A Monk’s Life in Turmoil in Tibet

The Kirti monastery, in the town of Ngaba, has become an epicenter of Tibetan self-immolations in protest of Chinese rule.

Dongtuk’s home town was known for self-immolations. How would he choose to live?

From a quick glance, you might have been unsure if the boy standing in the crowd of onlookers was Chinese or Tibetan. You saw plenty of both in Ngaba, a small town on the edge of the Tibetan plateau. He wore tinted glasses and had a big puff of hair in a garish red hue, which must have come from a cheap drugstore dye. His face was obscured by a nubby black-and-white scarf tugged over his nose. The boy knew he looked peculiar, but he didn’t care. He had disguised himself so that people in town wouldn’t recognize him; until recently, he had been a Buddhist monk. The Chinese police considered monks to be troublemakers, so it was better to be mistaken for a punk rocker.

It was midafternoon on March 16th, 2011, a bright day on the cusp of spring. The town should have been bustling with people heading to the market to buy fresh vegetables for dinner, but the metal shutters of the storefronts had slammed closed. Like birds who fly away moments before an earthquake, the people living in Ngaba had sensed that trouble had arrived, and scattered quickly.

Not the boy, who was known as Dongtuk, a nickname that he’d been given when he was young and which means “wild baby yak.” Although he wasn’t particularly wild, he had an incorrigible streak of independence. He’d come into Ngaba to apply for a travel document that the Chinese government sometimes requires Tibetans to have in order to visit certain places. There was no public transportation from his village, so Dongtuk had caught a ride with a neighbor who operated an informal shared-taxi service.

With the roads clear, Dongtuk had expected that they would arrive by lunchtime. But, when they reached the edge of town, they encountered an unexpected checkpoint. Police waved the driver back. Dongtuk hopped out in front of Sinopec, the town’s only gas station, and proceeded on foot, veering off the main road into uncultivated fields and parking lots behind the storefronts. Other Tibetans who wanted to avoid the police were doing the same; as Dongtuk walked, he overheard snippets of conversation.

The story revealed itself slowly. Somebody had lit a fire. He’d lit himself on fire. He was a monk from Kirti monastery—Dongtuk’s monastery, and one of the largest in the area. Two years earlier, a monk at Kirti, holding a portrait of the Dalai Lama, had lit himself on fire, next to a police car, in the main street of Ngaba. He survived, and was later shown on state television with his scarred face and shrivelled legs poking out of a hospital gown. Dongtuk had thought such a thing would never happen again in Ngaba.

Dongtuk cut through an alley to get to the main market area, which was still cordoned off by the police. A gaggle of old women were standing along the sidewalk, dressed in the big cloaks that Tibetans call chuba, with fat beads around their necks. They were crying, praying, and screaming in equal measure, calling in one moment for compassion and in another for revenge against the Chinese.

“Om mani padme hum,” they chanted—the mantra that Tibetans use to invoke the bodhisattva of compassion, who is also Tibet’s patron saint.
“Chinese bastards.”
“Eat dirt.”
“May dust fill their mouths”—one of the favorite local curses.

Dongtuk spotted a matchbox, its contents spilling onto the pavement. He reached down to grab the matches, wondering if they were the very ones used by the monk. Although details remained vague, he understood perfectly that the monk had burned himself as a message to the Chinese, who blocked the roads, required Tibetans to have permits wherever they travelled, and forbade them from displaying photos of the Dalai Lama, their exiled spiritual leader. For the first time, Dongtuk contemplated his own life and wondered whether he, too, would be willing to die for Tibet.

When you mention Tibet to many Americans, they conjure up images from coffee-table books of pilgrims prostrating at the famous monasteries of Lhasa, or of the snowy peaks of Mount Everest etched against cerulean-blue skies. Those images come out of central Tibet, which is designated by the Chinese government as the Tibet Autonomous Region. In fact, the Tibetan plateau is double that size, and the majority of Tibetans reside outside the autonomous district, mostly in Qinghai, Sichuan, Gansu, and Yunnan Provinces.

Ngaba is in Sichuan, where the Tibetan plateau collides with modern China, and it is not as scenic as the Tibetan towns on the tourist trail. It mostly comprises a clutter of low-rise buildings laid out along both sides of a provincial highway, which is plied by pedicabs and the motorcycles favored by Tibetan nomads. Ngaba got its first traffic lights in 2012. Signs advertise the People’s Bank of China, China Mobile, and China Unicom, but the town isn’t large enough to support the chain stores. A few years back, local authorities ordered Tibetan-themed murals—endless knots, lotus blossoms, yaks, dharma wheels—painted above the storefronts, to deflect criticism from foreigners who had managed to sneak in that Tibetan towns were becoming too Chinese.

Nondescript though it is, Ngaba was churning out resistance to the Communist Party even before the founding of the People’s Republic of China. Ngaba was one of the first places where Tibetans and Chinese Communists encountered one another, during the Long March of the nineteen-thirties, when the Red Army detoured into the Tibetan plateau, confiscating food, homes, and monasteries. But it was a series of self-immolations, beginning in 2009, that catapulted Ngaba into international headlines. As of this writing, a hundred and fifty-six Tibetans have burned themselves in protest of Chinese rule; the most recent was in November. About a third of the self-immolations have taken place in Ngaba and the surrounding villages.

