“Monks – all is burning. And what is the all that is burning?”
– The Fire Sermon, Samyuta Nikaya 35.28
I had a fairly typical upbringing in England. In some respects, anyway, but certainly insofar as: you can safely assume that Buddhist monks weren’t really something that I thought about much, if at all. Not until I saw this picture for the first time. It’s a great picture – it won World Press Photo of the Year in 1963 for its photographer, Malcolm Browne, and not only for its admirable composition, but perhaps even more for his excellent news-hound instincts in being one of only two foreign journalists who had bothered to show up to document an event which had a resounding global impact. It arguably brought down the government of South Vietnam, and President John F. Kennedy said of it that, “No news picture in history has ever generated such emotion around the world.”
It certainly had an impact on me, although I wasn’t around in 1963. By the time I saw it, it had passed into the cultural iconography of “generalised images of righteous resistance”, which you’d encounter from time-to-time, mostly on the walls of bohemian dwellings. Similarly to that screen-print of Che looking all bedraggledly handsome and far-seeing – some quality in the image itself kept it alive. Long after people who stuck posters of it on their walls had mostly become a bit hazy about what it meant.
Most people under 40-something now probably associate it with the cover of Rage Against The Machine’s 1992 debut album. That record also had quite an impact on me, although not in the same life-changing way. Otherwise, rather than the comfortable orange robe and buzz-cut I’m currently sporting, I might instead be dressed like Zach de la Rocha. It’s just as well that I’m not, since dreadlocks on a white guy are rarely a good thing (albeit that message has yet to filter through to Koh Samui). And, worthy as RATM’s upcycling of this powerful image was, it’s perhaps worth briefly refreshing on what precisely happened here:
By 1963, Vietnam had won the Indo-China War and so ceased to be a French colony. But it still wasn’t a happy time – the country had split into the Communist North and the Capitalist, Catholic South. Catholic?? Yes. Strange as it may seem, the government was controlled by a clique of Western-orientated strongmen, who were very aggressively Roman Catholic, as well as just generally aggressive. They were essentially the same ruling class that had been raised up under colonial rule, still trying to hang on to power even after independence. Most had converted in order to be more French and sophisticated.
Worried that Buddhism, and traditional culture in general, might be rallying point against their élite minority rule, they accused Buddhists of having Communist links. This went down well with their CIA backing, drawing the kind of crazy-lavish funding that you could get back in the Cold War just by claiming that you were fighting Commies, and this in turn encouraged them to use ever-more brutal repressive measures. These culminated in a massacre during Wisakha – which is essentially Buddhist Christmas – when the army opened fire and drove vehicles into a celebrating crowd, resulting in nine deaths including two children, and many more casualties and arrests.
Some days later, a procession of monks and nuns moved through the streets of central Saigon. They stopped the traffic at a busy intersection and formed a circle. In the middle, Thich Quang Duc, an eminent monk in his mid-sixties, sat down in the lotus position. Another monk poured five gallons of fuel over him and handed him a box of matches. He struck one, and then Malcolm Browne snapped the famous picture.
Actually, he took quite a few pictures, and there’s also a video, but that’s quite grainy and shaky, and from a poor vantage point. It’s worth looking at all of them to get a sense of the unfolding event, but in this iconic image the wind blew strongly enough to reveal Quang Duc’s face amidst the smoke and flames. Take a close look at it. There might be tightness around the mouth, but no more than you’d expect to see with anyone holding their breath under less drastic circumstances. His posture is also worth noting. A look at the whole sequence will show that he starts out with a straight back and at a certain point begins to slouch. Then he corrects himself and remains perfectly straight until he dies and falls over. There’s clearly something much more, or just other, going on here than just commitment and toughness.
This action was partly shock-theatre, calling the world’s attention to injustice in a small country most people outside Asia had probably never heard of back then. Which it did, as the picture dominated newspaper front-pages around the world. It was also a resounding demonstration that the spirit of Buddhism was immune to intimidation, and so could not be suppressed by force. And it wasn’t only Quang Duc. Over the following weeks, five more Vietnamese monks self-immolated in much the same way, and showed similar equanimity in the face of fear, agony, and death.
The results were swift and profound: President Kennedy withdrew support for the régime, and it was toppled by an internal coup shortly afterwards. The persecution of Buddhists ended (although obviously Vietnam’s woes were still far from over at that point). But that’s all by-the-by since I didn’t bring this up to discuss the political consequences. Let’s return to that face in the flames.
There are many aspects to what happened here – courage, moral conviction, sacrifice, for instance – which are extraordinary. Yet, it could be argued that there we’re seeing no more than what you might find in fanatical suicide bombers, high on indoctrination and promises of heavenly delights. It’s the evident impassiveness and calm that makes this clearly different. Those make it, in fact, almost incomprehensible.
How could he do that? That was the question that burned itself into my mind when I saw this monk burning. I am still trying to answer that question. I look at this picture a lot – it’s the screen-saver on my computer, as it has been for nearly twenty years.
But what was immediately, abundantly, unarguably clear to me even back then was that Buddhists might reasonably claim to be onto something. Something real and non-theoretical. They weren’t just bandying about unprovable, high-falutin’, metaphysical speculations, or unquestioning faith in ancient tradition. Whatever they might claim to know was clearly based on far more concrete evidence that modern-day practitioners could use it to transform themselves in ways unimaginable to me.
At this point, I would love to say something like: Inspired by this compelling image, I immediately cast aside trivial worldly matters, and set out on a relentless quest to find the source of this strange power. Overcoming dangers and obstacles, and accepting no discouragement or cheap substitutes, until – after several gruelling years schlepping up snowy peaks and meditating under icy waterfalls [cue montage] – I eventually found the Yoda-like spiritual master who unlocked these mysteries for me.
The truth is more akin to: Being at that time a youthful and narcissistic doofus, I somewhat hastily processed this paradigm-shattering data and filed it away in the drawer marked “Things that might be useful to seem to know something about, for giving a superficial impression of intellectual and emotional depth.” Long name – large drawer (forgive me – young and shallow, I was). And there it resided for many years, although it did get occasionally dusted off in my recollection because I could never unsee that image, or forget my curiosity about it.
I’m not sure how well it fulfilled my originally intended purpose for it. What I can more definitely say is that it became a major influencing factor when, years later, I first properly encountered Buddhism and the monkhood here in Thailand, and quite quickly decided to – well at least “dip a toe in the water” as I then thought.
It sounds quite calm, put like that. There were other more immediate and dramatic factors in my becoming a monk – which I will get to in the next piece – but the ground was prepared, and the way opened, largely as a result of this single image of Thich Quang Duc on fire, and being apparently okay with that.
Note: This piece should in no way be taken to be a recommendation, endorsement, or celebration, of suicide as a political gesture, or indeed for any other reason. Taking any life, including one’s own, is generally regarded as a grave error in Buddhist ethics, and Quang Duc’s action remains controversial.
And speaking personally, the purpose of this prologue is not to discuss venerable Quang Duc’s reasoning, or the correctness or otherwise, of his decision. I would not regard myself as being qualified to do so.
Anyone troubled by suicidal thoughts is advised to seek professional help. Any such person is also (in addition, not instead) welcome to contact me via this website [May 2022]
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