Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Ants To Humans – Reasons For The Self-Immolations In Tibet

During one of several journeys into the eastern region of Tibet I was invited into a temple to observe a Tsok, or Feast Offering. The temple was tightly packed with perhaps a thousand maroon-robed monks, some very young and some quite old, most with close shaved heads but a few looking like wild yogis, everyone taking a cross-legged position on the floor facing the high lama who presided over the rite.

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.

Monday, May 23, 2011


Today marks the 60-year Chinese anniversary of "The Liberation of Tibet" begging the question: Liberated from what? Said top political advisor and member of the Standing Committee of the Political Bureau of the Communist Party of China (CPC) Central Committee, Jia Qinglin as published in Xinhua, China's main news source, the Tibetan people should "unite and drive out imperialist aggressive forces from Tibet and return to the big family of the People's Republic of China."

Tibet's peaceful liberation "fundamentally expelled imperialist forces, safeguarded the country's sovereignty and territorial integrity, cracked down on various secessionist forces and maintained national unification and ethnic unity.

The region's peaceful liberation paved the way for Tibet's theocratic feudal serfdom to be changed, emancipating more than 1 million slaves and greatly promoting all-round development in Tibet," said Jia.

This view is vastly different from that of most ethnic Tibetans. Their view is that Tibet has been invaded by the Chinese Army, their land has been stolen, their culture has been under attack, the idea that there existed any slaves at all is a myth, and the vast majority of the Tibetan nomad population has been marginalized into poverty. The country's "sovereignty and territorial integrity" does not exist as it has been overtaken by the Chinese Army which maintains a policy of strict reeducation and arrest with no trial, indefinite periods of incarceration and torture. This policy affects all Tibetans including the general population, nomads and particularly Buddhist monks and nuns.

Currently the town of Ngawa in the eastern Tibet region has been overrun with approximately 55,000 Chinese troops as a response to a young monk who set himself on fire in protest coincident with the 2008 anniversary of violent protests against Chinese rule in Tibet(

Chinese troops occupy and run military training exercises in nearly all the Tibetan towns and villages. If the Tibetans were happy with the current takeover by the Chinese why would such a strong military presence be necessary?

It is a shame that perhaps the most peaceful and spiritual culture in the history of our planet is being marginalized, brutalized - its very survival threatened. The simple goal and motivation of a Tibetan Buddhist monk or nun is simply to become enlightened in order to benefit all beings - to make themselves better so they can more effectively help others. They are consumed with the task of cultivating compassion within themselves. They have no political or commercial agenda. Witnessing repeated brutalization has brought some of them to a sort of semi-activist stance, perhaps organizing a small gathering with a placard or two or just expressing their opinions for which they are all now considered a threat to the stability of China. They are seen as enemies of the state and are being reeducated, arrested and tortured. Many of them simply disappear. They are easily overrun.
Of course the most insulting change for the Tibetans is that their spiritual leader, according to many of them the very embodiment of compassion and peace, The Dalai Lama is seen as a seperatist and enemy of the state. Tibetans who mention his name or carry his picture are arrested and tortured. What sort of liberation is that?

A more realistic view of the Chinese incursion may have to do with the exploitation of the vast mineral deposits in the Tibet region. Perhaps control of the headwaters of the Himalayas that serve as the source of water for most of Asia is another motive. The Ganges, The Indus serving Pakistan and the Brahmaputra Rivers all originate within 100 miles of one another in the Tibetan Himalayas. The Salween, serving Thailand and Myanmar, The Mekong, serving Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, and The Yangtze and Yellow Rivers all originate on the Tibetan plateau.

In the end it appears no country will come to the aid of the Tibetans. China now has influence on too many economies and its military is far superior to all but one. China shares a border with 14 countries, but has had 23 border disputes in recent history. All these disputes have been resolved except with Bhutan and India. The dispute with Nepal was resolved in conjunction with an infusion of financial aid, military aid, and aid in upgrading infrastructure. In return, the Nepalese Prime Minister reiterated Nepal's adherence to One-China policy and decided not to allow any anti-China activities in the territory of Nepal ( Nepal has a large Tibetan refugee population and increasing pressure is being brought to bear on Nepal to further marginalize the Tibetans living there.

Solution to the border confrontations with Bhutan and India will also be leveraged with massive funding and similar demands regarding further marginalizing the refugee Tibetan populations there. These will be more difficult for China to achieve as India and Bhutan represent the last frontiers for Tibetans, and they are areas where Tibetans have garnered the most support for preservation of their culture. India currently hosts the Tibetan Government in Exile as well as the Dalai Lama and the vast majority of Tibetans outside of Tibet. Bhutan has a very similar culture to Tibet and has a history of resisting any form of intervention whatsoever.

In Tibet Buddhism has flourished for more than a thousand years. Through the centuries Tibetans have sustained and increased their spiritual roots and practice and have incorporated the meaning and the essence of the teachings on compassion into their daily lives. This is an incredibly valuable culture that should be nourished, not wiped out. Our world is in delicated balance with the forces of greed, political power and brutalization increasing. Sometimes I think it's only the Tibetans and other spiritual beings who are holding this delicate balance.

