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Jottings 11: self-immolators and suicide bombers?

Tuesday, February 18th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron — on some aspects of religiously motivated suicide, and I’m not clear why I called this one a jotting, since it’s quite long and detailed ]
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I have been taking a couple of online courses on terrorism in recent months, and in one of them I ran across a Foreign Policy article titled Ultimate Sacrifice: What’s the difference between self-immolators and suicide bombers?

… there is another form of deadly protest that has made a resurgence in recent years. Not only did Tunisian street vendor Mohamed Bouazizi’s fiery suicide ignite the region and inspire subsequent self-immolations in Algeria, Egypt, and Morocco, but a growing number of Tibetans have also set themselves alight to protest Chinese rule in Tibetan region

It’s an intriguing question, phrased by one of my fellow students as the question, “Can Tibetan Self-immolators be considered “terrorists”?

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I did my “due diligence” research, and came up with some articles worth reading:

  • Tenzin Tharchen, 125 Self-Immonlations: why suicide by fire protests continue in Tibet
  • Tsering Shakya, Self-Immolation, the Changing Language of Protest in Tibet
  • Martin Kovan, Buddhist Self-immolation and Mahayanist Absolute Altruism
  • while my interlocutor offered this one:

  • Jose Cabezon, On The Ethics Of The Tibetan Self-Immolations
  • But you know, the mind has indirect back-channels as well as direct information freeways, and the question seems to have been percolating while I’ve been asleep.

    **

    Sonam Wangyal, Lama Sobha, was the first Tibetan lama to self-immolate, and left a cassette tape in which he explained his motives:

    I am giving away my body as an offering of light to chase away the darkness, to free all beings from suffering, and to lead them — each of whom has been our mother in the past and yet has been led by ignorance to commit immoral acts — to the Amitabha, the Buddha of infinite light. My offering of light is for all living beings, even as insignificant as lice and nits, to dispel their pain and to guide them to the state of enlightenment. I offer this sacrifice as a token of long-life offering to our root guru His Holiness the Dalai Lama and all other spiritual teachers and lamas.

    The full text of Lama Sobha’s message can be found at the bottom of an International Campaign for Tibet page titled Harrowing images and last message from Tibet of first lama to self-immolate — the “harrowing images” themselves are linked to, but not shown.

    **

    The Chinese come close to targeting Tibetan self-immolators as terrorists, using the terms “Splittist”– so often also used of the Dalai Lama — and calling their actions “intentional homicide”. This from the “>Scottish Parliament’s Cross-Party Group on Tibet:

    Nonetheless, the response by the Chinese authorities to self-immolations by Tibetans has been extremely draconian, largely because of an assumption that all protest by Tibetans must be intrinsically “splittist” (that is, secessionist). In particular, it has involved the formulation of new laws that seem to target Tibetans specifically, and the imposition of collective punishments, and the application of the crime of “intentional homicide” to all those aiding, abetting, encouraging or even photographing self-immolations.

    **

    It occurs to me that sacrificing oneself for the benefit of other beings is symbolically enacted in the Tibetan Chöd ritual, in which one symbolically feeds the parts of one’s body to the pretas or hungry demons to satiate them and put them to sleep — and also in some of the Jataka Tales of the previous rebirths of the Shakyamuni Buddha.

    I’m thinking particularly of The Bodhisattva and the Hungry Tigress, and will quote here from Edward Conze‘s telling in Buddhist Scriptures, pp 24-26. On being told that self-sacrifice is difficult, Mahasattva (the future Buddha) replies:

    It is difficult for people like us, who are so fond of our lives and bodies, and who have so little intelligence. It is not difficult at all, however, for others, who are true men, intent on benefitting their fellow-creatures, and who long to sacrifice themselves. Holy men are born of pity and compassion. Whatever the bodies they may get, in heaven or on earth, a hundred times will they undo them, joyful in their hearts, so that the lives of others may be saved.

    His prayer before offering his own body and blood to feed an ailing tigress and her cubs is:

    For the weal of the world I wish to win enlightenment, incomparably wonderful. From deep compassion I now give away my body, so hard to quit, unshaken in my mind. That enlightenment I shall now gain, in which nothing hurts and nothing harms.

    Assuming the Jataka tales made it to Tibet, this one might be a potent influence on potential self-immolators.

