Teaching Tibet in a Time of Precarious Emotion

On more days than I could have ever anticipated, I start my Anthropology of Tibet class by saying, “Since we last met, a young Tibetan monk self-immolated and died.” Once I quietly said, “Two Tibetan women, one a widowed mother, one a nineteen-year old student, set themselves on fire and died.” And, on several days, I’ve stood before my students on a beautiful Colorado morning and said a variation of the following: “Today, in Tibet at 6:30 tonight, a young Tibetan set himself on fire.” I ask the students what their plans are for later in the day, and we collectively, silently ponder this act that’s happened on the other side of the world at a time that for us is still in the future.

In the last year, over thirty Tibetans inside Tibet have self-immolated. Many of the self-immolators were the same age as my students, between eighteen and twenty-two. In the ten weeks since our class began on 18 January, seventeen of those thirty-odd immolations have occurred.

How do I teach about Tibet while this is happening? What do I teach?

I am passionate about teaching. It is not enough for me to have students learn information about Tibet. I want them to feel in an embodied, ethnographic way, however tenuous, the importance of the Dalai Lama to Tibetans. I want them to arrive at some sort of experiential understanding of what it means for the most senior and respected nun in a nunnery to defer to a teenage boy simply because he is a monk (as Kim Gutschow relates in her book Being a Buddhist Nun). I want them to consider for the very first time what they would do if they became refugees. What would they do if Canada invaded? Where would they go? What would they bring? How would they find their families? For my mostly American students, in 2012 the prospect of becoming refugees is just as unthinkable as it was for Tibetans in 1959. In the classroom, I pair experiential teaching with more conventional pedagogies, and organize lectures so that students consider Tibetan cultural practices and beliefs through a range of perspectives: anthropological, Tibetan, and their own.

But this is different. We are in precarious, uncertain times; in a period of great emotion and gravity; and, in the midst of a phenomenon that I as a scholar of Tibet, and also as a human being, feel not entirely prepared to comprehend. How then do I guide my students to an understanding of these self-immolations? How do we try to make sense of why so many Tibetans are pouring kerosene over their bodies, and into their bodies, and then lighting a match?

Self-immolation in the Tibetan community is not a new topic for me. In my book about the Tibetan resistance army and the exile community (McGranahan 2010), I wrote about Thubten Ngodup, who in India in 1998 became the first Tibetan to self-immolate. Yet, what is happening now is new. No other Tibetans self-immolated following Thubten Ngodup’s death; it was only after eight years that another Tibetan set himself on fire.[1]  By contrast, there were four self-immolations in a five-day period last week. I do not have a ready answer to my students’ questions of why. Instead, I connect what is happening to the texts we are reading in class. Ama Adhe’s story (1999) of her twenty-seven years in prison in China from 1958-1985 offers us devastating details about the forced removal of culture from one’s body: the required cutting of braids, the prohibitions against wearing Tibetan clothes or speaking Tibetan, the forced abandonment of all material and bodily markers of Tibetan identity. We link this to the current Lhakar initiative in Tibet (http://lhakar.org/), a cultural revitalization movement initiated following the 2008 protests. As part of the Lhakar initiative, Tibetans are making conscious efforts and vows to speak Tibetan (rather than Chinese), support Tibetan businesses, and wear Tibetan dress. It is not, I think, a coincidence that Ama Adhe’s village and the initial Lhakar area are in the same eastern Tibet region where the self-immolations are currently taking place. These are the details we piece together, and that we sit with, letting the cultural and the historical and the political steep together like a tea.

May all sentient beings be free from suffering. I share this Buddhist prayer with the students at the beginning of the semester; we return to it now to reflect on Tibetan concepts of suffering in relation to the self-immolations. I think out loud with the students about suicide and sacrifice, impermanence and enlightenment, and about how monks and nuns have consistently led political protest in post-Maoist Tibet. We talk about the narrow spaces one might claim for protest in the People’s Republic of China. We read about the importance of Tibetan rituals surrounding death in Geoff Childs’ ethnography Tibetan Diary (2004) and then connect these to the public rituals done for self-immolator Sonam Dargye in Rebkong. We ask what families do and feel when they cannot conduct death rituals because state security forces confiscated the bodies of self-immolators. Without a corpse, the family cannot properly send their loved one on their journey into Bardo.[2]  How would it feel, I ask the students, if you could not conduct the death rituals you needed to do and wanted to do for family members?

We acknowledge self-immolators’ calls for the Dalai Lama to return to Tibet, and discuss the complications of rangzen/independence vs. autonomy, and how the self-immolations drastically increased in number and frequency following the Dalai Lama’s resignation from political leadership (a position the Dalai Lama lineage has held in Tibet since the seventeenth century). We listen to Tibetan hip-hop, interpret proverbs, and consider what we ate for breakfast on the morning of the twenty-ninth day of a solidarity hunger strike by three Tibetan men outside the United Nations in New York City.

In this class on anthropology and Tibet, I turn to method to help us with the glaring insufficiency of any singular explanatory framework for the self-immolations. I tell the students that in anthropology, you, the researcher, are your method. Anthropologists live in the community in which they are doing research. We conduct participant-observation, meaning we participate in the life of the community and we observe life as it is lived. We talk with people in everyday settings as well as in formal interviews. We sink into the rhythms, conflicts, logics, and rituals of the community in ordinary as well as extraordinary times. Fieldwork is at the heart of anthropology: being there in person, witnessing first-hand, acquiring embodied and experiential knowledge. For this sort of research, you are your most important method. Your body, your self, is your method.

This is also the method of the self-immolators. Their bodies, their selves, are their method and also their message. Theirs is a visual imperative, a message that is difficult to experientially fathom; it feels untranslatable, unexplainable, and yet, they are clear: this is about pain and suffering, about power and truth, about religion and politics. They speak to a range of audiences, only some of whom are immediately evident: the Chinese state, the Dalai Lama, their Tibetan brothers and sisters, and the global community. For each of these audiences, the act of self-immolation is radical. These acts challenge the order of things, they upset what is considered normal, expected, or accepted.

“Anthropology,” Ruth Behar claims, “is the most fascinating, bizarre, disturbing, and necessary form of witnessing left to us at the end of the twentieth century” (1997: 5). With the self-immolations, we witness from afar. We teach, we write, we feel: these are our forms of witnessing. In class, alongside the content and context I offer my students, I try to create spaces for silence and reflection and contemplation. In a final burst of eloquence in today’s lecture, I tell the students that “something” is happening, something big. What that something is we can't yet know. This is a moment of change. At this time, there is pain and there is responsibility and there are witnesses. We are among them.

2 April 2012


[1] On 23 November 2006, Lhakpa Tsering set himself on fire in Bangalore to protest Hu Jintao’s visit to India. He survived his attempt.

[2] Bardo is the intermediate state between an individual’s reincarnations.


Behar, Ruth. 1997. The Vulnerable Observer: Anthropology that Breaks Your Heart. Boston: Beacon Press.

Childs, Geoff. 2004. Tibetan Diary: From Birth to Death and Beyond in a Himalayan Valley. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Gutschow, Kim. 2004. Being a Buddhist Nun: The Struggle for Enlightenment in the Himalayas. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

McGranahan, Carole. 2010. Arrested Histories: Tibet, the CIA, and Memories of a Forgotten War. Durham: Duke University Press.

Tapontsang, Adhe. 1999. Ama Adhe, the Voice that Remembers: A Tibetan Woman’s Inspiring Story of Survival. With Joy Blakeslee. Boston: Wisdom Publications.