A few years ago, while my brothers and I were travelling through India, I saw perhaps the starkest and most unimaginable example of courage I've ever seen. The previous day we’d taken a taxi up into the foothills of the Himalayas to visit the holy refuge of McLeod Ganj, where the Dalai Lama lives in exile. On our first morning, while we were headed to the local monastery, we stopped at a banner that was crowded with what looked like Facebook profile photos of young kids. The only difference was that each photo was framed with flames. Some of these kids looked a little like friends I knew, in fact a lot of them were about my age. Then I looked up at the bold headline, which was written in English and read: Sacrifice of Life for Tibet.
Stunned, I realised that these were the faces of monks who’d attempted to burn themselves to death. These were the defiant protesters who’d spoken for their faith using self-immolation. Some of them had survived and been left disfigured. Others had sat unmoved, clothed in flames, until they died. One after another, they had followed each other into the worst bodily torment imaginable. Nowhere else in human history, excluding similar accounts of this act, since it was first referenced in the Jataka Tales, would you find such visceral displays of solidarity.
The first time I'd became aware of self-immolation was when I saw the photo of Thích Quảng Đức on the cover of Rage Against the Machine’s debut album. I later learnt that this monk had sat in the lotus position at an intersection in Saigon, drenched in gasoline. As his fellow monks looked on, he’d then lit a match and burned himself to death to protest the war in Vietnam.
I struggled to understand that it was real…
It just couldn’t be possible, I thought.
I kept imagining how it must’ve felt, haunted by the image of his calm, inscrutable face, half-masked by rising flames. The only point of reference I had were the few times I'd brushed my hand against a scorching pan and been burned by the metal. That contact lasted less than a second. How could he just sit there until his charred body slowly keeled over? The only aspect I did begin to grasp was the evident power of Buddhism. To me, this wasn’t an act of violence or barbarism. It was, as I understood it, an act of love. I believed that there was no other known force that could move a human to bear such torment.
The reasons why Tibetan monks of the Buddhist order commit this act are simple, although also controversial. One of the grievances I remember is the imprisonment of the Panchen Lama, who was kidnapped by Chinese authorities in 1995, three days after his reincarnation had been confirmed. Despite his absence, he is still regarded as the highest-ranking lama, after the Dalai Lama. His name is Gedhun Choekyi Nyima and he was six-years-old when he was taken, making him the youngest political prisoner in the world. Another, better known, cause concerns the Dalai Lama and his right to return to his homeland of Tibet.
So long as these causes are greeted by silence, young, orange-robed individuals will continue to sacrifice themselves. Frankly, it is impossible to imagine that the Tibetan monks, who are so gentle and so respectful of nature that they build their monasteries around existing trees, would ever succumb to the yoke of Chinese nationalism and military oppression.
For me – someone who would usually coddle myself with vague notions of being peaceful, kind or even putting up the good fight – these individuals remind me how little I’ve given to the causes I value. Indeed, the path to any kind of positive change is always strewn with the bodies of fearless radicals – those who gave up everything to burn like fluttering candle flames in the endless oceans of the night. At the same time, I don’t want to romanticise the horror of self-immolation. I just wanted to exemplify the extent to which the mind can guide the body through seemingly impossible feats of endurance. It was also my intention to remind you that whatever you think your limit is – you’re probably wrong.
Sketch sourced from agnes-cecile.deviantart.com