THE SELF-IMMOLATIONof THICH QUANG DUC
June 11, 1963, in Saigon, Vietnam, a Buddhist monk, Thich Quang Duc immolatedhimself in a busy intersection. The following is an excerpt taken frommy Manufacturing Religion, pp. 167-177, which discusses this incident.
botat-thichquangduc-01010010_0Theoften-occluded relations among power, imperial politics, and the specificportrayals of religious issues is perhaps no more apparent than in thecase of the interpretations American media and intellectuals gave to themuch publicized actions of several Vietnamese Buddhists who, beginningin mid-June of 1963, died by publicly setting themselves on fire. The firstof these deaths occurred at a busy downtown intersection in Saigon, on11 June 1963, and was widely reported in American newspapers the followingday, although the New York Times, along with many other newspapers, declinedto print Malcolm Browne's famous, or rather infamous, photograph of thelone monk burning (Moeller 1989: 404). The monk, seventy-three-year-oldThich Quang Duc, sat at a busy downtown intersection and had gasoline pouredover him by two fellow monks. As a large crowd of Buddhists and reporterswatched, he lit a match and, over the course of a few moments, burned todeath while he remained seated in the lotus position. In the words of'David Halberstam, who was at that time filing daily reports on the warwith the New York Times,
Iwas to see that sight again, but once was enough. Flames were coming froma human being; his body was slowly withering and shriveling up, his headblackening and charring. In the air was the smell of burning flesh; humanbeings burn surprisingly quickly. Behind me I could hear the sobbing ofthe Vietnamese who were now gathering. I was too shocked to cry, too confusedto take notes or ask questions, too bewildered to even think.... As heburned he never moved a muscle, never uttered a sound, his outward composurein sharp contrast to the wailing people around him. (1965: 211)
Afterhis funeral, where his remains were finally reduced to ashes, Quang Duc'sheart, which had not burned, was retrieved, enshrined, and treated as asacred relic (Schecter 1967: 179).
Inspite of the fact that this event took place during the same busy newsweek as the civil rights movement in the United States was reaching a peak(with the enrollment of the first two black students at the Universityof Alabama and in the same week as the murder, in Jackson, Mississippi,of the civil rights leader Medgar Evers), as the week progressed, QuangDuc's death and the subsequent demonstrations associated with his funeralwere covered by the American media in greater detail. From the small initialarticle on page three of the New York Times on 12 June that reported thedeath accompanied only by a photograph of a nearby protest that preventeda fire truck from reaching the scene, the story was briefly summarizedand updated on page five the next day and then was moved to the lead story,on page one on 14 June 1963, accompanied by the following headline: "U.S.Warns South Vietnam on Demands of Buddhists: [South Vietnamese President]Diem is told he faces censure if he fails to satisfy religious grievances,many o which are called just." The story, no longer simply involving theactions of a lone Buddhist monk but now concerned with the official U.S.reaction, remained on page one for the following days, was reported ingreater detail by Halberstam in the Sunday edition (16 June 1963), andwas mentioned for the first time in an editorial column on 17 June 1963,one week after it occurred. By the autumn o that year, the images of eitherprotesting or burning monks had appeared in a number of popular magazines,most notably Life Magazine (June, August, September, and November issues).
Inspite of the wide coverage this event received in newspapers and the popularpresses, it seems puzzling that it received relatively little or no treatmentby scholars of religion. Apart from a few brief descriptions of these eventsin an assortment of books on world religions in general (such as NinianSmart's World's Religions, where it is interpreted as an "ethical" act[1989: 4471) or on Buddhism in Southeast Asia, only one detailed articlewas published at that time, in History of Religions, written by Jan Yiin-Hua(1965). This article was concerned with examining the medieval ChineseBuddhist precedents for Quang Duc's death, a death that quickly came tobe interpreted in the media as an instance of self-immolation, or selfsacrifice,to protest religious persecution of the Buddhists in South Vietnam by thepolitically and militarily powerful Vietnamese Roman Catholics. Accordingto such accounts, the origin of the protests and, eventually, Quang Duc'sdeath, was a previous demonstration, on 8 May 1963, in which governmenttroops aggressively broke up a Buddhist gathering in the old imperial cityof Hue that was demonstrating for, among other things, the right to flythe Buddhist flag along with the national flag. The government, however,took no responsibility for the nine Buddhists who died in the ensuing violenceat that time, blaming their deaths instead on Communists. Accordingly,outrage for what the Buddhists considered to be the unusually violent actionsof the government troops at Hue was fueled over the following weeks, culminating,according to this interpretation, in Quang Duc's sacrificial death.
