Smoke wafts to your nostrils’
reincarnating olfactory cells.
You don’t need time
to analyze-recognize;
there’s instant reaction –
incensed aversion,
the air shouts an aroma of ‘wrong’.

Then you see the flames:
darting, flicking, licking
their devils’ tongues.
They engulf, engorge, envelop.
Monk’s robes disintegrate,
as the chard blossom of the lotus-
sitter distorts his features.
The air becomes blackened
by the cracked skin bubbling
sacred, scarlet rivers –
his whole body weeping
disrobed tears of maroon blood.

You ask:
is this an act of love,
or of protest,
or desperation?

You ask:
where others would strike
and hurt another,
is this the only act remaining
to a peaceful people?

With heartbreaking futility –
You ask….

The Tibetan self-immolation toll currently stands at 113. Written for dversepoets


27 thoughts on “Self-Immolation

  1. How foreign to us in the U S., yet for others a solution….’chard blossom of the lotus’, ‘disrobed tears’ all the senses you brought to bear here…begs the question..of reincarnation.

    • Where we are relatively free to protest, there they could face torture and years in labor camps. To them the thought of such punishment, may mean that a greater spectacle and death are a preferable option for speaking out…and rebirth makes it less final.

  2. I remember seeing the pictures of monks in Vietnam on fire when I was very young, and part of me feels like that little girl when I read your poem, “Self-Immolation”. I had to brace myself to read the poem after reading the title. You have written a powerful, sad, and scary poem. Then it is made even more tragic with the note about Tibet at the end. I think that you handled the subject respectfully and well. “With heartbreaking futility-You ask…” After I read the poem, I listened to your audio. It was an excellent reading.

    • I did think about adding a photo, but the words are hopefully enough. I have Tibetan friends and I have spoken with someone who spent twenty years in a labour camp – the uplifting thing was that it was inspirational more than heartbreaking to hear him talk about it (though he did also talk of fellow prisoners’ suicides).

  3. I, like Heidi, had to brace myself before reading this…and i totally agree that you did it with respect and dignity for the Monks and their great sacrifice…and the futility of this act. No one is shocked at anything anymore. We should call this the Era of De-sensitivity. But your phrases such as, “Chard blossom of the Lotus” “and the sacred, scarlet rivers -his whole body weeping
    disrobed tears of maroon blood.” are so graphic and almost beautiful in the horror of what it is…Disturbing, yet amazingly beautiful.

    • I have watched a film called “A Buddhist Trilogy”, where the third part follows a Tibetan funeral. It is very much a meditation on death, and includes the cremation, where unlike Western cultures where we go to great lengths to preserve/cover the body, they simply bundle up the body and place it on the fire (the consciousness having already left for rebirth). This meant I could see the actual body burn. It was peaceful and not upsetting, and I so I transferred some of that imagery to the immolation – I’d be very happy to think it managed to be beautiful as well as distressing, thank you.

    • In the tradition, violence towards yourself is as bad, if not worse than violence towards others (guaranteeing a poor rebirth), so similar to ultimate sin (though nothing’s ultimate). But, if this is enlightened behaviour filled with loving-kindness and compassion (not hurting enemies, but speaking out for others) then it could be considered something else…

  4. I just went over to Wikipedia to read a little bit about this after reading your stunning piece. I found this information quite interesting. “Michael Biggs compiled a list of 533 “self-immolations” reported by Western media from the 1960s to 2002, though in this work his definition is generalized to any intentional suicide “on behalf of a collective cause.”

    It is amazing to me that belief in something that is so strong you would give your life for it especially in the way of these monks. Thank you for sharing this.

    • I heard one 30 year old Tibetan (who managed to survive as he was extinguished in time, but with horrific burns) say that he would do it all again, except he didn’t want the Chinese government to blame the Dalai Lama (who certainly doesn’t ask people to do this). So it does seem the motivation to think of others is strong in this fatal act.

  5. It is an outstanding reading and an excellent rumination on the nature of self-immolation. You encapsulate the sense of horror and beauty, perhaps a higher purpose in the act. Thank you for tackling the ethical question and giving me the space to ruminate on the meaning of it all.

  6. >They engulf, engorge, envelop.
    >Monk’s robes disintegrate,
    >as the chard blossom of the lotus-
    >sitter distorts his features.


    This poem leaves me devastated – asking why, and not having any answers.

  7. How have you managed to express something so devasting so beautifully? In today’s world is either self-destruction or terrorism the only way for the powerless to be heard? We ask, but I don’t know if we really want to hear the answers.

    • Even living in the relatively free Western world, I wonder how we can all have our voices heard – let alone elsewhere, where it can can seem so impossible..

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