Kham is on fire. This year, five Tibetan monks have set themselves ablaze in the ethnically Tibetan-dominated region of China’s Sichuan province that is part of an area called Kham in Tibetan. The most recent self-immolation was on Oct. 3 in a market in the town of Aba (in Mandarin) or Ngaba (in Tibetan), according to exile Tibetan groups. While he burned, the teenaged monk named Kelsang Wangchuck reportedly held aloft a picture of the Dalai Lama, Tibet’s exiled spiritual leader who is as reviled by Beijing as he is revered by Tibetans. Like the other monks who set themselves on fire, Kalsang was apparently calling for religious and cultural freedoms that are lacking across the Chinese-controlled Tibetan high plateau. His condition, after local authorities put out the flames, is not known; at least two of the other Tibetan monks died from their fiery protests earlier this year.
While in the Tibetan exile headquarters of Dharamsala, India recently, I raised the issue of the self-immolating clerics with the Karmapa, the third-most senior monk in the Tibetan Buddhist cosmology. He looked a bit uncomfortable and, as the Indian security agents and Tibetan minders around him leaned in to hear his answer, he switched from Tibetan to Mandarin—a language the entourage around him did not understand. The 26-year-old’s answer surprised me. “Monks take a vow that says they are not allowed to end their lives,” he said in his calm, soft-spoken voice. “But on the other hand, these actions are not for an individual, they are for a people.”
In 1992, a seven-year-old boy named Ogyen Trinley Dorje who lived in a yak-hair tent in eastern Tibet was chosen as the 17th incarnation of the Karmapa. The choice was a rare agreement between Chinese-sanctioned monks and the Dalai Lama, who had fled to India in 1959 as Chinese repression in Tibet intensified. (However, there was not full accord within the Tibetan community, because a separate faction instead picked another boy, Trinley Thaye Dorje, whose acolytes shrewdly registered the www.karmapa.org domain name.) After his selection, the Karmapa disappeared into a Tibetan monastery, where he was taught the glories of the socialism alongside Buddhist theology. Tibetans feared he was lost. Then the 14-year-old Karmapa, like the Dalai Lama before him, escaped Tibet over the Himalayas. Since 2000, he has lived in the Indian hill-station of Dharamsala.
The spectacular escape, along with large reserves of Chinese yuan found in the Karmapa’s offices earlier this year, led some Indians to wonder whether the young cleric was, in fact, a Chinese spy. But the Indian central government has since cleared him of any transgressions related to the Chinese money cache, which local Indian authorities initially had hinted were questionably sourced.
In fact, as Tibetans begin to contemplate a future without the 76-year-old Dalai Lama, who has single-handedly raised the profile of Tibet’s struggle abroad, some are pinning their hopes on the Karmapa. In terms of Buddhist hierarchy, the Karmapa can never be venerated as the Dalai Lama (or his reincarnation, if there is to be one) is. Nevertheless, Tibetans are guided as much by faith as by a sense of nationhood. After the current Dalai Lama dies, the Karmapa could serve as a key unifying force—even more than an exile Tibetan politician.
When we talked, the Karmapa was careful to underline that his role isn’t a political one. Nevertheless, his message carried little optimism and much urgency for his homeland. “It’s a crucial time for Tibet now,” he said. “We cannot afford to carry out our fight generation after generation. If our culture is gone, if our religion is gone, even if we do get independence, what’s the point?” Certainly, the Kham monks who have torched themselves are expressing an urgent desperation. In 2008, protests and riots flared across the Tibetan plateau, and Beijing responded with an iron fist. But as the eruption of monastic dissent proves, the ensuing security crackdown has failed to suppress Tibetan anger. Kham may well burn on.