By Lobsang Wangyal
MCLEOD GANJ, India, 30 September 2016
John Whalen-Bridge is the author of a recent book, Tibet on Fire, which seeks to understand the social and personal causes of the Tibetan self-immolations. He has been living in Asia since 1993 — first for five years in Japan, and then in Singapore at the National University. He has been a Tibetan Buddhist practitioner since about 1985, taking refuge with Tai Situ Rinpoche. He has been connected with the Tibetan community for all that time, and has been serving on the volunteer committee of the Tibetan Buddhist Centre in Singapore. Tibet Sun interviewed him in McLeod Ganj when he was there on a visit earlier this month.
Why and when did you decide to write about the Tibetan self-immolations?
I was invited to come to the special International Friends of Tibet meeting in 2012. At the time the People’s Republic of China was having its Congress, and there were double and triple self-immolations happening inside Tibet. Almost one per day in November of that year.
At that meeting I started a group, the Association of Southeast Asian Friends of Tibet, and met many people who provided volunteer help as well as money donations.
But when it comes to raising awareness about the way in which these geopolitical realities affect how Tibetans move around in the world, it’s not impossible, but it’s really tricky to have discussions about that.
First I just wanted to write something short, for one of the Buddhist American magazines like Shambala Sun or Tricycle, and I found that very frustrating. I kept rewriting it, and the editor kept being not happy.
The problem was that I was really wanting to explain the Tibetan view, but the editor was really wanting to show the American readers themselves in the mirror.
So that’s when I decided that I wanted to write a book about this. That was let’s say, the beginning of 2013, and I began working on this in earnest.
I had already been writing about Tibetan protests, the 2008 protests, the Olympics, before there was anything like a wave of immolations.
My activist energy makes me write the book. But when I put my scholar hat on, I try to be as accurate as possible, and I want to tell the truth. I tried to be as complete as I can about the causes and conditions, and to understand them.
What interested you? What was your point of view for this book?
What interested me was that essentially the same story was told again and again in the newspaper. And you know if you are involved in any kind of political activism, you would like that very much, if you can keep the press interested in your story.
So I’m seeing it in the paper every day, about protesting monks. And I’m an English department professor — I think about patterns, symbolism. And I don’t think what happens in the books is apart from our lives.
I’ve been involved in political demonstrations in America. If the press doesn’t show up — everybody goes home! They get brunch that day, ok? There’s no point in holding the demonstration. So we would really try to get their attention, right, there’s this theatrical element.
So I studied the Tibetan protest movement, using a theory called ‘dramatism’, by a guy Dennis Burke, from the 20th century. Through the lens of dramatism, you look at any symbolic event as if it were a theatrical event, and examine motivations as we would in a play. And we really want to understand the mixture of motivations.
So when we want to understand a political event, we first think about the actor — who’s doing it, who they are, where they come from. That’s the actor, or the ‘agent’.
And we think about the act itself. There’s a difference between a self-immolation and a hanging. They’re very different kinds of acts, they affect our imaginations differently.
Then ‘agency’ is the means, how you do it. Maybe I kill myself for other people — so altruistic suicide is a category. But doing it by fire is ‘agency’.
But in the book I’m not just talking about that local kind of action. Also according to Kenneth Burke’s theory, four: there is ‘scene’, and five: ‘purpose’. People hold up a sign, such as “Let the Dalai Lama come to Tibet”, “Let us learn Tibetan language”, or “Study in Tibetan”, and so on.
And there’s the location, such as Kirti Monastery in Tibet. So the scene is important. And it’s a monk, not a lay person. These are the sort of things that shape the narrative.
I’m also looking at the distributed actor, the distributed scene. In other words, self-immolation wouldn’t exist without the agency of cell phones.
We have this technology, this means. And this goes all the way back to Thich Quang Duc in 1963 [Vietnamese monk who immolated himself to protest the persecution of Buddhists by the South Vietnamese government]. That event was planned for the media. They knew the cameras would be there.
If we talk about words like ‘rhetoric’, or ‘theatre’, or ‘staging’, it sounds like we’re saying there’s something fake about the motivation. That’s one worry I have about my title, that people will think, like, “enough of your rhetoric.” I don’t mean it that way at all — we all use rhetoric.
What’s important is, we have to understand that these things happen in that particular place, but it’s also a network of people that’s activated by this action.
So how do we get the story of the self-immolation, right? Something happens, say at Kirti Monastery. Somebody through WeChat gets a message to Dharamshala. Maybe Voice of America picks it up, Eventually Edward Wong writes a story for the New York Times. Then The Guardian sees that, they write that article. So there’s these networks.
But it’s not because a reporter goes there and asks people questions. That’s very important, in terms of what this means, why are people doing it this way.
What would you do to get people’s attention, if you had a complete news blackout, no reporters could go there? I think this is how we understand the evolution of self-immolation, why people start doing it on a broad scale.
