Self-immolation is Un-Buddhist

Tibetan Buddhist monks and nuns who self-immolate are going against Buddhist values.

Coming from a Buddhist family, the issue of suicidal Tibetan monks is troubling me deeply.

Buddhism teaches that the body is a temple, and we should treat it as such.

This teaching leads onto some of the rules Buddhists should follow, including not drinking, not smoking and not taking in anything harmful to the body.

Strict Buddhists and monks even train themselves to sleep less, eat only vegetarian food, and to be able to bare pain.

I’m sure many of you have seen videos of Buddhist monks smashing bricks over their heads, punching through planks of wood with their fists or laying down on broken glass.

But self-immolating is a step too far, and has become a trend among Tibetan monks and now nuns in China, to protest against Chinese rule.

11 monks and nuns have set themselves alight in the past year, most of whom died.


Suppression in Tibet

China claims that it has helped Tibet modernise and move away from feudalism since its occupation began in 1950, however Tibetans are not able to practice their culture and religion freely.

Protests such as these, however small, are a threat to the stability of China’s communist regime. China has traditionally not responded well to opposition and criticism.

They blame the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibet, for the actions of the self-immolating monks. The Dalai Lama remains in exile and those who show their support to him are imprisoned.

There has been an increased military presence in Lhasa and other cities where the protests have taken place, according to the Free Tibet campaign.

The Tibetan government in exile, based in Dharamsala, India, says that Buddhism does not permit the harm of others or oneself, but the trend of setting oneself alight shows how much unhappiness is being caused by China’s occupation of Tibet.


Against Buddhist values

Depending on the sect, Buddhism teaches that we are reincarnated after death, either as a human being or as an animal.

Those who have done a lot of good in their life are rewarded by becoming humans again. And those who have done more bad than good are likely to end up as an animal.

Therefore we should be honoured to be human. But for Buddhists, who take ‘non-harm’ to such a level that they will not kill even the smallest insect, how can they end their own lives?

Buddhism also teaches that we should expect and comes to peace with suffering in life, as it is a part of life that everyone must experience.

Suffering is part of a cycle of life, which we can only escape from once we realise ‘the truth.’

That is why we saw astonishingly calm and collected people in Thailand following the Tsunami, even after some lost their entire families. Their Buddhist values had prepared them for the worst.

Finally, Buddhism teaches that everything in this world is impermanent. That would mean that a Tibetan state is impermanent, China is impermanent.

And the border between them is impermanent, as well as the suppressed conditions under which Tibetans live.

Tibetans do not deserve to live like they do, but it is not worth their precious lives.

I am not doubting how brave those Tibetans were, to give their lives for the sake of their freedom.

But as the Dalai Lama has said, “Courage alone is no substitute. You must utilise your wisdom.”




  1. It’s tragic that they choose this way to protest. But I think self-immolation is not totally un-Buddhist. Because one of the doctrines of Mahayana is to devote to the salvation of all beings from suffering. So the monks may consider self-immolation as a way to fight for freedom and liberation for all the other Tibetans. Maybe it is not a worth-doing way, but sadly it seems that it is a effective way to draw other people’s attention and remind them that Tibetans are still suffering. I don’t know it’s right or wrong, but it’s an expression of faith. They didn’t die in vain.

    1. Well in my view ‘the salvation of all beings from suffering’ would mean to help people, and as many as possible. In fact to dedicate your life to helping people. But how can you do so, if you’re dead? So I take it you recognise that Tibetans are treated badly?

      1. Yes. It would be better if they were alive and help other people. But there are times when people consider death as a powerful weapon to fight. And yes, Tibetans are treated more than badly, and the Hans are no better.

  2. Good article and nicely written! I was actually shocked the first time I read that Buddhist monks where burning themselves since it’s so contradictory to the image I have of Buddhism. To use means like this, Tibetans must really be suppressed.

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