Tuesday, April 24, 2012
The Ultimate Protest
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.
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.