Social Suffering and Embodied Political Crisis

I tell you this 

To break your heart,

By which I mean only

That it break open and never close again

To the rest of the world.

—Mary Oliver, New and Selected Poems, Vol. 2

A recent issue of the e-newsletter produced by TibetInfoNet,[1]  opens with these headlines: Three Tibetans self-immolate. Two Tibetans self-immolate in separate incidents. Two shot dead; another self-immolation. Despite the recent frequency of such announcements, they still take my breath away. My response is visceral. When a person burns herself as an agentive, public act she is manifesting something that cannot be healed, with respect to “The Tibet Question” in contemporary China.

Making anthropological sense of these powerful, disturbing actions on the part of increasing numbers of Tibetans might take many forms. We could begin to comprehend these events through theories of embodiment. The contemplated act of lighting oneself on fire is nothing if not an embodied expression of humanity—and the loss of humanity in the face of political repression. Arguably, the Chinese state and those critical of these Tibetan actions do not see this common humanity. In fact, it is this notseeing—and seeing instead Tibetans as barbaric, fanatical, or otherwise ungrateful, unproductive citizens in China’s multi-ethnic polity—that makes this current moment in Tibetan history so tragic.

In attempting to comprehend Tibetan self-immolation, we might turn toward models of social suffering and efforts to “remake a world” when confronted with collectively experienced structural and overt violence.[2]   Insights gleaned from work on Tibetan concepts of self and body, illness and emotion[3]  might help to orient us around key concepts – ways of seeing the relationship between heart-mind (T.sem)[4]  and our physical selves (T. ), including biocultural responses to uncertainty, liminality, and the crucibles of socioeconomic transition.

We search for moorings in familiar places, from which to navigate a course of uncertainty and pain. I turn to the confluence of Tibetan Buddhism and Sowa Rigpa, the Tibetan “science of healing,” for this is a site of knowing and a skillful means (T. thab, Skt. upaya) of acting on suffering. Sowa Rigpa views dis-ease—and how else can humans burning themselves be viewed?—as rooted in the relationship between the three poisons (T. dug sum, Skt. klesa) of ignorance, attachment, and aversion, manifest through the three dynamics (T. nyépa) of wind, bile and phlegm as they are expressed within and through human beings-in-the-world, a world, in turn, shaped by the five elements (T. jungwa nga). In other words, Sowa Rigpa sees the source of human suffering as fundamentally linked not only to the biophysical but also to one’s environment, to karma, to the nature of mind, and to one’s place on the path toward enlightenment.

From this perspective, I find resonance between these contemporary acts of self-immolation and stories of the Buddha. In his many lives as a bodhisattva, he gifts his flesh, blood, and bodily form as an illustration of impermanence and the non-dual nature of reality and to achieve the highest state of Buddhahood.[5]  In this instance, the act of giving the body is graceful, profound—an unparalleled example of Bodhisattva mind (T. jangchub sem, Skt. bodhicitta). Today’s self-immolations, in turn, evince selflessness; this act requires a kind of single-pointed concentration (T. zhi né, Skt. shamata) that I find staggering.

From another perspective, Tibetan acts of self-immolation point to as-yet unresolved tensions over Tibetan language and culture, religious expression, and the quest for true autonomy within China; they speak to Tibetan ways of knowing suffering; and they acknowledge and challenge the distinction between singular sentience and (contested) forms of Tibetan collectivity. Self-immolation might be read as the ultimate self-discipline, a counter-current to the disciplining biopolitics of life for Tibetans in contemporary China, and beyond.

These enactments—of bodhicitta, of social suffering and structural violence—are at once deeply internal and profoundly external. They are deeply internal in that reporting is severely limited both by the Chinese government’s tight security and by the fact that you can’t really know what is happening inside that person; and they are profoundly external in an age of instant news, as cell phone cameras capture images of these intensely personal acts. In such moments, the individual body becomes a reflection of the state of being of the society.