Giventhat the event was generally acknowledged by most interpreters to be asacrifice, an essentially religious issue, it is no surprise that the centralconcern of Jan was to determine how such actions could be considered Buddhist,given their usually strict rules against killing in general, and suicidein particular. In his own words, these actions "posed a serious problemof academic interest, namely, what is the place of religious suicide inreligious history and what is its justification?" (243). The reader istold that the monks' motivations were "spiritual" and that their self-inflicteddeaths were "religious suicides," because "self-immolation signifies somethingdeeper than merely the legal concept of suicide or the physical actionof self-destruction" (243). Given that the event is self-evidently religious(an interpretation that is based on an assumption that is undefended),the question of greatest interest has little to do with the possible politicalorigins or overtones of the event but rather "whether such a violent actionis justifiable according to religious doctrine" (243). It seems clear thatfor this historian of religions, the action can only be properly understood-andeventually justified-once it is placed in the context of texts writtenby Chinese Buddhist specialists from the fifth century C.E. onward (e.g.,the Biographies of Eminent Monks by Hui-chiao [497-554 C.E.] and the SungCollection of Biographies of Eminent Monks by Tsan-ning [919-1001 C.E.]).Jan's concern, then, is to determine whether these actions were justifiable(something not properly the concern of scholars of religion) exclusivelyon the basis of devotee accounts, some of which were written over one thousandyears before the Vietnam War.
Aftera survey of these texts, the article concludes that these actions are indeedjustifiable. Basing his argument on changing Chinese Buddhist interpretationsof self-inflicted suffering and death, Jan finds a "more concrete emphasisupon the practical action needed to actualize the spiritual aim" (265).Accordingly, these actions largely result from the desire of elite devotees,inspired by scriptures (255), to demonstrate great acts of selflessness(acts whose paradigms are to be found in stories of the unbounded compassionand mercy of assorted bodhisattvas). The closest Jan comes to offeringa political interpretation of any of these reported deaths is that the"politico-religious reasons" for some scriptural instances of self-immolationare "protest against the political oppression and persecution of theirreligion" (252).
Interms of the dominance of the discourse on sui generis religion, this articleconstitutes a fine example of how an interpretive framework can effectivelymanage and control an event. Relying exclusively on authoritative ChineseBuddhist texts and, through the use of these texts, interpreting such actsexclusively in terms of doctrines and beliefs (e.g., self-immolation, muchlike an extreme renunciant might abstain from food until dying, could bean example of disdain for the body in favor of the life of the mind andwisdom) rather than in terms of their socio-political and historical context,the article allows its readers to interpret these deaths as acts that referonly to a distinct set of beliefs that happen to be foreign to the non-Buddhist.And when politics is acknowledged to be a factor, it is portrayed as essentiallyoppressive to a self-evidently pure realm of religious motivation and action.In other words, religion is the victim of politics, because the formeris a priori known to be pure. And precisely because the action and beliefsystems were foreign and exotic to the vast majority of Americans, theseactions needed to be mediated by trained textual specialists who couldutilize the authoritative texts of elite devotees to interpret such actions.The message of such an article, then, is that this act on the part of amonk can be fully understood only if it is placed within the context ofancient Buddhist documents and precedents rather than in the context ofcontemporary geopolitical debates. (And further, that the ancient occurrencesof such deaths can themselves be fully understood only from the point ofview of the intellectual devotees [i.e., Buddhist historians].) That thechanging geopolitical landscape of South Asia in the early 1960s mightassist in this interpretation is not entertained. It is but another instanceof the general proscription against reductionism.
