MOST VENERABLE THICH QUANG DUC
Robert J. Topmiller
For many Americans, the dramatic photo of the Thich Quang Duc’s self-immolation in 1963 constitutes their most enduring memory of the Vietnam War. In June of that year, as the Buddhist rebellion against Ngo Dinh Diem gained momentum, the elderly monk sat in a lotus position on a busy Saigon street and set himself on fire. This first and most spectacular self-immolation of the 1963 Buddhist crisis, an incredible act of protest that galvanized world opinion, served as a moving example of South Vietnamese resistance to the Diem regime that stamped an image on the Vietnam war that has never faded away. Yet, the question remains: why did he carry out this remarkable act? Thich Quang Duc died in the belief that he would become a bodhisattva for his actions in calling attention to the desperate condition of his fellow Buddhists in South Vietnam. Thich Thien-An explained Thich Quang Duc’s self-immolation as "a manifestation of his willingness to suffer for the sake of enlightenment of the people. In its essence it does not differ from the act of Christ in his death on the cross. Accepting the most extreme suffering of his body, Thich Quang Duc burned himself and in so doing created the fire of consciousness and compassion in the hearts of the people." Adding to the mystical quality of his death, "when the old man’s ashes were removed from the oven, his heart emerged miraculously undestroyed - obviously the supernatural work of the Buddha." In the US, Thich Quang Duc’s death ignited an explosion of speculation on the phenomenon of self-immolation. America, a US Catholic magazine, argued that suicide, considered immoral in the Theravada tradition was "not new to Vietnam. It was forbidden by the French, but before their time it was practiced by Mahayana Buddhists." The article went on to state that self-immolation contradicted the Buddhist concept of Ahimsa (no harm to any living thing). Time asserted that self-immolation had never occurred in Vietnam, but did admit that Mahayana Buddhism contained numerous stories of monks and nuns who sacrificed their lives for the faith. US leaders worried about the political implications of Thich Quang Duc’s sacrifice. American officials, sensing the weakness of Diem’s public support, genuinely feared that a further loss of backing would be the end of Diem and the US effort to combat communism in Vietnam. Adding to their distress, many Americans viewed Thich Quang Duc’s act as a demonstration that Vietnamese lacked the most cherished of American liberties: freedom of religion. In fact, on June 27, 1963, a prominent group of American religious leaders published a full page advertisement in the New York Times entitled "We Too, Protest," which contained the photo of Thich Quang Duc and called for American public support for Buddhists who opposed the Diem regime. Few Americans understood, then or now, that self-immolation went to the very heart of Buddhist efforts to end the war in South Vietnam. While most historians agree that the people of Vietnam paid a ghastly price for the American obsession with confronting Communism, few acknowledge the presence of an independent peace movement in the country. Why is it that historians can accept the deaths of millions to fight the war yet find it so hard to believe that some died for peace? Buddhist lore tells the story of a mother tiger so ravaged with hunger that she prepared to eat her cub. When a Buddhist observed this condition, he gave himself to the mother tiger to save the cub. Buddhists used this story to illustrate the importance they place on saving lives. Seen in this light, it become easier to understand self-immolation, although the grim nature of the act gives further evidence of the anguish felt by Buddhists over the war.
Non-violence and self-immolation are linked, since "Without a spirit of understanding, and tolerance, Buddhism can no longer be itself." Compassion and a dedication to peace impelled Buddhists to oppose the war even when they understood the power of the United States would be arrayed against them. Unable to respond violently to American and Government of South Vietnam (GVN) provocations, monks and nuns sacrificed themselves in the most dreadful fashion to shed light on their predicament while honoring the Buddha’s injunction to practice compassion. As Thich Tri Quang later pointed out, "burning oneself to death is the noblest form of struggle which symbolizes the spirit of non-violence of Buddhism." While many Americans dismissed Buddhist self-immolation as another unexplained act by a people they seldom tried to understand, the willingness of monks, nuns and lay people to die for peace serves as a poignant and lasting testament to the depth of feeling some Vietnamese held over the impact of the war on their people. For Vietnamese Buddhists, self-immolation constituted the most dramatic form of non-violent protest they could perform. In many ways, self-immolation represents the highest manifestation of the Buddhist concept of non-violence since the person committing the act chooses to harm him/herself rather than another being. In addition, the Buddha’s injunction always to act with compassion could be fulfilled by a person willing to sacrifice him/herself to call the attention of the world to the plight of Buddhism in South Vietnam. Thus, "by demonstrating in this way the suffering of the war, the self-immolator hoped that those who supported or perpetuated the war would likewise become unable to bear the pain of war and stop the actions that allowed it to continue." Finally, while the positive karma gained from dying for Buddhism seemed sure to benefit the people, Vietnamese Buddhists argued vigorously that self-immolation did not constitute suicide. Rather than the act of a despondent person fleeing the problems of the world, it sought to liberate the people from a ruinous war.
