Tuesday, April 24, 2012

The Ultimate Protest

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 car's doors opened, and Vietnamese monk Thich Quang Duc stepped out, flanked by two acolytes. Quang Duc was 76 years old, tall, bald, and wizened, and dressed in the recognizable orange robes of the Buddhist monks. Slowly and purposefully he made his way to the center of the intersection, where one of the others placed a cushion upon which Quang Duc would sit. When the respected monk had assumed the traditional lotus position, the other of his supporters produced a five-gallon can of gasoline and soaked Quang Duc with its contents. As the other 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.

The early 60's were the height of the Cold War between West and East. America were relying on South Vietnam to resist the draw of Communism spreading down from the north, but South Vietnames e president Ngo Dinh Diem, a Roman Catholic, was carrying out a policy of repression against the Buddhist majority of the state. As time went on, Buddhist protests were met with force by the Diem administration. American President John F. Kennedy was ready to pull the roughly 16,000 US soldiers out of South Vietnam and strike a treaty with the North, but Diem's soldiers continued to raid Buddhist pagodas and other strongholds, and soon Diem's own generals were plotting to overthrow him. Diem responded to this by declaring martial law.

Vietnam was new to the concept of instant global world opinion, and public self-immolation was without precedent in Vietnamese history. Quang Duc, however, had been a devout Buddhist since he began studying at age seven. He had become an ordained monk at 20, and had spent more than 50 years since teaching, studying, and building temples for his fellow adherents. He had been heavily involved in the struggle for religious and human rights through non-violent means, but his many letters written to the Diem government exhorting them to cease the persecution of Buddhists went unheeded. Crucially, his studies had led him to the enlightenment that his existence was not tied solely to his physical form, leaving him free to bereft himself of that form and still exist. Obviously, sacrificing his life for such a radical form of protest was not a decision he took lightly, but his ultimate insight into his spiritual self allowed him to do so without attachment, fear, or suffering.

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 was beyond saving, and after burning 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.

Within minutes, the dramatic photos were on the front pages of newspapers all over the world. Diem had lost control of his people completely, and the Americans abandoned their support of his regime. On November 2 of that same year, Diem was overthrown and assassinated, and his successors halted the persecution of the Buddhists in Vietnam; 20 days later, President Kennedy was also killed in a separate attack. The struggle against Vietnamese Communism would escalate and evolve into the Vietnam War, which stretched for more than ten years. Protests ranging from Vietnam to American colleges were common, 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. 
Bradley, Mark Philip, Vietnam at War, Oxford University Press, 2009. 
Nhat Hanh, Thich, Peaceful Action, Open Heart: Lessons from the Lotus Sutra, Parallax Press, 2009. 
Solheim, Bruce O., The Vietnam War Era: A Personal Journey, University of Nebraska Press, 2008.

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