Dorje Tsering: Where We Failed Him

Dorje Tsering succumbed to his injuries on the third day of his stay in the hospital’s critical care unit.

He was 16 years old. He looked younger, much younger, than his age. In one of the more widely shared photos of his, on people’s Facebook posts and profile pictures, he is in a classroom. He is smiling, in a kindly way.

For most people, this is the only image with which they will identify with this young Tibetan boy in India: a sunny, cherubic face, nattily attired in his school uniform, caught as if in the midst of writing notes on his notebook. There is no sign or trace of the violent deed to come.

Dorje Tsering

There are other images now: of him lying in a gurney with a ventilator on his face, barely conscious, his skin raw and dark, ripe with burns that engulfed 95% of his body.

Tsering’s death, and of another young monk inside Tibet on Feb 29, 2016, come at the heels of the Tibetan community celebrating our new year, and a week away from the National Uprising Day. It comes in the wake of a lull in intensity, following the frenzied spate of self-immolations in Tibet from 2011 to 2014, that claimed more than 140 Tibetan lives.

Although we were shocked at hearing about this self-immolation from India (most of the self-immolations took place in China-occupied Tibet), and the fact it was someone so young, we quickly readjusted and played along with a familiar script, hardly missing a beat.

We anointed him a hero and a patriot. It was a sacrifice for Tibet, we said. A non-violent act too, let’s not forget. May he be reborn swiftly, we prayed. We chanted Om Mani Padme Hum, and attended candlelight vigils.

Dorje Tsering and his family deserve all the support they get. They also need to grieve and mourn this incredible loss, and I hope we give them that space.

For us to truly respect and come to terms with the death of Dorje Tsering though, we need to act beyond the usual calls for political awareness and engagement.

Our rush to valorize these acts of self-immolations must be preceded and followed by a deeper examination of the lost lives and their environment, and the consequences of said valorization. We need to reckon with the truth that these are suicides. And that by glorifying these terrible finalities, we are laying down a risky blueprint by which similarly distressed people will commit these violent acts of self destruction.

How are we implicated if we tell young people that a few seconds of intense fire or three days of dying count more than 16 years of life?

Their final exhortations, as noble and larger-than-life as they appear, are underpinned by circumstances that we more often tend to look away from than confront meaningfully.

I remember the debates when the self-immolations first started spreading through Tibet. We argued amongst ourselves about whether this was the right way to sustain the movement. We compared notes on effective tactics and strategies to resist the Chinese occupation of Tibet, and how the self-immolators helped or hurt our cause.

Those discussions, however relevant or fruitful, were ultimately about us. By placing the acts of the self-immolators within the grand narrative of a nationalistic movement, we claimed their bodies and erected stupas on them around which we continued on with our debates, protests and lives.

Calling a self-immolation a “sacrifice” is poetic and uplifting, but in a way, it is selfish. It displaces a person from her individuality and lived experience. It frames her life based on how it affected us. Our insistence on looking at it solely through the lens of China and Tibet takes her away from her humanity. When we talk about her “sacrifice” (to what, for whom?), we’re really only talking about ourselves.

Calling Dorje Tsering’s self-immolation a suicide may sound crass, clinical and, perhaps, at odds with what the self-immolator intended it to be. But it was a suicide. It was a culmination of many different trajectories, missed opportunities, obstacles, and yearnings. And we are all complicit in it. Through our actions—significant or small, intentionally or unintentionally, knowingly or unknowingly—we failed him.

Our Buddhist traditions are anchored by the foundational principle that all acts, thoughts, phenomena and events are churned by a vast network of intermingling contingencies.

I think we have to apply that axiom to these self-immolations as well. One does not simply light their body on fire on the singular urge to Free Tibet. It is there, but so are many other variables and conditions that shape and define the path towards that ultimate, irreversible act of killing oneself.

We have to, I have to, push myself to uncover the underlying factors that led to Dorje Tsering’s suicide. With as much empathy and compassion as possible, I have to examine the conditions of this bright young life in exile: his hopes and anxieties, the opportunities available for him, the resources to help with his emotional and mental well-being, the state of his community, and the mentors that could have guided him. Above all, I have to remind myself: How did I fail him?

How did I fail him?

How did I fail him?

