In the early 60s, the Cold War between West and East dominated the political landscape. While America relied on South Vietnam to resist the draw of Communism spreading down from the north, South Vietnamese president Ngo Dinh Diem, a Roman Catholic, carried out a policy of repression against the Buddhist majority of the state. As time went on, the Diem administration met Buddhist protests with increasing levels of force, even as American President John F. Kennedy prepared to pull roughly 16,000 US soldiers out of South Vietnam and strike a treaty with the North. Soon, Diem's own generals plotted to overthrow him, to which Diem responded by declaring martial law.
In the morning of June 11, 1963, a beat-up light blue Austin Westminster sedan rolled into the busy Saigon intersection in front of the Cambodian embassy, only a few blocks away from the Presidential Palace. About 350 Buddhist nuns and monks followed the car on foot and, upon reaching the crossroads, spread out to form a circle and blocked off the intersection. The doors opened, and 76-year-old Vietnamese monk Thich Quang Duc, tall, bald, and wizened, and dressed in the recognizable orange robes of the Buddhist monks, stepped out into the street, flanked by two acolytes.
Quang Duc began studying Buddhism at the age of seven and became an ordained Buddhist monk at age 20. Since then, he had spent more than 50 years teaching, studying, and building temples for his fellow adherents, and had been heavily involved in the struggle for religious and human rights through non-violent means. He had written many letters to the Diem government, exhorting them to cease the persecution of Buddhists, but received no answer. Ultimately, Quang Duc decided to sacrifice himself in a radical form of protest; this was not a decision he took lightly, for obvious reasons, but his studies had led him to the enlightenment that his existence was not tied solely to his physical form, and this insight that he could bereft himself of his physical form and still exist allowed him to accept his decision without attachment, fear, or dread of suffering.
Slowly and purposefully, Quang Duc made his way to the center of the intersection, where he assumed the traditional lotus position on a cushion placed by one of his aides; the other produced a five-gallon can of gasoline and soaked Quang Duc with its contents. As the larger circle of protestors protested loudly, and someone announced the spectacle through a megaphone, Thich Quang Duc lit a match in one hand, and, in full view of the city, the people, and the world press, set himself on fire.
Thich Quang Duc sat perfectly still as his body burned in the city street. Photographers, having been alerted beforehand to the protest, snapped away with their cameras, and onlookers alternate chanted protests and gasped in horror at the sight. The air was filled with oily black smoke and the smell of burning flesh. Quang Duc quickly burned beyond saving, and after remaining still beneath the flames for about ten minutes, he slumped forward and the fire burned itself out. His followers loaded his remains into a coffin and spirited them away in the same light blue sedan.
Within minutes, the dramatic photos appeared on the front pages of newspapers all over the world. Vietnam was new to the concept of instant global world opinion, and public self-immolation was without precedent in Vietnamese history. Before long, Diem had lost control of his people completely, and the Americans abandoned their support of his regime. On November 2 of that same year, military officers supported by the American CIA assassinated Diem, and his successors halted the persecution of the Buddhists in Vietnam; 20 days later, an assassin also killed President Kennedy in a separate attack. The struggle against Vietnamese Communism escalated and evolved into the Vietnam War, stretching for more than ten years. Protests ranging from Vietnam to American colleges became commonplace, including several further instances of public self-immolation as forms of protest.
Quang Duc himself was re-cremated, and to this day his heart, which did not burn in either fire, is on display in the Xa Loi Pagoda in Ho Chih Minh City, a symbol representative of Quang Duc's extraordinary compassion and dedication to the freedom of his people.
Links and Sources:
Biography of Thich Quang Duc at the Quang Duc Buddhist Homepage (in Vietnamese), retrieved April 24, 2012.
Vietnam at War by Mark Philip Bradley, Oxford University Press, 2009.
Peaceful Action, Open Heart: Lessons from the Lotus Sutra by Thich Nhat Hanh, Parallax Press, 2009.
The Vietnam War Era: A Personal Journey by Bruce O. Solheim, University of Nebraska Press, 2008.
"The Ultimate Protest" © 2015 by James Husband.