Suchan idealist and conservative interpretation is also offered by severalcontributors to the Encyclopedia of Religion. Marilyn Harran, writing thearticle on suicide (Eliade 1987: vol. 14, 125-131), agrees with Jan's emphasison the need to interpret these events in light of doctrine and in the lightof spiritual elites. She writes that although religiously motivated suicide(an ill-defined category that prejudges the act) "may be appropriate forthe person who is an arhat, one who has attained enlightenment, it is stillvery much the exception to the rule" (129). And Carl-Martin Edsman, writingthe article on fire (Eliade 1987: vol. 5, 340-346), maintains that althoughdeath by fire can be associated with "moral, devotional, or political reasons,"it can also be "regarded as promoting rebirth into a higher existence asa bodhisattva, an incipient Buddha, or admittance to 'the paradise' ofthe Buddha Amitabha" (344). In a fashion similar to the exclusive emphasison the insider's perspective, and having isolated such acts in the purerrealm of religious doctrine and belief, Edsman immediately goes on to assertthat the "Buddhist suicides in Vietnam in the 1960s were enacted againsta similar background; for this reason-unlike the suicides of their Westernimitators-they do not constitute purely political protest actions" (344).The "similar background" of which he writes is the set of beliefs in apure land, compassion, selflessness, and so on, all of which enable Edsmanto isolate the Vietnamese deaths from issues of power and politics. Becausesimilar deaths in the United States took place' without the benefit of,for example, a cyclical worldview and notions of rebirth, and the like,he is able to conclude that the U.S. deaths by fire may have been political.For Edsman, the doctrinal system of Buddhism provides a useful mechanismfor interpreting these acts as essentially ahistorical and religious.
Somewill no doubt argue that, if indeed the discourse on sui generis religionwas at one time dominant, it no longer is. Even if one at least acknowledgesthat the study of supposedly disembodied ideas and beliefs is interconnectedwith material issues or power and privilege, it is easy to banish and isolatesuch involvements to the field's prehistory, its European, colonial past,in an attempt to protect the contemporary field from such charges (recallStrenski's attempt to isolate interwar European scholarship as a meansof protecting the modern profession). To rebut such isolationist arguments,one need look no further than Charles Orzech's 1994 article, "ProvokedSuicide," to find this discourse in its contemporary forma form virtuallyunchanged since jan's article was published some thirty years ago. LikeJan, Orzech attempts to overcome the "huge cultural gulf that separatedthe observer from those involved" (155) by placing Quang Duc’s traditionof what Orzech terms the "self-immolation paradigms" (149) as well as themany other stories of selfless action one finds throughout the mythic historyof Buddhism (e.g., from the jataka tales, the story of the bodhisattvawho willingly gives up his life to feed the hungry tigress). Also likeJan, Orzech is concerned to answer one of the questions often asked aboutthese apparently puzzling Vietnamese Buddhists' actions: "whether 'religioussuicide' was not a violation of Buddhist precepts condemning violence"(145). Using Rene Girard's theory of sacrificial violence, Orzech answersthis question by recovering a distinction he believes to be often lostin the study of Buddhism: its sacred violence as well as its much emphasizednonviolent aspect (for a modern example of the latter emphasis, see theessays collected by Kraft ).
Forour purpose, what is most important to observe about both Jan's and Orzech'sreading of Quang Duc's action is that in neither case are historical andpolitical context of any relevance. In both cases, it is as if the burningmonk is situated in an almost Eliadean ritual time, removed from the terrorsof historical, linear time-a place of no place, where the symbolism offire is far more profound than the heat of the fire itself. For example,in his interpretation of the early selfimmolation tales, Orzech explicitlyacknowledges that "(al)though little context information is available tous, it is clear that in each case the sacrifice is performed as a remedyfor an intolerable situation" (154, emphasis added)--clearly, social andpolitical contexts are of little relevance for authoritatively interpretingtimeless ritual or religious actions. Several lines later, when he addressesQuang Duc's death directly, Orzech effectively secludes and packages thisparticular event within its insider, doctrinal, and mythic context, bynoting that the "politics are complex, and I will not comment on them now"(154). At no point in his article does he return in any detail to the geopoliticsof mid-twentieth-century Vietnam; instead, Quang Duc's actions are exclusivelyunderstood as "sanctioned by myth and example in Buddhist history" andas reworked, reenacted Vedic sacrificial patterns (156). Assuming thatmythic history communicated through elite insider documents provides thenecessary context for ultimately interpreting such actions, Orzech is ableto draw a conclusion concerning the actor's motivations and intentions:"Quang Duc was seeking to preach the Dharma to enlighten both Diem andhis followers and John Kennedy and the American people" (156); "As an actualizationof mythic patterns of sacrifice it [the self-immolation] was meant as acreative, constructive and salvific act, an act which intended to remakethe world for the better of everyone in it" (158). Simply put, Quang Duc'sdeath is an issue of soteriology.
