Drupchen's Body Is a Litmus Test for Nepal

03/15/2013 11:04 am ET | Updated May 15, 2013

One of the most enduring Buddhist tales goes like this. In a previous life, when the Buddha was a Nepalese prince, he saw a starving tigress about to eat her own cubs. Overwhelmed by compassion, the prince lay down on the ground and offered his own body to the tigress and her cubs. Takmo Lujin ("Body Offered to the Tigress"), as the site of this sacrifice came to be known among Tibetans, is today one of the most revered destinations for pilgrims and tourists in Nepal.

On February 13, in the heart of Kathmandu, Nepal, a 25-year-old Tibetan named Drupchen Tsering set himself on fire to protest Chinese rule of his homeland. When I heard the news, I couldn't help but imagine him in flames, surrounded by hungry tigers on the hills of Takmo Lujin. While the Buddha prince fed himself to tigers, Drupchen fed himself to the jaws of oppression, using his fragile human body to blunt Beijing's teeth so that others might be spared. If the Buddha prince had been born today as a Tibetan watching his people, nation and culture being devoured by a draconian empire, what would he do?

Nepal was for many decades a sanctuary for Tibetan refugees fleeing China's oppression. When I was a child, I used to visit my extended family in Kathmandu during the winter holidays. Takmo Lujin was always #1 on the list of annual pilgrimage trips. The time I spent in Nepal has made me admire, and sometimes envy, the Nepalese people's infectious kindness, their melodious language, and their natural acceptance of all cultures. Nepal is a land where many religions and cultures have coexisted for centuries. In fact, at Swayambunath and many other holy sites, Buddhist and Hindu shrines would often be housed in the same temple.

Over the last decade, amid China's growing hegemony in Asia, Nepal has turned from a sanctuary to a nightmare for Tibetan refugees. This tragedy is embodied in the way the Nepalese government has so far responded to Drupchen Tsering's self-immolation.

After Drupchen set himself on fire on February 13 - joining more than a hundred Tibetans who have self-immolated for freedom since 2009 - his body was seized by the police. In the days that followed, as Tibetans in Nepal scrambled to claim his body in order to perform the essential Buddhist rites and cremation rituals, his body remained locked up in a mortuary. The Nepali authorities consistently rejected all requests to hand over the body to the Tibetan community.

After a person is pronounced clinically dead, Buddhists believe, there is a window of opportunity called the 'moment of clear light' when a trained lama can transfer the deceased person's consciousness into higher rebirth. In the absence of a lama, ordinary monks would sit by the deceased and chant from the Tibetan Book of the Dead. The departing consciousness of the deceased, passing through its most pure and potent stage, can hear the prayers that carry instructions on how to exit one's body and enter a higher rebirth. This window, which could last from a few hours to a couple of days, is considered one of the most precious moments in the cycle of life and death.

As Drupchen's body lay still in the mortuary, day after day, this opportunity slipped away from him. For a Tibetan Buddhist, there is no greater loss.

It must be remembered that the real culprit is the China, whose tentacles stretch deep into the highest echelons of Nepal's government. Beijing's long arm of oppression not only deprived Drupchen of political freedom in his life, but it also stole his final opportunity for spiritual liberation in his death. In facilitating this injustice, Nepal has allowed itself to be used as an instrument of tyranny.

Amid growing international pressure to hand Drupchen's body to the Tibetan community, the Nepalese government issued a warning that if the body is not claimed by family members within 35 days, it would belong to the state. But Drupchen had escaped from Tibet just a month before by walking over the Himalayas, and had no family in Nepal. The Tibetan community was his only family!

What happens next will be a litmus test for Nepal's democracy, its humanity, and its sovereignty. On March 20th, the 35th day since the self-immolation, Nepal will decide whether to give Drupchen a proper cremation by the Tibetan community, or to hand it over to Chinese diplomats, or to secretly "dispose of" the body and subject Drupchen to a second death.

Is Nepal a democratic nation that respects the rights of its Buddhist minorities? Is Nepal a sovereign state centered in Kathmandu or is it a satellite state that outsources its decision making to Beijing? Does Nepal still honor the spirit of generosity and compassion embodied by the Buddha prince at Takmo Lujin?

Whether Nepal passes this litmus test or not, we will know on March 20th.