I was living in Beijing when the wave of self-immolations began, and, like many journalists there, I became obsessed with Ngaba. There was the undeniable challenge: Ngaba was simply one of the most difficult places in China for journalists to visit. Unlike with Lhasa and the other parts of the Tibet Autonomous Region, you were not required to obtain a special permit, but fortified checkpoints kept outsiders away. I was keen to know what it was that the Chinese government didn’t want us to see. And how had this little town become the engine of Tibetan resistance? Around the same time that I was reporting on the Tibetan unrest, I read Orhan Pamuk’s novel “Snow,” a fictionalized account of a Turkish city where a string of young women had killed themselves. Ngaba was the real thing.

Travelling discreetly, I made several trips into Ngaba. I also met many people from Ngaba living in Dharamsala, India, the headquarters of the Dalai Lama and his exiled government. In Dharamsala, being from Ngabaa conferred a certain cachet: it meant that you almost certainly knew someone, if only a third cousin or a neighbor, who had self-immolated. But nobody knew more self-immolators than Dongtuk, which made him a minor celebrity in the exile community. I heard about him almost as soon as I arrived, in 2014, and asked a friend from Ngaba for an introduction. If anyone could explain what had driven so many Tibetans to self-immolation, perhaps it was him. We have stayed in touch since. Like many others, he felt ambivalent about the suicides, but recognized that they had been a tremendous loss of face for China. “It put pressure on the Chinese government. It got the world’s attention,” he said.

Dongtuk was born in 1994, in a village called Meruma, about fifteen miles from the center of Ngaba. He and his mother, his younger sister, and his maternal grandmother lived in a mud-brick house enclosed inside a walled courtyard strung with prayer flags. As a girl, Dongtuk’s mother, Sonam (I’ve changed her name), had been the village beauty, with high, chiselled cheekbones and a dazzling smile. But, at age thirteen, she came down with a fever that left her paralyzed in her left hand and left foot. The village had no doctor and there was nobody to diagnose the illness. “Evil spirits,” Sonam’s mother concluded.

Tibetan wives are responsible for cooking, cleaning, milking the animals, churning the butter, and collecting yak dung for fuel. Sonam’s limp and paralyzed left hand made her an undesirable bride, despite her good looks. Moreover, she needed to take care of her mother. Being single, however, was not synonymous with being celibate. Although Tibetan women are modest in their clothing, they are not prudish about sex. Polygamy and polyandry are acceptable among rural Tibetans, and unmarried women frequently have children of their own.

Unlike Chinese women in similar situations, unmarried Tibetan women aren’t scorned as mistresses or concubines; instead, they are treated as heads of households. This was the case for Sonam, who had inherited her parents’ house after a ne’er-do-well older brother absconded with the family’s savings. She herded yak, collected and sold herbs, and did odd jobs for neighbors, but it supplied the family only a meagre income. They ate a basic diet of tsampa, a Tibetan staple—ground barley that is usually cooked into a porridge, and sometimes mixed with cheese and butter. The children never had more than one pair of shoes, which they stuffed with grass for insulation. The family didn’t have a television or radio, so at night they played a cassette tape of Buddhist prayer music.

The family’s house had a chapel off the courtyard, which was dedicated to Sonam’s uncle, Alok Lama, who had been honored as a reincarnate lama. It was the only room constructed with timber, which is precious on the plateau. An elaborate gilt-edged frame held a black-and-white photograph of a thin, pockmarked man with a goatee. Next to it was a portrait of the Dalai Lama, which, as in other Tibetan homes in the area, was hung loosely from a nail, so that it could be hastily removed in case of an inspection by police or Communist Party officials. The room had a bed with a wooden frame, reserved for any distinguished monk who might come to pay respects. It was kept locked with a padlock, but Dongtuk would sometimes take the key from the kitchen and let himself in, to rest on the bed.

Dongtuk didn’t know much about Tibet’s history; his mother was apolitical and wanted to keep her children that way, so that they wouldn’t get into trouble. What little he learned was from his grandmother. When his mother was out in the pasturelands with the animals, Dongtuk and his sister would lie with their grandmother on a mattress of twigs and straw, with a felt covering made of yak wool. Snuggled up next to her, they would beg to hear heroic stories of Tibetan warriors fighting the Red Army in the thirties, and then sadder stories, about the many Tibetans who were herded into communes by the Chinese Communist Party, in 1958, and who perished of hunger. He heard about Tibetan collaborators, who were bribed by the Chinese to torture and humiliate monks, and about one in particular, a woman who forced a monk to drink her urine.

“Did you do that, Grandma?” Dongtuk asked.
“Of course not!” she said.

