Viktor Frankl wrote, “What is to give light must endure burning.”
The bodies of youth in Asia are burning in acts of protest. What is the message? Not just whatever slogan bystanders may have heard them articulate, but what message is being spoken in this act as an event? What do these acts signify? What might they produce? And what is required of us in order to truly listen? For in an era when messages are instantaneously, voicelessly transmitted, there is a kind of learning and listening that must be acquired, in order to apprehend the spirit and significance of this message.
On March 17, 21-year-old Tibetan monk Lobsang Phuntsok set fire to himself outside Kirti monastery, located in Ngaba county in China’s Sichuan province. His act was followed by a monk from nearby Kardze Monastery self-immolating and subsequently dying in August, as well as a string of self-immolations in the past month, where six Tibetan monks age 17 to 19 — again of Kirti Monastery — have set fire to themselves. All were arrested before dying, according to Tibetan exile sources, and two later died. The whereabouts and conditions of the other four are unknown.
Phuntsok’s actions set off a month-long siege of Kirti monks and Tibetan residents of Ngaba by Chinese forces, where phone lines were cut off and tourists were banned as residents and monks engaged in massive peaceful protests. According to an assessment by Human Rights Watch cited in the New York Times last week, 300 monks were reportedly sent to “re-education through labor” camps as a result of their standoff with authorities — there are 2,000 fewer monks at Kirti now, compared to the total number in March, a disappearance attributed to similar detention camps.
Although self-immolating may be a recent, relatively unprecedented phenomena among Tibetans, monastic or otherwise, it takes place against a long history of protest and resistance to colonialism. While it is not possible to pin the origins of self-immolation as protest on a religious or cultural disposition, that it arises out of an unbearable circumstance of political and social injustice is unmistakable.
In 1965, monk and activist Thich Nhat Hanh wrote, “The Vietnamese monk, by burning himself, says with all his strength and determination that he can endure the greatest of sufferings to protect his people. What he really aims at is the expression of his will and determination, not death. To express will by burning oneself, therefore, is not to commit an act of destruction but to perform an act of construction – i.e., to suffer and to die for the sake of one’s people.”
The self-immolation of Thich Quang Duc during the Vietnam War in protest of the treatment of Buddhists under South Vietnam’s Diem regime (widely supported by the U.S. for its anti-communist stance) caused several other monks to follow his example and is seen as marking the turning point of the crisis faced by Vietnamese Buddhists that led to the toppling of the regime. In December 2010, Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation became a catalyst for revolution, setting off demonstrations across the country.
I cannot guess at what these acts in Tibet might bring about. Unlike the example of Tunisia, Tibetans are viewed as a minority “other” in China, and so it seems unlikely that political acts by them would influence political actions among the Han Chinese majority, as they arise out of a particular set of conditions. However, Tibetans are not the only source of minority unrest in China. The Uighur population has been protesting for decades, the 2009 Urumqi protests receiving widespread media attention in China and elsewhere.
The self-immolation of young monks in Tibet is not a case of making a spectacle out of death. There is a fire burning under the land of snows, but although it ends life, it has the potential to be life-giving many times over. I remember the words of an old Tibetan folk song, used by Tibetan prisoners to convey the good news of the Dalai Lama’s safe flight to India without alarming their guards: “The snow has fallen, but don’t be sad. After the snowfall comes the warmth of the sun.”
If we listen closely, we can hear what is being whispered in this message, even if we do not yet know its effects — the voices of all those suffering under oppression, seeking freedom from those enemies known as intolerance, fanaticism, hatred and discrimination. As we listen to this particular act of witnessing by young Tibetans, we can rise to the challenge of making sense of an action that is, at its heart, anything but senseless.
I recall the historic letter in which Thich Nhat Hanh reached out to a member of another oppressed people, African-American reverend and activist Martin Luther King, Jr. In it, Thich responds to the question, “Why does he have to burn himself to death?” by refining our perception of the action from a position of seeing only a destructive end to one that turns its gaze back upon the movement itself. In so doing, we may arrive at a deeper understanding of what is being generated by these acts.
More than 40 years later, his answer is just as discerning: “The importance is not to take one’s life, but to burn.”