Buddhist God experts in southwestern China have been on a suicide binge lately. Last week victim #11, a 35-year old Buddhist nun named Qiu Xiang, set herself aflame. Most of the previous victims were younger, either twenty-somethings or, in several cases, mere teenagers. Most also come from a single town, Aba, which is near (but not in) Tibet.
The circumstantial evidence is that there is an organized campaign in this town to egg these young people on to die the most grotesque kind of death. Either that, or there is something awfully strange in the water at the local monastery. In fact, two monks have been criminally charged in the “suicide” of 16-year old Rigzin Phuntsog; a third is charged with concealing him for 11 hours after the bonfire, to make sure he died rather than receiving the medical treatment that might have allowed him to grow to adulthood.
What is the purpose in wasting these young lives? The purpose is to make a political point: that the Dalai Lama, the divine-right monarch of a particular Buddhist sect, ought to have more earthly power, and the Chinese government ought to have less. “Love live the Dalai Lama!” cried Tsewang Norbu, age 29, as he was engulfed in flame.
Why now? It seems to have something to do with the process for selecting the new spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhists after the current 76-year old Dalai Lama dies. He got his job in an interesting manner. The corpse of his predecessor, the 13th Dalai Lama, was observed by bureaucrat-monks turning his head from the southeast to the northeast, facing in the direction of his house, when he was two years old. When he was shown some toys belonging to his predecessor, he said “Mine!”, thereby proving that he was a genuine reincarnation and not a fake. He not only got the toys, but instantly became one of the richest persons in the world – his Drepung monastery alone had 185 manors, 300 pastures, and 25,000 serfs.
So the government of China has announced that it plans to be involved in the selection of the successor, just as government authorities have been involved in the selection of all the previous Dalai Lamas. This has moved the current Dalai Lama to invent a new magic revelation, overturning centuries of hallowed doctrine, that he has the divine right to pick his own successor, I guess because unlike his predecessors he knows where he’s going to be reincarnated. He now says that even if the Chinese government helps select the holiest person on the planet, good Buddhists should pay him no mind.
Suppose a teenaged supporter of Newt Gingrich, or Michelle Bachmann, decided that his favorite candidate wasn’t doing as well as hoped, and needed more respect. So to get attention, the young fellow burns himself to a crisp. Other supporters look on, and say “What a neat idea! I’ll prove how committed I am to the cause by killing myself too! Besides, if I don’t, everyone will say I’m a wimp.” How do you think Gingrich or Bachmann would respond? Even the most rabid Democrat would have to admit that the response would be a straightforward “DON’T DO THAT! Are you crazy? Winning the White House is important, sure, but it’s not that important that it’s worth killing yourself over.”
Contrast this with the actual response of His Holiness, the Dalai Lama. Neither the words “Don’t do that!” or any other words of similar import are anywhere to be found. Instead, he leads public prayers in celebration of the suicides, extolling what terrific people these were. “They publicly played it up, spread rumors and incited more people to follow suit,” complains a government spokesman. That’s exactly what happens when the Dalai Lama puts all the blame on the Chinese government, and none on the Buddhist leadership: “The local leader must look what’s the real causes of death. It’s their own sort of wrong policy, ruthless policy, illogical policy,” he insists.
“Throughout your successive rebirths, never relax your vigilance in upholding the truth of the Buddha’s excellent teaching for a single moment, even at the cost of your own life,” urges Kirti Rinpoche, the former head of the monastery now producing all the suicides, who now lives in comfortable CIA-funded exile with the Dalai Lama. Subtle, huh?
The key point in Rinpoche’s exhortation is the “successive rebirths” part. The tragic sham of Buddhism is to place little value on human life, because once you end this life you’ll just hop right into another one – an especially nice one, if you gave up your life to advance the political career of a professional Buddhist God expert. That kind of thinking is how Buddhism, a “foreign” religion from India, got its foothold in China, back in the times when regional warlords ruled after the fall of the Han Dynasty. Confucianism, the prevailing philosophy, stressed that sons should respect their parents by staying home and working the land. It was above all things a philosophy of peace, entirely unconducive to the recruitment of armies of conquest. By contrast, Buddhists made terrific soldiers. The privations of war were easy to endure for those who craved nothing in this life and concentrated exclusively on bumping up a step in the next. Constant propaganda from Buddhist God experts in pay of the state that the best way to do that would be to die the most heroic of deaths in battle had the expected effect. Knowing where their bread was buttered, these monks allowed the civil authorities broad power not only over clerical appointments and temple procedures, but even over core doctrines such as the curriculum of Buddhist schools, the classification of certain doctrines as heresy, and the promotion, demotion, or attribute-assignment of individual Gods.
This pattern continues in modern times. In 1938, leading members of Japan’s Nichiren Buddhist sect (many of whom were upper-echelon military officers and civilian right-wing ideologues) founded a group devoted to “Imperial-Way Buddhism,” declaring:
Imperial-Way Buddhism utilizes the exquisite truth of the Lotus Sutra to reveal the majestic essence of the national polity. Exalting the true spirit of Mahayana Buddhism is a teaching which reverently supports the Emperor’s work. This is what the great founder of our sect, Saint Nichiren, meant when he referred to the divine unity of Sovereign and Buddha. . . . For this reason the principal image of adoration in Imperial-Way Buddhism is not [the] Buddha … who appeared in India, but his majesty the Emperor, whose lineage extends over ten thousand generations.They were enthralled by the war then raging in China:
In order to establish eternal peace in East Asia, arousing the great benevolence and compassion of Buddhism, we are sometimes accepting and sometimes forceful. We now have no choice but to exercise the benevolent forcefulness of ‘killing one in order that many may live.’ This is something which Mahayana Buddhism approves of only with the greatest of seriousness.Great seriousness, indeed – many thousands of American servicemen died from suicidal kamikaze attacks by young Japanese who were just as convinced then as the Dalai Lama’s disciples are today that suicide will bring them happiness in the next life.
If it weren’t for all the CIA money supporting him over the decades, the Dalai Lama and his reincarnation antics would be a joke. Thinking about what these 11 idealistic young people might have done with their lives had they not been encouraged to throw them away doesn’t leave me smiling, though.