Dongtuk’s father, a herder, had a wife and another family. Relations were amicable, and he often visited them. The youngest child in that family was a boy, Rinzen Dorjee, who was about the same age as Dongtuk. It was assumed that they would be playmates, although they shared few interests. Dongtuk was a chatterbox; Rinzen Dorjee preferred the company of animals to people. He spent hours crouched by the edge of a stream, collecting frogs and tadpoles. Dongtuk thought that it was a stupid pastime, but he appreciated Rinzen Dorjee’s presence. Dongtuk was slight of build and had poor eyesight, but Rinzen Dorjee was sturdy, so it was handy to have his brother around for protection.

Every June, Dongtuk’s father’s family would bring their herds of yak to the mountains, living in a tent and moving every few weeks, to fresh grasslands. One summer, when Dongtuk was nearly seven, his father brought him along, to teach him to ride a horse, a skill that, surprisingly for a Tibetan boy, he had not yet acquired. Although Dongtuk’s father mounted him on the smallest, most gentle mare, Dongtuk lost control. The horse galloped far ahead of the others, and Dongtuk, in panic, tumbled off. One of the large dogs that the family kept, to protect the herds from wolves, caught him by the shin. The other children burst into laughter. His stepmother dusted him off and cleaned the injuries. Dongtuk’s father never spoke to him about the incident. It was clear that this boy who couldn’t ride a horse wasn’t cut out for life as a herder.

Around the same time, Sonam suggested that Dongtuk go to the monastery. He was elated. Dongtuk was not old enough to understand vows of celibacy and sobriety, but he had grown up watching visitors to his home prostrate themselves before the portrait of his mother’s uncle. The sangha—the community of monks and nuns—is considered one of the “three jewels” of Tibetan Buddhism, and is the repository of learning and spirituality for Tibetan society. Dongtuk saw monks as demigods.

By sending a son to the monastery, families gained spiritual merit and insured that one of their offspring would be literate. It was a sacrifice for somebody in Sonam’s position to give up her only son, but she saw that Dongtuk was intellectually curious and she believed that he would thrive in the monastery. “The monk’s life is good. You will get an education,” Sonam told him. “You won’t have responsibility for supporting a family. You will not have the same suffering as the others.” And he wouldn’t have to get back on a horse.

The natural choice was for Dongtuk to go to Kirti, which had close ties to his home village of Meruma. When Dongtuk arrived, the monks removed his threadbare clothing and bathed him in a vat of steaming water. They scrubbed his skin until it was pink and raw, and cleaned under his fingernails, and shaved his head. It was the first real bath of his life—in effect, a baptism. He was assigned a new first name, Lobsang, meaning “noble-minded,” and given a clean crimson robe.

Kirti had been almost completely destroyed in the first decades of Communist rule, but it was rebuilt in the nineteen-eighties, a period of relative tolerance during which the Party rolled back the excesses of Mao Zedong. The monastery, which sprawls across hundreds of acres, resembles the campus of an élite boarding school, with libraries, classrooms, art studios, residential compounds, and fields. The chapels, dimly lit and redolent of incense and butter lamps, have nooks and crannies to explore, and walls filled with paintings of bodhisattvas and deities. Across a stream is a small chapel dedicated to Palzel, the deity who was the protector of Kirti and its monks, and who was believed capable of teleporting anywhere in the world in the blink of an eye. To a Tibetan boy, it was like having your own personal superhero.

Homesick at first, Dongtuk was delighted to find that many of his playmates from Meruma were also enrolled. Among them was his half brother, Rinzen Dorjee. Dongtuk had always been somewhat jealous of his brother’s easy athleticism and greater claim on their father’s affection, but Dongtuk was the better student at the monastery.

The school at Kirti taught math and science, and also more traditional subjects, such as Buddhist philosophy and Tibetan language. The young monks engaged in a ritualized form of debate, during which one group would be assigned to defend a thesis and the others to challenge it. The debates took place outdoors, in front of the main assembly hall, so that members of the public could watch, and often went late into the night. Dongtuk was one of the best debaters in his age group. After debates, he would tumble into bed past midnight, exhilarated.

When Sonam came to visit, she commended herself on her decision to send her son to the monastery. She was unaware that Kirti was in the crosshairs of the Communist Party’s hard-liners. By the time Dongtuk arrived at Kirti, in 2001, the cultural renaissance that had sprung from Mao’s death was winding down, and the pendulum was swinging back toward repression. Three years earlier, the Party had targeted Kirti for a campaign of what it was calling “patriotic education.” Loudspeakers were set up inside the monastery’s congregation hall and blared denunciations of the Dalai Lama, whom the Party branded a separatist who would undermine China. “You must love your nation first before you can have religious freedom” was one of the talking points. The officials interrogated senior monks and demanded that the clerics get registration cards, obtainable only after they signed oaths of loyalty to the Communist Party and disavowed the Dalai Lama. Many monks refused, and quit the monastery.

Teen-age monks began pulling pranks on the Communist Party cadres. They scaled high concrete pillars to remove the loudspeakers and replace them with “Free Tibet” stickers; they scrawled pro-Tibet slogans on paper prayer flags, which they scattered around the monastery grounds. Although the rebellion had started a few years before his arrival, Dongtuk at first didn’t pay much attention to it—he was too occupied with playing, exploring, and learning. But, in 2002, just a year into his stay, the government closed his school, in keeping with a previously unenforced rule that nobody under eighteen could become a monk. The rationale was that the monasteries were not to interfere with secular education, which went against a long Tibetan tradition of sending boys for their education at the age of seven.

