-immolation in Tibetan history, these acts came as something of a surprise, even shock, to the scholarly community. As examples of excruciating human pain and agonizing death, the Tibetan self-immolations probably lie beyond the power of the human intellect to fully fathom, but scholars have nonetheless attempted to understand them. That, for better or worse, is what we do—attempting to shine some light on the most horrific of human actions. Hence, scholars have written about “the impossibility yet necessity of interpretation,” attempting to understand this tragic phenomenon from a variety of perspectives: political, sociological, historical, literary, even artistic. By comparison, less attention has been paid to the religious and ethical dimension of these acts.

Like many religions, Buddhism deplores suicide, but the Tibetan self-immolations are not simple suicides. The “testaments” that these individuals leave behind make it quite clear that they see their own deaths instrumentally—as means to higher ends. Those ends are not always explicitly religious, but religious language and images infuse their words. The act itself is often referred to as an offering (chöpa), an offering of the body (lüjin), or an offering of light or lamps (chömé), one of the traditional offerings made to the Buddha. References to scripture also pervade Tibetans’ self-understanding of the phenomenon. It can even be found in the poetry that the self-immolations have inspired:

I pay heartfelt homage to these bodhisattvas of the Land of Snows,
The lamps who dispel the darkness of Tibet,
Like the buddha who gave his body to a hungry tigress [in a past life],
Out of the altruistic intention to dispel the suffering of others.* [See notes below.]

Tibetans therefore see the motivation for the self-immolations in largely religious terms—for instance, as an act motivated by the wish “to protect the Buddha’s teachings, the source of benefit for all sentient beings.” †

Although direct reference to Buddhist scripture is rare both in the testaments and in other contemporary Tibetan writings, one cannot help but see resonances with sacred texts. For example, the Scripture of the Wise and the Foolish mentions a bodhisattva-king who sacrifices his own body for the sake of the Buddhist teachings “by piercing his body with a thousand wicks and burning it with torches.” [p. 2 in the edition linked above –Eds.]

When, in the same text, another king gives away his body, he states that he is doing so not to obtain a better rebirth, but “to attain supreme enlightenment and to lead all beings to Nirvana.” [p. 113] Lama Söbha, who immolated on January 8, 2012, likewise states:

I am giving away my body as an offering of light to chase away the darkness, to free all beings from suffering, and to lead them to the paradise of the Buddha of Infinite Light. My offering of light is for all living beings… to dispel their pain and to guide them to the state of enlightenment. [Here, for the original Tibetan.]

Despite these allusions to scripture—which many see as providing religious warrant for these acts—the self-immolations have become a site of acute moral conflict for many Buddhists. Human life is recognized to be rare and precious, and Buddhist teachings exhort us not to squander the rare spiritual opportunity human existence affords us. Yet devout Buddhists, including members of the monastic community, are choosing to give up their own lives as a way of powerfully expressing their deep feelings.

Is self-immolation ethically justified according to the Buddhist teachings? As a scholar of Buddhism, I want to explore whether these acts constitute a fundamental violation of Buddhist doctrine, as some have suggested.

The Abrahamic traditions (Judaism, Christianity, and Islam) have traditionally considered martyrdom—being killed for the sake of the faith—to be not only ethically unproblematic, but even a moral good. However, they consider the taking of one’s own life, even for the sake of religion, to be a moral evil. Although generalization is always perilous, and although the views on these subjects are perpetually in transition, the mainstream Abrahamic view is that life is a precious gift from God, and taking one’s own life constitutes a kind of contempt for God. Such acts are therefore generally seen as sinful. Indian spiritual traditions in general, and Buddhism in particular, have fundamentally different views on the question of taking one’s own life, especially when it involves some higher purpose. Buddhism—perhaps in part because of its nontheistic dimension and belief in reincarnation—does not judge these acts as unequivocally evil; motivation or intention is a key factor in determining whether an act is morally justified or not.

