Tibetan Buddhist monk Phuntsok was known among his friends as a shy novice until one afternoon he marched into the street, soaked in kerosene, and set himself ablaze. Police rushed towards him, beat him to the ground with iron rods and doused the flames. By then the 20-year-old had already been consumed by fire.
This was on March 16 in Amdo Ngaba, eastern Tibet, the third anniversary of the 2008 Tibet uprising that killed 17 people. Today, the situation is controlled round the clock by armed police. The relationship between the State and Tibetans is that of fear and suspicion.
Beijing’s armed riot police – the People’s Armed Police (PAP) – tried to remove Phuntsok’s charred body to conceal evidence. Monks, nuns, nomads and farmers immediately formed a formidable wall around it. By evening, the PAP laid siege to Ngaba Kirti Monastery – Phuntsok’s alma mater. This 130-year-old monastery, with 2,500 monks, is one of the most influential centres of Buddhist learning in eastern Tibet and a place that set the trend of self-immolation into motion.
Protest by self-immolation was made iconic by Malcom Browne’s 1963 black-and-white image of a monk in flames during the Vietnam War. Thich Quang Duc’s immolation made history and was quickly emulated by many who later burnt themselves to protest America’s war against Communist North Vietnam. India registers about 1,500 cases of self-immolations annually, its most unforgettable instance being Rajiv Goswami, who set himself on fire on September 19, 1990 to protest against the recommendations of the Mandal Commission.
And then early this year, Mohamed Bouazizi, a poor vegetable vendor in Tunisia was slapped and humiliated by a municipal official. When the governor refused to meet him, Bouazizi warned: “If you don’t see me, I’ll burn myself”. The next day, he doused himself with gasoline and lit a match. That spark ignited anti-government demonstrations that spread like wildfire throughout West Asia and North Africa, leading to the overthrow of Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali, who had been in power for 23 years in Tunisia, and other dictators, like Hosni Mubarak and Muammar Gaddafi, elsewhere.
While Bouazizi’s act of self-immolation set in motion the Arab Spring, the first instance of self-immolation by a Buddhist monk happened in China way back in 397 AD.
India-educated, Canada-based Chinese historian Jan Yun-hua, in his essay ‘Buddhist Self-immolation in Medieval China’, quotes two Chinese biographers from the fifth and 10th centuries and records more than 50 monks attempting – or committing – self-immolation. The concept of wang-shen or yi-shen – literally meaning ‘abandon or lose the body’ – was inspired mostly by the Buddhist Lotus Sutra text imported from India. It relates the story of Bhaisajyaraja, who achieved bodhisattva-hood by setting himself on fire. It’s believed that, due to his deep devotion, the fire destroying his body lasted for 1,200 years.
What was only a theoretical act in India, became a tradition among devout Chinese Buddhists. In 570 AD, to protest against anti-Buddhist Emperor Wu of the Northern Chou Dynasty (557-81), monk Tao-Chi and seven friends starved themselves to death in today’s Sichuan Province. All these cases of self-immolations and hunger strikes happened long before Buddhism reached Tibet from India in the seventh century AD.
Last week, the spokesperson for Beijing’s foreign ministry labelled the Tibetan self-immolations as acts of “terrorism in disguise”. Mao’s Cultural Revolution may have rooted-out Buddhism in China but could not stem the hunger for spirituality among its citizens. Today, China’s youngsters seek Buddhist teachings elsewhere — mostly in Tibet; some even come to Dharamshala.
For a Buddhist, taking life — whether murder or suicide — is forbidden. Therefore, taking one’s own life amounts to destroying what is most sacred. Commenting on Thich Quang Duc’s self-immolation, the world-renowned Buddhist master, Thich Nhat Hanh, said: “Like the crucifixion of Jesus, his act expressed the unconditional willingness to suffer for the awakening of others.”