Like the other boys at Kirti, Dongtuk remained at the monastery after the school was closed, occasionally studying Tibetan writing and Buddhism with tutors, but he had no regular schedule. He had always to be alert, in case an inspector came in looking for underage monks. It was like a fire drill: put on your jeans and T-shirt as quickly as possible, stash your crimson robes under the floorboards, grab some money, and head into town. During inspections, the boys often went to play basketball. Dongtuk was terrified of what might happen if he was caught in monk’s robes; he’d heard that he might be forced to go to a Chinese school, which as far as he was concerned was the equivalent of being sent to prison.

Beijing had been selected as the host country for the 2008 Summer Olympics, affirming China’s status as the world’s new superpower. In anticipation of the Games, the government embarked on a building spree—not just stadiums but also airports, railroads, towers and bridges, dams and water diversions. A railroad line to Lhasa was inaugurated in 2006, traversing more than a thousand miles of the Tibetan plateau, part of it permafrost. Each passenger had a personal oxygen supply. As though bending the laws of physics, time and distance shrunk, closing the divide between Tibet and the heartland of modern China.

Just when life should have become more convenient for Tibetans, it became more restricted. With economic development came more Chinese troops, and also a blurring of the line between the police and military, owing to an increased deployment of a state paramilitary force, the wujing. In the six years leading up to the Olympics, security spending in Ngaba prefecture increased more than fivefold, according to Human Rights Watch’s analysis of public budget data. A military base was established about one and a half miles to the west of Kirti, and a checkpoint erected outside the base became infamous for harassing Tibetan drivers. If you had a broken tail-light or didn’t fasten your seat belt, you could be stopped and extorted for money—especially if you happened to be one of the many Tibetans who wore medallions with portraits of the Dalai Lama.

It had always been a challenge for Tibetans to leave the country, but now they had trouble travelling within it. People from Ngaba who used to go frequently to Lhasa now needed travel documents. In the months before the Olympics, they couldn’t check in to many hotels in Beijing. Sometimes, they weren’t allowed to travel within their own province. It was a throwback to the day when you weren’t allowed to leave your commune.

Despite these tensions, Dongtuk woke up on the morning of Sunday, March 16, 2008, giddy with anticipation. Because he was only fourteen, he was often excluded from the more serious discussions and ceremonies at the monastery, but on that day he was to participate in a large prayer service. He had noticed older monks whispering among themselves, and he sensed trouble ahead. Protests had broken out in Lhasa the week before, on March 10th, a symbolic date for Tibetans—it was on that day in 1959 that a failed uprising began in Lhasa, leading to the Dalai Lama’s escape to India. Tibetans view the date as the beginning of their own exile, and protests around March 10th are so common that China often bans foreign tourists from Tibet for the entire month.

That year, Tibetans were feeling emboldened. It was months before the opening of the Summer Olympics, and they wanted to avail themselves of the opportunity to publicize their plight. Exile groups were planning protests along the eighty-five-thousand-mile route that the Olympic torch would travel from Greece to Beijing. The thinking among these groups was that the Chinese government would be on its best behavior, more tolerant of peaceful protests.

When Dongtuk arrived at Kirti’s assembly hall, some eight hundred monks were gathered for prayer. He took his seat with the other novice monks and soon lost himself in chanting the mantra—om mani padme hum.

He was soon jolted out of the rhythm of the chant by a disturbance at the front of the hall. People gestured toward a monk standing up front. He was holding up a large color photograph of the Dalai Lama and the banned flag of the Tibetan exile government, which depicts two mythical snow lions. “Long live His Holiness the Dalai Lama,” the monk shouted. Others joined in, shouting, “Tibet for the Tibetans!” Soon the slogans drowned out the prayers. The monks surged into the alley leading to Ngaba’s main street, tossing their heavy crimson outer robes onto the pavement, a gesture showing that they were prepared to fight. Dongtuk, who was swept along with the crowd, could see a gray cloud of tear gas billowing ahead. The Chinese paramilitary seemed to be firing gravel at the protesters. A lump of something sizzling—a smoke bomb, he thought—fell at his feet. He reached down to grab it, meaning to toss it back at the soldiers, but it exploded, singeing his fingers and the bottom of his robe. A teacher grabbed Dongtuk’s collar, telling him, “You little kids don’t belong here.” Retching and crying, and trying to rub the grit out of his eyes, he followed the monk back inside.

In the skirmish that followed, the troops opened fire. Chinese state media later claimed that four Tibetans had been killed, but exile groups put the death toll at twenty-one—a number that, based on my reporting, seems more likely. Dongtuk saw a dozen bodies brought back to Kirti, one of several monasteries that were used for funeral rites. For a small town like Ngaba, twenty-one dead was proportionally equivalent to the Tiananmen Square massacre. Everybody knew somebody who was killed or wounded.

