In the fall of 2013, during my first quarter at Northwestern, I decided to take “Introduction to Buddhism” on a whim. Professor Antonio Terrone taught the course and passionately guided our class of around thirty students through the history, doctrine and diversity of this rich tradition. Upon entering class one day, I remember hearing the melodious droning mantra of the Three Jewels of Buddhism, which central to the practice of any Buddhist. I was immediately enthralled by this religion and Antonio’s style of teaching. For the rest of the year, I continued studying Buddhism, enrolling in another course taught by Antonio and one taught by his wife, Professor Sarah Jacoby. Both classes were inspirational, spurring me to declare a Religious Studies major. Antonio also served as a mentor for a personal research project I undertook in Nepal the following summer. Needless to say, his impact on my first year was undeniable, so I was shocked to learn that he would be leaving to teach at the National Chengchi University in Taipei, Taiwan the following year.
Nearly a year later, I was thrilled when I heard that Antonio had returned to Northwestern to deliver a lecture titled, “Challenging the Motherland: Religion, Terrorism, and the Violence of non-Violence in Western China” at the end of Spring Quarter. He opened by describing his research done in the Xinjiang, Sichuan, and Qinghai provinces—as well as the Tibet Autonomous Region—speaking about various ethnic and religious groups including Uyghur Muslims, Tibetan Buddhists, and Han-Chinese. He aimed to examine how the People’s Republic of China presented policy objectives toward ethnic minority conflicts as a “war on terror,” and how these policy objectives affected ethnic minorities.
Uyghur separatists part of the Turkistan Islamic Party have been involved in many violent conflicts with China and have been deemed terrorists under the umbrella of Islamic extremism. On the other hand, around 140 attempts at self-immolation have occurred in Western China protesting the exile of the Dalai Lama, with self-immolators described as mentally-ill and part of the “desperate insanity of the Dalai Clique.” Antonio discussed the reasons behind the prevalence of rhetoric of terror in the political discourse targeting the violent expression of Uyghur people and self-immolation of Tibetans. He demonstrated the de facto Chinese practices regarding religious expression of ethnic minorities through a variety of pictures of Chinese propaganda. For example, in the Jinta Buddhist monastery in Qinghai province one such poster read, “Love your country, love your religion. Namely endorse the leadership of the Communist Party of China, endorse the socialist system.” Another in Kashgar in Xinjiang province read, “Scattered pilgrimage is an unlawful religious activity!” with the intent of standardizing and regulating Uyghur Muslim hajj with group tours. This propaganda emphasizes national interests while leveling minority cultural beliefs, resulting in notions of Islamophobia and the belief in the insanity of self-immolators.
Antonio tied things together by discussing his specialty, and my original area of interest—Buddhism. “Tibetans are stereotypically imagined as non-violent,” he said as he spoke about suicide as a religious act. Could it be justified in a Buddhist context, he asked? Using a quote from a classic story from the Jataka tales, he argued it could. The story says: “Furthermore, O noble goddess, a bodhisattva gives away even her body to help others,” meaning that individual intent, if based in compassion, is justification enough for violence. For a tradition with an unshakeable belief in the impermanence of the material and body, it is understandable to see how the perpetrators of this political violence can be viewed as martyrs. However, what makes self-immolation tragic yet fascinating is that it is simultaneously viewed as an both an act of a martyr and an act of a terrorist. And so, Antonio ended the presentation saying, “Clichés hold some measure of truth,” keeping me captivated as he had on the very first day of “Introduction to Buddhism.”