Final Project: Self-Immolation Amongst Tibetan Monks

Posted on December 14, 2013 by


Buddhist Monk Self-Immolation:

Zack Martinez. Phil Sun. Billy Morey


Self-Immolation is the old traditional practice of setting oneself on fire usually in the form of protest closely triggered from political or religious turmoil. Many people see this act as suicide, while others view it as an honorable act of martyrdom. Its unusually common occurrence has been covered in the media and has captured the interest of many who are unfamiliar with this practice in the western world. How and why could it be that this act is considered noble and just in the eastern part of the globe, yet frowned upon where we live in western society? Could western societies’ clouded innate religious views hinder us from understanding these practicing monks’ reasoning for committing such an act? Or, could it be that just because suicide, in any form, here in America and much of western civilization is dubbed morally wrong, possibly could blur our judgment in understanding other peoples motives for committing these seemingly harmless practices? Recent happenings of monk self-immolation allow us to dig deeper into understanding motives behind it, and analyzing how it affects their communities, families, and religion.



The act of lighting oneself aflame is an ancient tradition dating back hundreds of years, of which is tolerated by some elements of Buddhism and Hinduism. In Tibet, along with political motives, such burnings have a much more religious tie. Earlier this year in late September, a Tibetan monk carried out the act of self-immolation in China’s Western Sichuan providence. The act, like many others like it, was a direct protest of the government’s recent heavy polices instated. Before this incident, there had been no reports of such in 2 months however there has been a spike in occurrences in the past years with 121 total deaths since the campaign against them started in 2009. Many of these cases are religiously motivated with underlying political grievances.


In Buddhism, all followers are expected to live their lives in accordance to their next. Building blocks, if you will are instated, understood and followed with the utmost responsibility to ensure good graces within the religion. Life here on earth, to most, is how you will get into the afterlife. Buddhist monks and all other followers are said to live their lives in such a way that leads them to the path of enlightenment. Buddhists are encouraged to live humble, righteous and selfless lives so that at the time of death, they can truly put an eternal end to their suffering  (dukkah). This elimination of desire and succession of all suffering then is said to have reached the supreme state of “Nirvana”, the golden ticket to enlightenment in the afterlife.  Most of the self- immolation burnings were claimed to have done in protest or example in the name of their coveted religion. Does this make it Moral? And who is to judge what is moral and what isn’t? The concept of what is moral and not, I think may be the key to why most people in western society do not understand the motives of this practice. In western Culture, suicide is a mortal sin. People find it hard to accept others views that differ from their own. However there too are Buddhists who discourage this practice. Since there are binary teachings on the act, it makes judgment of right or wrong hard to come by. Especially if technically practicing followers are following their just obligations of the eightfold path. Believers of Buddhism have a divine right to liberate themselves from what they feel is suffering, desire, and a hindrance to following the righteous path to enlightenment. (play video of Dalai Lama on burnings  As seen in the video, the Dalai Lama clearly states that the Tibetan people do live in a free country and it is their divine right to Dharma to express their beliefs of their religion in the best way that they feel is possible. The act is graphic yet non-violent, peaceful and clearly impactful on its viewers. As this coincides with the guidelines of the religion, how can it be wrong? The Dalai Lama expressed his admiration of the United States for advocating freedom and liberty for all. So if we are so free and if everyone has a divine right to freedom and their own will, that is more powerful than any discouraging force and cannot be taken away. I wonder if people in our society would react as peaceful as self –immolators do without the use of violence and within guidelines of law and religion if a governing force came down and monitored churches and other Christian institutions in order to prevent them from carrying certain rituals and practices.  My guess would be no, there would most certainly be chaos and havoc expressed in a violent and graphic manor. The video shows the Dalai Lama has no intent to try to stop self-immolation which is why it is such a big part of protest. Dalai Lama believes it is the persons every right to do whatever they wish. Although he does not technically support or advocate it, he calls it “sad”. People who view this video may see light shed on the situation. Because the Dalai Lama is so well respected, followed and looked upon for guidance, they may see him in the video somewhat defending people’s rights to engage in such an act and possibly understand and realize just how important it means to them to make a sacrifice of their own body for a cause they believe worthy enough to take their own life.