Nearly a fifth of Kirti’s monks were arrested—about six hundred men. Dongtuk later learned that they had been paraded through town in an open-backed truck, bent over at the waist and with their arms straight behind them, in a stress position known as the airplane, wearing placards around their necks displaying their names and their crimes. Some of the placards read “Separatist,” the term used by the Chinese government for supporters of Tibetan independence. Those who weren’t arrested were hauled off to attend more patriotic-education lessons. Monks had to make statements—sometimes videotaped—in which they disavowed their support for the Dalai Lama, whom the Chinese claimed had incited the riots.

The protests of March, 2008, were the largest Tibetan uprising against Chinese rule since 1989. Tibetans rose up in a dozen townships throughout the Tibetan plateau, some charging on horseback toward government offices, removing Chinese flags. Outside of Lhasa, Ngaba had the highest death toll. A few years later, the head of an association of Ngaba exiles told me, “There is a saying that when there is a fire in Lhasa the smoke rises in Ngaba.”

After the protests, Chinese authorities instituted a blockade around Kirti, as if to contain the contagion of Tibetan unhappiness. Nobody was allowed on the monastery grounds, not even the elderly Tibetans who made daily visits to perform prayer rituals, not even the relatives who used to deliver food. Dongtuk later thought that he might have starved if his mother hadn’t stocked his lodging with instant ramen noodles.

The monastery turned into a prison. Chinese security forces installed guardhouses and bunkers, fortified with razor wire and sandbags, at strategic locations, and blocked even the narrowest alleys that led in and out of the monastery grounds. They installed closed-circuit television cameras—white metal boxes, about the size of cigarette cartons, tucked under the eaves of the roofs and on lamps and utility poles.

“That’s the eye of the ghost,” Tibetans would say when they passed.

One of the cameras was installed a few feet from Dongtuk’s window. It would blink red when filming. Dongtuk wondered if anybody ever reviewed the security footage or if it was just there to intimidate people. He once threw a stone at it but nobody seemed to notice.

This was a moment of political awakening for Dongtuk. Naïve as it seemed to him in retrospect, he had never realized that the Chinese were in charge, as they’d always been a minority in his town, somewhat pitied by the Tibetans. Now the old stories that he’d heard from his grandmother took on new relevance, and he came to view his own plight as a continuation of the narrative of oppression. He became obsessed with a style of Tibetan music called dunglen—slow, hypnotic songs in which the singer often laments a long-lost love for his homeland, sometimes referring obliquely to the Dalai Lama. His favorite artist was Tashi Dhondup, who had recorded a song called “1958–2008,” comparing the present to the year that the Communist Party put Tibetans into communes:

The year 1958,
The year when the bitter enemy arrived in Tibet,
The year when venerable lamas were imprisoned.
We live in terror of that year. . . .
The year 2008,
The year when innocent Tibetans were tortured,
The year when the citizens of the earth were killed.
We live in terror of that year.
The song earned Tashi Dhondup a fifteen-month prison sentence, for inciting separatism.

The Tibetan New Year holiday falls around the same time as China’s lunar New Year, and concludes with a days-long festival known as Monlam. In Ngaba, it is one of the highlights of the year: Kirti monks beat drums, perform in masked dances, and distribute sweets to the public, while unfurling a giant scroll of Tsongkhapa, the founder of the Gelug school of Buddhism. After nearly a year of relative quiet, the monastery had reopened to the public, and the monks expected that the festival in 2009 could go on as scheduled.

On February 27th, Kirti’s monks dressed in their best robes and cloaks and put on bright-yellow cockscomb hats reserved for ceremonial occasions. The puja prayer, in which all the monks would participate, was supposed to start at 2 p.m. Then it was pushed back to 3 p.m. Dongtuk heard the blowing of the gyaling, a double-reed instrument used to signal the beginning of the prayers, but when he arrived at the assembly hall he learned that the festival had been cancelled. Minutes later, they received word that a monk had set himself on fire. His name was Lobsang Tashi, but everybody called him Tapey, and he had told friends that he would self-immolate if the festival was cancelled.

Video footage of the immolation shows a tall, thin figure in crimson, with an elongated face and quizzical eyebrows, stumbling around a white police car parked near the monastery. He gesticulates and twitches wildly as flames shoot straight from his head and from his waving arms. A sudden puff of white envelops him—foam from a fire extinguisher, most likely—and he rushes away from the police car, only to be surrounded by officers.

The tradition after a monk’s death is to carry the body to the family home for prayers. The Kirti monks didn’t have Tapey’s body, but they chanted their prayers and cried as they walked in procession toward his family home. On their way back to the monastery, they found that the police had blocked all six entrances into the building; it was only after hours of arguing that the monks were allowed back inside.

They then discovered that Tapey had survived the self-immolation. He would later be used in propaganda videos on Chinese television. He was videotaped in his hospital bed, his arms and feet mangled, most of an ear and the right side of his face burned away, murmuring how much he regretted what he had done.

By fifteen, Dongtuk was a frustrated and aimless teen-ager, and years of subterfuge at the monastery had made him skilled in deception. He knew how to lie to the senior monks and how to bypass the checkpoints, which had tightened around Kirti after Tapey’s self-immolation. He and his friends would skip morning prayers and head into town, where, at Internet cafés, they could play video games, watch DVDs, or chat on QQ, a messaging program that was wildly popular among young Chinese. Dongtuk once stole a bag of cheese from an older monk, sold it at the market, and used the money to watch movies and videos. He ran away several times.

