Yesterday, i.e. December 1, 2011, I was reading an article in People’s Daily by “renowned Tibetologist” Li Decheng concerning self-immolations by Tibetans in Tibet in which he says these actions are against “core Buddhist code of ethics.” He further says, “In Buddhism, particularly Tibetan Buddhism, scripture has never encouraged killings and suicide, nor has Buddhist dogma incited others to carry out killings or commit suicide.” I have no hesitation in saying I agree with him here.
It does not take knowledge of rocket science to understand that “Not to kill” is a precept closely connected with Buddhism. Since Li Decheng has brought it up, I wanted to expand on this issue as it relates to the Tibetans. As Li Decheng is a “renowned religion expert,” as the Chinese media puts it, he should certainly be aware of the social conditions of Tibetan Buddhism and the Tibetan society in which it flourishes. But before I dwell on that, let us briefly look at the Chinese society at large.
Although I am not a China expert, a cursory research reveals that the Chinese leadership has been concerned with the issue of suicides, looking at it as a social problem, whatever the cause, and looking for solutions. China experiences around 300,000 suicides annually, according to the book, Suicide and Social Change in China, whose writers include Chinese experts. Even the official China Daily reported on September 11, 2007 that “China’s suicide rate among world’s highest.”
Interestingly, the father of Chinese thought, Confucius, is believed to have said, “For gentlemen of purpose and men of ren, while it is inconceivable that they should seek to stay alive at the expense of ren, it may happen that they have to accept death in order to have ren accomplished.” (Analects 15.9)
“Ren” in Confucianism is interpreted variously as humaneness, or the concept of compassion or loving others, or the notion of virtuous human experiences.
What the above indicates is that the Chinese society is familiar with the issue of suicides, and that the Chinese authorities are clearly aware that when people indulge in suicide there are factors surrounding them that are leading them to it. In the China Daily report mentioned above, it quotes data by Beijing Suicide Research and Prevention Center saying that “stress and depression” were the cause of a majority of the suicides in China. Chinese sociologists are still grappling with the issue trying to identify the factors that are leading people to commit suicides.
Now, back to the self-immolations by the Tibetans. Sadly, on December 1, 2011 we received news about yet another Tibetan committing it in Tibet, making it 12 such actions this year and 13 since 2009. Tibetan Buddhists do not have to be reminded of the “Not to Kill” precept by Li Decheng. Almost everyone knows that this is the first of the 10 non-virtuous acts to be shunned. But the fundamental issue is why are Tibetans indulging in this despite knowing their scriptures, and despite the deep religious basis of their society? Something must certainly be wrong in Tibet.
So, what is important is trying to figure out, just as in the case of the thousands of suicides in China today, the factors that are leading the Tibetan people to take such drastic measures. Even though Li Decheng must be familiar with Tibetan Buddhists and their current social conditions there is no attempt by him or other Chinese sociologists to understand why Tibetans are indulging in self-immolations.
It seems to me that the self-immolations by Tibetans are a wake up call to the Chinese society. This may be a political issue for Tibetans, but it is a social issue for China and its future with grave implications, if not addressed by each and every concerned Chinese. But maligning the Tibetans and finding faults with their action, as Li Decheng does, to suit the direction of the political wind of the day in China is not the right way.
Having said that, while I agree with Li Decheng on his understanding of the tenet of Buddhism concerning self-immolation (come to think of it, Li Decheng would agree with me that an atheist government claiming authority over spiritual process also violates the “core Buddhist code of ethics”), his not analyzing the reasons behind the actions by Tibetans seem to indicate that he does not really understand Tibetan society. In fact, the tone of his article reeks of condescension.
Although, I repeat that, I am not a China expert, I want to alert Li Decheng to the message that Confucius has about not taking for granted the weaker section of the society. Confucius said, “The commander of the forces of a large state may be carried off, but the will of even a common man cannot be taken from him.” (Analects 9.26)