So with all your connections and involvement with Tibetans and the Tibetan movement, and the tragedy, this is your report, Tibet on Fire.
Yes, I try to have as complete an understanding as I can. In one sense it’s about the self-immolation movement, from 2009 — from 1998 if you want to start at the very beginning. But, I’m starting with 2011, through 2014, 2015. And pretty much now it’s maybe twice a year it happens.
I talk about how we count it, how it was characterised. Also from the Chinese side, like Xinhua, how do they make sense of this.
People sometimes have the response: “Well they should find another way.” So many people have said such things along the way.
I gave a copy to His Holiness, and we had a nice little chat. And at one point he said, “Self-immolation as a political strategy, not very effective.”
So, we’re divided, right? In a way we want to say, “It’s not effective, don’t do it.” So, I have that strong feeling of responsibility.
I gave talks in 2012 at Central University of Tibetan Studies (CUTS). No matter what my talk was about, every single question in the the Q&A was: Do you think it’s Buddhist if someone self-immolates?
Here you have young Tibetan lay people, monks, nuns, studying together, learning Tibetan language, Tibetan history. These are going to be the most enthusiastic about maintaining Tibetan identity under duress. And when they’re asking these questions — the quavering in their voice — I’m feeling: I must be very careful in my answer.
What was interesting to me, they wouldn’t let me cop out, “Oh well, it’s like this, it’s good the motivation, you know …” “No, we want to know your answer,” they said.
And that impressed me, because these are very shy students, they’re not going to be speaking up so much. Yet they were challenging me and saying, your answer is unsatisfactory. So that was another motivation for writing the book, in 2012.
I told you before about how I went to the United Nations meeting in Hanoi [in 2007]. I went because I was interested in Thich Nhat Hanh and engaged Buddhism. And I was wondering, what do you say when you go to this totalitarian country — do you compromise on your message? What do you do? Because of course he wants to open doors for his monasteries, he wants certain outcomes from this event, so how’s it going to affect his speech? And he did a very nice job with that, he gave a good speech, it was very moving.
But the side story I didn’t expect had to do with the absence of Tibetan Buddhism at that event, with a few exceptions.
I had taken some pictures of one Rinpoche who was on a panel with me. And when I went back to Singapore, my friend Ngawang (he’s one of the two people this book is dedicated to), he said, “Show me Tibetan, I want to see pictures of Tibetan.”
So I showed him pictures of Wangchen Rinpoche, who teaches in Italy. I had no idea who this rinpoche was, he’s a very nice rinpoche, he says, “peace is better than war” and all these things that people say. So I was very surprised when I showed a Tibetan rinpoche to my friend Ngawang — and he “ptah!”, he spit on my computer.
I was very shocked by this. Ngawang is an ex-monk, he’s very devout, he’s very lively but very devout. “What are you talking about, what’s going on?” I asked him.
And he said “Shugden. Shugden!” So I started to research this, and I was offended by the way in this world meeting — which is where Buddhists represent themselves, it should be a Buddhist club, they should have their own voice — it’s strongly conditioned by China. Chinese money power.
I don’t know what the deal was with the Vietnamese government, but there was that whole story about, “Oh we sent an invitation to the Dalai Lama, I guess it got lost in the mail.” Gee I guess they didn’t have email in 2008, you know, couldn’t sort that one out, the letter got lost.
So I started to research that. And then in 2008 the world wave of protests, the Tibetan monks within Tibet, and also in exile, were protesting, and that’s when I began to look at theatre and drama, to understand the movement in this way. What was the particular effect say, of a Dalai Lama statement. The Chinese are construing him as in control of everything that happens. And he says, “I’m not in control, remember, we had to leave! I’m not in control of what happens in Tibet, you are! Why don’t you look at yourself,” he would say.
So if we think of him as a kind of director, the Chinese are accusing him of controlling all the actions — I think there’s a point to that, some truth to that, not a whole truth to that, but …
When the riots happened, I think in Lhasa, in April 2008 was it? The riots in which, we don’t know for sure, 18 to 22 people died, Han shopkeepers, maybe some Muslims — these are the kinds of stories, dependent on Chinese news. So what did the Dalai Lama say then? “You stop this violence or I quit.” It was a very strong statement.
So later on with the self-immolation movement, we have that dilemma of how to respond. And I was paying attention to the way in which the western press would try to understand this.
When there was this wave of self-immolations, and people started to wonder, why isn’t the Dalai Lama saying something about this, to stop it? How did you read that?
Well, I look at the relationship, these different categories: Where did the events happen? Always in public, never in private. This is not a private act of despair. If all I want is just to end my life, I’ll just go into some room and do it.
The very first letter from Thich Naht Hanh to Martin Luther King was explaining self-immolation, because Martin Luther King didn’t understand it, in 1965.
And the very first thing that Thich Naht Hanh said was, “The wish of these monks is not to not exist.” They don’t wish to not exist.
