Immolation of Sister Palden Choetso


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AROUND noon on 3 November 2011, Sister Palden Choetso, a 35 year old Tibetan Buddhist nun, set herself on fire in the middle of a small-town road. In a photo of the nun taken prior to her immolation, she sits in a modest but meticulously kept room with a personal altar behind her. She has a humble and unassuming bearing, as is common with devout clergy everywhere, but her face is anything but common. She looks straight into the camera and her face exudes both a sense of serenity, and an expression of quiet determination.

Days before she set herself on fire, she had confided to friends that the humiliating intrusions and controls imposed on Tibetan life were increasing daily and that she could only see an end to the suffering were the Dalai Lama to return to Tibet.

The other images of her are three short videos taken with mobile phone cameras. They are of her burning, falling down, and being protected by Tibetans on the street. One short video stands out. Though only a minute or so long, it feels like one is watching a full length film. It starts with the image of a concrete sidewalk; the camera then tilts up to reveal a dreary street in a small town that could be anywhere in the world. The camera then pans to the left, following the road, and there in the middle of the traffic is what appears to be a 15 foot high vertical orange fire in the middle of which, with her back to the camera, is Palden Choetso – standing as straight as an arrow, and as still as a mountain.

And then out of nowhere, a tall woman in a long Tibetan dress enters the frame in the foreground and walks towards the burning nun. Her movement is elegant and regal, like the character of a queen or a Dakini in a Tibetan opera. As she reaches within two or three metres of Palden Choetso, close enough to have felt the heat on her face, she unfurls a long white silk scarf called a khatag, and throws it up into the air towards the burning and still standing nun. Khatags are used as offerings in temples and exchanged in greeting by Tibetans, much like garlands of flowers are in certain societies.

And as the silk scarf flies high over Palden Choetso, her legs finally give way and she slowly sinks to her knees. Eyewitnesses later described that as she fell while still in flames, her hands came together in a gesture of prayer.

Immolation of Sister Palden Choetso imagines a shot that none of the three mobile phone cameras could capture – a close-up of Palden Choetso as she stood ablaze on that cool and still November day.

The letters on the swirling white space say Om Mani Padme Hum, the mantra of the deity Avalokiteshvara, who most Tibetans believe the Dalai Lama is a living manifestation of. Avalokiteshvara is also considered Tibet’s patron deity, and is closely associated with the creation myth of the Tibetan race. And, therefore, the six syllable mantra is also Tibet’s national mantra.

Apart from the higher dharmic understanding of the mantra which speaks to transformation and purification of the mind, it also holds a general meaning for most Tibetans. It is what one says when one feels a deep sense of compassion for and/or a profound feeling of identification with someone’s pain and suffering. On Facebook and other social media platforms, where news and images of over a hundred self-immolations have appeared, ‘Om Mani Padme Hum’ is often the only comment expressed by Tibetans.

While in flames, Palden Choetso reportedly shouted for the return of the Dalai Lama and for freedom in Tibet. I feel though that her last breath was spent reciting the six syllable mantra and feeling compassion for the pain and suffering of her people and the world – a pain she felt perhaps more deeply than that of her burning cells. How else can we explain her stillness.

Immolation of Sister Palden Choetso Gyatso

Linoleum ink block print on Rives archival paper, 19 x 19 inches.