    **

    A possible Tamil “comparable” — presumably Hindu rather than Buddhist, culturally if not religiously:

    When young Murugathasan Varnakulasingham (aged 26) committed self-immolation in front of the UN headquarters in Geneva on 19 February 2009 he was protesting against international failures of intervention in the unfolding humanitarian tragedy in northern Sri Lanka, where he believed that large bodies of Tamil people faced extinction by the Sri Lankan government. “The flames over my body will be a torch to guide you through the liberation path,” he wrote in his parting letter.

    There have been a few other protest suicides by Tamils in Tamilnadu and Malaysia, but Varnakulasingham’s altruistic act probably garnered the most attention.

    **

    Further thoughts:

    There’s always Samson, pulling down the pillars that upheld the roof of their temple on the Philistines, once he’d regrown his hair and strength…

    Then the lords of the Philistines gathered them together for to offer a great sacrifice unto Dagon their god, and to rejoice: for they said, Our god hath delivered Samson our enemy into our hand. And when the people saw him, they praised their god: for they said, Our god hath delivered into our hands our enemy, and the destroyer of our country, which slew many of us. And it came to pass, when their hearts were merry, that they said, Call for Samson, that he may make us sport. And they called for Samson out of the prison house; and he made them sport: and they set him between the pillars. And Samson said unto the lad that held him by the hand, Suffer me that I may feel the pillars whereupon the house standeth, that I may lean upon them. Now the house was full of men and women; and all the lords of the Philistines were there; and there were upon the roof about three thousand men and women, that beheld while Samson made sport. And Samson called unto the Lord, and said, O Lord God, remember me, I pray thee, and strengthen me, I pray thee, only this once, O God, that I may be at once avenged of the Philistines for my two eyes. And Samson took hold of the two middle pillars upon which the house stood, and on which it was borne up, of the one with his right hand, and of the other with his left. And Samson said, Let me die with the Philistines. And he bowed himself with all his might; and the house fell upon the lords, and upon all the people that were therein. So the dead which he slew at his death were more than they which he slew in his life.

    — Judges 16.23-30 — not quite self-immolation, not quite suicide bombing, but certainly suicidal warfare with a religious motive.

    Okay, When Christians quote John 15.13:

    Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.

    surely they include in their understanding of that verse, those who throw their bodies on top of grenades to protect their comrades — which would seem in its own way to parallel the teaching of the Jataka Tale.

    **

    Likewise, when Muslims quote the hadith from Sahih Bukhari, Volume 4, Book 52, Number 53, in which the Prophet says:

    Narrated Anas bin Malik:

    The Prophet said, “Nobody who dies and finds good from Allah (in the Hereafter) would wish to come back to this world even if he were given the whole world and whatever is in it, except the martyr who, on seeing the superiority of martyrdom, would like to come back to the world and get killed again (in Allah’s Cause).”

    and from Sahih Muslim, Chapter 28, Book 020, Number 4626:

    It has been narrated on the authority of Abu Huraira that the Messenger of Allah (may peace upon him) said:

    [ … ] By the Being in Whose Hand is Muhammad’s life, if it were not to be too hard upon the Muslims. I would not lag behind any expedition which is going to fight in the cause of Allah. But I do not have abundant means to provide them (the Mujahids) with riding beasts, nor have they (i.e. all of them) abundant means (to provide themselves with all the means of Jihad) so that they could he left behind. By the Being in Whose Hand is Muhammad’s life, I love to fight in the way of Allah and be killed, to fight and again be killed and to fight again and be killed.

    — how close are we to Nathan Hale:

    I only regret that I have but one life to lose for my country

    — and behind that, to Joseph Addison:

    What a pity it is
    That we can die but once to serve our country.

    — that’s from Addison’s now obscure play, Cato, a Tragedy, Act IV, Scene 4

    **

    Of course, the way to stop self-immolations in Tibet is simple — put up a notice:

    See also New document sheds light on China’s campaign against self-immolations in Tibet

    On China vs India — and the Hungry Ghosts

    Tuesday, August 27th, 2013

    [ by Charles Cameron — I’d have put these two “quotes” in my DoubleQuotes format, but wanted to quote quite a gobbit of each, and the print would have been too small ]
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    Offering us a fresh angle on two great nations as we (maybe) pivot to Asia

    Excerpted from Hungry Ghost Festival 2013 Begins In China As Spirits Descend On Homes, Wander Streets:

    The gates of hell have opened. Its ghosts have been let loose to roam on earth and visit the homes of their relatives.