The phenomenon of self-immolation seemed to defy rational explanation to Westerners. Yet, destruction of the physical self by fire has a long tradition in Buddhism. When Alexander the Great invaded India in the 4th century BC, for instance, he was greeted by a Buddhist monk who "incinerated himself on a funeral pyre in front of Alexander’s army." As American historian Douglas Pike points out, self-immolation constituted "an ancient gesture against actions by the state seen as against religion." Buddhists also utilized it against the French and the Chinese during their occupations of Vietnam. Vietnamese Buddhist history contains numerous stories of monks who sacrificed themselves by fire. On occasion, monks continued an old practice of burning off a finger to "aid their liberation from the world" while, before the development of gasoline, "monks who decided to immolate themselves would eat fatty foods for a couple of years so they would burn better." Even today, young Buddhist acolytes place burning incense on their heads as a part of their examination process to achieve full membership into the monastic society. Certainly, the Buddhist belief in self-negation and non-attachment to the physical self combined with the relationship between concepts of fire and purity could evolve into a belief in the importance of achieving a state of physical non-self through self-immolation, particularly after achieving enlightenment. Finally, self-immolation exerted a profound impact on other Buddhists who vowed to carry on the fight for peace despite repression by the GVN and the hostility of the US. Of course, self-immolation during the Vietnam War did not end with Thich Quang Duc. Additional Buddhists immolated themselves during the 1963 crisis and even more performed the act during the 1966 protest against Nguyen Cao Ky. Three years later, however, a wave of immolations in South Vietnam failed to move the US government or the American people. By this time, many Americans believed that fanatical Buddhists no longer deserved sympathy and US leaders saw the self-immolations as a cynical attempt to manipulate the press rather than the expression of deeply held religious and political beliefs.
Thich Quang Duc’s death had an impact far beyond Vietnam. In all, over 100 monks and nuns immolated themselves for peace during the Vietnam war leading one American religious authority to comment that "it can only be said that theirs is one of the great examples of courage, altruism, and activist spirituality of all time. . . . The Buddhists who participated in the Struggle Movement, who worked in the countryside to help peasants survive, who immolated themselves for peace - these people were moved, in fact, by the ideals of their Buddhist faith." Daniel Berrigan, an American Catholic priest heavily involved in the US peace movement during the war, also pointed out that "it might be of moment to western religious people, that a religious tradition exists in the east, before whose example their own churches are dim witness indeed." Nor have the Vietnamese people forgotten Thich Quang Duc’s momentous act. Today, a large memorial sits at the intersection where he died, his car is on display at the Thien Mu pagoda in Hue, Thich Quang Lien leads the Thich Quang Duc monastery dedicated to the study of peace outside of Ho Chi Minh City and Vietnamese Buddhists have established the Thich Quang Duc pagoda in Australia to minister to the Vietnamese population in that country. His picture adorns many pagodas in the country, while his memory is revered throughout the Buddhist community where he has almost attained the position of the patron saint of Vietnamese Buddhism. By following the example of Thich Quang Duc, Buddhists who immolated themselves also set an example for future generations to resist oppression by all means. Thus, a direct line runs from Thich Quang Duc to the Vien Hoa Dao activists of today like Thich Quang Do, Thich Huyen Quang and Vo Van Ai who have constantly demonstrated incredible courage, dedication to morality, commitment to peace and human rights and concern for the welfare of their people.
Robert J. Topmiller
University of Maryland - Asian Division