During the ceremony I noticed a stirring near the front of the large temple. The action, in a wave-like manner, was moving back through the temple directly toward me. When it got close I noticed the center of the commotion was a small stick being passed from one monk to the next in a line towards the back. The stick passed right next to me and on it I noticed a single ant. Finally the last monk, the one sitting furthest from the front and closest to the door took the stick outside.
My guide explained that an ant was discovered in the temple and to save its life, because it surely would have been trampled when everyone got up to leave, was put outside in a safe proximity from the thousand or so exiting monks. This is how precious, I found through direct experience, any single life is to Tibetan monks.
I also found that this same spiritual reverence for any and all life pervades the entire Tibetan culture from monks to nomads. To intentionally harm any living being, from an ant to a human, is considered to be, in western terminology, a grave sin, certainly in conflict with Buddhist doctrine. Suicide in particular is strictly prohibited.
The recent spate of self-immolations in Tibet is thus a conflict magnified. Knowing how ingrained the reverence for life is among Tibetans this becomes a deeply soul-searching conundrum.
Since I returned in late 2006 I have travelled back about twice a year with the intent to observe and learn from these compassionate people.
Tibetans were not always compassionate. Before 750 AD and beyond Tibet was a brutal and inhospitable place filled with tribal warfare and little reverence for life. Then in around 750 -800 AD a particular king had an inspiration to bring peace and harmony to his land, to drive out the demons so to speak. He sent to India for spiritual masters who could help tame the wild Tibetans. Hence Buddhism was born in Tibet.
An age of intense spiritual learning began and while the demons of egoistic terror return at times in waves of alternating intensity and in a variety of manifestations, the spirituality of the Tibetans has continued to grow.
Through my own experience, having traveled to the far corners of the earth, I find the Tibetans as a whole, to be the kindest and most spiritual. They have been formally and with vigor, particularly the monks and nuns, studying the nature of the mind and the nature of phenomena for over 1,200 years. They do not do this here and there during the day or on Sundays but most of the time.
Serious practitioners are engaged in this at all times. They have come to embody compassion and reverence for life. Being now inherently compassionate in their everyday activities and with only the wish for the happiness for all beings, they are also easily overrun as we have seen with the Chinese military takeover.
Many Tibetans actually pray for the happiness of their oppressors.
When I ask them about this I learn that anyone who harms a being will eventually suffer for their actions. Knowing their oppressors will ultimately suffer from harming the Tibetans, the Tibetans pray for them so that perhaps the oppressors won’t suffer so much.
Self-immolations have occurred from time to time over the centuries. The most recent spate began in Vietnam during the U.S. military involvement there in the 1960s. In 1963 Thich Quang Duc set himself on fire to protest the South Vietnamese policy of the discriminatory treatment endured by Buddhists there under the Roman Catholic administration of President Ngô Đình Diệm in South Vietnam.
This grim tactic has spread across the globe: Czechoslovaks did it to protest the Soviet invasion in 1968; five Indian students did it to protest job quotas in 1990; a Tibetan monk did it to protest the Indian police stopping an anti-Chinese hunger strike in 1998; Kurds did it to protest Turkish policy in 1999; outlawed Falun Gong practitioners did it in Tiananmen Square in 2009, at least according to authorities in Beijing.
When Mohamed Bouazizi set himself alight on Dec. 17, he sparked flames far greater than the ones that would ultimately kill him. The Tunisian man, an unemployed college graduate with children to feed, had tried finding work hawking vegetables, but was thwarted by police, who confiscated his cart. So in a grisly act of protest and anguish, Bouazizi doused himself in gasoline and set himself ablaze.
This act of self-immolation helped trigger the current political crisis in Tunisia.
Since suicide is strictly prohibited in Buddhist doctrine these recent acts of self-immolation can only hint to us as outsiders how grim the situation is in Tibet. To me it is particularly sad. One of the high lamas I met and who I have kept in contact with since 2006 had spent 19 years in a Chinese prison simply because he was a high lama and had the potential to galvanize or influence other Tibetans who looked up to him because of his spiritual accomplishments.
