Notes from the conference: Tibet is Burning

Following the earlier publication of a special issue of Cultural Anthropology on the same theme, during two days, on 14-15 May 2012, the conference “Tibet is Burning. Self-Immolations: Ritual or Political Protest?“, organized at the Collège de France (Paris) by Katia Buffetrille (CRCAO, CNRS) and Françoise Robin (INALCO), worked towards providing a wide range of contexts of understanding for the dramatic sequence of self-immolations that has unfolded in Tibetan areas mainly since March 2011. I would like to provide here some brief notes and thoughts.

Calligraphy by Lungtok Choktsang, 2012

The conference brought together eighteen scholars (see here for the program, and here for the abstracts), who were joined by yet others in the audience. Ten of the speakers were Tibet specialists, who looked at the (possibly still unfolding) movement from a diversity of complementary angles: exchanges between Chinese and Tibetan critics of the regime, reactions in the Tibetan blogosphere, or in poetry, the historical background of the Ngawa [rNga-ba, Ch. Aba] region and in particular the Kirti monastery, which have been at the heart of the wave of self-immolations, etc.

Two more scholars presented elements on self-immolation in (cultures influenced by) non-Tibetan forms of Buddhism, while other comparative or thematically related elements were brought into the discussion by experts of primarily Arab, South Asian Hindu and other protest movements that have involved self-sacrifices. The larger (to some extent still unanswered) question here was not only that of the possible comparative insights to be gained, but also that of the possible conscious models or sources of influence for the Tibetan self-immolators.

How should one attempt to analyse events such as this series of self-immolations (or auto-cremations, to be more precise)? The limits of this exercise were clearly recognized by both organizers and participants, who stressed time and again that their analyses were of a provisional and tentative character, and inescapably so, in view of the lack of temporal distance and, crucially, of substantial or fully reliable data, as no one has been able to carry out on-site research during or after the events. Perhaps the discussions could have benefitted from a closer look at certain key analytical categories that have some relevance here (such as suicide, of course; martyrdom / heroism; resistance or protest movements) — categories that come with already substantial bodies of literature in the social sciences…? Ultimately, of course, many questions would still remain. Maybe the most (at least politically) crucial of these largely unanswered questions is that of the efficacy, or impact, of these self-immolations. [I am leaving aside here the suggestion, voiced by many commentators, and very strongly rejected by others, such as E. Sperling (Indiana University), that these are acts of despair; we should maybe allow for a less dualistic approach to this issue?]

A number of analytical tensions or dualities pervaded the discussions — probably first and foremost, that between the religious and the political (to which the subtitle of the conference explicitly refers: political protests or [also] offerings?). In the quasi-absence of a known history of political self-sacrifice in Tibet, and in a context of enduring hyper-concentration of Tibetological studies on the religious sphere, the temptation was probably great to look for Buddhist logics and genealogies of these acts — all the more so that monastics have been here again at the forefront of the movement. The (partial) relevance of these examinations is indisputable (at least one of the victims left explicit indications that he was attributing such meaning to his act); but whether, as a whole, these immolations responded to a primarily religious logic of the act should be questioned.

Another important tension lies between the local and the global levels of analysis. J. A. Benn (McMaster University) brought a welcome caveat regarding attempts to interpret the phenomenon through exclusively local lenses, such as through a quest for a Ngawa (or Kirti monastery) specificity. That local events can be a reaction to larger conditions, and also that Tibet can no longer be contemplated with a relativist concern for its unique features, as if it lay outside the sway of global circulations and forces, were points well made. However, the recurrence, since the late 1980s, of strong political mobilisation in large monasteries of the Geluk [dGe-lugs] order, such as, in recent years, the Kirti monastery in Ngawa, does seem at least to present a meaningful pattern; and it would be clearly misguided to actually disregard the impact of regional conditions in Ngawa (see here for instance A. Fischer) and Kirti monastery. Beyond the tension between local and global factors for the triggering off of the self-immolations, the fact that most of those took place in the Ngawa prefecture, and that the series started almost exclusively among Kirti monks or former monks (with eight among the first nine cases: see here) does point to the need for an (as yet elusive) understanding of the local social dynamics in this sequence of events.

From another angle, R. Barnett (Columbia University) provided an excellent synthetic overview of two major kinds of analytical approaches to these events — causal models vs. theories of influence. Choosing himself the latter, he brought some striking data on the spread of mass media (particularly televisions, DVD players and cell phones), and, through those, of Chinese state-produced “popular culture”, such as films, in Tibetan urban and rural environments — a plausible suggestion of one source of inspiration for heroic sacrifice for the common good, a common theme of many such films (a point also hinted at by T. Shakya).

Finally, there is a tension between the individual and social levels of analysis. Dramatic acts of putting an (assumedly) extremely painful end to one’s life call the attention to the individual level, to (psychological / cultural psychological) questions of motivation and state of mind. Durkheim’s enduring legacy however is to remind us of the presence of social regularities even in these most personal of decisions. In the present case, given the size of the numbers, the analysis cannot rely on statistical or quantitative methods. The very nature of these acts, which ultimately implies that much will have to remain unknowable, as well as the politically tense and repressive environments in which these self-immolations still reverberate, constitute without a doubt formidable challenges for achieving some finer understanding.

 


Nicolas Sihlé

Nicolas Sihlé, a sociocultural anthropologist, is researcher at the Center for Himalayan Studies, a research unit of the National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) based in Villejuif (France). He specializes on Tibetan religion and society, and is the author of Rituels bouddhiques de pouvoir et de violence : La figure du tantriste tibétain [Buddhist rituals of power and violence : The figure of the Tibetan tantrist] (Brepols, 2013). His current work focuses on post-Mao socioreligious transitions in and around the famous communities of non-monastic specialists of tantric Buddhism in northeast Tibet (Amdo), and more generally on the comparative anthropology of Buddhism.

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