So I began to think about the logic of this. If you think about self-immolation as an individual act, then it is entirely questionable from a Buddhist point of view. If you think of it as a serial act, if you think of it as part of a network, that clues you in to the degree to which these people are speaking on behalf of a silent community, getting a message across, when there is strictly no way to get the message across.
Now we’re looking at lone protests, right? Not self-immolations. I try to talk about why self-immolation ends, as well as why it begins when it does.
The short answer is, collective punishment. Like the Nazis used. You know, your brother self-immolates? You’re going to go to jail and get tortured, so’s your mom, so’s your dad, that’s collective punishment, and that’s been the response. Oh a monk from your monastery self-immolates? Half your monks go off to political re-education in trucks. That’s what people report.
So to try to understand it collectively … I guess what I wanted to try to maybe explain to my readers. And I’m really not so much writing this book to explain self-immolation to people in Dharamshala, but I’m trying to explain it to people who maybe feel sympathetic about Tibet, but they feel really befuddled, they say, why doesn’t the Dalai Lama just say no.
And I think, part of the answer is, we sometimes think about the other-worldly aspects of Buddhist spirituality — ultimate, as opposed to relative reality. And we sometimes undervalue the importance of just relative reality. The human body is the basis of our practice, so you shouldn’t kill yourself because your body contains … you know, this is tantric practice, right? You contain gods within you, you commit suicide, you kill a million Buddhas: this is tantric teaching about suicide. However, to defend the possibility of defending dharma against its nemesis: That’s ok.
So I talk about some of the monks who disrobed in order to fight against the Chinese, back in the 50s and 60s. Now was that effective? No not very much. They tell stories about ten men with a hundred bullets, and three guns, and we’re going to go out and battle a Chinese battalion.
One of these elderly monks was saying this, with a laugh. The interesting thing to me was: He was a monk, he disrobed, he re-ordained. Now you know as well as I do, I can’t say, ok I want to have a girl friend for a while, and now I want to re-ordain. In vinaya you can; in Tibetan culture you cannot. So there is this exception because they’re defending the dharma. You can look at that kind of historical evidence.
And then I looked — what are the prayers that people are told they have to practice every day. So if you think then, monks and nuns in monasteries inside Tibet are forced to speak against the Dalai Lama, to say “I am not a follower the Dalai Lama.” Strictly speaking, in the vows, they have promised six times a day for so many years, that they would at the cost of their life not do that.
Now we could be very practical and sympathetic, and we could say, “It’s ok to lie to liars.” No one would blame the people for doing this.
I’m not trying to promote the act. I’m not saying, hey young persons at CUTS, please go set yourself on fire. I want the opposite to happen. And at the same time, although this might sound contradictory, I want to understand as clearly as I can, the speech of the person who has chosen to sacrifice themselves.
So I would talk to teachers sometimes, and privately if I talked to a high-level Buddhist, he might say “no cannot be Buddhist, no cannot.” But what if a hundred do it? What if a thousand do it? So there’s this sequential logic, this mathematical rhetoric.
And I talk about that quite a bit. All of those activist web pages, they keep a running count. And you know when we’re in a period of increase, that’s a rhetoric of emergency. If I tell you about an emergency, and you don’t respond, you can’t think of yourself as a good person, right? So I can pressure you with my narrative in this way.
What’s very interesting, for me, is that even though people disagree with self-immolation as a premise, Americans accept that some Asians do this, because they think it is normal in their culture. They do not accept it when an American does it.
The community in Amherst Massachusetts was quite divided when someone committed a suicide by self-immolation to protest the beginning of the first Gulf War. He did it out in Amherst Common. I went looking all around for the marker about this man sacrificing. Nothing.
Now they did have a little marker, for a peace group about the Vietnam War, and they would just sit there and do a silent vigil every day. So that kind of protest was accepted.
I don’t think an individual case would ever get that support. But if it were a movement, that erases the kind of motivation that a Xinhua “journalist” would put forward, who would say mentally ill, depressed, drugs, family issues.
So a series of monks was rhetorically very strong, and everybody’s got their web page with the count.
They would keep these counts to entice people to pay attention and to care about these issues. The numbers in that sense, so long as they lead to a sense of urgency, help keep the story, very often on the front page of say, the New York Times.
When the death was not by fire: No story. There was one article recently about a young woman, a nun, who hung herself. But there were many many suicides of this sort, protest suicides, in 2008. They didn’t get any attention whatsoever.
So if we want to ask, why would somebody do this thing, where they die the most painful death imaginable — if somebody just wants to end their life, there’s lots of ways to do it that hurt less.
The fire metaphor works its way into all the journalist accounts. “Tibet on Fire.” Woeser and I have the same titles for our book. (I didn’t know her book was coming out, her book came out a little before.) But there were many articles with this title, “Tibet on Fire”.
Those stories, we can think of it almost like Darwinism — some narratives survive and some don’t. And this kind of protest method, although we can’t really say “oh please go do it” — we can see why it happens: Because it works.