During his 19 years in prison he was beaten and tortured on a daily basis. Yet upon his release, being shunned by even his own family because they thought the same trouble might come to them simply by association, he built a small temple in commemoration of and to honor not only the other lamas who died in prison with him, but also for the prison guards and their commanders who would suffer because of their complicity in torturing them all.
Tibetans monks are not a people who would resort to suicide even under the most stressful circumstances. I can only imagine what the Chinese military is now doing to these people that would cause such a reaction among these monks and nuns.
We hear stories from Tibetan exiles who brave crossing the Himalayas during the winter months, many losing their lives or their limbs, to escape to India or to Nepal. Some of the nuns recount having been sexually brutalized, sodomized or forced by Chinese military to have sex in public with monks. We hear of monks being tied up and beaten until they renounce their guru, or the Dalai Lama, or Buddhism and vow to support the Chinese Communist People’s Party. They are forced to admit that Tibet has always been part of China, that the monastic community has habitually abused and exploited the general Tibetan population and that the great mother, China has freed the slaves.
VIDEO: Note - Content is very graphic. A Tibetan Nun Self-Immolates
The Dalai Lama in Japan: "I look to Tibet from various aspects. The first is from the immense human rights violations in Tibet. For the last more than 50 - 60 years, there has been serious danger to Tibetan culture, language, religion and environment. More than 99 per cent of Tibetans, including senior party members, have lots of resentment deep inside their heart."
"The Tibetan culture is a culture of peace, compassion and non-violence. So it is worthwhile to preserve this culture," he said.
He further said, "Buddhism is the most profound tradition of ancient Indian Nalanda tradition which we have kept alive. It is one of the treasures of the world. Many top scientists are showing genuine interest in Buddhist science."
"Major rivers in Asia originates from the Tibetan plateau. Some ecologists, including Chinese, described Tibet as the third pole, which is of equal importance like the north and south poles," he said.
"Therefore, Tibetans born in Tibet are in a better position to preserve their culture, language and ecology. The Tibetan people should have the full authority and final say in the preservation of their unique cultural heritage and ecology," he said.
How does one proceed in this very dangerous time in order to best benefit the Tibetans, the monks, nuns and the Tibetan culture in general? How do you support them without offending the Chinese government?
Our project to build a school for Tibetan nomad girls is a good plan. The project has support from the local monastic community, from the village elders and from the 100 nomad families who will send their young daughters to be educated in the formal Tibetan, Chinese and English languages, in science, math, art, computer science and athletics.
Our goal is to educate these girls far beyond the education they could receive from the local public schools which are run by the Chinese government, which has decreed that only the Chinese language is to be taught. We think that by educating these girls they will make sure their own children become educated.
Our pilot school will be constructed and run under the auspices of the monastic community with help from the local nomads. Highly qualified teachers will be recruited from the highest rated teaching monasteries and from the Chinese population as well.
This is one of the few activities that we can do to really support the Tibetans and to help preserve their valuable culture. It must be done from the streets because no government will sanction this type of activity for fear of offending the Chinese who hold the purse strings for much of the world’s economy.
It is our duty to preserve and nurture spirituality, to give voice to the attainment of the treasures that, as the Tibetans have discovered, can be found within us. The quest for outer or material wealth seems to be leading our world to the brink of destruction.
We need to balance the quest for outer wealth with support for anyone who would cultivate the inner wealth: peace, happiness and a love and nurturing of all living beings, a cultivation of compassion – activities the Tibetans have been refining for the last 1200 years.
After all, a culture that would save the life of a single ant, whose main concern is for the happiness of all beings could hardly pose a threat to a world power such as China. A few monks and nuns have taken their lives to bring this truth to the outside world.
We should support them.
If you would like to donate toward this project you can make a tax deductible donation here.