The following reflections are adapted from a conversation between Rinchen Khando Choegyal, founder and director of the Tibetan Nuns Project and sister-in-law of His Holiness the Dalai Lama, and Inquiring Mind editor Barbara Gates. In January 2013 they conversed over tea in the sitting room at Kashmir Cottage, situated between the main town of Dharamshala and the area that is the seat of the exiled Tibetan government in India. “Standing as Equals,” an interview on the status of Tibetan nuns, also drawn from that conversation, appeared in the November 2013 Tricycle magazine.
Self-immolation in Tibet is a big topic today. The Chinese government has accused His Holiness the Dalai Lama of having instigated it, which is totally incorrect. In fact, I think he will be the first one to say not to do it.
But then we have to think about why they did it. And to me, why they did it is for their nation. They did it for their freedom. Because for the last fifty-plus years, the Tibetans have gone through hell in Tibet. Of course, now we know that these people are self-immolating and now it’s unfortunately reaching to number of almost one hundred [as of this interview on January 8, 2013]. But what about the 1.2 million Tibetans who were massacred before Tibet came to be known to the rest of the world? The world didn’t know about those things.
So the people who have self-immolated are saying nothing but “We want freedom. We are Tibetans. We have the right to live as Tibetans.” They have been waiting for the rest of the world to come to the rescue for Tibet as a nation.
His Holiness has tried his level best. He has tried all kinds of things, and eventually he has come to this Middle Way, which he thinks is the best for Tibet and China. From my personal perspective, it is the best, because what we are struggling with is not the Chinese people. It’s the Chinese government and its policy. So if something like the Middle Way works out, it’s good for the Chinese people and our people. So we can live as we did in the last many centuries as a neighbor to China and a neighbor to India where we had no problems. Chinese people are wonderful people, many of them. In fact, one of His Holiness’ sisters-in-law was a Chinese woman. She was loved. She was respected in the family.
So getting back to the point of self-immolation, our people want freedom. Our people want the Tibetan nation to survive as a free nation. When this is not happening, some feel the only way they can express themselves is to do something to their own bodies that nobody can stop. Self-immolation is because of nothing but frustration. It’s not personal frustration; it’s frustration for the nation’s freedom.
So this is happening. And of course, one Tibetan lost is a million Tibetans lost for us. We feel for the loss of the people. We feel for their pain. I mean can you imagine when we ourselves have a little cut how much pain we feel? Imagine your whole body going on fire. Therefore, His Holiness has said, “I’m very sad this happens, but what can I do? I have nothing to offer them. I can’t say, ‘Stop it.’ I have to have something to give them in return.” And he has said, “I have nothing to give.”
What has the Chinese government responded to? To all the proposals His Holiness gives, they just turn a deaf ear. The international community, the very powerful governments of the world, what have they done?
Therefore, His Holiness has really nothing to offer to these people who self-immolate. He can’t say, “Don’t do it. Stop it. I’ll bring you freedom.” He needs the help of all the international governments.
For His Holiness this is a very difficult situation. But he definitely doesn’t approve of self-immolation. That I know. Deeply he doesn’t approve of it, because he feels for each life lost. He also understands why they did it. Why they are doing it. So do I.
What I feel personally is, okay, this self-immolation has happened. We can’t go on saying, “Why did they do it? They should not have done it.” It’s already done. Now our job is to ask, “What did they wish?” And their wish is for Tibet to be free. So let’s carry this message to the rest of the world as living people. This is what we can do. And I think we should do this all over the world, to every person possible. Let everyone hear the inner sufferings of these people who have left us, and why they did it. We can’t just let it stop there. We have to pick it up and take it somewhere. That’s what we can do.
From the Spring 2014 issue of Inquiring Mind (Vol. 30, No. 2)
© 2014 Rinchen Khando Choegyal and Barbara Gates