People take these pictures, they send them across, and as long as the events were happening at a certain rate, they stayed in the news. When it becomes a bi-annual thing, it doesn’t happen.
So what, according to you, to your reading and understanding, what is the general message that self-immolators are trying to give, and what do you think they are trying to achieve, through this very painful way of death?
That reminds me of what His Holiness said this morning: “It was not very effective.” And that’s what many people said when they urged, in their newspaper columns, His Holiness to say, “This is a bad thing.”
Well, if we look at the statements people make, they’re often “let the Dalai Lama come back to Tibet”, or sometimes something very specific about Tibetan language, or culture, something like that.
When did it happen the most? It happened the most when the Chinese People’s Congress was meeting. That’s when it was a daily event.
So we can’t really deny that it was a message, if we look at it in terms of what are the symbolic positions, the subject positions, who is speaking to whom? We have people speaking for Tibet. Are they saying, “hey China please make things better”, or are they saying, “hey Western powers, look at what China’s doing.”
One idea there, is that the principal message is a complaint about Chinese oppression because of the clampdowns after the 2008 protests.
This is indisputable. The Chinese were enraged at the way in which Tibetan activists around the world with the flame of truth were spoiling their soft-power party with the Olympics.
China knows very little about how to do soft power, but their Olympic opening was impressive, and the world said look at that wonderful, incredible theatrical display. It was China’s moment in the sun, and they were enraged by the Tibetan protests.
Woeser and Wang Lixong, they both wrote about this in the French book (that came out before Tibet on Fire) which I used a lot as a source.
They spoke a lot about the real anger of the Chinese: “Monks are bad news”. The Chinese have this idea about Tibetans: “They’re going to make us look bad.” “They are bad Chinese people.” That’s how they look at them.
If we look at it that way, it seems foolish that someone would self-immolate to affect China. Anybody who’s paying attention, knows that China is paying as little attention as possible. China is really just waiting for the Dalai Lama’s life to end, so they can do a whole new kind of splittism. Like they did with the Panchen Lama — they would want to recognise a different one, they’re going to try to make desperate people in Tibet accept any kind of Dalai Lama. That’s the plan. If there’s any kind of behind-the-scenes real dialogue going on, I haven’t heard about it.
Lodi Gyari, giving a speech at the National University of Singapore, spoke about prior times, when there were back-channel discussions, but I don’t think there are many at the present moment.
So anybody paying attention knows that speaking to China about these issues is like talking to a wall. So that makes it seem like very ineffective.
What was interesting to me, and what I started to pay more and more attention to, what does this mean as a kind of Tibetan-to-Tibetan communication? So I began to think about, what somebody is doing, when they maybe wrap themselves in a Tibetan flag, like in New Delhi, or hold up a sign, or a picture of the Dalai Lama …
Inside Tibet, they’re being told, become Chinese, right? go to Chinese university, get a job, speak in a Beijing accent, this maybe is a path to success.
So we have some people say, I will be Tibetan at all costs. No matter the cost, you can’t stop me from doing that. As a symbolic action. A whole community can’t do that, because, well you know, the PRC spends more money on internal security than external security, and that means the police state pressure, especially in Tibet.
So you can stop a group of people from being Tibetan. You can, in that sense, commit cultural genocide. We want to destroy the nation, right? Definitions of genocide, coming out of World War II and the Nazis, in the mid-40s, these definitions that were being developed, were not the biocide of killing all the people, although that’s what Hitler wanted to do, and that’s what the Nazi high command wanted to do, wipe out every single Jew.
But the definition of genocide is really the destruction of a people. So if we can make you Chinese instead of Tibetan, make you forget about that stuff that causes us trouble, then we can do what we want in these regions without resistance, and we won’t have that international problem and that embarrassment.
So in that sense, the existential act of destroying yourself in order to prove that Tibetan identity exists — it’s almost not a suicide, if you look at it at the communal level. Now this can sound like I’m saying oh it’s very good, go do it … I think if we want to be as honest as possible, the truths that we collect are a little contradictory. We want to say don’t do it, it’s not effective. But the other ways that you assert yourself, maybe they won’t get into the international press, like Lhakar, White Wednesday, maybe this is an important action and people can do it.
But there is the very serious threat to Tibetan identity, and the relationships between Tibetans in China and in the exile community, are in a sense activated by these stories.
A movement needs some successes, or some actions that they deem successful. I think this is why people could not come out and say, “this is wrong, this is bad.”
So I asked some lamas, who are really apolitical. They won’t say anything bad about the Chinese, including Garchen Rinpoche, who was in prison for 20 years.
His message is, I’m going to overcome hatred. He won’t even complain about the Chinese in that way So I asked him about this and he mentioned, when he was in the prison camp, he worked with his guru secretly.
Some people weren’t taking that approach, and one guy in the bed next to him committed suicide. So I asked him about that, you’ve described suicide as a very terrible thing, and I’m writing this book about self-immolation.
