50 years ago today Thich Quang Duc, a Buddhist monk from the Linh-Mu Pagoda in Hue, Vietnam, burned himself to death at a busy intersection in downtown Saigon, Vietnam. Eye witness accounts state that Thich Quang Duc and at least two fellow monks arrived at the intersection by car, Thich Quang Duc got out of the car, assumed the traditional lotus position and the accompanying monks helped him pour gasoline over himself. He ignited the gasoline by lighting a match and burned to death in a matter of minutes. David Halberstam, a reporter for the New York Times covering the war in Vietnam, gave the following account: “I was to see that sight again, but once was enough. Flames were coming from a human being; his body was slowly withering and shriveling up, his head blackening and charring. In the air was the smell of burning human flesh; human beings burn surprisingly quickly. Behind me I could hear the sobbing of the Vietnamese who were now gathering. I was too shocked to cry, too confused to take notes or ask questions, too bewildered to even think. As he burned he never moved a muscle, never uttered a sound, his outward composure in sharp contrast to the wailing people around him.”
Thich Quang Duc had prepared himself for his self-immolation through several weeks of meditation and had explained his motivation in letters to members of his Buddhist community as well as to the government of South Vietnam in the weeks prior to his self-immolation. In these letters he described his desire to bring attention to the repressive policies of the Catholic Diem régime that controlled the South Vietnamese government at the time. Prior to the self-immolation, the South Vietnamese Buddhists had made the following requests to the Diem régime, asking it to: Lift its ban on flying the traditional Buddhist flag; Grant Buddhism the same rights as Catholicism; Stop detaining Buddhists; Give Buddhist monks and nuns the right to practice and spread their religion; and Pay fair compensations to the victim’s families and punish those responsible for their deaths.
Both Thich Nhat Hnah and Russell McCutcheon that by contextualizing the event in 1963 Vietnam, the self-immolation can be seen as a “political act” aimed at calling attention to the injustices being perpetrated against the South Vietnamese people by a puppet government of Euro-American imperialism. In this context, Thich Nhat Hnah describes the act of self-immolation as follows: The press spoke then of suicide, but in the essence, it is not. It is not even a protest. What the monks said in the letters they left before burning themselves aimed only at alarming, at moving the hearts of the oppressors, and at calling the attention of the world to the suffering endured then by the Vietnamese. To burn oneself by fire is to prove that what one is saying is of the utmost importance. The Vietnamese monk, by burning himself, says with all his strength and determination that he can endure the greatest of sufferings to protect his people…. To express will by burning oneself, therefore, is not to commit an act of destruction but to perform an act of construction, that is, to suffer and to die for the sake of one’s people. This is not suicide.
Thich Nhat Hanh when on to explain why Thich Quang Duc’s self-immolation was not a suicide, which is contrary to Buddhist teachings: Suicide is an act of self-destruction, having as causes the following: (1) lack of courage to live and to cope with difficulties; (2) defeat by life and loss of all hope; (3) desire for nonexistence. The monk who burns himself has lost neither courage nor hope; nor does he desire nonexistence. On the contrary, he was very courageous and hopeful and aspires for something good in the future. He does not think that he is destroying himself; he believes in the good fruition of his act of self-sacrifice for the sake of others. I believe with all my heart that the monks who burned themselves did not aim at the death of their oppressors but only at a change in their policy. Their enemies are not man. They are intolerance, fanaticism, dictatorship, cupidity, hatred, and discrimination which lie within the heart of man.
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