    According to traditional Chinese beliefs this happens every year during the seventh month of the lunar year, resulting in a raucous, feast-and-music filled celebration known as the Hungry Ghost Festival. But not all ghosts are good. There are some spirits who wander the streets, ravenous and envious because they died without descendants or were ignored by their kin while alive.

    To appease the hungry spirits, ethnic Chinese step up prayers, aided by giant colorful joss sticks shaped like dragons. They also burn mock currency and miniature paper television sets, mobile phones and furniture as offering to the ancestors for their use in the other world.

    For 15 days, neighborhoods hold nightly shows of shrill Chinese operas and pop concerts to entertain the dead.

    Excerpted from Indian state outlaws profiting on miracles, summoning ‘ghosts’:

    New Delhi – A new law against superstition and black magic in India’s Maharashtra state has triggered a debate between religious groups who say that the state is interfering in personal faith, and rationalists who say religious malpractices violate human rights. [ … ]

    “We will challenge the law as it is ambiguous and interferes with personal faith,” says Abhay Vartak of the Santan Sanstha, a Hindu organization. “The law does not define much of what it outlaws – ghosts, for instance. The government itself is not clear whether ghosts exist! And if belief in ghosts is to be outlawed, then what about the Hindu Scripture the Atharva Veda, which says a lot about how to get rid of ghosts who come to inhabit a body?” he asks.

    The law specifically outlaws 12 practices, making them punishable by a jail term of seven months to seven years. Of the 12 clauses, two relate to belief in ghosts. The first one forbids recommending violent and sexual practices for purging ghosts from the body – including drinking urine or stool, being tied with a rope or chain, and touching heated objects. It also outlaws creating fear by threatening to invite ghosts.

    **

    For a glimpse of how the notion of “hungry ghosts” might be interpreted in terms of Tibetan Buddhist philosophy — as embodied in the Chöd rite — see Tai Situ Rinpoche‘s Introduction to Chod.

    Sherlock Holmes, Hannibal Lector and Simonides

    Sunday, March 3rd, 2013

    [ by Charles Cameron — the art of memory, with a sidelong glance at swans, typhoid and theodicy ]
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    Thomas Harris (and by extension Hannibal Lector) has been interested in memory palaces for a long time. We can begin to infer this this because Lector describes his hobby in Red Dragon (1981) and again in Silence of the Lambs (1988):

    So — church collapses?

    **

    As you can tell from that last comment in the Silence of the Lambs quote — to my mind the most brilliant presentation of the problem of theodicy for our day — if there’s a God worth defending, it has to be a God who allows sparrows to fall, typhoid to accompany swans in the vast ecology of existence, churches to collapse on worshipers, and “bad things to happen to good people” from time to time.

    And such things, specifically including collapses of religious buildings atop worshipers, do indeed happen in fact as well as fiction.

    And they don’t only happen to Christians, either… Bon is the shamanistic religious tradition of Tibet, prior to — and later, somewhat assimilated by — Buddhism

    **

    The thing is, when I read that Hannibal Lector collected church collapses, it not only made me start to take note of them myself, it also made me think of Simonides. As Frances Yates tells us in her book, The Art of Memory:

    At a banquet given by a nobleman of Thessaly named Scopas, the poet Simonides of Ceos chanted a lyric poem in honour of his host but including a passage in praise of Castor and Pollux. Scopas meanly told the poet that he would only pay him halfthe sum agreed upon for the panegyric and that he must obtain the balance from the twin gods to whom he had devoted half the poem. A little later, a message was brought in to Simonides that two young men were waiting outside who wished to see him. He rose from the banquet and went out but could find no one. During his absence the roof of the banqueting hall fell in, crushing Scopas and all the guests to death beneath the ruins; the corpses were so mangled that the relatives who came to take them away for burial were unable to identify them. But Simonides remembered the places at which they had been sitting at the table and was therefore able to indicate to the relatives which were their dead. The invisible callers, Castor and Pollux, had handsomely paid for their share in the panegyric by drawing Simonides away from the banquet just before the crash. And this experience suggested to the poet the principles of the art of memory of which he is said to have been the inventor. Noting that it was through his memory of the places at which the guests had been sitting that he had been able to identify the bodies, he realised that orderly arrangement is essential for good memory.

