Five Armchair Reflections on Tibetan Personhood

I. Opacities

Tibetan conceptions of personhood highlight an opacity of interiority as a native form of epistemology and perceptual regime. Opacity is not a riddle to be deciphered, but an essential element of Tibetan socio-cosmologies, their Heisenberg principle of indeterminacy, a physical constant of the Tibetan moral universe. Thus, Tibetan saintly figures proudly display several identities: different names and domains of the self to be deployed in contrastive religious and political spheres. Hagiographies highlight an outerand public self, an inner self containing religious experiences and a secret one, containing and concealing one’s mystical experiences. Curiously, the constitutive opacity of interiority is the obverse of  ‘our’ paranoia, the sensation that we know everything about other people’s minds. “Two people may know each other’s face (ngo) but their real nature (rgyu bdag) may remain concealed forever,” says a Tibetan adage. “Sweet mouth, filthy body,” says another. “A smiling face outside (phyi), a burning anger inside (nang).” “It is stupid to eat all the food you have been offered, it is foolish to say whatever you have in mind.” And it is immoral to discern the interior.

The opacity of Tibetan personhood never becomes more critical than in the case of human beings setting fire to themselves. How can we know the pain of the other? Are we entitled to write about it? We cannot know how they think inasmuch as we owe them respect: this is the most common Tibetan response to self-immolation. An epistemology of mootness. It is unwarranted to explain the opacity of interiority: that world is incommensurable and fenced, like Aba Prefecture, where no foreigner is allowed. How can the anthropologist dare saying anything in the absence of first-hand experience? Yet he should try, inasmuch as we trust Mauss and Levi-Strauss. Conversely, in the manner of Leonardo da Vinci, the anthropologist may only provide a negative rejoinder and attempt to remove the excess, to venture to say what a phenomenon is not.

II. Vitality and the body

“We Tibetans call suicide rang srog bcad, meaning ‘cutting one’s vitality’, srog indicating the ‘presence of life’,” begins a friend over the phone. They are hesitant, even monks must ‘invent’ a name for self-immolation. Rang lus bsregs—burning one’s own body, they finally name it, turning from the presence of life to the physical frame (lus) which contains it. “In the past, when people were desperate, they used to hang themselves, jump off a cliff or into a river or take poison. Burning one’s own body is rarely heard of,” they argue, “since fire inflicts more pain than anything else. And your body will be slowly destroyed. There will be smoke, smell, ashes. Limbs may be scattered, fingers may become like blazing coals.”

The destruction of the body is what most strikes their imagination. They remind you when villagers asked you to set fire to the corpse of an old monk, during a cremation ritual. You were asked because you were the attendant least related to the deceased. You remember the orifices of the corpse filled with yak butter, the pyre of wood, the prayers, the blackened bones crashing into the ashes, the concern for cremating a body before harvesting time because of the ro grib, the corpse-pollution, since mountain gods and the Klu spirits of the underground are smell-eaters (dri za) and may feed on the polluted smoke and curse the crops.  So you are not surprised when you read reports that circles of people in Aba surround the blackened corpses of self-immolators so that they will not be taken by the security forces. The body is the prime site of sovereignty.

III. Equivalence, Value, and Externalities

In his Frazer Lecture on Kingship and Divinity, Leach (2011) highlights how self-sacrifice involved in martyrdom implies a reunion, a kind of absorption of the self into a great Other— either that of State or God. However, this does not mean self-sacrifice is ethically unproblematic.

Violence and selfhood have been prodigiously resilient nemeses of Tibetan Buddhist societies. Ekvall (1964) was the first anthropologist to observe self-burning practices among Tibetans and how they apparently contradicted  – like many other ‘violent’ form of sacrifice – Buddhist ideals: “the infliction of injury upon one’s self as a form of offering has also survived from pre-Buddhist forms of propitiation such as suicidal immolations and self-mutilations. Burns, purposely inflicted and often performed on the body or head with lighted incense sticks, are called dmar mchod (“red offering”). The burning of one or more fingers is an extreme instance of this kind of self-torture, which, though rare, is not unknown” (1964: 165-6). The impossibility to eschew violence – real or symbolic – in sacrificial forms has been the aporia of Tibetan religious ethics.

In this domain we encounter the critical yet equivocal device of “substitution” inhabiting Tibetan ritual cosmologies. Self-sacrifice bridges the distance between two entities but also highlights and predicates on the complex relationship between whole and parts in sacrificial offerings, especially when different values of vitality or merit are ‘“traded”.  What is the form assumed by this relationship in Tibetan cosmologies? Karmic mathematics tends to operate through different relations of synecdoche. The agent who performs an action on behalf of another could act as a substitute (tshab). In the case of sins (sdig pa), parts stand for the whole, and if three persons kill a man, each receives the whole of the sin, not just a part. In the case of merit (bsod rnams), wholes can be divided into shares, and one person could gain merit on behalf of one or many agents. An old man can stay home and pay a young friend to go on pilgrimage on his behalf and act as his substitute, obtaining half the merit accumulated by the pilgrim. The pilgrim may also travel as substitute for more than one agent, paying for sharing his body, receiving the corresponding share of merit. A share stays with the pilgrim, the others can be ‘purchased’ through an offer.

