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.
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