A Buddhist monk named Thich Quang Duc, from the Linh-Mu Pagoda in Hue, Vietnam, set himself on fire in downtown Saigon, on June 11, 1963. Thich Quang Duc’s self-immolation did not receive much attention from religious scholars, because apparently the act was “exclusively conceptualized as a trans historical, purely religious agent, virtually homologous with his specifically religious forebears and ancestors.” So now it is know as “religious suicide” and can be justified by Chinese Buddhist texts written between the fifth and tenth centuries C.E.
Thich Quang Duc was born in 1897 he was 67 when he set himself ablaze in 1963. From the time he we seven years old he lived in a Buddhist monastic community. Quang Duc was ordained as a full Buddhist monk or Bhikku by the time he was twenty. Thich Quang Duc had practiced extreme ascetic purification for several years, he became was a teacher, and spent many years rebuilding Buddhist temples in Vietnam prior to 1943. He was a member of the Quan the Am temple and Director of rituals for the United Vietnamese Buddhist Congregation. Thich Quang Duc is now considered to be a bodhisattva, “an enlightened being – one on the path to awakening who vows to forgo complete enlightenment until he or she helps all other beings attain enlightenment.”
Thich Quang Duc’s self-immolation has accelerated the spread of “engaged Buddhism” which had already begun in Vietnam in the 1930’s. This of course led to the overthrow of the Diem regime in South Vietnam in November of 1963, and helped to change the public opinion of the American backed South Vietnamese government and its war against the communist supported Viet Cong.
The social and political impact of Thich Quang Duc’s self-immolation has been far reaching. It was reported in the New York Times News paper the day after the immolation. A copy of Quang Duc’s document, written in 1963, encouraged the self-immolation of several monks and by the continued activism of the “rebellious monks of Hue” against the communist government in Vietnam for more than three decades.
It has been considered by both Thich Nhat Hnah and Russell McCutcheon that when contextualizing the event in 1963 Vietnam, the self-immolation is seen as a “political act” with the purpose of calling attention to many injustices being perpetrated against the South Vietnamese people by the government of Euro-American imperialism. Thich Nhat Hnah goes on to speak about this particular act of self-immolation as follows: The press spoke then of suicide, but in the essence, it is not. It is not even a protest. What the monks said in the letters they left before burning themselves aimed only at alarming, at moving the hearts of the oppressors, and at calling the attention of the world to the suffering endured then by the Vietnamese. To burn oneself by fire is to prove that what one is saying is of the utmost importance…. The Vietnamese monk, by burning himself, says with all his strength and determination that he can endure the greatest of sufferings to protect his people…. To express will by burning oneself, therefore, is not to commit an act of destruction but to perform an act of construction, that is, to suffer and to die for the sake of one’s people. This is not suicide.
Thich Nhat Hanh then explains why Thich Quang Duc’s self-immolation was not a suicide, in contrast to Buddhist teachings: Suicide is an act of self-destruction, having as causes the following: (1) lack of courage to live and to cope with difficulties; (2) defeat by life and loss of all hope; (3) desire for nonexistence….. The monk who burns himself has lost neither courage nor hope; nor does he desire nonexistence. On the contrary, he is very courageous and hopeful and aspires for something good in the future. He does not think that he is destroying himself; he believes in the good fruition of his act of self-sacrifice for the sake of others…. I believe with all my heart that the monks who burned themselves did not aim at the death of their oppressors but only at a change in their policy.
The Monks enemies are not of flesh and bone, their enemies are things like intolerance, fanaticism, dictatorship, cupidity, hatred, and discrimination which can be found in the heart of men. On June 11, 1963, Thich Quang Duc showed the world that it is not the right of man to cause suffering for another human being, life is suffering and punishment must be left to the Spirit.
Janis resides in western Canada, among the mountains where she studies the Buddhist religion and practices reiki healing. Janis loves making Buddhist t-shirts, gifts and apparel to spread the knowledge of enlightenment. All of the images used on the products are hand drawn with high quality graphics and historical accuracy a priority. Visit her website at http://buddhistbackground.blogspot.com
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