A similar logic operates in the complex concept of glud, employed to indicate a specific type ofsubstitution where an agent—human, animal or an effigy—is expelled, traded or sacrificed for bearing away the misfortune or illness afflicting another ‘body’ or for warding off disaster threatening another ‘social container’—a person, a household, or the State. The glud is not only a “scapegoat” but a vital synecdoche; one life is traded for another (srog bslu).

Analogously, beneficial substitutes acting as ‘supports’ (rten) are employed as protective externalities: dislocating one’s vital part in external containers may protect their owner. Thus, livestock could be transformed into a beneficial substitute through the act of ‘liberating [its] life’ (tshe thar) and safeguarding and extending the prosperity and vitality of households, villages or other social units. Since what are traded are wholes, the scalar relationship is holographic—an effigy could stand for a collective body. The famous annual ritual of the Glud 'gong rgyal po, witnessed by Hugh Richardson in Lhasa in the 1930s, implied the selection of an individual cast away from the town and embodying the misfortune (bar chad) of the whole of Ganden Phodrang, the Tibetan state. However, while the misfortune of the whole State is cast away within a single individual, the fortune (g.yang) and vitality the State is regained. It is not preposterous to think that within this cosmological paradigm, a single self-immolator could protect and benefit the whole Tibetan nation.

IV. The Self of Self-immolation

What does emerge in the rare accounts or speeches of Tibetan self-immolators is a thought-provoking correlation between conceptions of self, agency and selflessness.  What Lama Sobha articulates in his parting speech is a strange relationship between self, honor and glory: “I am taking this action neither for myself nor to fulfill a personal desire nor to earn an honor...This is the twenty-first century, and this is the year in which so many Tibetan heroes (dpa' bo) have died. I am sacrificing my body both to stand in solidarity with them in flesh and blood and to seek repentance through this highest tantric honor (dam tshig) of offering one’s body. This is not to seek personal success (rang gi byas rjes) or personal glory (rang gi gzi brjid).” Notwithstanding what Lama Sobha articulates in his praise of selflessness, death is one’s free choice, an ascetic yet resolute self-choice, as Laidlaw (2005) suggests in the case of religious fasting to death among the Jains. The self-immolator craves attention and makes a political statement by binding himself to a resolute act of courage that denies the self whilst constituting himself as a political agent of national courage and martyrdom, through a heroic or divinely inspired act that proves that the face and honor of the nation is not lost. Face (ngo), honor (go ‘phang) and reputation (gtam) are critical components of Tibetan personhood and marks of humanity. A man without a sense of shame (ngo tsha) is not human, and his name—the supplement which hails him into humanity from the original state of non-being as polluted infant—may be lost.

V. Stalemate

Well before Foucault argued that biopolitics marks the threshold of modern sovereignty, Hocart highlighted that the king’s ultimate duty is “to promote life, fertility, prosperity by transferring life from objects abounding in it to objects deficient in it” (Hocart 1970 [1936]: 3; see also da Col and Graeber 2011: xx). The body and sovereignty (mnga' thang) of the king has a fractal and holographic relationship with the body of the state: it guarantees its prosperity. Unsurprisingly, the problem of ancient Tibetan kingship was purportedly how to dispose of the body without polluting the whole kingdom and its chthonic forces (cf. Haarh 1969). The Sovereign needs to gain access to his subjects’ bodies.

Self-immolation makes it impossible to punish the protester: the ‘terrorist’ cannot be reached by the long arms of the dreaded national security forces. Self-immolations strip off the agency of the State, the body can neither be regulated nor possessed, and the monopoly of law and violence is divested from the State: it is national stalemate by way of ‘terrorism’ upon one-Self.

1 April 2012


da Col, Giovanni and David Graeber. (2011). "Foreword: The Return of Ethnographic Theory." HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory. 1/1: xvi-xxxviii.

da Col, Giovanni. 2012 (in press). "The poisoner and the parasite: cosmoeconomics, fear, and hospitality among Dechen Tibetans." In Candea M. and da Col G. (eds) The Return of hospitality: strangers, guests and ambiguous encounters. Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute. Special Issue: 175-195.

Ekvall, Robert. 1964. Religious Observances in Tibet. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Haarh, Erik. 1969. The Yar-lun dynasty. A study with particular regard to the contribution by myths and legends to the history of ancient Tibet and the origin and nature of its kings. Koebenhavn: Gad's forlag.

Hocart, Maurice. 1970 [1936]. Kings and Councillors. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Laidlaw, James. 2005. “A Life Worth Leaving: Fasting to Death as Telos of a Jain Religious Life.” Economy and Society 34(2): 178-99.

Leach, Edmund. 2011. “Kingship and Divinity: The Unpublished Frazer Lecture, Oxford, 28 October 1982.” HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 1(1): 279-98.

Giovanni da Col, Mongolia and Inner Asia Studies Unit, Social Anthropology, University of Cambridge