Listening to Our Teachers: Kirti Rimpoche and Professor Thurman Speak in NYC

Like many Tibetans, I have been grieving the situation in Tibet these last months, asking myself what can I possibly do in this seemingly hopeless situation. But yesterday I felt re-energized and inspired by hearing Kirti Rimpoche (the exiled head abbot of the Kirti monastery, place of the self-immolations) and esteemed Professor Robert Thurman speak at Hunter College. I’m sharing clips of the parts I managed to film, along with what I transcribed of their speech. Apologies it’s not the best quality video (shot on my phone), but it’s worth straining to hear the messages of these two wise teachers. I hope you’ll find these words comforting and enlightening in some way.

Photo by Jane Stein

The first clip: Professor Thurman on His Holiness’ recent comment on the effectiveness of self-immolations

“Recently, His Holiness said that he didn’t think it was effective as a tool of political protest. But he has to say that because he cannot express admiration for such courage because the Chinese government will say he’s telling them to do it. It’s a plot by Dalai Lama. You know they always blame Dalai Lama. So he can’t say that. But he didn’t say “I don’t want them to do it.” like the Rimpoche didn’t say “I can forbid them to do it.” Because they are free as his Holiness is concerned. And I’m sure HH has great sorrow about it but also admiration for these young people. They have true courage, I think, to do that. I think every Tibetan feels in their heart some kind of admiration…”

The second clip: Professor Thurman on how the self-immolations delegitimize Chinese rule over Tibet

“Unfortunately Chinese government will probably prevent Chinese people from seeing that, they will prevent the information reaching the Chinese people. Because anybody who understands that a perfectly handsome, beautiful, young, intelligent monk or nun who has a life of meditation and study, that they would destroy their body and especially by fire; they’re not cutting their throat or jumping off a cliff. They are burning it. This to make themselves an offering lamp. Mani. So they are giving their life like a butter lamp of offering to His Holiness the Dalai Lama and to Buddha and to freedom in the world. Unconsciously, that strikes the heart of everyone. The wife of the president of Vietnam after that monk [Thich Quang Duc], she said ‘Oh we don’t care about some Buddhist barbeque.” And she was universally condemned around the entire world. And that was beginning of the complete loss of legitimacy of the [Diem] government. So in one way, they are completing what people should have learned long ago, the fake, the lies of the Chinese government. They have no right. It’s completely illegal. It’s completely false, their claim to ownership over Tibet. And this proves this illegitimacy of their rule. That the young people who have their whole lives ahead of them and who can study and learn that they feel that under the condition of their mind and religion being controlled and their beloved HHDL, Panchen Lama and Kirti Rimpoche…are in exile. That makes them so upset that they would want to offer their body like that. It’s undeniable. The only problem is the media is not free in China. It would completely change the mind of many, if not millions, of people in China if they could see it, but maybe they’ll see it eventually on YouTube.”

The third clip: Kirti Rimpoche speaks about Phuntsok Jarutsang, 20, the first monk who self-immolated this year

“When Phuntsok committed self-immolation and he was still alive, the Tibetans were able to bring his body over into the monastery. If they left him there, the Chinese would have beaten him to death.  And after he passed away, hundreds of Tibetans were there to pay their respects. In fact the respect paid towards Phuntsok was even more than would be afforded to a high ranking lama. For the nun from Tawu, more than 10,000 people came to pay their respect. What became clear from the response of the Tibetan people after these people committed self-immolation, sacrificing their lives, is that Tibetans have profound and immense appreciation and recognition that these people sacrificed their lives for the Tibetan people. The distinguishing feature of a Bodhisattva is the attitude of placing others before self and this self of [inaudible] is what motivated these people who committed self-immolation.”

The fourth clip: Kirti Rimpoche on whether self-immolations are violent or non-violent

“Recently His Holiness, when asked whether self-immolations were non-violent or violent, His Holiness replied that would determine whether they were non-violent or violent was the motivation under which the act was done. Since their actions were motivated unadulterated compassion, it can in no way be an act of violence. [Discussion on some a Tibetan word that I left in because it’s funny when people say “gyu” again and again].”

The fifth clip: Kirti Rimpoche on how difficult it is for Tibetans to protest in Tibet & Professor Thurman on the khatak offering in the recent video of Palden Choetso’s self-immolation

“If Tibetans carry out any action even for a short period of time, even less than 5 minutes, the Chinese police imm will come to that area and then arrest them. So they have no opportunity to even do something like a hunger strike so the only thing can do is something like a self-immolation. In Tibet, even if you put a small poster calling for freedom or independence, you’ll be put in prison by the Chinese.”

“In the recent YouTube video of the nun burning herself in the street, there is at one point, there’s a lay woman who’s well dressed and she has a khatak [silk scarf]. And she offers the khatak to the fire. She can’t put the fire out. But she makes an offering to the fire, expressing her respect for that act. That’s a very interesting fact, I just thought of it. Amazing that she offered that khatak in the fire.”

The sixth clip: Professor Thurman’s long (but awesome) answer to what people can do to help and Kirti Rimpoche on self-immolations as the ultimate act of non-violence, which could be followed by violence

I’m not posting a script of Thurman’s speech since it’s so long. Below is Kirti Rimpoche’s bit.

“Self-immolations in Tibet are in fact the ultimate act of non-violence. So the inference that can be drawn is that if China continues with its clampdown, the next logical action might be violence. Because self-immolations would be the ultimate act of non-violence. Just as you mentioned earlier about his Holiness being advanced age and having retired and him being the main spokesperson for the Tibetan people and add to that the fact the self-immolations which are the ultimate act of non-violence, after that, the only other option left would be violence. So we’re at a very critical crossroads. It’s uncertain which direction this will go. And it’s in the hands of the Chinese government.”

Here finally is the video of the 35 year old nun Palden Choetso’s self-immolation and the subsequent gathering of 10,000 Tibetans who paid their respects to her. Here you can also see the lay woman Professor Thurman has spoken about. Please watch this and share this widely. It’s our responsibility not to turn away from the difficult and ugly truth of what’s happening in Tibet, as well as the strength of resistance and unity evident in this video!