The way I want to talk about the current crisis of self-immolations by Tibetans may be risky for a scholar in academia. This is not merely because it critiques how my field has tended to address the topic. More basically, it departs from the usual mode of scholarly writing altogether.

I composed the following reflections without an initial plan or even an idea of what I would say. Nor was I sure of their full implications upon completion. And yet, in the particular case at hand, I think the fact that I wrote out of an immediate and even instinctive sort of intuition made an important realization possible. Or perhaps more accurately, what made it possible was that I was obeying an imperative that I had discerned—a demand on myself—to try and say something about my intuition, even if it didn’t stand as an entirely consistent scholarly principle.

Let me note right away that I myself have engaged in the very practice that I feel compelled to call into question today. A previous essay that I wrote on the same subject about two years ago was, I now think, off-base. In some sense it violated a really important human sensibility, even though I did try to acknowledge that sensibility at the end. In fact, when I was asked by Carole McGranahan to contribute to a “Hot Spot” forum on the self-immolations in Tibet in the journal Cultural Anthropology in late 2011, soon after the recent rash had really come to our attention as an urgent crisis, I felt that I had to take it on, I had to talk about it publically. I should not, could not, dodge the request just because it was too difficult or too controversial, which I did think it was. There was a moral imperative behind the essay that I produced, even though I still think that it failed to stay loyal to the heart of the matter.

In that essay, I argued that in self-immolating, monks both stood for and instantiated the power of Buddhism (and religion), a power that dared to present itself as on a par with the Chinese state and the might of its military. By virtue of monks’ and nuns’ power to live ascetically, to overcome physical discomfort, and develop, in some cases, great yogic power, they posed a formidable challenge to the presence and the legitimacy of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in Tibet. They displayed an alternate and compelling site, I argued, of human potential and flourishing—Buddhism, religion, yoga. By virtue of the power they attained from their religious practice they could even undergo a horrifically painful, self-inflicted death. And they displayed that power for all to see. It’s a logic that I think actually does have some truth to it, as far as the world of symbols and meanings goes, on the Tibetan plateau. I even had the satisfaction of a few people writing to me to say that they thought my comments were helpful and on the money—indeed, the kind of satisfaction that all of us hope for in writing and publishing in the academic world.

But it soon emerged that it wasn’t just clerics who were burning themselves dead. That’s what really turned my mind in a different direction. A mother in her 30s with four children. A young man of 17, the beloved son of a family. It wasn’t just disciplined clerics and it wasn’t necessarily about representing the power of religion. It was everyone doing it, with gruesome vividness—and with tragic, unbearably sorrowful outcomes. My logic did not quite capture the phenomenon entirely—or even may have ignored something far more basic in what was happening in Tibet, and how scholars might best understand it. I also think it was a mistake to analogize, as I did, the self-immolations with the old tradition studied by Toni Huber in which great yogis used to demonstrate their power in heat yoga by melting snow around them in the middle of the night—a performance for lay audiences. “Fire and ice,” I cleverly dubbed the ironic reversal of spectacles. But I really think now that sitting in the snow in the middle of an icy night to demonstrate yogic ability is on an entirely different order than self-immolation in the face of one’s community and the police. As self-immolation started to exceed, in my estimation, any such historical, cultural, ritual or tradition-based explanation or precedent, what has come most to the fore for me instead is simply the utter and deep human tragedy that it is, and that it brings about.

There is something about the nature of the current rash of self-immolation in the PRC, a special something that stands out among the many other kinds of difficult or complex or unsavory topics that we do indeed often study in religious studies. At the heart of this topic—its defining feature, if such a thing is a definition or a feature—is utter and abysmal and infinite and incomprehensible human suffering and tragedy. And that particular kind of incomprehensible topic—people publically and painfully putting themselves to death—is what I am uncomfortable trying to analyze or explain. I am feeling most of all that we just have to bow our heads in the face of it.

We most certainly have to document this tragedy with all the detail at our disposal. The world has to know about what is going on and to get some handle on the unfortunate forces that are bringing it about. It is up to reporters, anthropologists, and scholars of religion to record, analyze, and publish this data: the demography, the social forces surrounding the phenomenon, the dates and locations where it takes place (although I deplore the publication of close-up photos of self-immolating individuals or their charred remains). But what I’m getting at now, rather than documentation, is the question of what explains the phenomenon correctly, and, most of all, whether it is ultimately subject to explanation at all. While some explanation is called for—we need to know why this is happening, and, indeed, something about the history—I want still to preserve a space, a very prominent and big space, in which I, we, honor the ultimately impenetrable, unexplainable, and simply inconceivable tragedy that it most basically is. The tragedy that it is for the individuals involved and their families. The tragedy that it is for the Tibetan people as a whole.

I think that we’re doing violence to such a tragedy if we try to explain it with evidence and logic to the satisfaction of commonly held academic standards. In the course of offering such an explanation or analysis, I hit a wall and my mind just stops. And the floor drops away. I’m trying to find a way to honor that moment in my scholarship or even just recognize that my scholarship really can’t manage it, that it has to hit a wall, or fall through the floor, to mix metaphors.

Some of this has to do, I think, with friendship, or, perhaps more basically, humanness—our humanness as scholars, or despite being scholars. I say humanness rather than friendship because it’s not the case that we are necessarily friends with the actors in question. I don’t personally know anyone who has self-immolated, nor any of their family or colleagues, although through the years of my work with Tibetan scholars, teachers, and friends, I do feel a deep connection with the Tibetan community as a whole. I can even say with Lobsang Sangay, the current head of the Tibetan government-in-exile, that I share the self-immolators’ aspirations for freedom and the right to protest, even while not applauding their method or act. But I think about, for example, how I would react if a personal friend of mine committed suicide. How inappropriate—just wrong—unthinkable, really—would it be for me to offer an analysis of why. Or especially—and this is a big part of what I’m saying—to offer analysis or explanation in terms of my friend’s religious background, or cultural background, or something he had read in a book, or some precedent that had been set and was the grounds for his decision.

