Introduction

* 1897, Hoi Khanh, Vietnam

† 11 June 1963, Saigon, Vietnam

“Before closing my eyes and moving towards the vision of Buddha, I respectfully plead with President Ngo Dinh Diem for compassion towards the people of the nation and for implementing religious equality to maintain the strength of the homeland for eternity.”

Thich Quang Duc, 11 June 1963

On 11 June 1963, sixty-seven-year-old Buddhist monk, Thich Quang Duc, had petrol poured over him and set himself on fire in protest against the persecution of Buddhists.

Thich Quang Duc was born in 1897 in Hoi Khanh, a village located in central Vietnam, Khanh Hoa province. Fragmentary information on his life is known only from Buddhist literature. Coming from a large family, he had six siblings. He was born as Lam Van Tuc (Lâm Văn Tức in Vietnamese). He entered a Mahayana Buddhist monastery when he was seven. He became a monk at the age of twenty under the name Thich Quang Duc. In 1932, he was appointed an inspector and was over time responsible for the building of 14 temples. In 1934, he moved to southern Vietnam and became a teacher. He also spent two years in Cambodia. After that, he began to oversee the construction of further temples. In total, he was responsible for 31 new temples. In 1943, he moved to Saigon where he worked as the chairman of a panel on ceremonial rites. In the following years, he became one of the leading spiritual figures of Vietnamese Buddhism.

In the beginning of the 1960s, religious tension in South Vietnam (Republic of Vietnam) had escalated. A predominantly Buddhist country was ruled by the authoritative and Christian president Ngo Dinh Diem (Ngô Đình Diệm in Vietnamese). Rampant corruption, favouring Roman Catholics for public service, and disregard of the president for Buddhist traditions had sparked street clashes in Saigon, leaving nine protesters dead after the violent crackdown in May 1963. The Buddhist reaction took the form of a shocking protest that built on an older tradition, cases of self-immolation having been previously recorded in Vietnam and also in China. On 10 June 1963, American journalists in Saigon were notified that something unspecified would happen in front of the Embassy of Cambodia the next day. The Buddhists probably chose the place because of the then tense relations between Cambodia and South Vietnam. Since the Buddhists had been protesting against the ruling regime for a long time already, only several journalists arrived, including The New York Times correspondent David Halberstam and the Associated Press photographer Malcolm W. Browne.

According to Halberstam, several hundred Buddhist monks, who left the main Saigon pagoda around 10 a.m. on 11 June 1963, marched into the busy junction. A blue Austin Westminster sedan led the March. At the junction, Thich Quang Duc got out of the car accompanied by two monks. One of them laid a cushion on the street and Duc sat down on it in the lotus position. The other took a five-gallon petrol can out of the boot and poured the petrol over Duc. Duc then recited a short mantra used by Buddhists to calm their mind. Then he struck a match and set himself on fire. He burst into flames immediately. The on-looking crowd chanted slogans, some cried, some bowed to the burning monk. After ten minutes, the lifeless body fell to the ground. When the flames went out, one of the monks repeated into a microphone again and again, first in Vietnamese and then in English: “A Buddhist priest burns himself to death. A Buddhist priest becomes a martyr.” The monks carried Duc’s remains away to bury them. According to tradition, the heart remained intact after the cremation and was venerated as a relic. Also because of this, Duc has been revered by Vietnamese Mahayana Buddhists as bodhisattva, someone who has achieved enlightenment (many other Buddhists reject his act as incompatible with the teachings of Buddha).

Duc stressed in a farewell letter that he decided to immolate himself in order to press President Diem to establish religious tolerance. He wrote that self-immolation is a sacrifice for Buddhism. The regime leadership proclaimed that the event was a conspiracy of Cambodia and local communists. At the end of June 1963, the government announced that Duc had been drugged before his self-immolation. The First Lady also provoked outrage when she cynically wrote in a letter to The New York Times that she “would clap hands at seeing another monk barbecue show.” Religious tension did not defuse in the following weeks, and three more monks immolated themselves in August 1963. Eventually, president Diem, who gradually lost the support of the United States, was overthrown and killed on 2 November 1963.

Duc's protest drew a strong response not only in South Vietnam but also in other countries, thanks to the American journalists. A picture of the burning monk taken by Brown won the 1963 World Press Photo of the Year award, and Brown himself won a Pulitzer prize in 1964. Self-immolation in South Vietnam, interpreted as a part of the struggle against American imperialism, was often covered by the official media in communist countries. Paradoxically, this form of political protest became an inspiration for a number of people in the Soviet bloc. At present, there is a street named after Duc in the Vietnamese capital of Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon). A monumental memorial has been erected not far from the place where he performed his radical protest.

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