And as soon as the translator got that far, he came right back and said, there’s no comparison between these.
So even for the people, the Tibetan leaders, who are not interested in being political, maybe because they want to find a way to go teach in Tibet, the ones who are least political, when you talk about the quality of that act — They can’t say these are bad people.
What the Dalai Lama said to the first self-immolator in 1998 was, “Don’t go into the bardo with hatred in your mind.”
So if you think of the quality of the act in that way, I think one of the things that maybe made it more problematic then say the Thich Quang Duc one, which reached around the world.
Remember, he was sitting in the lotus position, him and a can of gasoline looking very peaceful, and in a sense he was “performing Buddha”, in a way that someone running down the street with an agonized look on his face, maybe with a Tibetan flag in his hand, something like that — it sort of raises this question, is it Buddhist or not Buddhist. It didn’t really appeal to the Orientalist imagination in quite the same way, where, “oh those Buddhist people, because they don’t think life is important, can do that.” Which of course is ridiculous.
In that sense, there’s a lot of debate about the act, but that’s also part of what kept the story alive.
What is interesting, yes, that may be there is a Buddhist point of view, or may not be a Buddhist point of view, but the point is, they are trying to achieve something irrespective of whether it’s a religious act or not. They’re trying to give a message, as well as achieve something. That is the essence. What do you have to say about that?
I think about those students asking that question.
The young man who attempted self-immolation in Delhi, he burned his leg pretty bad — Sherab. He gave a talk, at Varanasi, and there were 700 people in the hall, the teachers, the students — so this was on everybody’s mind. And he gave his talk, and I was very impressed by his composure. And he was in this position of saying, “I feel really bad that I failed.”
This one man went to the microphone, “How can you say this is Buddhist, this isn’t Buddhist, I really don’t agree that this is Buddhist, why don’t you just say that this not Buddhist.”
And Sherab just said, “Well thank you for your point of view. We think differently about this.” He didn’t want to see it as a contradiction in that way.
I think that’s kind of in line with what I’m saying about these Buddhist teachers. They might want to draw the line and say “no, killing is wrong”, but when they take the particular act of killing and consider motivation — motivation is always more important than anything else that happens, in terms of Tibetan, Vajrayana ethics, right? Motivation is really more important than what you do.
So in terms of the motivation, in this sense, it’s very hard for any Tibetan to come out and say, “don’t do this”, when people have done it.
I think the Karmapa did say that, “Don’t do it any more.” Lobsang Sangay responded that way, when I asked him about it: “We tell people to not even protest.”
We’re talking about political speech. I’m not trying to call out somebody’s contradiction. If you’re a diplomat you have to deal in contradictions. So I don’t want this to sound like I’m making a sniping remark. But there’s a doubleness to saying, “we say don’t do it,” but in very many ways we are in a sense celebrating it because it is attracting world attention to our problem in a way that we really need.
So I think that kind of contradictoriness is something the Dalai Lama tried to avoid. He would qualify, he would say, “Well, it’s not violent, in the sense that they’re not hurting someone else, but it’s definitely a little bit violent.” He would question it, he would say “it’s ineffective.” But he would never say, “the person who did it did a bad thing.”
That’s very hard for some people to understand: It’s like, you did a bad thing or you didn’t. That’s kind of how Western ethics is, it’s kind of essentialist. Whereas this thing where you separate the motivation and the act, where “I don’t agree what you’re doing and don’t do it, but I can’t say you did a bad thing” — that just doesn’t translate through the eight to ten column inches that you might get in a story. You know, it’s a whole philosophical essay.
The Chinese government, what kind of message do you think they are getting? Tibetans have written their last words, some are shouting slogans, before they collapse in flames. Is the Chinese government getting any message out of this? What is their position?
No. They’ve got their fingers in their ears, as far as I can tell. I don’t see any disposition towards listening and dialogue whatsoever. I see the opposite everywhere.
Tibetans want to have dialogue with China. I think that’s perfectly ok to say as a performance — you’re performing reasonableness. But to actually believe that there’s a listener over there … it’s like these people have cut their ears off and thrown them away. They couldn’t listen if they wanted to. It’s like they’ve deafened themselves. That’s the quality of the communication from the Xinhua side.
It’s almost self-brutalisation, the rhetoric that comes from them. If you study how Communist party line rhetoric and communication works, like “running dogs” — there’s always this vilification of the opponent. There’s never “the respected opposition”. Anybody who doesn’t agree with them is garbage, right?
People who go to college and come back have got to have some sense of how people who read this rhetoric in English and French and German and Spanish and Japanese, how they’re going to think, how they are going to hear it. And it just discredits them, the way in which they respond.
So that’s a little bit paranoid world view — there’s the “slice the melon” idea: “The West just wants to slice us like a melon.”
An ordinary student in Beijing, maybe he studies politics, and you say, “what do you think of Tibet?” They’re almost invariably going to have this hardline position about it.