The self-immolation by Buddhist monks in Tibet cannot fundamentally be accounted for in terms of Buddhist history or scripture or ideology. In fact I don’t think that it is necessarily a religious act or phenomenon at all. Or even if it does have something to do with religion, I would agree here especially with what scholars like Talal Asad have argued about religion not being primarily about meaning-making or belief. I do not think that the self-immolators are making meaning by what they do or that it has much to do with what they believe about death or merit or reincarnation or dharma or whatever point of Buddhist doctrine. More fundamentally, these are desperate human tragedies having most of all to do with local suffering and global circumstances of human degradation.

I expect that all the cases of self-immolation in the last half-century—from the self-immolations by Buddhist monks in Vietnam and Americans in the US to protest the Vietnam war, to Czech protests of the Soviet-led invasion of 1968, to repeated instances in India in the early years of the 21st century, and, more recently, the immolation cases in the Middle East and North Africa that set off the Arab Spring—all these are “in the air” globally: a new, specifically modern kind of political scream. And yet, while we know what their political motivations and messages might be—and that’s certainly true for the Tibetan cases—those messages in all the cases I just cited don’t suffice to account for the entire phenomenon of a human being putting an end to him- or herself in such a horrible and public way. There is an excess that goes beyond meaning and that I want, as a scholar, to find some way to acknowledge and to avoid violating with explanation. Instead, I want to honor the unspeakability of this sorrow. It is what I would do when grieving for a friend.

This relates to something that came up earlier in my career and touches on an issue that is frequently discussed in religious studies and anthropology. At some point in the process leading up to tenure, I had a discussion with one of my senior colleagues about the book project that I was working on, my “tenure book.” The project was a translation and study of what is called “secret autobiography” in Tibetan literature, a text that documents esoteric meditative experiences and is often said to be inappropriate reading for anyone but initiated practitioners of the tradition it represents. One of the challenges that this involved for me was that the narrative was often elliptical and very hard to construe. To translate the work, I had to consult widely, including with the greatest living authorities on the text, just to understand what it was saying. That finally meant traveling to Kathmandu, Nepal, to consult with Dilgo Khyentse Rinpoche, said to be the reincarnation of the author of the very work I was translating. A stern protector of the esoteric literature of Tibetan Buddhism, Dilgo Khyentse was known to have chastised another Western scholar who came to him to discuss his own translation of, indeed, a very esoteric text, which Dilgo Khyentse insisted must not be published under any circumstances. I was worried that he was going to say the same thing to me. I told my senior colleague back at school that if Rinpoche had said that—which he didn’t, but if he had—I would have been in quite a pickle, having just used up a year’s National Endowment for the Humanities fellowship on the project. And, indeed, I was coming up for tenure, which required a book! Yet I would not have been able to violate Rinpoche’s command. My senior colleague looked at me in surprise and asked, “Why?” He seemed to feel that such compunctions had no place in the kind of work that we do in the modern academy. I don’t remember what I said in response. I think it was some version of “I can’t say why, but I just know that I couldn’t have violated his wishes.” I knew it at the time. I don’t know what I would have done, but I would not have been able to continue with the book.

What I think now is that fundamentally there was a human relationship at stake, that consulting with Rinpoche created a relationship that I could not violate, grateful as I was for his kind help to me. I was also very mindful of the fact that, in a very important sense, the text, the secret autobiography, belonged to him far more than to me.

My relationship with Rinpoche, like my relationship to the self-immolators, was not friendship as such, but both cases for me have to do with holding our humanness as scholars as a high priority. I regard it as a high human value to honor my commitments—explicit or not—with someone with whom I’ve entered a relationship. And as a scholar, I regard it as a high human value that when struck by the tragedy of another human being, I don’t consign that feeling to a corner and proceed with analyzing it as usual.

I’m not taking issue with what Robert Orsi argues in his book Between Heaven and Earth when he says that religious studies has a “commitment to examining the variety of human experience and to making contact across boundaries—cultural, psychological, spiritual, existential.” I agree with that, although, as I have already suggested, I’m not entirely sure that what we’re looking at in the Tibetan self-immolations is a religious phenomenon (beyond the sociological point that it is primarily monks who have engaged in it.) And yet the mere fact that we felt compelled to have a panel on this topic at American Academy of Religion means that Orsi’s imperative might still be relevant to us as scholars of religion, scholars who are used to accounting for the unfamiliar and the wide variety of human experience.

But to the extent that this commitment means for Orsi that religious studies “exists in the suspension of the ethical, and it steadfastly refuses either to deny or to redeem the other,” what he seems to be saying does give me some pause. Religious studies may not be a moralizing discipline, as Orsi maintains in the same passage, but I believe it should be a moral discipline. And this does not only entail a commitment to rigorous study even, as Orsi says, of religious practices “so alien to us” that they seem incomprehensible or unapproachable. The morality of religious studies should include recognizing and respecting our own moral position in the world and our primary commitments to our own human dignity. That in turn entails respecting the dignity—and I would add, privacy—of the people that we study. Once we are committed not to “otherize” the participants in the religions that we study, our shared humanity produces sympathy with our subjects, overflowing sympathy. That forces us to honor precisely the self-immolations’ incomprehensibility and unapproachability, and to honor our human reactions even more than our scholarly projects.

Janet Gyatso is Hershey Professor of Buddhist Studies at Harvard University. Her research focuses on Tibetan religion, literature, and intellectual history. This essay is adapted from a talk she gave at the American Academy of Religion 2013 Annual Meeting.

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