Wangchen Dolma

Wangchen Dolma

  • A Tibetan nun has died after setting fire to herself on June 11 near a monastery in Tawu, eastern Tibet, during a gathering of several thousand monks for a religious debate and teaching.
  • Images of monks and lamas from more than 50 monasteries gathered for the inter-monastic debate are evidence of Tibetan resilience and determination to practice their religion and protect the core teachings despite an intimidating security crackdown and increasingly repressive policies across Tibet.

Tibetan nun Wangchen Dolma, in her early thirties, was taken away by police after she self-immolated, and she died on June 14, according to exile Tibetan sources in contact with Tibetans in the area. The Chinese authorities did not return her body to the family, who are under close surveillance and may now not be allowed to leave their home, according to the same sources. According to the Tibet Express, an exile website, and other Tibetan sources, a Tibetan man who tried to put out the flames and help Wangchen Dolma was detained by police. Officials prevented monks, relatives and local people from visiting her house to offer condolences after she died.

Wangchen Dolma chose to self-immolate not at her own mountain retreat, Barshab Dragkar, but near Nyatso monastery in Tawu (Chinese: Daofu) in Kardze (Chinese: Ganzi) Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture, Sichuan (the Tibetan area of Kham) at the time of a major inter-monastic debate and teaching. More than 3,000 monks from at least 50 monasteries representing all of the Buddhist schools are attending the teachings. After the self-immolation, communications were restricted in the area and surveillance of monks at Nyatso monastery was intensified.

Wangchen Dolma was from the small village of Dragthog, east of the town of Tawu; because there was no nunnery there, she studied at a nearby mountain retreat called Barshab Dragkar. The Tibetan Center for Human Rights and Democracy reported that she had been studying with a Buddhist Nyingmapa master named Chokyi Nyima, and spent four months meditating before her self-immolation. (TCHRD, Nun dies of self-immolation, family placed under house arrest).

A number of important lamas are present at the teaching and debate at Nyatso monastery, which began on June 10 and concludes this week. According to a former Tibetan monk who is now in exile, inter-monastic debates have been held at important monasteries in Kham and Amdo including Nyatso for some years, despite intense restrictions on religious practice in Tibet.

inter-monastic debate and teaching

Monks from more than 50 monasteries gathered at Nyatso in Tawu for an inter-monastic debate and teaching from June 10.

Nyatso monastery, major religious gathering

Tibetan nun Wangchen Dolma self-immolated on June 11 near Nyatso monastery, at the time of a major religious gathering.

Images obtained by Tibetans in exile from Tawu depict crowds of monks gathered at Nyatso monastery.

Earlier this year, vivid images disseminated on social media showed higher numbers of Tibetans than usual gathering to pray at major monasteries – Labrang and Kumbum – during the Monlam prayer festival in the last few days of Tibetan New Year (Losar), as troops stood guard or encircled the pilgrims. (Images at: ICT report, Thousands of Tibetan pilgrims face troops at religious ceremonies in eastern Tibet).

While the crackdown in Tibet has intensified in both scope and tactics since 2008, and more recently in areas where self-immolations have occurred, the images are futher evidence that Tibetans are increasingly taking bold steps to defend the core values of their culture.

Wangchen Dolma’s self-immolation is the 120th by a Tibetan in the PRC (ICT, Self-Immolations by Tibetans). Many Tibetans who have self-immolated have sought to underline the religious context of their acts. Some have died with their hands clasped in prayer while others like Wangchen Dolma have chosen to set fire to themselves beside a stupa (reliquary building), monastery or nunnery. Dhondup, a respected elder in his community, died after self-immolating at the side of a temple near the entrance to Labrang monastery (ICT report, Self-immolation at Tibet’s Labrang monastery), while young mother Dolkar Tso set fire to herself by a white stupa at Tsoe Gaden Choeling monastery. (ICT report, Tibetan mother in her twenties dies after self-immolation today; monk taken away after self-immolation yesterday).