Chinese nationalism is not to be underestimated. The pride people feel in the rise of China, is usually accompanied by mistrust of other countries, that they would be wanting to see China blocked. In part because of their history, Opium Wars, things like that. But really — that was 1840, right? You have to deal with the reality of the present day.
So in terms of communication with China, I just don’t think there’s anything really to be gained there. I think that Tibetans have to think that whatever they say in public, whatever performances are necessary, if one is wanting to be as strategically effective as possible — what are the realities.
I would say, until China has an economic stumble, China has this huge leverage in the world, and they’ve got something that might look like soft power, but it’s really money power. It’s compulsion, rather than persuasion.
So that’s what we see: The Dalai Lama dis-invited to Sydney University. Until there was another protest, and the University was embarrassed into recanting that.
That had to do with the Confucius Institute, ah, learn language, learn culture. So that’s supposedly soft power, but it’s not, it was used to attempt to enforce a policy of Tibetan exclusion.
That was a kind of a Tibetan victory: People started to speak out against Confucius Institutes, things like that, that’s a kind of victory that can be had.
But to get back to your earlier question, what can be achieved — I don’t think anything can be achieved in terms of communication with China.
Something might be achieved in terms of communication with people in other countries.
The completely overlooked part is what happens in the communication between Tibetans.
It’s like this — the other thing that people do when they go to church or go to temple, is they participate together in a communal activity together. And that’s not too different from people enjoying an artistic event. We have sort of acts of identification: I identify with you because we do this thing together. Just talk and dialogue doesn’t necessarily bring people together — if you really want people to get along and they’re nervous, give them an activity, make them go to work together.
Self-immolation, by activating these networks, creates a Tibetan identity. And this is a broader pattern.
What if the Chinese had never gone into Tibet, would there be a unified single Tibet? U-Tsang, Amdo, Kham — we have this sense if we look at the history, that Tibet is kind of one thing, and it’s kind of three things. Well, it’s one thing now! This is an ironic side-effect of the Chinese activity. Tibetans don’t really have time to think about, are there three. There is the matter of representing different regions in the Parliament, but people don’t look at the Tibetan flag and think it’s Kham instead of Amdo, do they?
So in a sense, identities don’t just grow on trees, especially if we look at it from a Buddhist point of view. They arise, they’re impermanent. Tibetan identity is impermanent, and people are trying to protect it.
So one thing self-immolators did is create a basis for a kind of communion: Protesting together, marching, following a candle, having the funeral, this is a kind of communal ritual.
One of the things the Chinese authorities do, is not release the body of a self-immolator. They cremate it in private and throw the ashes away. Because they know very well that the funeral procession is not going to be a neutral act. It’s not merely about a family grieving. It’s about the strengthening of a communal identity — which they mean to destroy.
So in that sense the self-immolator is participating in what in many ways seems a doomed struggle, but that’s part of what makes the act very compelling: “Yes it’s doomed, but I’m still going to be Tibetan.”
That’s I think part of what’s going on.
What’s going to happen in the future, what’s going to happen now … I suppose it’s a political bardo period, it’s sort of in-between, there was that movement, and I guess there are the individual protests going on now, where somebody doesn’t self-immolate, but they get themselves arrested and tortured. They’re going to get the crap kicked out of them. If you hold up a sign “I love the Dalai Lama” — they’re not going to take you out to lunch for that.
How do you think the international community, in the sense of the media, government, human rights groups, reacted to this wave of self-immolations? Are they really thinking that this really will not work, are they ignoring it, do they really sympathise. Even if we burn a little part of our finger, we feel like, wow, it’s terrible! And here, a person’s whole body is in flames! So what did you find?
Well there’s two sides to that.
The first thing is, “what do they think?” And they could be in India, America, Europe — as opposed to the network of voices that we’ll just call “the Free Tibet movement”. They’re not all signatories in the same club — sometimes they have different approaches: rangzen, middle-way, this, that. You can put them on whatever spectrum, but the Free Tibet movement, whether it’s the CTA government or an NGO or Tibet House in New York or a sympathetic journalist who continues to write with a certain point of view, that story line — there’s that Free Tibet movement, putting out that message, and I think on the whole people are sympathetic to the Tibetan cause in this way.
In this sense, a message is sent to that audience outside Tibet, which is pretty well received.
Now will there be some action about it? Not very much, right? If China is the banker for the United States, you’re going to get some statements. We don’t have to call that complete failure.
OK. If you go to a Brazilian ju-jitsu class, your first lesson has three parts —
* one: don’t make your position worse.
* two: maintain what you have, in terms of a good position.
* three: improve your position.
There, I give you lesson one, ju-jitsu.
So in terms of “maintaining position”, I think this is what Tibetan culture in exile has to be doing — for a long time. And if they understand it that way, then maybe there’s going to be less burnout about, oh we didn’t get the home run, we didn’t go and win the game, we didn’t reverse the Chinese policy, we didn’t get the UN statement.