Each of these pathways toward understanding has its merit and its truth. Yet they cannot fully account for or do justice to these acts. They do not resolve the fact that certain people and ways of being are marked as potential targets of state violence, be they Tibetans living in the PRC or even, increasingly, in Nepal.

Some might consider this form of self-violence a weak or selfish method, a quick path to the cessation of suffering, of a sort. But it is important to see wisdom and compassion in these acts of self-immolation. If we give credence to the Buddha-as-exemplar, then there is power—elegance, even—in this possibility of generating bodhicitta. However, this demands awareness: cultivated, dispassionate, and universal in its orientation; a way of embodying suffering of self and other that at once disseminates and, simultaneously, dissolves this suffering. Such a view is difficult to maintain, though, when we can watch, at a distance, clips of a young monk, nun, or layperson burning to death on YouTube.

From a Buddhist perspective, suicide remains problematic. The vinaya, Buddhism’s regulatory moral framework, contains clear sanctions against taking one’s own life. As the philosophy goes, we have been granted a precious opportunity when we take rebirth as a human. This life is not to be wasted. We must apply ourselves, engaging in habits of mind that are liberatory in nature. Even so, the Buddha’s gift of his own body complicates this argument. It raises the bar. The self-mastery in evidence within the person who self-immolates marks the possibility for social transformation and cessation of suffering through such acts.[6]  With this understanding, new paradoxes emerge. At this moment of crisis in Tibet’s history, it is profoundly sad that people of contemplation—practitioners, teachers, students—are no longer alive. Perhaps what these self-immolations teach us, what they demand we contemplate, now more than ever, for anyone in the world who is paying attention, is the question: What is a good death?

26 March 2012


[1] TibetInfoNet is a subscriber-based listserv that sends out periodic digests of international news articles, including those produced in China, in which stories related to Tibet and Tibetans are summarized.

[2] See Kleinman et al 1997, 2001; Das et al 2000; Farmer 1997.

[3] See Adams 1992, 1998; Desjarles 1992; Janes 1999.

[4] I use the Tibet Himalayan Library’s Simplified Phonetic Transcription of Standard Tibetan ( throughout this article, for the sake of readers not familiar with standard Tibetan transliteration.

[5] Onhuma 2007.

[6] Ibid, 262.


Adams, Vincanne, 1992. "The Production of Self and Body in Sherpa-Tibetan Society." In M. Nichter, ed. Anthropological Approaches to the Study of Ethnomedicine. Amsterdam: Gordon and Breach Science Publishers, pp. 149-189.

Adams, Vincanne, 1998. "Suffering the Winds of Lhasa: Politicized Bodies, Human Rights, Cultural Difference, and Humanism in Tibet." Medical Anthropology Quarterly 12(1): 74-102.

Das, Veena, Arthur Kleinman, Mamphela Ramphele, and Pamela Reynolds, 2000. Violence and Subjectivity. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Desjarles, Robert, 1992. Body and Emotion: The Aesthetics of Illness and Healing in the Nepal Himalayas. Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Farmer, Paul, 1997. “On Suffering and Structural Violence: A Viw from Below,” In Kleinman, Das, and Lock, eds. Social Suffering. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, pp. 261-284.

Janes, Craig, 1999. "Imagined Lives, Suffering and the Work of Culture: The Embodied Discourses of Conflict in Modern Tibet." Medical Anthropology Quarterly 13: 391-412.

Kleinman, Arthur, Veena Das and Margaret Lock, 1997. Social Suffering. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Kleinman, Arthur, Veena Das, Margaret Lock, Mamphela Ramphele, and Pamela Reynolds, 2001. Remaking a World: Violence, Social Suffering, and Recovery. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Ohnuma, Reiko, 2007. Head, Eyes, Flesh, and Blood: Giving Away the Body in Indian Buddhist Literature. New York: Columbia University Press.

Sienna R. Craig, Department of Anthropology, Dartmouth College. Her works include a co-edited volume Medicine Between Science and Religion: Explorations on Tibetan Grounds (London and New York: Berghahn Books, 2010), and Healing Elements: Efficacy and the Social Ecologies of Tibetan Medicine (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012).