Tibetans set themselves on fire


Sir, – Clifford Coonan reports that “Chinese officials at this week’s annual parliament meeting dismissed Tibetans who have set themselves on fire, in protest at China’s rule, as outcasts, criminals and mentally ill, manipulated by the exiled Dalai Lama” (World News, March 8th).

Self-immolation has always had a searing, burning quality that is difficult to deny, and cannot be so easily “dismissed”.

In Buddhist tradition, self-immolation often has both spiritual aims (eg attaining enlightenment) and practical or political motivations (eg saving lives).

The best known self-immolation is that of Thich Quang Duc, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk who set himself alight in Saigon in 1963, to protest against persecution by the Vietnamese government. According to Thich Thiên Ân, a Zen teacher, Thich Quang Duc and fellow-monks were “using their bodies like a lamp for help. And it was help”.

The monks in Vietnam inspired hundreds of similar acts around the world including, in 1965, the self-immolation of Norman Morrison, an American Quaker, who burned himself to death outside the Pentagon to protest against the war in Vietnam.

The Buddhist practitioners who self-immolated over the past year would have been fully aware of the enormous value Buddhism places on life, the rare spiritual possibilities offered by human birth, and the deep uncertainties Buddhist tradition associates with rebirth.

If there was any other way for these practitioners to proclaim the strength of their views, they would undoubtedly have chosen it. Instead, they were ready to sacrifice their valuable human lives in order to protest as loudly as possible. Hopefully, someone was listening. – Yours, etc,


Senior Lecturer in Psychiatry,

University College Dublin,

Eccles Street,

Dublin 7.