How did I fail you, Dorje Tsering? You were so young and you were so loved. You could’ve gone on and become anything you wanted. You would’ve learned so much; you would’ve travelled far and wide; you would’ve fallen in love, break up, make up, and fall in love again. You would trip, stumble and shine. And you could’ve even walked up the steps of the Potala with your parents in a free Tibet. You would struggle to breathe in the air from climbing all those steps at such a high altitude, but you know you wouldn’t have wanted anything else in the world other than to take in the brilliant sun and that deep, cerulean sky above you.

Please know that you are missed immensely. And please know that we will try our best to understand these heartaches that young people like yourself go through—during your lives, while you are living them. That we will be more careful than in the past of how we present your story; to be mindful of not reducing you to a two-dimensional icon that might draw young, impressionable minds towards similar acts. That we won’t simply smooth over the creases of your personal struggles with the overwhelming fervour of protest driven rhetoric—even if that’s what you think is necessary and want to be remembered for. You, and young people like you, are simply too complex and precious for that.

I live in a country where there are young men like yourself killing themselves because they feel dispossessed, displaced, and depressed. Although the conditions behind their deaths are also ignored or simplified in similar ways here (by the government and the average citizen), their deaths are not seen as sacrifices. It is a loss, one that traumatizes families and communities across many generations.

Dorje Tsering’s death is a wake-up call for our elders, leaders, and every one of us to deeply, honestly examine the interior lives and external circumstances of our people. Whether in exile or inside Tibet, we cannot simply light lamps, confine the self-immolators to the altars of martyrdom, and leave it at that.

He was 16 years old. He looked younger, much younger.

Follow me on Twitter: @gelekb



  1. Jane Marenghi

    Thank you Gelek for bringing this forth. This death is tragic in so many ways. That this young person felt the absolute need to go through with this. That so many others are feeling that dying is the only recourse they can imagine says so much of the state our world is in at this moment.
    How and what can we create, open, redefine to make life and living an undeniable option?
    Much metta,

    • christianthomas

      ​​Dear Sir, I have heard about Dorjee Tsering who has died three days after setting himself on fire. The student Dorjee Tsering had self-immolated on Monday in Dehradun, India, while shouting “Free Tibet”, according to an a​d​vocacy group based in London. The London based “Free Tibet” group tells us: “His father, Thupten, told Free Tibet’s reserch partner Tibet Wach that this is a heartbreaking incident but he is proud of his son and his sacrifice for the Tibetan nation”.

      Please let me give a short commentary about this heartbraking story about Dorjee Tsering. My name is Christian Thomas Kohl. I belong to the Tibetan Buddhist tradition since 1983. My first teacher had been Kalu Rinpoche. I have three children and two grand children. I am a teacher of politics and history. I am a specialist in the history of communism. My students are 15 years old. I feel for Dorjee Tsering like he was my son or my student. I feel very sorry for him for his father and for his mother and for his brothers and sisters.

      I am well informed about the horrible situation of Tibet since 1959. The Chinese government is strong. The Chinese Economy is strong. The Chinese bank managers are strong. They are the ruling class of China. The Chinese majority will not give up Tibet for geographical and economic reasons. Even a democratic China will be under the command of bank managers like in Hong Kong today, these managers will not give independence or autonomy to Tibet as the will not give independance to Hong Kong. Never.

      Tibet has no chance for freedom or independance or autonomy. No sacrifice for Tibet will help. No shouting “Free Tibet” will help. Every father and every mother can be proud when they have a son or a daughter alive not dead.

      The Tibetan population is treated by the ruling managers of China as if they were animals. This is not only a question of communism. A democratic China will not give up Tibet because of economc interest. This is more or less well known. But no self – immolation will change this. Please, my sons and my daughters of Tibet do not self – immolate. Do not break the hearts of your mothers. I feel so sorry for Dorjee Tsering and for his mother. Christian Thomas Kohl, Freiburg

  2. Pema

    I have found some reactions like yours now and thought I should say my thoughts too.
    All you say is true except the fact that DORJEE Tsering committed suicide. He didn’t because there are many other simpler ways and he wouldn’t talk about his sacrifice like he did. All sacrifices are made by people conciusly and he did too. We will fail him and all the others before him if we don’t make our lives more meaningful than what it is now for Tibet. If Dorjee la’s sacrifice makes you or me and rat of Tibetans say we will do more than our best for tibet then he has achieved his goal. Now if we don’t then we have failed him. And you know what? Those that don’t change don’t deserve freedom and sacrifices. If this number increases to a level that most Tibetans are in it then tibet as a nation does not deserve to be free. Tibetans don’t deserve to be a race. So, let us not call those that are gone anything but martyr because they are. Yes, let us tell all those potential young people that they can do far more alive than dead. And if death is the choice than I would prefer such brave souls to embrace death in a way that will make China realize the pain of being occupied and reduced obscurity.