Friday, May 20, 2011

The Source of Happiness

"Love, compassion and concern for others are real sources of happiness. If you have these in abundance, you will not be disturbed even by the most uncomfortable circumstances. If you nurse hatred, however, you will not be happy even in the lap of luxury. Thus, if we really want happiness, we must widen the sphere of love. This is both spiritual thinking and basic common sense." H.H. Dalai Lama
Is it true that all demons are within? Is the outward manifestation of our existence a reflection of our inner thoughts - our inner existence? And, if this is true, why is Tibet,a culture rooted in love and compassion for all beings, suffering the incursion of an extremely hostile force (ie. the Chinese military) which is inflicting murder and torture, the indignities of reeducation/indoctrination, and new laws aimed at smothering the elegant Tibetan culture - outlawing the teaching of the Tibetan language in public schools, restricting herds and grazing areas to nomads, and miltary presence and Chinese spy monks inside the most sacred temples and monasteries are just a few.
Perhaps it's not so important to know the reasons for these things. Perhaps they are beyond our current ability to reason them out. However it may be important to do something about the situation.
The Buddhist view would be the action of non-action. That in working to perfect ourselves through the cultivation of compassion and absolute wisdom through meditation then the manifestation of our outer, relative existence will necessarily cause the outer expression of our world to likewise change.
According to history the Buddha faced the worst of all demons just before his enlightenment. Perhaps this is being mirrored in Tibets current state of affairs. The blackest darkness just before the dawn. Considering the state of the world however, and that we seem to be sliding quickly into degenerate times where greed and the love of power are coming to climax, the undeniable and unstoppable force of the Chinese machine craving the vast untapped treasure of mineral deposits and the headwaters of almost all the major rivers of Asia that originate in the Tibetan Himalayas there is little the Tibetans themselves can do. I have been to Tibet many times. The Tibetans continue to pray for others, to cultivate compassion, to forgive their enemies. They are easily overtaken.
As a lone individual here in the West there is little I can do. I pray for the Tibetans with the faith that all prayers are answered. I pray that compassion will not die but grow everywhere. I pray for the light of wisdom that will dispel the darkness of ignorance and confusion among all beings. I have helped to rebuild a monastery in a remote area of Tibet with the intention that a future Buddha will study and practice there. And now we will attempt to raise money to build the first in a series of private schools for nomad girls. We have a promise from the village elders that 108 nomad girls in the area will attend. We have a promise from the monastic community that they will oversee construction and operation of the first school; that they will teach the Tibetan language so it will not die in Tibet, the Chinese language so they can easily communicate with the influx of Chinese, the English language so they can communicate with the world, math, science, philosophy, art and computer skills so they become more highly educated than the local Chinese. We are teaching girls because we know that if girls are educated, they will make sure that their children become educated.
These are desperate times for the Tibetans. It is like a blade of grass trying to stop a steamroller. After blades of grass trees will grow. Enough trees will stop a mere steamroller.

Vietnam Orphanage

March 6th: 35 Km north of Nha Trang on the south central coast of Vietnam: The Chua Phu Quang Orphanage we all rebuilt looks unbelievably fantastic! Very high quality - all hardwood and marble. The head nun, Hoa Nguyen did an incredible job. It really is the center of the village now.
Yesterday the high lama and all the monks did prayers and blessings for 12 hours straight with only half and hour for lunch. They blessed every inch of the place many times - all 3 floors, up and down with the whole procession and all the villagers following every step of the way. Local musicians and all the chanting monks were miked and amplified so the sound was echoing through the village and the hills.
Gongs, bells, huge echoing drums. I got as much video and photos as I could but it won't do the event justice.
Today we drove up and the orphanage was packed with dignitaries, 3 high lamas, the head of the Catholic church of all the provinces, the head of the communist party of this province, the mayor and I counted over 100 monks and nuns. They were all seated in order of importance in a "U" shape in the 1st floor temple with the high lama in the center. The dignitaries overlooked the courtyard which was packed with families from the village and other areas. There was a snake dance and a dragon dance which made all the kids very excited. Village girls sang and did flower dances.
Then there were speeches from the lamas, from the bishop, from the communist leader but the highlight was the speech from Hoa Nguyen, the head nun who founded, built and runs the orphanage. She's very short but what a bulldog and only 28 years old! I've never seen such continuous energy. She has overseen everything and brought the orphanage from them all living in tents and exposed to bugs and mosquitos and all kinds of sickness and with little hope for the basics including food all the way to the elegant state they live in now. She spoke of when she first became a nun - that she felt that it was her calling to help elevate the least of us all - the orphans and the handicapped - and that would bring out the best in her and everybody. She thanked us: Sumner and Drew and Julian and Sydney and that we would be in her daily prayers and in the daily prayers of all the kids. She said a lot more that I couldn't get translated but by the end she had everyone crying with tears of joy.
I'm very, very proud of you all and so grateful for your support to help make all this happen. I know you would be pleased with the results. It's almost as though these orphans have been elevated to a higher status in the eyes of all the people here as a result of all this. They are certainly much more comfortable and very, very happy. But from my experience it seems that we are the beneficiaries of all this. Helping to elevate the lowest of us is our true purpose and when we fulfill that simple goal we ourselves become elevated. Certainly much happier in our own lives.