There is history and a grim logic in it all, but any satisfaction we might find in recognizing these things is laced with unspeakable sadness.
It is all about power, of course, but in this case a very specialized kind of power is in the mix. Up against the massive military and legal power of the state, protesting against the disempowerment of ethnic Tibetans in China, is the old power of the monastic, the power of the disciplined virtuoso.
Buddhism from its beginning has operated on the basis of two mutually dependent communities: virtuoso clerics and the lay people who support them. The laity are generally not ready or willing to undergo the deprivations of monastic life. But they recognize the value of it, and so lend material patronage. In return the laity get not only religious guidance, they get a proxy in purity. They sustain a group of people specially devoted to virtue, purity and discipline: the Buddhist Sangha.
The Sangha’s ongoing support depends on its members’ purity in maintaining its vows. Monastic law regulates chastity, imposes strict restraints on property, and discourages ego in personal relations. The very absence of what in lay society spells charisma and esteem (adornment, riches, sexual prowess) in the monastic setting spells virtue and strength. The very resolve to resist temptation shows exceptional strength. It also shows the cleric’s priorities. More valuable than having worldly comforts is the power to live without them. Something else, something more important, is thereby enabled.
In Tibetan Buddhism, as in many other varieties, a second kind of virtuosic power is cultivated through meditation. Meditation requires the power to remain strictly focused without yielding to distraction. It fosters the wisdom to maintain focus on an elusive and shifting object: reality itself. It also fosters the bodily experiences that accompany such focus and wisdom. It encourages deftness in cultivating those bodily experiences in order to make them burn brighter.
Meditative focus in its highest reaches is said to be accompanied by intense bodily heat. It rises from the navel and can pervade the body with light and insight. Tibetan yogis used to practice it in the snow. A first-rate meditator could demonstrate yogic power concretely by doing heat yoga while sitting in the snow.
Fire and ice; power facing power. For the last several centuries, members of the Tibetan government, the ruling nobility, and many other pilgrims would journey once in every twelve years to the icy ranges of Mt. Tsari in southwestern Tibet. Along with receiving the blessings of the pristine natural features of this holy mountain, one of the most valued experiences that these pilgrims could have was to witness monks of the Drukpa Chigchar order displaying their power to raise yogic heat in their bodies. In the middle of the night the assembled pilgrims, nobility, and local monastic communities watched as a group of yogi monks, wearing only a thin cotton robe, would sit motionless on the ice until the morning, warmed only by their inner fire. It was a spectacle that proved the power of meditation and in turn the power of Buddhism. The yogis’ bodies were understood to be witnesses to the power of Buddhism, upon which the Ganden Phodrang state’s own legitimacy rested.
Traditionally, ascetic practice targeted an inner enemy: selfish clinging, vanity, enmity. Today the target of Tibet’s recent self-immolations is an outer enemy: an intrusive, repressive, unsympathetic state. Differently from the old pattern, this outer foe is compelled to witness the display of yogic power, the power to withstand the pain of fire, the power to face down death or torture. But this is not a witnessing that bolsters the power of the state. It is a forced witnessing of a spectacle that aspires to delegitimize the state. It is a spectacle that purports to demonstrate with deadly precision where real power still resides: in the vision and skill of the virtuoso who masters his own destiny.
In the 1675 the Fifth Dalai Lama issued an ordinance to guide monastic behavior at the Great Prayer Ceremony held at New Years in Lhasa’s central cathedral. He reminded the thousands of monks who would participate in this ritual that the longevity of the Tibetan Buddhist state -- and even more so the longevity of Buddhism itself – depended on their comportment. Their disciplined comportment and dignity signaled the health of the nation and the flourishing of the world as they knew it.
Today it seems some monks and nuns are using their discipline and purity to signal instead the devastation of their world. It is often said that clerics can risk such a protest more readily than lay people can, because clerics have no spouse and children to suffer revenge. It is also clear in the current situation that a deeply distressed and disenfranchised monastic population has decided that extreme acts are the only way to bring attention to a remote part of the world. That they are actually carrying out such acts has everything to do with the conception that clerics have the responsibility to represent the aspirations, and now the sorrows, of society. But in the end, the decision these men and women are taking to mount the spectacle of self-inflicted pain and agonizing death – and recently the monastic exemplars are beginning to be followed by the laity in this gruesome demonstration—may have no reason behind it at all. It is a severe response to an intolerable situation, like a scream.
We bow our heads in sadness that the extremity of the situation, the intractability of the powers that be, has brought monks and nuns – and now even a few lay people -- to such a sorrowful display of protest.
March 26, 2012
 Toni Huber, The Cult Of Pure Crystal Mountain: Popular Pilgrimage And Visionary Landscape In Southeast Tibet, New York : Oxford University Press, 1999. See especially pp. 88-90.
 Ngag dbang blo bzang rgya mtsho, Vth Dalai Lama, Lha ldan smon lam chen mo'i gral ‘dzin bca’ yig in Bod kyi snga rabs khrims srol yig cha bdams bsgrigs, Lhasa: Bod ljong bod yig dpe rnying dpe skrun khang, 1989, pp. 324-345.
Janet Gyatso, Hershey Professor of Buddhist Studies, Harvard University. She is a specialist in Buddhist studies with concentration on Tibetan and South Asian cultural history. Her books include Apparitions of the Self: The Secret Autobiographies of a Tibetan Visionary; In the Mirror of Memory: Reflections on Mindfulness and Remembrance in Indian and Tibetan Buddhism; and Women of Tibet.