    And by way of reinforcing my Lector-Simonides conjecture, Lector certainly had a remarkable interest in memory, as we learn from his dialogue with Clarice Starling:

    “Did you do the drawings on your walls, Doctor?”
    “Do you think I called in a decorator?”
    “The one over the sink is a European city?”
    “It’s Florence. That’s the Palazzo Vecchio and the Duomo, seen from the Belvedere.”
    “Did you do it from memory, all the detail?”
    “Memory, Officer Starling, is what I have instead of a view.”

    A belvedere, from the Italian, is “a structure (as a cupola or a summerhouse) designed to command a view” — and a beautiful view at that. Belvedere is also, ironically, the name of the town in Ohio where Buffalo Bill, Lector’s serial killer ex-patient, lives…

    **

    So it didn’t surprise me to discover that in Hannibal (1999), the book that follows Silence, this brilliant man who as we have seen collects church collapses and has an exquisite memory in place of a view, is revealed as a practitioner of Simonides’ art:

    The memory palace was a mnemonic system well known to ancient scholars and much information was preserved in them through the Dark Ages while Vandals burned the books. Like scholars before him, Dr. Lecter stores an enormous amount of information keyed to objects in his thousand rooms, but unlike the ancients, Dr.Lecter has a second purpose for his palace; sometimes he lives there. He has passed years among its exquisite collections, while his body lay bound on a violent ward with screams buzzing the steel bars like hell’s own harp.

    Hannibal Lecter’s palace is vast, even by medieval standards. Translated to the tangible world it would rival the Topkapi Palace in Istanbul for size and complexity.

    We catch up to him as the swift slippers of his mind pass from the foyer into the Great Hall of the Seasons. The palace is built according to the rules discovered by Simonides of Ceos and elaborated by Cicero four hundred years later; it is airy, high-ceilinged, furnished with objects and tableaux that are vivid, striking, sometimes shocking and absurd, and often beautiful. The displays are well spaced and well lighted like those of a great museum. But the walls are not the neutral colors of museum walls. Like Giotto, Dr. Lecter has frescoed the walls of his mind.

    Brilliant. And a delight, years later, to have my hunch connecting the church collapses and prison cell with only memory for a view with Simonides and the Art of Memory confirmed by the third book and film in the series…

    You’ll note, btw, that the Lector (caveat lector) of the first two books has now become Lecter in alignment with the films starring Anthony Hopkins.

    **

    I love symmetries, so let’s move from the most monstrous criminal mind in literature, to the greatest detective…

    Sherlock Holmes — in his latest television incarnation — builds memory palaces of a sort, though I’m not sure Simonides would recognize them.

    I’m posting the clip from the series here to honor my son Emlyn, with whom I have been watching the series…

    **

    And then there’s the Jesuit whose use of the Art is explored in Jonathan Spence‘s The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci:

    In 1596 Matteo Ricci taught the Chinese how to build a memory palace. He told them that the size of the palace would depend on how much they wanted to remember: the most ambitious construction would consist of several hundred buildings of all shapes and sizes, “the more there are the better it will be,” said Ricci, thought he added that one did not have to build on a gradiose scale right away. One coul create modest palaces, or one could build less dramatic structures such as a temple compound, a cluster of government offices, a public hostel, or a merchants’s meeting lodge. If one wished to begin on a still smaller scale, then one could erect a simple reception hall, a pavilion, or a studio. And if one wanted an intimate space one could use just the corner of a pavilion, or an altar in a temple, or even such a homely object as a wardrobe or a divan.

    You’ll note that in this early example of virtual reality as an pedagogical technology, Ricci doesn’t start with the easy stuff, the single wardrobe or divan — he begins with “the most ambitious construction”…

    Enough for now. When I want to talk about in a follow up post is detail… the crucial importance of detail.

    Judaism, Islam and the death penalty

    Sunday, August 12th, 2012

    [ by Charles Cameron — surprising infrequency of capital punishment, though mandated in Sharia and Torah ]
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    I’m always struck by formal parallelisms, particularly in matters religious — so when I came across this fascinating reference to the infrequency of capital punishment by stoning in the Ottoman Empire in a book review today (upper panel):

    I was immediately reminded of a similar Jewish reluctance to use capital punishment — stoning being one of the four choices — as recorded in Tractate Sanhedrin (lower panel)

    And i thought the Dalai Lama (inset) might like it too…

    Of course, there’s more detail and nuance to be had in each case, but the parallelism is nevertheless instructive.

