Jamphel Yeshi made world news with images of his self-immolation. The Tibetan refugee was one of 80 people who had committed this dramatic protest against the Chinese – a practice which has only become prominent since 2011. This is one of religion’s harsher forms. Religions, which consider themselves the most important of all things to true believers, have produced endless forms throughout history — mantras, prayer, Eucharist, meditation, yoga — and also some darker forms such as the provoked martyrdom of early Christianity, the jihad of medieval Islam, and lately the suicide bombings of zealous Muslims. Self-immolation is another acute form, created by Buddhists who are instructed by their religion and the Dalai Lama, who they believe is the reincarnated Buddha, not to feel or express hate or violence, and certainly not to bomb their enemies. Given those strictures, and given the intense mix of patriotism and piety in Tibetan refugees, it was the perfect matrix for creating this suicidal form of protest.
Not that China will let them have it. Chinese government — the bad guys in this story — suppress every attempt at such a protest, confiscating and destroying any photos or videos of self-immolators, lest they win worldwide sympathy. In this, Jamphel’s dramatic self-immolation, in which the handsome youth runs through the crowd with what looks like a smile, or the grimace of excruciating pain, fiery from the gasoline he ignited over his body.
Years ago Jamphel escaped Tibet with a neighbor, marching by night through fields till his feet were blistered and oozing puss, before arriving at the refugee colony of Majnu ka Tilla.
As the National Geographic reported on this incident, Jamphel’s friends were surprised he set himself on fire. He had in fact vowed to do so in 2008, but was talked out of it by friends who urged him to do more good by staying alive.
His friend Dolma said he was upbeat on the bus to the protest that day, smiling and playing with her son. “At another point during the ride, I opened a bus window to get some air,” she said, “He said, ‘Wow,’ and he smiled and opened his arms to the coolness of the air … I think now that he knew he was feeling that for the last time. But at the time, I only thought it was a bit strange.”
Whether or not Jamphel is a hero, it took consider will power for him to keep standing back after he lit himself and to rush through the crowds where he would gain attention.
When patriotism and piety intermingle, the pressure of a deep religious anxiety can produce novel forms. This form of protest ended up killing Jamphel after 48 hours in the hospital. After he dashed through the crowd, one friend recalled that he smelled like roasted meat, yet he had his recognizable face. In the hospital, however, his head swelled beyond recognition.
A handwritten letter was found in his belongings that spoke of the Lama returning to Tibet. It also said loyalty is “the life-soul of a people,” “Without freedom, six million Tibetans are like a butter lamp in the wind, without direction.”
“At a time when we are making our final move toward our goal – if you have money, it is the time to spend it; if you are educated it is time to produce results.; if you have control over your life, I think the time has come to sacrifice your life.”
The rhetoric is rather straightforward and literal; his training by monks was modest. But the Dalai Lama’s position on the immolations is hypocritical. He wishes to stay “neutral” because “If I say something negative, then the family members of those people feel very sad. They sacrificed their own life. It is not easy. So I do not want to create some kind of impression that this is wrong.” Of course, creating such an impression would cease the severe practice, potentially saving many family members from grief. But that would be less politically expedient.