Can a Buddhist Master be a Political Activist? Tibetan Hunger Strike Hero Says 'Yes'

27/03/2012 13:29 BST | Updated 26/05/2012 10:12 BST


Shingza Rinpoche at end of 30 day Tibetan Hunger Strike outside the UN (Photo: Luke Townsend)

A Channel 4 News report last week asked: "Are we seeing a Tibetan Spring?" With 30 self-immolations in Tibet, the majority of them committed by monks and nuns, as well as an increasing number and frequency of protests across Tibet and in exile, the answer appears to be: "Yes". Yet still the international political community remains conspicuously silent about Tibet.

In exasperation at this silence, Tibetan activists in exile have also turned to more drastic measures with some result. Recently, three Tibetans went without food for 30 days outside the United Nations Headquarters in New York. The hunger strike was called off a few days ago following an assurance from UN special rapporteurs to investigate the situation in Tibet.

The hunger strike was yet another incredible show of personal sacrifice and courage by Tibetans. However, even more surprising was the fact that one of the hunger strikers was a highly-revered Tibetan Buddhist master, Shingza Rinpoche. In Tibetan Buddhism, 'Rinpoche' is the title given to a highly respected reincarnate teacher considered to have a high level of spiritual realisations and study.

Shingza's participation in the hunger strike is significant for two reasons. First, it marks a visible departure from the 'behind closed doors' lobbying and diplomacy accompanying the Middle Way approach, advocated by the Dalai Lama. Second, it directly challenges a public perception that Buddhism and political activism cannot (and should not) mix.

Up until now, there have been very few high-profile monks and nuns in exile involved in public political debate and activism in relation to Tibet. The 14th Dalai Lama, the spiritual and former political leader of Tibetans, and Samdhong Rinpoche (the former Tibetan Prime Minister), have spoken out on Chinese atrocities and repression in Tibet, recently referring to it as a "cultural genocide" and "hell on earth". Yet most other respected Tibetan Buddhist masters have either remained silent or have been restrained in their public statements. This silence and ambiguity, as to whether or not Buddhism supports or encourages political activism, has led to increasing dissent and frustration with the Tibetan political leadership (and Buddhism) among some younger Tibetans in exile .

Buddhists as political activists

The swift condemnation by the Chinese government that the self-immolations went against Buddhist principles, led to a rather bizarre and ironic alliance between some western Buddhists, western-led Tibet support groups and the Chinese authorities.

But are such actions contrary to Buddhist principles and ethics? There is a perception among some Buddhists (mainly westerners) that politics and Dharma do not mix; that Buddhists, generally are not (and should not be) politically active. However, as Matteo Pistono recently pointed out, for a Buddhist perspective we can look at a letter written by Thich Nhat Hahn, a leading Buddhist monk from Vietnam, to Martin Luther King, Jr. explaining the self-immolations by Vietnamese monks in 1963.

"The Vietnamese monk, by burning himself, says with all his strength and determination that he can endure the greatest of suffering to protect his people. What he really aims at is the expression of his will and determination, not death. To express his will by burning oneself, therefore, is not to commit an act of destruction but to perform an act of construction, that is to suffer and to die for the sake of one's people.''

Jamyang Norbu (a Tibetan political commentator) has also written a compelling defence of the self-immolations as being consistent with Buddhist principles and I will not repeat that here. There is also a strong notion of 'wrathful compassion' in Tibetan Buddhism: the idea that compassionate and altruistic acts can take the form of apparently wrathful acts, if the situation calls for it; in the way that a mother scolds her child out of concern for their and others' welfare.

The Orwellian irony of the Chinese government's public condemnation of the self-immolations as contrary to the Buddhist notion of the preciousness of human life, while persistently promoting and supporting a 60 year policy of murder, torture and brute repression towards Tibetan Buddhist monks and nuns, would be hilarious if it were not true. They clearly 'pick and mix' their Buddhism as it suits them. Philosopher Slavoj Zizek also highlighted this tragi-comic irony when recently discussing China's new communist reincarnation law, that seeks to control and monitor the ancient reincarnation system in Tibet as well.

A new breed of Tibetan Buddhist master

So Shingza Rinpoche really is a breath of fresh air for the Tibetan Spring this year. Young, well-educated (he is also a Geshe, which involves at least 15 years of intensive study and debate of Buddhist philosophy), politically active and intelligent he represents a new breed of Buddhist practitioner for both Tibetans and westerners.

Shingza also challenges the notion, in the most visible way possible, that Buddhists cannot (and should not) be politically active. This is what the world (particularly the Chinese government) needs to see right now. Buddha himself was a political activist, who directly challenged the prevalent Hindu idea of caste, karma and its notion of an inherently existing soul. He was a radical who was also a promoter and advocate of women's equality, initiating the first formal institution and support for female spiritual practitioners (nuns) in India.

It really is time to reclaim the higher ground of Buddhist ethics from the cynical and manipulative Chinese government; from well-intentioned, yet misguided westerners; and from the shallow, poorly-briefed mainstream media who incorrectly portray Buddhism as apolitical and passive.

Self-immolations and hunger strikes are very distressing forms of political protest but they have been successful in putting Tibet back into the mainstream media and at visibly showing the collective pain and suffering of the Tibetan people.

If Shingza Rinpoche showed us anything this last month, he showed us that being a politically engaged, non-violent, yet 'wrathfully compassionate' Buddhist is acceptable when the 'gently, gently' approach of diplomacy and dialogue has clearly failed. It was not by accident that his last words in an interview at the end of the hunger strike were: "Bod Rangzen!" (Independence for Tibet).