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Virtue and the Remaking of Suffering

In an old Buddhist tale, the Buddha encounters a tigress in the forest with her cubs.  Alone, he witnesses the frailty of both the mother and her cubs, suffering from intense hunger.  He sees the mother beginning to look at her offspring as her only means of sustenance. At the same time, he sees the cubs looking toward their mother with a similar intention of consuming her in order to stay alive. Witnessing the potential for such unthinkable harm, he offers his body to prevent the mother and cubs from killing one another, thereby also interrupting a vicious cycle of karma.

Lama Sobha, one of thirty-three Tibetans to self-immolate since 2011, recounts this parable in an audio recorded message explaining his act to "all the six million Tibetans, including those living in exile."[1] Nearly fifty years earlier, Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh shared the same story in a letter to the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. to explain acts of self-immolation in Vietnam.[2] Central to the tale is an act that ends the suffering of others by accepting not only death but pain unto oneself.  The story is a lesson about virtuous conduct, one where the motivation to act is not to assuage mere hunger, but to prevent deeds that would incur greater suffering by rearranging the experience of pain.

Reflecting on this story might help us move closer to a reading of the immolations that sees them as neither signs of a people’s mounting desperation, nor proof of their unflagging spirit in the face of colonialism. While such interpretations certainly hold merit, it is useful to ask what else such acts show that might not be as easily absorbed into narratives of pity or resistance.  When Thich Nhat Hanh opened his letter to King with the words, “The self-burning of Vietnamese Buddhist monks in 1963 is somehow difficult for the Western Christian conscience to understand. The Press spoke then of suicide but, in the essence, it is not. It is not even a protest,”[3] he is preparing his addressee to rethink self-immolation in connection to the story of the Buddha and the tigers, rather than as an act entangled in hopelessness or oppositional struggle.

Analyzing what these remarks might mean for contemporary acts of self-immolation must be done carefully, since Tibet and Tibetans are figures often used as mere contrivance in discussions intent on proving something else.  For there are also tales of self-suffering in the West that challenge conventional understandings of pain, such as the ancient story of Oedipus, where the main character has mistakenly killed his father and married his mother.  The kingdom of Oedipus is plunged into deep misfortune as a result of his deeds, and he understands that he must go into exile to end his people’s suffering. Upon realizing what he has done, Oedipus puts out his eyes in an act Talal Asad suggests is framed by an “ethics of passionate necessity” rather than attached to notions of responsibility or punishment: "Oedipus' self-inflicted pain…is perhaps best not thought of as ‘punishment’…Oedipus suffers not because he is guilty but because he is virtuous."[4]

Might not the immolations be read similarly? As not only expressions of desperation or resistance, but as practices of suffering or acts constituted by pain as well?  Pain here does not refer to guilt, responsibility, or punishment. Rather its presence suggests a certain kind of virtuous action in which an intimate encounter with pain is integral to the virtue of the deed.  It is important to remember in these cases that a painful act is not being assigned virtue merely because suffering is taking place. Virtuous pain here is an act that manages to shift structural patterns in unexpected ways.

Lama Sobha’s interpretation of self-immolation as a practice of offering reminds us how self-immolation may forfeit some of its intelligibility if bound by terms of desperation or resistance: “I am sacrificing my body both to stand in solidarity with them (Tibetan immolators) in flesh and blood, and to seek repentance (gyo-shak) through this highest tantric practice (tham-tsik) of offering one’s body.”[5] A practice of offering does not make the same move as resistance; it nevertheless establishes and inhabits particular bonds and relations.  Sobha’s direct and indirect objects of offering -- not only other immolators and sentient beings in general, but Tibetans and Chinese as well -- are notable for being referred to in a context of their suffering and ignorance.  The offering is an act that seeks to intervene in that suffering,[6] much as the Buddha intervened in that of the tigers.

It is also notable that the most frequently invoked figure in Sobha’s message and prayers is the Dalai Lama who stands distinct as the only recipient not imbricated in a cycle of suffering or ignorance. How do we interpret the charge leveled toward him in such an offering, given his position?  Sidestepping calls from media, scholars and government officials to condemn the immolations as unacceptable violence and call for their end, the Dalai Lama has been silent on his own opinion, turning his relationship with Tibetans upside down by saying “People inside Tibet are our boss.”[7]  Regardless of whether or not one agrees with this dynamic, it is clear that the Dalai Lama finds himself in a dilemma in relation to the particular ethics of nonviolence he has used in the past to justify intervening in earlier Tibetan actions.

Yet it is not just the Dalai Lama who cannot find ethical disclosure when confronted by these acts.  The self-immolations complicate a troubling model of non-violence and violence as immutable and distinct categories: a model prevalent not only in the framing of “the Tibet issue,” but also in secular liberal practices of applauding or delegitimizing various social and political struggles.

For what is the point of the story of the Buddha and the tigers?  Why is this encounter taught as a parable, and what does it seek to illuminate to its audience?  The self-immolations do not appear to intervene in suffering as effectively as does the Buddha in his sacrifice.  When Thich Nhat Hanh argues that such acts are not well apprehended by labels of suicide or even protest, he is trying to say something about the ways in which self-immolation exceeds our moral and political categories.  Part of the significance of self-immolation lies in its interruption of the terms we use to make sense of fractious situations.

It is not a standard of loss or hopelessness that Tibetans are rallying around, nor are these acts simply a call to conscience. At stake is a harm threatening not only Tibetans but also others under occupation, as well as those seeking to break from social and political cycles that seem never-ending in the suffering they reproduce. The story of the Buddha is a lesson about how one responds as a witness to suffering, rather than an argument against or justification of suffering. In order to enact breaks in certain cycles of suffering, there must be a willingness to endure some of the pain one witnesses, rather than mere desire to manage pain without ever touching it.

It is in the cultivation of a particular attitude of possibility, one based on a readiness to suffer, that acts of virtuous pain may re-order our sense of how the world might be perceived.  Such acts of self-suffering must not be oversimplified, for they underscore the harm in structures of knowledge and power that would rather ignore than reconsider; contain instead of imagine the crossings.  Beings can be trapped within many kinds of patterns and walls—political, legal, and philosophical – all of which may pose obstacles to deeper understanding.  Yet we all know, at least theoretically, that certain acts are capable of casting fissures into walls, even of leaping outside them.

April 1 2012


[1] Tibetan Political Review. “Tibetan Lama Urges Unity, Nationhood Before Self-Immolating.” Last modified February 2, 2012.

[2] African American Involvement in the Vietnam War. “In Search of the Enemy of Man.” Last accessed March 15, 2012.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Asad, Talal. Formations of the Secular (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003), 95-96.

[5] Gyo-shak (regret + purification) connotes a purification of regret, and does not include acts motivated by fear or guilt.  In its translation as repentance, it is better understood as a crafting of one’s habitual patterns away from doubt and confusion and toward a disposition that is resolute, diligent and balanced, rather than a feeling of regret for a particular action.  In its pairing with tham-tsik (ethical discipline, vow), Sobha marks self-immolation under such conditions as an act framed by an ethics of giving.  In this sense it corresponds with the highest of ethical acts--offering one's body for the benefit of others.

[6] Tibetan Political Review. “Tibetan Lama Urges Unity, Nationhood Before Self-Immolating.” Last modified February 2, 2012.

[7] Dutt, Bharka. “Just a human being: The Dalai Lama in Bodh Gaya.”  Last modified January 11, 2012.

Tenzin Mingyur Paldron is a Graduate Student in the Department of Rhetoric at University of California, Berkeley.