“There is absolutely no religious freedom” in Tibet, Dongtuk said. “Chinese authorities won’t let young boys learn even the basics of Buddhism.”

These antics gave Dongtuk a bad reputation. The senior monks frequently called his mother to complain. His family predicted that he would soon renounce his vows. They were shocked when it was Dongtuk’s half brother, Rinzen Dorjee, who one day returned to Meruma wearing lay clothes and announced, “I am no longer a monk.” Rinzen Dorjee had always been the model son. Admittedly, he was not the most brilliant student, but his easygoing temperament seemed to fit with the monastic life.

It is not uncommon for boys to rebel against the strictures of monastic life when they reach puberty. To break one’s vows while still a monk is looked down upon, but it is acceptable enough to leave the monastery, after getting an education, in order to work or start a family. Rinzen Dorjee offered no explanation. He went to work for his father, herding yak and sheep, and built a small coop next to his father’s house to raise pigeons. Sometimes, he talked to his birds.

Their father was convinced that Dongtuk would follow his brother, but his rebellion made him realize how much he missed his studies. Because he was still underage, he couldn’t continue his education in Ngaba, so he told his mother that he wanted to go to India, which is home to dozens of Tibetan monasteries, including a branch of Kirti, and to schools catering to Tibetan exiles. Still angry over the trouble that he’d caused her, Sonam scoffed at the idea. A trip to India would cost at least twenty thousand yuan, or about three thousand dollars—not a prudent investment for a boy who had behaved so poorly.

Dongtuk pestered her for months. Finally, Sonam turned to a monk living in India who had an unusual connection to her family. As a boy, he had been identified as the reincarnation of her uncle, Alok Lama. The monk promised to help with the money and to secure a place for Dongtuk at the Indian branch of Kirti monastery, in Dharamsala.

But Dongtuk didn’t have a passport, and he had little prospect of getting one. At a time when planeloads of Chinese tourists were descending on Paris and Venice, Tibetans were trapped in their own country. (In a report by Human Rights Watch, from 2015, one Tibetan said, “Getting a passport is harder for a Tibetan than getting into Heaven.”) Dharamsala was almost three thousand miles away, and getting there would involve illegally crossing the border into Nepal, the most convenient route into India.

Dongtuk almost lost his nerve. The expenses were prohibitive, the obstacles seemingly insurmountable. He managed to travel as far west as Lhasa, where he hid with one of his mother’s relatives. Dongtuk had been told that monks attracted scrutiny, so he grew out his hair. (He tried to dye it blond, but it came out red.) He bought large sunglasses. But, even with this disguise, Dongtuk was scared to walk in the heavily patrolled city without papers and permits. He met a smuggler who offered a car ride to the Nepal border for twenty thousand yuan. The sum was Dongtuk’s entire budget for the trip, and he had spent half his money on living expenses in Lhasa.

Defeated, Dongtuk returned to Ngaba. His mother was distraught. After initially opposing her son’s dream to go to India, she was now convinced that it was the only way for him to fulfill his destiny as a monk. She went deeper into debt so that she could accompany Dongtuk on another trip to Lhasa. There she got a tip from a friendly official that they should go back to Ngaba and apply with the Public Security Bureau for a legal permit to travel to the border. The official advised that it would be best to do it just after the Chinese and Tibetan New Year holidays, when senior officials were still on vacation, leaving their underlings in charge.

Dongtuk headed back home. And so it happened that he was in Ngaba on March 16, 2011, the day on which the town would be changed forever.

By the time Dongtuk arrived in the center of Ngaba, it was obvious that he would not be able to apply for his documents that day. After the self-immolation earlier in the day, the police and military had stormed Kirti monastery. About twenty-five monks were arrested and taken to the police station, where a young, boisterous crowd was forming outside to demand their release.

Dongtuk checked into a hotel across from the station. The lobby was abuzz with talk of the self-immolation, and he heard the name of the monk who had burned himself: Phuntsog. Many Tibetans have that name, but this was unmistakably Phuntsog from Meruma, one of Dongtuk’s closest friends from childhood, part of the gang who had joined Kirti at the same time.

Phuntsog came from a large, well-known family; his grandfather had been one of the anti-Chinese resistance leaders in the nineteen-fifties. Dongtuk had always been a little intimidated by Phuntsog, who was both a good student and an athlete. He had a passion for weight lifting and liked to show off his biceps and six-pack abs. Now Dongtuk wondered if Phuntsog had developed his body so that it would be a worthy offering when consumed in flames. Dongtuk had to admit to himself that he would never do anything so brave. But, as he watched the commotion outside the police station from his hotel, he decided that he was ready to join in if a protest erupted. “At that moment, I was not afraid to die,” he told me.

Phuntsog’s funeral was one of the largest that anybody in Ngaba could remember. It took place on a hillside about two miles from Kirti. Long lines of mourners made the slow climb up the hill, chanting mantras and dragging a long white rope made of khatas, or ceremonial scarves.