Of course maintaining isn’t as good as winning and improving the situation. But it’s better than going into a worse position — like our ju-jitsu lesson. And this is something that I wish I would hear more about, this kind of strategic thinking. Because I think we too quickly accept the parameters of the large geopolitical picture: China’s not going to do this, and the other countries aren’t going to make it, and so Tibet’s going to be stuck in this situation.
We’re sort of thinking in that short-term timeline. Which we do have to — we have to think 5 years and 10 years. But it’s also going to be 50 years maybe, until China stumbles in the right way. If you want to have Tibet returning to Tibet. Nothing lasts forever, but that doesn’t mean it happens quickly.
That was part of His Holiness’ response this morning.
Another thing he said, kind of wanting to affirm the worth of my book, very kindly, but at the same time, wanting to qualify, “I think that the act itself was not very effective, but many brave people …”
But then he said, “but I believe a strong Tibetan spirit, peaceful, tenacious, going to be strong in the face of adversity, I think that’s going to last centuries and centuries.”
So I said, “ok, you please stay with us for centuries.”
You know, part of this rhetoric is, “I might not come back.” Which is strategically, something that has to be said, for when China says, “we found the new Dalai Lama.”
So one side of what you were asking about before is: “What do people outside …” OK, we’re going to roughly divide the pie into three parts — The PRC, Tibetans in China and wherever, and then England, America, what other parts of the world.
Not so much Africa. Some people in South America. But all these places where there is some sort of international jury of opinion, maybe this can have some effect in the long run.
So in this sense, you ask me, what do the people who are not Tibetans and not Chinese think? I think when monks and nuns set themselves on fire, there’s a set of people who say, “It’s wrong, and if you say anything other than it’s wrong, you are helping people kill themselves.”
It’s called the Werther effect — Goethe, the German writer, wrote The Sorrows of Young Werther, in which a lot of people kill themselves in the end. ‘The Werther Effect’, is where you get all these other suicides.
So some people criticise the Dalai Lama for not emphatically saying that self-immolation is unacceptable. They say he is contributing to these deaths, and that is also non-Buddhist. You see how the Buddhist card is kind of a slippery playing field in this way
So there’s a set of people who say that. But also, in the court of public opinion, the self-immolation movement got a lot of people to understand that conditions in Tibet are terrible.
So in that sense, maybe it’s a successful message. Not at changing what happens in China, but in a sense maintaining the position of Tibetans in the mind of people who read about a new disaster every day. It’s Syrian refugees right now, and it’s going to be the Anthropocene and climate change disaster. There are so many issues, and there really are.
Then there’s the other side, which is how Tibetans feel about the Western response.
Lobsang Sangay was saying to me that he thought the coverage was insufficient. Which, ok, it’s going to be insufficient until Tibet is free, right? In some sense there’s a built-in default mechanism where if you’re making a political complaint because you want someone to comply with your wishes, it’s never enough until you get what you want.
If we look at self-immolations comparatively, like — you’ve got Indian farmers commiting suicide, thousands every year. It doesn’t fit the definition of “Tibetan self-immolation” as a specific category of event, that little box I make. Tibetan self-immolation is “altruistic suicide by fire in a public place, so that the images can have an effect somewhere else.” You don’t get people doing it in private, but usually in front of a temple, in front of a police station, in front of some significant marker.
How many American soldiers are committing suicide every year because of PTSD?
When we think about the narratives moving into a kind of a “news ecology”, how do they survive, what happens?
I would say if you’re going to be cold-hearted, numerical, objective, and look at statistics, the fact that 150 plus one or two self-immolations got the attention they did, reflects a predisposition to be sympathetic to the Tibetan situation.
I can see why somebody would say it’s not getting enough attention, this is really a huge emergency. But if you think about billions of news consumers around the world — they’re not going to read anything about farmers or other people who for economic reasons feel despair, in Sri Lanka, in India, where there’s a huge suicide rate.
There was one farmer who climbed a tree and set himself on fire, and it kind of made its way around. You saw it on Facebook, you saw it on the news maybe. So there’s something about this dramatic aspect, these kinds of underlying conditions of political protest, that make some messages more durable, they can survive the compassion fatigue in that news ecology.
So I myself, I wonder what will happen in the future. I think Tibetan protest is in a kind of bardo (in-between) moment in this way. So we just don’t know what will come next.
I have one last question. So far there have been about 150 self-immolators. What could we do, not just the Tibetans, also the Tibetan supporters, to remember them, remember the self-immolators and to honour them? What would be the best thing to do?
I’m going to make my comment very specifically to you: You’re an artiste, you’re an impresario, you’re in film festivals, you’re a sort of cultural information worker. My advice to you, Lobsang Wangyal, is like this:
There’s a time for the immediate effect, and the bumper sticker. And the most immediate is when someone shows someone a picture of someone on fire.