Inboth Jan's and Orzech's readings, as well as those of Harran and Edsmancited earlier, the death of Quang Duc has nothing necessarily to do withcontemporary politics. In fact, it appears from the scholarship examinedhere that to understand this death fully requires no information from outsideof elite Buddhist doctrine whatsoever. In all four cases-much as in thecase of the comparative religion textbooks examined earlier-the discourseon sui generis religion effectively operates to seclude so-called religiousevents within a mythic, symbolic world all their own, where their adequateinterpretation needs "little contextual information." For example, in allthese studies, Quang Duc is never identified as a citizen of South Vietnambut is understood only as a Buddhist monk, a choice of designation thatalready suggests the discursive conflict I have documented. In other words,from the outset, the parameters of the interpretive frame of referenceare narrowly restricted. Quang Duc is hardly a man acting in a complexsociopolitical world, in which intentions, implications, and interpretationsoften fly past each other. Instead, he is exclusively conceptualized asa transhistorical, purely religious agent, virtually homologous with hisspecifically religious forebears and ancestors. It is almost as if ThichQuang Duc--the historical agent who died on 11 June 1963, by setting himselfon fire at a busy downtown intersection in Saigon--has, through the strategiesdeployed by scholars of sui generis religion, been transformed into a hierophanythat is of scholarly interest only insomuch as his actions can be understoodas historical instances of timeless origin and meaning.
However,it is just as conceivable that for other scholars, the death of Thich QuangDuc constitutes not simply "spiritually inspired engagement" but a graphicexample of an overtly political act directed not simply against politicallydominant Roman Catholics in his country but also at the American-sponsoredgovernment of South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem. This alternativeframework, one that recognizes the power implicit in efforts to representhuman actions, is best captured by Catherine Lutz and Jane Collins:
Comingto political consciousness through the period of the Vietnam War, we wereacutely aware of the power of photographic images to evoke both ethnocentricrecoil and agonizing identification. Malcolm Browne's famous photo of aBuddhist monk's self-immolation in Saigon was profoundly disturbing toWestern viewers, who could not fathom the communicative intent of suchan act. (1993: 4)
Accordingto Paul Siegel, this event constituted an act of protest against the Vietnamesegovernment "which was carrying on a war of which they [the Buddhists] wereprofoundly weary" (1986: 162). The distance between these two readingsis great indeed. On the one hand, one finds representations varying fromthe Diem government's own press release that, according to the New YorkTimes, maintained that the event was an example of "extremist and truth-concealingpropaganda that sowed doubt about the goodwill of the Government" (12 June1963), to the Times' and Orzech's (1994: 154) portrayal of the protestas being against the specifically religious persecution of the Buddhistsby the powerful Roman Catholics. On the other hand, however, one can questionthe relations between the presence of Christianity in South Vietnam andEuropean political, cultural, military, and economic imperialism in thefirst place as well as question the relations between Diem's governmentand his U.S. economic and military backers. To concentrate only on thespecifically religious nature and origins of this protest, then, serveseither to ignore or, in the least, to minimalize a number of material andsocial factors evident from other points of view using other scales ofanalysis.