Dongtuk’s mother forbade him to join them, telling him that he could pray for Phuntsog at home instead. But, a few days later, when she was out of the house, he found some sheets of white paper and wrote a manifesto: “I urge the people of Meruma to refrain from lavish festivities like weddings and horse races out of compassion for the martyr Phuntsog who self-immolated for our cause. We must stand in solidarity.” He posted the notices on a bridge, on the window of a restaurant, and at a small shrine near a stream. Sonam was furious. She conferred with Dongtuk’s father, and they decided to send him out to herd yak with Rinzen Dorjee.

The two brothers spent their days together riding on the hills above Meruma. At night, they slept side by side in a black felt tent made of yak wool. Rinzen Dorjee told Dongtuk that he could only sleep properly in the open, listening to the grunting and rumblings of the yak. Dongtuk had terrible insomnia. He thought that it was the most boring summer of his life.

That August, a monk self-immolated in a nearby town. Then, on September 26th, Phuntsog’s younger brother, Kelsang, who was also a Kirti monk, rushed out into the main street along with a classmate. They shouted, “Long live his Holiness the Dalai Lama,” and lit themselves on fire. The boys survived and, like Tapey, ended up as cautionary tales on Chinese television.

After that, self-immolators swaddled themselves in quilts coiled with wire, so that it would be harder to extinguish the flames. They drank gasoline so that they burned from the inside. On October 7th, two former Kirti monks, who had been forced out during the crackdown, self-immolated on Ngaba’s main street. Ten days later, a twenty-year-old Tibetan nun self-immolated in front of the Mamey Dechen Choekorling nunnery, about two miles west of Kirti. She was the first woman to self-immolate—since then, twenty-seven other women have done so.

Cumulatively, the suicides belied one of the central claims of the Chinese propaganda machine: that Tibetans were happy under Chinese rule. The government reacted forcefully. They searched for novel legal theories in order to prosecute witnesses, friends, and family, arguing that these people’s inaction was tantamount to homicide. They pressured family members to issue statements saying that the deceased had gambling or marital problems, and that his or her suicide was the result of depression and not a political protest. They severed telephone and Internet connections into Ngaba—even to government offices.

The streets of Ngaba filled with armored personnel carriers, troop-transport trucks, camouflaged vehicles mounted with machine guns, and one white, futuristic truck with a camera that pivoted in the direction of bystanders who stood too close. Troops with machine guns and baskets containing fire extinguishers goose-stepped in formation. The checkpoints were fortified with spike strips and slanted barricades of reinforced steel—to keep out Tibetans, who might come to Ngaba to self-immolate, and also journalists.

Although there were cases elsewhere, Ngaba became the undisputed world capital of self-immolations, featured in headlines and discussed in white papers, congressional hearings, and academic conferences. In Paris, the Collège de France hosted a two-day conference, in May, 2012, titled “Tibet Is Burning. Self-Immolation: Ritual or Political Protest?”

Were these just copycat suicides? Did self-immolation violate the Dalai Lama’s teachings against violence? The Dalai Lama himself was vague on this point. And, for every scholar who argued that Buddhism prohibited suicide, many more countered that the self-immolators had become bodhisattvas, giving up their lives for the enlightenment of others. Some invoked a story that the Buddha, in an earlier incarnation, had fed himself to a starving tigress so that she wouldn’t have to eat her newborn cubs. Looking for doctrinal justification for self-immolation, others turned to the Lotus Sutra, an important Buddhist scripture compiled around the first century C.E., in which a bodhisattva known as the Medicine King sacrifices himself by fire.

During the summer of 2011, Dongtuk and his half brother hashed through the same questions. Both had been friends with Phuntsog, and both were in awe of his courage.

“He really figured out how to get the attention of the Chinese, didn’t he?” Rinzen Dorjee said.

The brothers spent the summer herding their yak, sometimes debating the issues and at other times just riding side by side in silence. When an early September snow blanketed the slopes, they lay on their backs, flapping their arms to make snow angels, and had snowball fights. With a branch, they wrote in the snow the word Bod (བོད), meaning Tibet.

Dongtuk’s documents arrived a few weeks later, and he parted from Rinzen Dorjee. He dyed his hair again, put on his hipster clothing, and went to Lhasa. His travel permit got him as far as Dram (Zhangmu, in Chinese), the last city before Nepal. He still didn’t have a passport to cross into Nepal, so he hired a guide, who escorted him on foot, after dark, to a gorge above the rushing waters of the river running along the border. A length of rope stretched across it, tied to trees on either side. The guide used another rope to fashion a harness, throwing one end of it to a guide on the Nepalese side of the river, so that Dongtuk could be pulled across. He worried less about crashing into rocks jutting out of the water than about a revolving searchlight mounted on a nearby bridge, the official crossing point. Once in Nepal, Dongtuk hid in a safe house for a few days, shaved his head so that he once again looked like a monk, and made his way, on a series of long-distance buses, to Dharamsala. So few people from Ngaba had successfully navigated the crossing in recent years that Dongtuk was given a hero’s welcome, quickly assigned housing, and allowed to resume his Buddhist studies.