Does this mean that Buddhism therefore considers self-immolation to be ethically justified? Partly at issue here is the question of whether self-immolation constitutes an act of violence. Those Buddhists who condemn it as a form of violence point out that taking one’s own life harms both self as well as the living microorganisms that live within the body. This view is understandable: the principle of doing no harm is the cornerstone of Buddhist ethics.

But what happens when an individual is confronted with a difficult choice—a choice between doing harm to oneself and doing harm to others? Or what happens when an act of self-directed harm has the potential to alleviate the harm that is being perpetrated on others? In these cases difficult choices have to be made. Tibetan Buddhism, as a form of Mahāyāna Buddhism, is a tradition whose ethics, the ethics of the bodhisattva, is founded on the principles of compassion and altruism, believed to “trump” the ideal of no-harm. Hence, in certain instances, Mahāyāna Buddhism permits acts that would otherwise be considered acts of violence when these have a higher purpose, when it brings about the welfare of others. ‡

As noted earlier, the idea of sacrificing one’s body for the sake of others is found in many classical Buddhist texts. Especially in Mahāyāna Buddhism, there is explicit acknowledgement that, on rare occasions, giving up one’s life for the welfare of others is not only permissible but actually necessary.

When all the prerequisites for engaging in such an act are met, this is regarded as an act of great moral courage. Drawing from earlier scriptures, the fourth-century Indian Buddhist master Asaṅga speaks of a threefold classification of “giving” that includes giving material goods, spiritual counsel, and life. Of these three, Asaṅga considers offering up one’s life to be the highest form of giving. That said, Indian and Tibetan texts also set forth stringent conditions that must be met before an individual is allowed to offer up his or her life. These conditions have to do with the purity of the motivation, an absence of negative emotions, and a clear view of the larger purpose.

The point remains that such acts do not, if these conditions are met, contradict the basic ethics of Buddhism. A well-known fourth century text called Ornament to Realizations also mentions “giving one’s life for the sake of the Dharma (the Buddhist teachings).” § 

Most of the Tibetan monks who have self-immolated would certainly be familiar with this line. In a 2011 post on a Tibetan website, a blogger asks others to comment on what thoughts went through their minds when they first heard about the self-immolation of a monk at the Bodhanath stūpa in Nepal. The first response to his query came in the form of a single line, “I thought of the implications of the line from the Ornament of Realizations that says, ‘Giving one’s life for the sake of the Dharma.’” Obviously, elite texts like the Ornament are, at the very least, part of the background worldview in which the Tibetan the self-immolations are taking place.

We cannot simply assume that all those have immolated were aware of these classical doctrinal references, but neither can we presume that they were totally ignorant of them.** Religious texts sometimes have a way of penetrating into the fabric of a society in ways that one would not have imagined. In any case, these classical textual references are worth exploring alongside the many other factors motivating these acts. Some scholars believe that the phenomenon of self-immolation is a “symptom of secularization.” While many of the Tibetans who have recently immolated may well have been operating from a secular mindset, many others—in fact, probably most—have seen their actions in religious terms: as acts of virtue, self-sacrifice, purification, and religious offering; acts that, Buddhism tells us, have the capacity to change the world, tipping the scales of history in the direction of truth and justice.

I want to end with the words of one contemporary Tibetan. Jigmey, a Tibetan monk living in Gartse Monastery in the Amdo region of eastern Tibet, who published his views on the self-immolations as part of a broader critique of Chinese government policies.11

In January of 2013 he was sentenced to five years in prison for the publication of this tract. This is what he wrote (translation my own):