Concerningthe links between Christianity and European imperialism in Southeast Asia,it should be clear that much is at stake depending on how one portraysthe associations among European cultures, politics, religion, and the everincreasing search for new trading markets. For example, one can obscurethe issue by simply discussing an almost generic "encounter with the West,"where "the West" stands in place of essentially religious systems, suchas Judaism and Christianity (for an example, see Eller 1992). Or one canplace these belief and practice systems within their historical, social,and political contexts-a move that admittedly complicates but also improvesone's analysis. For instance, in practice, the presence of Christianitywas often indistinguishable from European culture and trade. This pointis made by Thich Nhat Hanh, in his attempt to communicate the significanceof Quang Duc's death for his American readers. Much of his small book,Vietnam: Lotus in a Sea of Fire (1967), is concerned with contextualizingthis event by placing it not simply in a religious but also in its widerhistorical, social, and political framework. Accordingly, of great importancefor him is not simply to identify elements of Buddhist doctrine for hisreader but to clarify early on that, since its first appearance in Vietnamin the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Roman Catholicism has alwaysbeen "closely associated with white explorers, with merchants, and rulingclasses"-specifically with the explorers, traders, and cultural and politicalelites of France between the years 1860 and 1945 (1967: 15). Whether intentionalor not, the exportation of Christianity throughout the world brought withit new people, new architecture, new languages, new legal and ethical systems,new styles of dress, new economic arrangements, new trading goods, andso on, all based on the standards of large, powerful, and distant Europeancountries. Because of these interrelated issues, it is inaccurate and misleadingto understand Christian missionaries exclusively in terms of what may verywell have been their good intentions. Such missionaries were part of acomplex and interrelated system or bloc of power relations, all of whichpresupposed that the other was in desperate need of European-style education,economies, technologies, trade, wisdom, and, ultimately, salvation. Tounderstand missionaries as somehow removed from this system of power wouldbe to inscribe and protect them by means of the sui generis strategy. Withoutthe benefit of such a protective strategy, however, it is easily understoodhow, at least in the case of Vietnam, the popular belief arose that Christianitywas the religion of the West and "was introduced by them to facilitatetheir conquest of Vietnam." As Thich Nhat goes on to conclude, this belief"is a political fact of the greatest importance, even though [it] may bebased on suspicion alone" (20).
Itis completely understandable, therefore, that Thich Nhat takes issue withcircumscribing these provocative actions that took place in Vietnam inthe early 1960s as essentially sacrificial, suicidal, and religious. Inhis words,
Iwouldn't want to describe these acts as suicide or even as sacrifice. Maybethey [i.e., the actors themselves] didn't think of it as a sacrifice. Maybethey did. They may have thought of their act as a very natural thing todo, like breathing. The problem [however,] is to understand the situationand the context in which they acted. (Berrigan and Thich Nhat Hanh 1975:61)
Thecontext of which Thich Nhat Hanh writes is not simply the context of mythicself-immolation paradigms so important to other scholars but the contextof Vietnamese meeting Euro-American history over the past several centuries.Emphasizing this context, Thich Nhat's remarks make it plain that insomuchas sui generis religion plays a powerful role in dehistoricizing and decontextualizinghuman events, the very label by which we commonly distinguish just thesedeaths from countless others that took place during the Vietnam War-forexample, "religious suicide"--is itself implicated in the aestheticizationand depoliticization of human actions. What is perhaps most astoundingabout Thich Nhat Hanh's comments is that, despite the discourse on suigeneris religion's tendency to limit scholarship to the terms set by religiousinsiders (recall Cantwell Smith's methodological rule), Thich Nhat Hanh-most obviously himself an insider to Vietnamese Buddhism-is the only scholarsurveyed in this chapter whose remarks take into account the utter complexityof human action as well as the many scales of analysis on which participantsand nonparticipants describe, interpret, understand, and explain theseactions.
Thatthe death of Quang Duc had a powerful influence on the events of 1963 inSouth Vietnam is not in need of debate. It has been reported that Browne'sphotograph of Quang Duc burning, which ran in the Philadelphia Inquireron 12 June 1963, was on President Kennedy's desk the next morning (Moeller1989: 355). And virtually all commentators acknowledge that the imminentfall of the Diem government was in many ways linked to the Buddhist protestsand their popular support among the South Vietnamese. In the least, mostcommentators would agree that the deaths had what they might term unforeseenor indirect political implications. The question to be asked, however,is just what is at stake for secluding politics to the margins of theseotherwise self-evidently religious events.