    • driftsdrafts

      “…if death is the choice than I would prefer such brave souls to embrace death in a way that will make China realize the pain”.
      Forgive me if I sound blunt, but every Tibetan teenager that burns himself to death brings a smile to Chinese leaders. Without the inconvenience of pulling a trigger, they have succeeded in their goal of eradicating our people.

    • yourtibetangirl

      I think what the writer is trying to say is that we need to deconstruct this issue further instead of generalizing self-immolation as an act of a brave sacrifice. There could be multiple layers, a multitude of reasons why Tibetans, especially Tibetan youth, self immolate. For instance mental health could be a possibility, lack of parental figures might be a possibility, alienation in a community, identity crisis, bullying, depression, helplessness, and more.
      Ignoring this is to turn a blind eye to the possibility of preventing these kind of acts.

  3. palmo

    What did Dorje la do???? ….just burned his body…. this is the attitude that most people might have who are not aware with the plight for freedom that all tibetans carry in their hearts.
    it is time that we tell the people that tibetans have not stopped their fight but has begun in a more rigorous way. a teenage boy of 16 yrs felt it, so does the 6 milliom tibetans. the burns on the body are marks of success because the world will now need to get up from their slumber and give justice to the sacrifice…
    tibetans will remain one strong army and strong people like Dorje and Wangdu will lead in our hearts.
    we will not let their plight go in vain,,,,,,, we will fight till we win what we ought to win……!!!!!!!!

  4. Marie M.

    “One country’s ‘freedom fighter’ is another’s terrorist”. I cam to understand this all too well when my brother was killed in the “suicidal attacks” in the USA on 9/11/01. So easy to demonize the attackers in one case, and sanctify them in another. One act is taken out on the perceived source of suffering, while the other, is perpetrated on the one(s) suffering for the sake of making a statement. Both are violent acts which rarely, if ever, generate anything other than more suffering. The misplaced courage and conviction of the one(s) commiting these acts represents a great loss as well: lives that might have been beacons of light, snuffed out. As this commentary so skillfully clarifies, glorifying such acts, as a “means” justifying an end, is delusion. We fail Dorjee – and so many others – whenever we turn away from suffering, in ourselves and others, when we prioritize, encourage and reward dramatic acts more than we work toward making changes in our own lives, with the people right in front of us, who need our clarity and kindness and when we prioritize the needs and worth of one person or “group” and fail to respond “for the benefit of all living things”. We succeed when we let situations like this crack our hearts wider open, cry the tears that need to be cried, feel the anguish and despair represented here, and then “BE the change we wish to see”. Offering prayers and my deepest condolences to his family – and for ALL of his/my/ our human family. May the Phoenix of Great Compassion, Wisdom and Loving kindness rise quickly from this heartbreak.

    • gospelisosceles

      Sorry about your brother. Yes, you are right about freedom fighter/terrorist. I used to teach in China and all of my students were brought up believing Dalai Lama to be the world’s most dangerous terrorist, while the rest of the world praises him and gives him the most prestigious peace prize. I too pray for our human family to be washed in understanding and compassion, so these acts may be eradicated.

  5. Kelsang Phuntsok

    Definetly a crass and an ill-timed article. I’m not sure about “we” but you have failed him. If word “self immolation” is just poetic, “suicide” is too literal and cold. What befefjt it brings to the family and the deceased himself? What Ither clinical proof you’ve to call his sacrifice simply suicide?
    While no one wishes to see another self immolation, but when you’re presented with the one like Dorjee Tsering there is no other way but to valorize his sacrifice. For now, let’s pay the respect that he deserves for his sacrifice.
    However, we should discuss about others way to work and sacrifice for our cause in the near future.

  6. tenpel

    Reblogged this on Tibetan Buddhism :: Struggling With Diffi·Cult Issues and commented:
    »When a 16-year old Tibetan burns to death, it isn’t a noble sacrifice. It is suicide. My thoughts on self-immolations.« – Gelek Bhotay

    »Finally, a thoughtful yet caring critique of Tibetan responses to immolations: @GelekB’s call to go beyond heroics.« – Robert Barnett

    See also HH the 17th Karmapa’s recent message:

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