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11.12.11

Tibetan Leaders Struggle to Cope With Spate of Self-Immolations

As Tibet begins to look toward life without the Dalai Lama, a young leader takes on a new crisis—a spate of self-immolations by nuns and monks protesting Chinese rule.

In his first overtly political statement, one of the most senior Tibetan religious figures—a young man who is likely to step into the shoes of the Dalai Lama as de facto religious leader of the Tibetan people—this week called on Tibetans to end a string of spectacular acts of self-immolation in protest against Chinese rule.

In the statement he issued in India, where he’s lived in exile ever since his dramatic escape from Tibet a dozen years ago, the youthful 17th Karmapa praised the “pure motivation” of the Buddhist devotees who set themselves on fire, saying “these desperate acts… are a cry against the injustice and repression under which they live.” However, in the first such statement from a senior Tibetan religious figure, the Karmapa went on to request that Tibetans “preserve their lives and find other, constructive ways to work for the cause of Tibet… We Tibetans are few in number, so every Tibetan life is of value to the cause of Tibet.”

The fact that the 17th Karmapa is recognized by both Tibetan exiles and by Beijing makes him a powerful figure. When the Dalai Lama dies, the Karmapa is likely to take the Dalai Lama’s place as the most influential adult spiritual leader of the Tibetan people.

So far this year, 11 Tibetan Buddhist monks, former monks, and nuns have set themselves on fire in Tibetan communities of China’s southwestern province of Sichuan, in acts of protest against official Chinese repression. In a 12th case, a man dressed in monk’s robes and draped in a Tibetan flag reportedly chanted “Long live Tibet” before setting himself on fire Thursday in Kathmandu, the capital of Nepal, which shares a long border with Tibet.

“These desperate acts… are a cry against the injustice and repression under which they live,” the 17th Karmapa says.
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Exiled Tibetan monks offer prayers to express solidarity with the plight of the people of Tibet at Janter Manter on October 21 in New Delhi. Tibetans continued to protest after nine Tibetans set themselves on fire in an apparent protest against China’s tight grip over Buddhist practices in Tibet. (Hindustan Times / Getty Images)

The Karmapa’s statements mark the first time the increasingly influential young religious leader has openly criticized Chinese policies in such stark terms, declaring that Tibetans are living under “unbearably difficult” circumstances and appealing for Beijing to “heed Tibetans’ legitimate demands and to enter into meaningful dialogue with them instead of brutally trying to achieve their silence.” His words also suggest that senior Tibetan lamas have no control over the suicides and hope to reign them in for fear that more fiery acts of protest would trigger greater repression from Chinese authorities.

Although Tibetan Buddhists revere life as a precious gift, if the motivation for taking a life is altruistic (and not motivated by selfish desires), the result of such actions does not necessarily generate bad karma. As a result, Tibetan Buddhists are not generally vegetarian—and while suicides are rare among Tibetans, the recent self-immolations evoke a similar phenomenon during the 1960s, triggered by Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc, who set himself on fire and burned to death in a Saigon intersection to protest the anti-Buddhist policies of South Vietnam’s Ngo Dinh Diem administration—a fiery act that was captured in a Pulitzer Prize-winning photograph.

The 25-year-old Karmapa’s unusual criticism of Beijing underscores his fast-growing popularity—and movie-star good looks—leading many to see him as a quasi-successor to the aging Dalai Lama as the spiritual leader of exiled Tibetans.

The charismatic Karmapa denies he has any ambition to become a direct successor to the much-revered Dalai Lama. “I face enough challenges fulfilling my role as Karmapa,” he told The Daily Beast in an exclusive interview this year. (Moreover, Tibetologists point out that direct succession is a non-starter since the Karmapa heads the Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism, which is an entirely different lineage than the Gelug school, which the Dalai Lama heads.) Nevertheless, many Tibetans see the Karmapa gradually taking on the role of a religious authority figure for compatriots both inside and outside Tibet.

And he holds a truly unique trump card allowing him to do so: although Chinese authorities were taken by surprise when the Karmapa fled Tibet in December 1999, Beijing officials have thus far refrained from denouncing him. (By contrast, they vilify the Dalai Lama as advocating “terrorism in disguise.“)  At least for the moment, the Chinese regime’s official line is that the young Karmapa travelled to India for religious reasons—and that he’s welcome to return home so long as he doesn’t “betray the motherland.” Nor has the Karmapa ruled out the possibility of returning to Tibet. “As Karmapa I have the responsibility to do whatever I can do so that Tibetans can fully preserve their culture and religion and not be isolated,” he told The Daily Beast. Like the Dalai Lama, he says he “is not seeking independence for Tibet but full and real autonomy.”

In his first clearly political statements in exile, the Karmapa appears more than ever to be exhibiting the caliber of leadership and authority that Tibetans are longing to see as the hugely popular Dalai Lama prepares for his succession. (Although he remains the top Tibetan religious leader, the Dalai Lama recently passed political authority over the Tibetan government-in-exile to a Western-educated Tibetan, Lobsang Sangay.) The Karmapa’s political attitudes seem very much in line with the non-violent stance of the Dalai Lama. The Dalai Lama has blamed Chinese authorities’ “cultural genocide” for the self-immolations, but has not openly called for an end to the suicides. This month during a visit to Tokyo, the 76-year-old Nobel laureate said Beijing’s hardline policies in Tibetan communities over the past 10 to 15 years are why “these sorts of sad incidents happen, due to the desperateness of the situation.”

The Karmapa agrees that Tibetans face “desperate circumstances” and that “repressive measures can never bring about unity and stability.” However he regretted the deaths of Tibetans, who had mostly been “very young. They had a long future ahead of them, an opportunity to contribute in ways that they have now foregone. In Buddhist teaching life is precious. To achieve anything worthwhile we need to preserve our lives.”

Tibetan exiles have had high hopes for the Karmapa  ever since early 2000, when the teenager virtually materialized on the Dalai Lama’s doorstep in Dharamsala after a harrowing, clandestine escape from Tsurphu monastery outside Lhasa. The elder religious leader took the younger lama under his wing, and recently told The Daily Beast he was impressed by the Karmapa’s “intelligence and his faith toward spirituality.”

Earlier this year, both Tibetan religious leaders appeared together onstage in a rare joint public appearance during a Buddhist teaching in Washington D.C.—“electrifying the audience, as if they were rock stars,” as one Western Buddhist put it. The world no doubt will be hearing and seeing a lot more of the Karmapa, as long as Tibetan culture remains under siege and Chinese authorities continue to sow bad karma in the Himalayas.

With Sudip Mazumdar in New Delhi