Asshould be evident, depending on how one portrays this historical event,one thing that is at stake is whether it could be construed as having possiblecauses or direct implications for American political and military involvementin the escalating war or whether, as many commentators seem to assume,it was: (1) a localized Vietnamese issue, Of (2) an essentially religiousnature, which (3), due in large part to the Diem government's mishandlingof the protest and its unwillingness to reach a compromise with the Buddhists,only eventually grew from a local religious incident into an internationalpolitical issue. The event is thereby domesticated and managed. As thechildren's literary critic Herbert Kohl has convincingly demonstrated,in the case of the surprisingly homogeneous and depoliticized school textbookrepresentations of the events surrounding the 19551956 Montgomery, Alabama,bus boycott, the story is truncated, presented completely out of context,and portrayed as the single act of a person who was tired and angry. intelligentand passionate opposition to racism is simply not part of the story. [Infact, often] there is no mention of racism at all. Instead the problemis unfairness, a more generic and softer form of abuse that avoids dealingwith the fact that the great majority of White people in Montgomery wereracist and capable of being violent and cruel to maintain segregation.Thus [in the dominant textbook account of this event] we have an adequatepicture of neither the courage of Rosa Parks nor the intelligence and resolveof the African American community in the face of racism. (1995: 35)
Thevery act of representation, in both the cases of the Buddhist death andthe bus boycott, acts to defuse what might otherwise be understood as thetremendous sociopolitical power of the events and acts in question. Inthe case of the self-immolations, the image of the monk burning has bynow become so decontextualized that it has been commodified; it is nowa consumer item in popular culture. For example, the photograph appearson the cover of a compact disk for the alternative rock music group RageAgainst the Machine.
Althoughboth the example of the Montgomery bus boycott and the Vietnamese deathsarise from dramatically different historical and social contexts, bothactions are clearly part of an oppositional discourse that is today communicatedto us through, and therefore managed by, the means of dominant discoursesschool textbooks in one case, and as a mechanism for selling both scholarlyprivilege and expertise as well as a Sony Music product in another. Therefore,it should not be surprising that, in both cases, we find strategies thateffectively package these actions in a decontextualized and delimited fashion.It is in this precise manner that the strategies of representation thatconstitute the discourse on sui generis religion are complicit with suchlarger issues of cultural, economic, and political power and privilege.One way to support this thesis further would be to examine carefully media,government, and scholarly interpretations of other specific historicalepisodes and demonstrate the ways in which it may have been economically,socially, or politically beneficial for a specifiable group to portrayevents as essentially and exclusively religious rather than, say, politicalor military. The example of what was widely termed the self-immolation-aterm that from the outset does much to isolate the event as being exclusivelyconcerned with issues of religious sacrifice--of Vietnamese Buddhists isa particularly useful example, because it seems that there was, and mayyet be, a great deal at stake, economically, politically, and militarily,in the interpretation and representation of these events.
Anotherexample well worth study would be the interpretations given to the practiceof suttee or, the practice of a woman following her deceased husband tohis funeral pyre, for only within an interpretive system founded on suigeneris religion and which privileges the insider's account could sucha practice evade contemporary feminist analysis. As van den Bosch has recentlyargued, the "question whether the custom [of suttee] should be regardedas religious depends upon the definition of religion within this context"(1990: 193 n. 76). In other words, one of the primary differences betweenthe frameworks that represent this practice as, on the one hand, an exampleof pious female religious duty that embodies lofty motives (as suggestedby Tikku 1967: 108) and, on the other, an instance of institutionalizedmisogyny is primarily the assumption of the autonomy of religious lifefrom social and, in this case, specifically gendered ideology (van denBosch 1990: 185). As already suggested, the deaths of the Buddhists couldbe seen as a statement either against American-backed imperialism and waror simply against the localized persecution of one religious group by another,all depending on the scale of the analysis. If the former, then the repercussionsof the event strike deeply not only in Vietnam but in the United Statesas well. If only the latter, then the problem is isolated, it remains inSaigon, and it is up to the decision makers in Washington simply to distancethemselves from Diem's mishandling of the episode. Washington's decisionsare then based on reasons varying from declining public opinion in theUnited States, once the images reach the popular media, to the realizationthat in fact Diem did not represent the majority of South Vietnamese andtherefore was the wrong leader to back in the war against the North (thisis the dominant theme of the Times editorial on 17 June 1963). Clearly,there are practical and political advantages and disadvantages dependingon which of the two above intellectual interpretations is favored. Furthermore,it is intriguing that there exists a general correspondence between theinterpretations offered in the New York Times and those offered by scholarsof religion. Although differing in many ways, it appears that both arepart of a complex system of power and control, specializing in the deploymentof interpretive strategies-the politics of representation.
Southwest Minnesota State University