The Beijing government claims that the act of self-cremation, or the burning of one’s body, contradicts the Buddhist texts, but this is a confused position. According to Buddhism, giving up one’s life for the welfare of others is an act of a bodhisattva. One can know this from the biography of the compassionate Buddha himself. Before he was enlightened, the future Buddha came across a tigress and her cubs. They were on the verge of starving to death. Unable to bear their suffering, he sacrificed his own body as food for the tigress. That act of protecting the life of the tigress and her two cubs by giving up his own life is the central theme of many contemporary religious writings; it is widely known. When one reaches the highest level of Mahāyāna practice—that of “the being of great scope”—one is able to give up everything one possesses for the welfare of sentient beings. For example, if it is necessary, one is able to spend many hundreds of millions of years in hell just for the sake of a single sentient being… For all of these reasons giving up one’s own life for the sake of sentient beings or for the sake of one’s own people does not contradict the Buddhist teachings. Not only does it not contradict them, it is actually a tenet of the Mahāyāna; it is a most excellent doctrine. Hence, no one who is informed about these matters would claim that it contradicts Buddhism—no one, that is, except confused government officials and their lackeys.

It is, of course, impossible to know the precise motivation of those Tibetans who have chosen to end their lives. We cannot know with any certainty that they were motivated by the type of compassion spoken of in this passage; but neither can we dismiss this possibility. Regardless of their motivation, it is clear that many Tibetans, both inside and outside of Tibet, view their actions through the lens of Mahāyāna Buddhist ethics. Self-immolation represents an ultimate act of protest, a final moral boundary, which Tibetans—both monks and laity—feel their Buddhist faith allows them to cross.

That they have chosen to shorten their own lives, yet go to great lengths not to harm anyone else in the process, is a significant indication of their deep respect for the Buddhist teachings. ††

The Dalai Lama suggested as much last week when he remarked, as Reuters reported, that “Tibetans could ‘easily hurt other people,’ but instead were choosing ‘to sacrifice their own lives, not hurting others.’”



* A verse of A rig ‘gyur med, in Noyontsang Lhamokyab, “Pen bod kyi rtsom pa po’i mthun tshogs kyi tshogs gtso chab brag lha mo skyabs,” in Revue d’Etudes Tibétaines, no. 28, December 2013: 117.

† Ibid.

‡ There is considerable discussion in the Tibetan community over whether self-immolation can actually accomplish viable, longterm goals. But even those who are skeptical about the political efficacy of self-immolation mostly acknowledge that the act is not inconsistent with the teachings of Mahāyāna Buddhism, where the moral status of action is ensured by a “proper motivation.”

§ The lines of from the fourth chapter of the Abhisamayālaṃkāra, and read: chos kyi don du srog gtong ba.

** As Lama Sobha, who immolated on January 8, 2012, states,

“I am sacrificing my body with the firm conviction and a pure heart just as the Buddha bravely gave his body to a hungry tigress. All the other Tibetan heroes too have sacrificed their lives with similar principles. But in practical terms, their lives might have ended with some sort of anger. Therefore, to guide their souls on the path to enlightenment, I offer prayers that may lead all of them to Buddhahood.”

†† One Tibetan writer has suggested that self-immolation not only harms no one else, but actually displaces violence that would otherwise be directed at the Chinese: “we could take the opportunity to hurt those who deny us freedom by stabbing them… but instead we have entered the path of not hurting others for the sake of our freedom.” Chung Tsering, “Online Articles on Self-immolation,” 102. The view is similar to one by Boepa Bhumo (“Tibetan Woman”), who posted on a Time magazine blog on Feburary 15, 2013:

“Tibetans who have immolated in Tibet could have used this tactics to burn few Chinese together along [with themsleves]… but they never adopted such [a tactic] because we have never believed in any forms of violence.”

In the words of a contemporary Tibetan poet:

Although willing to give up their lives, they do not engage in violence.
They do no harm even when others threaten their own welfare.
These brave Tibetan heroes use their own life
To inscribe a maṇḍala of nonviolent fire upon the earth.

The verse is by “’Ba’ sras” and is cited in Noyontsang Lhamokyab, “Pen bod kyi rtsom pa po’i mthun tshogs kyi tshogs gtso chab brag lha mo skyabs,” in Revue d’Etudes Tibétaines, no. 28, December 2013: 117.