Recent Happenings:

As more and more political and religious turmoil stirs in China along many places such as the Sichuan and Quinghai Providence, Self-Immolation is more becoming a popular practice to attempt to create change for their cause. On the 11th of November this year, a young, 20 year old Tibetan monk by the name of Tsering Gyal set himself ablaze out of protest of Chinese rule. Gyal demanded the return of Tibet’s spiritual leader Dalai Lama and protested Chinese military rule in Tibetan-populated areas. He was last heard saying, “These people (Chinese authorities) look down on us (Tibet) and it seems they won’t leave us in peace.”  After so many recent happenings and even a spike in occurrences of Tibetans lighting themselves on fire in protest to religious and political rule, one would think that at some point, the Chinese government would call for change? This is not the case, in fact, there has not been one change instated directly because of the self-burnings. With this, does it mean that all those who have participated and died as so called “martyrs” really not died for a good cause? Have their deaths been for nothing? The Tibetan population doesn’t seem to think so. In fact, after all public self-immolation burnings, the local people of the village or town often collect the burned body and walk it home, to be on                         display and honored for many days. To them it is a high honor to die not only for Tibet, but for Buddhism. Earlier in July, a young 18 year old monk lit himself on fire and died at the scene, when authorities tried to claim his body, local Tibetans protested and were able to obtain his body and return it to the parents for a proper honorary burial. While most people see this as good, others still believe it is a mortal sin. Christianity states that suicide is a sin and shall not be tolerated in any form. However in America, people do so in a different way. You could say that when people join the military, they go in knowing that they might and most likely will die; they even in some branches are allowed to kill others. Are the Christians who kill and or are killed in war justified come judgment day?  Is it ok and just for defending the nation in what they think is a good cause in which will protect their fellow citizens and those around them?  Of course it is justified and right; this is essentially what monks are doing. Any religion can make a death justifiable and moral on one end, yet looked upon as immoral and sometimes barbaric from an outsider looking in.

On May 24th, 2013, a Buddhist monk publicly performed the act of self-immolation in front of hundreds of bystanders near the famous Temple of Buddha’s Tooth Relic in the bustling town of Kandy. He had apparently told other monks ahead of time he would be doing so in protest of the recent killings of cattle for meat. (Of course Buddhism prohibits the killing of any life and eating meat.) His burning was very graphic and in front of many which stirred up many arguments even amongst those who support it. (Embed video of burning man As you can see in no culture do people want or deserve to witness such a gruesome act; however its point is effective and did drive home. This monk was not out of any legal limit that would have prevented him from acting this way. This brings me to my next question. Should the Chinese government intervene and attempt to stop these happenings? Many have mixed feelings. It is very hard to judge whether or not you can tell someone what to do with their own bodies. Most people, along with the Dalai Lama say that the body and one’s own free will is one of the most sacred things in this world, and when the very thing you are protesting is trying to get you to not do just that, the reactions and consequences can’t be positive.


Realistically, Chinese Tibetans have a problem. There is political unrest deeply entangled with religious tradition and the people want change. Many, as we’ve seen are willing to do anything they can to get their point across. So far their practice has gone without change yet without notice. Many across the globe have seen the impact of self-immolation to hundreds just in the past 3 years. People have left behind wives and children to prove a point in what they think is a worthy cause. Although the cause may be worthy, the question of whether or not it is moral or immoral is left unresolved. With the Dalai Lama addressing the issue, hopefully viewers and those who may be thinking of inflicting this act upon them will sit back and take a second thought and realize that there are many other ways in which to create calm, non-violent and peaceful protest. It will take all to realize and make a change. I believe once Tibetan’s understand the true divine meaning of the freedom and liberty of peace and protest, then the true change will come.


Anthony Bond, “Buddhist monk sets himself on fire to protest against the slaughter of cattle in Sri Lanka”,,, May 24th, 2013


Link to Slideshare:


Anthony Bond, “Buddhist monk sets himself on fire to protest against the slaughter of cattle in Sri Lanka”,,, May 24th, 2013, “List of Self-Immolations in Tibet”, www.freetibet.erg,, March 2011

Shambhala,, “Video: The Dalai Lama addresses Tibet’s self-immolation phenomenon on “Today”., November 5th, 2012

Limbum Tashi, (Radio Free Asia), “Young Tibetan Monk Sets Himself on Fire to Protest Chinese Rule”,, November 11th, 2013

Author: N/A,, “Monks Burn Themselves alive to protest police attacks, confinement and surveillance”,, October 26th, 2011

Posted in: Buddhism