You notice in the book I use drawings. The picture on fire reminds me too much of the abortion movement where people are using shocking photos of a fetus, and I don’t know — I understand why it happens, but I want to be one step back from that. I want to remind the reader, this isn’t just direct reality in a photograph: Everything is shaped in a way.
So for example, in this picture, of this statue, at the Dalai Lam’s temple? It’s a drawing, and you don’t have the other ceramic statues behind it. It’s clearer. That’s really what the news is, there’s an artistic and theatrical dimension to this information, and we often have this positivist idea, it’s just the facts.
But, emptiness, right, everything is emptiness. The news isn’t really just the facts, it’s really governed by point of view, and causes and conditions.
So in the immediate event it’s a matter of getting information from some village, through WeChat, into Dharamshala, without those people getting in trouble. So there has to be some secrecy — and it’s kind of atypical for reporters to report these things without sources, right? How to you verify things, there’s this uncertainty — Well that’s what I mean by the moment, the immediate moment, the conflagration, the shock.
So in answer to your question, I think there are Tibetan artistes and filmmakers, and what we do when we put a lot of attention into a representation — that’s what an artiste does, that’s what a scholar does. “I’m going to make a book about something.” I call that ‘enshrinement’. I value something, I’m going to put a lot of energy into it, I’m going to make this sign, this representation, survive a little better than something else.
What’s the difference between literature and peripheral information, or a good TV show or anything is: How well does it defy time? It’s all impermanent, but some things are less impermanent than others.
So I would say, how can you make the message, how can you in a sense, defeat the Chinese money-power-cultural-censorship?
The story in Hollywood is, all these Tibet movies were coming out — this is part of an article on Buddhist film festivals.
You know, the “Buddha Boom”, right? Kundun — monetarily a big flop. and what are some of the other movies that came out, Little Buddha. There was a cluster of serious artistes making these films. And then China comes in and blocks it. That’s one story — they hired Henry Kissinger; some people feel that this film was not supported. It’s also possible that Kundun didn’t do as well because it didn’t have a star factor, it didn’t have Brad Pitt.
The point is, there’s a kind of ideological war, or an art war. A war of words, a war of representations. A ‘struggle’ if you don’t like ‘war’.
So what happens is, people write about these things, and what helps the message endure through time is higher quality. So if somebody is “just” a Tibetan filmmaker, or “just” a Tibetan writer, they really have to up their game, and go into a different market.
I think that would be what should be attempted. Getting people to gather their resources so they can try to defeat this kind of censorship.
The Hollywood films came to a stop. The films about Tibetan Buddhism, came pretty much to a dead stop in the early 90s. But the documentaries, it’s like Moore’s law, twice as many every year.
This Buddhist film group in the Netherlands — there’s no lack of new videos, if you’re having these films. So that tells us the interest hasn’t gone away, but the means of representation has in a way. So maybe there will be some sort of tipping point, where people get fed up with some things.
At some point, I’m going to write an article about this, called “Kung Fu Pandering”.
I’ll spoil my article, i’ll give all the good stuff away now. Kung Fu Panda — the animated hollywood film about a panda — is a direct attempt to appeal to the Chinese market. Ok, why not. Why shouldn’t Hollywood people looking at their bottom line, want an international sales figure as well as an American market?
So they make a movie about a motley crew of goofball heroes who fight evil — and the evil animal in Kung Fu Panda is a snow leopard!
Well, I associate the snow leopard strongly with Tibet. Maybe because I’ve read Peter Matthiessen’s book called The Snow Leopard, which is a kind of a Buddhist quest. It seems to me very odd to make a film in which an endangered animal is the villain. Isn’t that really strange.
My Indian graduate student, she’s from Chennai, was saying, “You’re paranoid,” And she’s a good student, she’s calling me on this, she’s saying, everything to you is Tibet and the Dalai Lama and China!
Then Kung Fu Panda II comes out. I say to her: guess who the villain is. And she immediately says “o my god you’re right.” Because, the villain in Kung Fu Panda II — a peacock. India, right?
So they’re trying to appeal to this market, but first, the snow leopard, then, a peacock? WTF, a peacock is a villain? Whoever in their right mind thought of a peacock animal as a villain. Even in literature the peacock is a mythic animal, eats the poison, a holy animal.
So I call that “Kung Fu Pandering”.
OK, you want to have a Chinese market, but the thing is, your popular culture should reflect your fears and desires, and what we have is a kind of a warped landscape. We’ve got that movie with Sandra Bullit, where she eventually makes it back to earth because she gets into the Chinese spaceship. And we get the mars movie with Matt Damon, where, “oh the nice Chinese people give up their spaceship to save one American.” As if! Not in a million years right?
We still have Russian bad guys; maybe we’re a little more careful but not really about Palestinians, evil bombers, like that. But in this sense it’s money-power. They won’t have the Chinese villain.
Even though, if you look at American headlines about Chinese economy, and how much we owe them, all that, of course China. Of course we’re in a cold war, but we don’t know it, because people are being paid to say something else. I find that very insidious.