Most of us are familiar with the above photograph of a Vietnamese monk burning himself in protest at the treatment of Buddhist peace activists during the Vietnam War. Confronted with the sight of this image a number of reactions might arise in a Buddhist’s mind: admiration, disapproval, amazement, or simply confusion. Perhaps as one’s Buddhist practice deepens, one’s views towards this picture change (all things are impermanent, remember!), or maybe one has a collection of contradictory thoughts on the matter. Such confusion, along with many other reactions to the monk’s suicide, may be the result of a lack of knowledge regarding who he was and his motivations, and his historical context. Perhaps if we explore the origins of both his personal history and the wider history of burning monks, we may be in a better position to understand what was going on.
The monk in question was called Thich Quang Duc, and was about sixty-six years old when he performed his famous act of ‘self-immolation’ – the offering of oneself as a sacrifice, especially by burning. But, why did he do it? At the time, not only was capitalist South Vietnam at war with communist North Vietnam, but in the south there was much dissatisfaction with regime of President Ngo Dinh Diem. Discontent was rife amongst Buddhists, who not only objected to the government’s perceived aggressive attitude to the North, but also felt that they were treated unfairly by Diem’s pro-Roman Catholic policies. Himself a Catholic, the President was seen to promote Roman Catholicism in predominately Buddhist South Vietnam. This included favoring Catholics in the army, in the distribution of American aid, big business deals, and in religious rights. Diem had dedicated Vietnam to the Virgin Mary in 1959, and whilst Catholics were allowed to fly the Vatican State’s flag, Buddhists were banned from flying theirs. On the 8th May 1963, which was Vesak (or 'BuddhaDay'), a protest was organized by Buddhists against these and other actions of the government, during which Buddhist flags were raised. Soldiers and police fired into the crowd, and even launced grenades at them, killing nine of the protesters.
Thich Quang Duc had been a monk all his adult life, and was highly-respected, holding senior positions in the Buddhist clergy and responsible for overseeing the building of thirty-one new temples. Also, he was a dedicated meditator, having devoted three years as a young monk to solitary practice on a mountain retreat, and continuing to meditate and teach meditation throughout his monastic career. He also spent time in neighboring Cambodia studying Theravada Buddhism (he, along with most Vietnamese Buddhists was of the Mahayana variety). As the war in Vietnam went on, and the South Vietnamese government continued in its often violent anti-Buddhist policies, Thich Quang Duc decided to burn himself alive in protest, his supporters calling for equality for Buddhists and their organizations in the country. So, on the 11th June 1963, this elderly monk sat calmly on the ground in a busy Saigon street, while a colleague poured gasoline over him. Thich Quang Duc then chanted the name of Amitabha Buddha before striking a match and setting himself alight. Eventually, Diem was replaced as President, and later on, the South was deserted by its ally America, left to the invading communists from the North. Thich Quang Duc’s last words were left in a written statement:
“Before closing my eyes and moving towards the vision of Buddha, I respectfully plead to President Ngo Dinh Diem to take a mind of compassion towards the people of the nation and implement religious equality to maintain the strength of the homeland eternally. I call the venerables, reverends, members of the sangha and the lay Buddhists to organize in solidarity to make sacrifices to protect Buddhism.”
Whatever one makes of the above explanation of the monk’s self-immolation, it was not an isolated occurrence. Following his example, other Buddhist monks in South Vietnam did the same thing, in the hope of creating equality for Buddhists and Buddhism in South Vietnam at the time. In fact, monks had been burning themselves for centuries in Vietnam, often to ‘honor’ the Buddha. Nor are such incredible actions isolated to Vietnam. Self-immolation is well-documented in the records of Chinese Buddhism, and also extended to modern times, when a monk self-immolated in the city of Harbin in protest at the mistreatment of Buddhists by Mao Zedong’s communist forces. Not entirely surprising, as Vietnamese Buddhism is essentially imported Chinese Buddhism.
The book ‘Biographies of Famous Monks,’ compiled by Baochang in the sixth century A.D., chronicles many Buddhist monks and nuns who burnt themselves to death. Another Buddhist scholar, Huijiao, considered self-immolation as a bona fide way to propagate Buddhism, considering it to be a selfless act that potentially could improve society by discouraging pride and avarice amongst observers. Auto-cremation was not the only method used to sacrifice oneself, however. In imitation of the Buddha in the famous tale where (in a previous life) he gives his body to a hungry tigress and her cubs, Chinese Buddhists had also fed themselves to tigers. In one story, the Fifth Century monk Tancheng fed himself to a tiger to stop the creature eating the locals. Apparently, it worked.
As for a specific tale relating to self-immolation, there is the story of Sengming, a monk that had buly a temple atop a mountain that he named ‘The Heavenly Palace of Maitreya’ – Maitreya being the prophesied future Buddha. After spending many years reciting the Lotus Sutra, which makes reference to self-immolation itself, he was given permission by the emperor of China to burn himself. Following his auto-cremation, many miracles were recorded, such as healing, spontaneously blooming flowers, and a moving statue. Such actions were considered good practice, and as valid as meditating, chanting sutras, or building temples. Indeed, Pure Land Buddhists believed that it was a way to be reborn in Amitabha Buddha’s heavenly realm.
This view of self-immolation as a ‘holy’ act which could result in a fortuitous rebirth or even a giant step towards enlightenment seems to have some parallels with modern Islamic suicide bombers. Both Buddhist self-immolators and Muslim suicide attackers believe their self-destructive actions are of spiritual benefit, leading to an exulted state of being. The big difference being that the Buddhists in question never killed other people when taking their own lives, whereas the Muslim terrorist very much intends to destroy others. It’s interesting that in both types of religious suicide, supernatural beliefs in an afterlife appear to be a central element in the belief systems involved.
Thich Quang Duc is nowadays considered a bodhisattva by many Vietnamese Buddhists, and his picture remains an iconic and disturbing image of self-immolation for the benefit of others. But, considering the long history of self-immolation in Buddhism, going all the way back to the Buddha himself, his action cannot be considered in isolation, if we are to fully understand it. It is part of a continuing tradition of self-sacrifice in Buddhism, and as such, is something that all Buddhists might do well to reflect on. Could you, dear reader, ‘do a Duc’ and burn yourself to death for the sake of others? Do you even consider it a valid expression of Buddhist practice, or is it in direct contradiction to your understanding of basic Buddhist principles? Please leave your thoughts by clicking on the comments function below.