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Self Immolations in Tibet, Hunger Strikers in New York

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Bending religion to suit politics or just going with the Buddhist flow?

Buddhists are taught that every infinitesimal particle within any living organism is a potential Buddha. "Do not kill" is a main Buddhist precept. As you read these words, in New York City, three Tibetan Buddhists, two laymen and one a reincarnated lama, are defying this main Buddhist principal. They are destroying their health, murdering millions of brain cells and ruining their bodies. It is day 21 of an "Indefinite Hunger Strike." They do so in solidarity and representation of the suffering their fellow Tibetans bear under the Chinese regime, on the Tibetan plateau.

A young mother and two teenagers in Tibet are the most recent of 19 suicides by self-immolation. Fourteen have occured in 2012. There have been 26 self-immolations, mostly by nuns and monks. Interestingly, these tragedies coincide with the Dalai Lama's resignation from public office. He was the political leader of Tibet until March 14, 2011. Until then, there had been two self immolations in Tibet.

The hunger strikers sent a five-point appeal to the U.N.. The main two are: 1) Send a fact-finding delegation to Tibet to examine human rights violations and 2) that China open the border to international journalists. The hunger strikers won't stop fasting until these basic demands are satisfied by the U.N. For now, the solidarity toward them is strong.

4,000 Tibetans March in New York

March 10 marked the 53rd anniversary of the Tibetan 1959 uprising in Lhasa, the nation's capital, against the Chinese invasion. That was the same month His Holiness the Dalai Lama, age 24, fled Lhasa and Tibet seeking refuge in friendly India, the birthplace of Buddhism. This March 10 also marks the first time the Dalai Lama did not address Tibetans on the anniversary. Instead, it seems the people spoke for themselves. Across the world Tibetans showed up en-masse, in major cities where free speech is permitted. According to official Tibetan sources, in New York, 4,000 of the 6,000 local Tibetans gathered in Brooklyn, marched to U.N. Plaza, rallied there, marched across 42nd Street to the Chinese Consulate and finally assembled for a candlelight vigil, in Union Square. At the U.N. Plaza, the 11th Shingza Rinpoche, the tulku or reincarnated lama, delivered a stirring speech, moving many Tibetans to tears. He spoke of the unbearable conditions that Tibetans inside China endure. He spoke of self-immolated nuns and monks inside Tibet, who have no other way to protest and plea to the world besides setting themselves on fire, and he spoke on behalf of his two companion hunger strikers and himself and their resolve to "fast to death" to stop the suffering and human rights violations in Tibet. That was day 19 of this hunger strike. By then the strikers could no longer walk without the aid of helpers and a wheelchair.

Tsewang Rigzin, president of Tibetan Youth Congress, the largest Tibetan NGO in the world, traveled from Dharamsala, India, home of the Dalai Lama in exile, to coordinate the Hunger Strike. According to Rigzin, "Buddhists do not believe in harming others. The Chinese have imposed undeclared Marshall Law. We have no freedom of speech, no freedom to practice religion, right to protest or to assemble. We are forced to denounce the Dalai Lama and desecrate his image. There is torture and imprisonment. We can't go out on the streets to protest. There is no other non-violent way for us to protest in Tibet, other than to kill ourselves, to self-immolate."

Inside China

The Dalai Lama states that in mainland China a burgeoning intellectual community questions what has happened to the Tibetans. Many Chinese outside China are speaking critcally about China's Tibetan policy. Senior journalist and Chinese media expert Zhang Weiguo of NTDTV says, "Self-immolation is the result of Communist Party of China's violence. Tibetans are suffering from unprecedented restrictions in religious thinking, spiritual and physical persecution." Many feel that destruction and damage to Tibetan religion and culture, in China, is much more concealed than before. Weiguo: "The CCP wants to change Tibet and Tibetans into Chinese. It says it respects Tibetan culture, but actually it destroys and eradicates them in the name of so-called religious freedom."

The U.N. and Moral Support for the Hunger Strikers

On Tuesday, Day 20 in New York, the U.N. Assistant Secretary General for Human Rights, Ivan Simonovic, crossed First Avenue to visit the hunger strikers and to invite Tibetan Youth Congress president, Tsewang Rigzin, to his office at the U.N.

"Mr Simonovic officially received me and assured me that he would bring our five-point appeal to the attention of Secretary General Ban Ki-moon and to the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights," Rigzin said. "I described the situation inside Tibet and we discussed the three hunger strikers' conditions. He was genuinely concerned." Rigzin and the strikers were encouarged.

Richard Gere, actor/activist, together with Lama Kyongla Ratu and monk, Nicholas Vreeland, visited the strikers last Thursday, bringing moral support and media cachet. Doctor Yang Jianli, Ph.D., Political Economy, Harvard University, who was imprisoned for five years in China following his Tiananmen Square position against its policies on Tibet, visited several times, as has Jun Wang, Chairman of China Democracy Party.

As of this writing, Fred Kirumgi, information officer for the U.N. Assistant Secretary General for Human Rights, speaking on behalf of Ivan Simonovic, said, "Mr. Simonovic has submitted the petition to our offices in Geneve and there are mechanisms through which it must pass before there is any news."

Tibetan New Year and Today

Traditionally, Losar or Tibetan New Year is a time of song and festivity, but this past February 22 it was a day of solemn prayer for Tibet, by Tibetans worldwide.

For Buddhists, compassion and not harming others are basic human and spiritual guidelines. It seems that under the inhumane and genocidal conditions, inside Tibet, there is no freedom of speech. Media has been cut off and foreign tourists banned. Out of desperation, in the spirit of altruism and the wish for freedom and humanity, we're told, Tibetan victims take their own lives and not those of others. In 2,000 years of Tibetan history, this level of self-sacrifice is unprecedented. This is their last prayer.

It seems that the Dalai Lama's absence from politics this past year has made room for Tibetans to take strong initiative, an interesting result of the high lama's resignation. As Tibetans are coming up to speed with democracy, they still pray for a little Buddhist Spring in Tibet.

In the words of Tsewang Rigzin from the Indefinite Fast for Tibet at the U.N.: "We will not stop until we have our country back."