    Sources:

    Review of Kadri in Pakistan’s Express Tribune
    Jewish Virtual Library, Capital Punishment

    On a personal note, highly subjective: you gotta love R. Akiva — but you gotta respect R. Simeon, too.

    As usual, life is nuanced and — dare I say this? — “systems dynamic”.

    Carlos Fuentes (1928 – 2012)

    Wednesday, May 16th, 2012

    [ by Charles Cameron — in memory of Carlos Fuentes, requiescat in pace ]
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    Carlos Fuentes‘ great novel, Terra Nostra, opens with these words:

    Incredible the first animal that dreamed of another animal.

    It’s a sentence to stop you in your tracks, a sentence to give pause to time itself, circling back on itself like the serpent that eats its own tail, a dream of a sentence, a dream sentence.

    Fuentes continues:

    Monstrous the first vertebrate that succeeded in standing on two feet and thus spread terror among the beasts still normally and happily crawling close to the ground through the slime of creation. Astounding the first telephone call, the first boiling water, the first song, the first loincloth.

    How does a mind move so agilely among these many and diverse firsts — the sleeping, the archeo-anthropological, the technical, the musical, the shameful or sinful or perhaps decorative, even erotic? In a single paragraph — the first in a book that will run 890 pages and not tire?

    And Fuentes continues:

    About four o’clock in the morning one fourteenth of July, Pollo Phoibee, asleep in his high garret room, door and windows flung wide, dreamed these things, and prepared to answer them himself.

    Pollo Phoibee dreamed these things, Carlos Fuentes dreamed Pollo Phoibee…

    And we are in Paris, Paris of the artists, of the garret, and yet a Paris where the Seine is boiling, where the Louvre has become crystalline, the black eyes of the gargoyles of Notre Dame see “a much vaster panorama”…

    *

    Carlos Fuentes died today, and I am saddened — remembering him signing my short, fat British Penguin paperback of Terra Nostra (its fondly remembered cover image above) and commenting that it was his preferred English edition, since one could slip it into one’s pocket…

    And Terra Nostra was special to me, both as a great and tumultuous fiction, and as a fiction that quoted Norman Cohn‘s In Pursuit of the Millenniun, the book that back in my Oxford days introduced me to the history of apocalyptic thought… a fiction also familiar with Frances Yates, another scholar I greatly admire, and her writings on the Memory Theater

    Carlos Fuentes, the imagination that conceived Terra Nostra, is no longer with us.

    *

    He had been a diplomat, this great imagination. Born into a diplo family, he had served as Mexican ambassador to Paris — Paris of the diplomatic banquets, but also of the artist’s garret, of this New World imagination spanning continents and centuries as though they were a playground, the playground of a single, multiple, cosmopolitan and erudite mind.

    The poet Paul Claudel, French ambassador to Japan, was reproved by the Surrealists in 1925 with the words:

    One cannot be both ambassador for France and poet!

    The poet Saint-John Perse was secretary to the French Embassy in Peking, and later General Secretary of the French Foreign Office. The poet Giorgos Seferis was Royal Greek Ambassador to the United Kingdom. The poet Pablo Neruda was Chilean ambassador to France… The poet Octavio Paz, Mexico’s ambassador to India.

    Among novelists, it was Lawrence Durrell — an Englishman born in India with what he described as “a Tibetan mentality” — one who found life in England itself “like an autopsy … so, so dreary” — who was British press attaché in Alexandria, Egypt, during World War II, where as they say:

    Ostensibly working, Durrell was in reality closely observing the assortment of sights, sensations, and people that wartime Alexandria, a crossroads of the East and West, had to offer.

    The result was his masterpiece, The Alexandria Quartet.

    *

    Fuentes is heir to many lineages: of Mexico, of the world, of literature, of diplomacy, of the imagination.

    In honoring him today, my researches turned up this apposite quote from Aldo Matteucci at the Reflections on Diplomacy blog:

    To survive, a diplomat needs poetry. Filed amidst the many layers of the brief, the short poem will refresh the bleary mind. Poetry brings distance – hence perspective and insight. Poetry reminds the diplomat that the best professional is the amateur.

    Most deeply – poetry is truth.

    Carlos Fuentes survives us all.


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