In February, 2012, word spread through the Dharamsala monastery that another former Kirti monk from Meruma had self-immolated. When Dongtuk heard the name, he was not surprised: it was Rinzen Dorjee.

Rinzen Dorjee lit himself on fire in front of one of Ngaba’s schools. He survived, and was taken to a hospital. The family told Dongtuk that his half brother was not beaten or tortured, but that the police continued to interrogate him as he lay dying. Their father was allowed to visit, and, in a barely audible voice, Rinzen Dorjee apologized for making him travel so far. Dongtuk was told that his brother said, “Don’t worry. I know I am going to die, because I drank the gasoline. I don’t regret what I did. I did it for the sake of all Tibetans and sentient beings.” His death came about a week after he entered the hospital. Unlike other self-immolators, he didn’t leave a farewell note or a video. There was little press coverage of the event. Rinzen Dorjee was the eighteenth person in Tibet to self-immolate.

Ifirst met Dongtuk in 2014, over cappuccinos at a hotel near the Dalai Lama’s headquarters. He showed me a photo of his class of forty novice monks at Kirti. It had been taken six years earlier, when he and the other boys were about fifteen years old. Since then, two of them had burned themselves to death, and several others were now in prison.

“Now that I think back on it, I’m sure I would not have been one of those who self-immolated,” Dongtuk said. “But maybe I’d be in prison—that I could imagine.”

Many of the self-immolators were, like Phuntsog, children and grandchildren of former resistance fighters; a disproportionate number were from Meruma, which had been home to many officers of a regional military before Communist times. Dongtuk often seemed ambivalent about the self-immolations. In Dharamsala, there was a cult of martyrdom surrounding the people who’d died. Tibetans collected their pictures on their iPhones like baseball cards. The official exile museum in Dharamsala, next to the Dalai Lama’s headquarters, had a special exhibit of their portraits. Just down the hill from the monastery dormitory, where Dongtuk was living, was a large banner that read “Sacrifice of Life for Tibet” and featured their grainy photos.

I wondered if Dongtuk felt envious of these people in the pantheon of martyrs, especially his quiet, less academically accomplished half brother.

It would be unseemly to criticize, Dongtuk told me, but he didn’t exactly approve of their actions, either. “I feel like there has to be a better way to express oneself,” he said. Dongtuk subscribed to a theory I’d heard from other Tibetans—that those who burned themselves were frustrated by their sense of powerlessness and their inability to speak up. The self-immolators he had known tended to be reserved people, who had difficulty articulating their emotions.

Dongtuk had started keeping a journal, and hoped that he could contribute to the perpetuation of Tibetan culture through his writing and his Buddhist studies. He recently decided to pursue a geshe degree, the equivalent of a doctorate in Buddhist philosophy, and to transfer to a branch of the larger Ganden Monastery in Karnataka, southern India.

We spoke this past June, over WhatsApp. Dongtuk had just arrived at his new monastery and was undergoing a fourteen-day quarantine, in order to guard against the coronavirus. He has a fantasy of one day returning to Ngaba to teach at Kirti, but only if he’d be able to teach freely. “There is absolutely no religious freedom,” Dongtuk told me. “Chinese authorities won’t let young boys learn even the basics of Buddhism. They control our textbooks.” Another precondition for his return would be to get foreign citizenship—preferably from Australia, which has accepted many Tibetan refugees. Without a passport, he might not be able to escape Tibet again, especially given that Beijing has stepped up pressure on Nepal to close its borders to Tibetans.

At the moment, there are few indications that people like Dongtuk will be able to return. Tibetans have been spared some of the worst abuses of China’s ethnic policies—namely, the involuntary detentions of up to a million Uighurs in political-reëducation camps—but the Communist Party is ever more intrusive in their lives. There are more red Chinese flags, more photos of President Xi Jinping, and more closed-circuit cameras, according to exiles from Ngaba with whom I speak regularly.

Notwithstanding the very few cases of covid-19 on the Tibetan plateau, where acclimatization to high altitudes seems to make the population less vulnerable to the virus, Tibetans went through the same months of lockdown as other Chinese. In some towns, Tibetans were instructed to install smartphone apps that were designed to report infection status but which can be used, post-pandemic, to track people’s movements.

“The government is actively manipulating the coronavirus epidemic to pursue its political interests,” Golog Jigme, an exiled Tibetan filmmaker from Sichuan Province, told me. He believes that the lockdown gave Party cadres an opportunity to set up more systematic monitoring of the population, allowing them to determine which Tibetans had contacts abroad with exile groups and to enhance what the Chinese government calls “social stability.”

It might be coincidental, but one of the first measures announced when the lockdown ended was a major change in the language policies of the Ngaba schools. At a meeting in early April, parents and educators were told that the last of the government elementary schools teaching primarily in Tibetan would switch to Chinese as early as the resumption of the school year, in September. Protests are anticipated.

This excerpt is drawn from “Eat the Buddha: Life and Death in a Tibetan Town,” by Barbara Demick, out this month from Random House.

Barbara Demick