An Multidimensional Anniversary

Thích Quảng Đức's self-immulation

I have Wikipedia set as my homepage and I am regularly rewarded for this choice. Today was no different as it was the “On this day…” section that told me about a most interesting anniversary:

June 11th: 1963 – Vietnamese Mahayana Buddhist monk Thích Quảng Đức burned himself to death in Saigon to protest the persecution of Buddhists by South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem’s administration.

The image of this monk sitting in the streets of Saigon, utterly composed in a swirling fireball of self-immulation, is one of history’s most famous. I find it disturbing both for the grisly nature of the scene and for the fact that Thích Quảng Đức is absolutely still. It looks like I am seeing a statue, and not a human being, set ablaze.

The NY Times David Halberstam wrote this about Thích Quảng Đức’s suicide:

I was to see that sight again, but once was enough. Flames were coming from a human being; his body was slowly withering and shriveling up, his head blackening and charring. In the air was the smell of burning human flesh; human beings burn surprisingly quickly. Behind me I could hear the sobbing of the Vietnamese who were now gathering. I was too shocked to cry, too confused to take notes or ask questions, too bewildered to even think… As he burned he never moved a muscle, never uttered a sound, his outward composure in sharp contrast to the wailing people around him

Why even talk about this then? First of all, I am not in any way, shape, or form condoning suicide. I’ve unfortunately had two friends kill themselves and I think it one of the supreme acts of cowardice. Secondly, I am not an advocate of religious extremism of any form. Yet, this event along with the award-winning photo affect me on a deep level. I took the time today to read the entirely of the Wikipedia post on Thích Quảng Đức’s life and I find the event all the more fascinating now. It saddens me that anyone would need to go to such extreme acts to prove a point, defend their faith, or otherwise get the notice of institutional leaders. The fact that Thích Quảng Đức’s death–and subsequent canonization as a bodhisattva–was ultimately successful (inasmuch as it was the tipping point for international pressure to help end the Vietnamese Buddhist Crisis) makes the nature of this act all the more multifaceted.

Multifaceted, Synergistic, Poignant?

Maybe it is precisely the ambiguous, “no clear side to take” nature that I appreciate. I abhor suicide and extremism of any kind yet I concede that this famous morning 47 years ago cannot simply be viewed through the disapproving equation: martyrdom + zealotry = despicable behavior.

Maybe it is a seemingly minor detail from the event that takes me back 7 years to Kyoto, Japan. Thích Quảng Đức’s last words were “Nam Mô A Di Đà Phật” which is the repetition of the name of Amitābha Buddha (the Amitābha Buddha is the Buddha of Light/Life of Pure Land Buddhist tradition). I had a student in Kyoto who was an English teacher when I started teaching him and, over the course of our year of working together, he quit his job and began a deep spiritual journey. He started studying Pure-Land Buddhism and, as a result, our lessons turned to dialogues about religion. He gave me books to read, Buddhist prayer beads (the same as the kind Thích Quảng Đức held when he committed suicide), and told me about the nembutsu (the Japanese word for the repetition of the name of the Amitābha Buddha, or Amida Buddha), “Namu Amida Butsu”. He told me to repeat this nembutsu over and over again to show my total reliance on the compassion of the Amida Buddha. I was skeptical but, like most anything else, willing to try it out for a while. It didn’t last long and I forgot the expression completely… until today.

Or maybe it is being reminded of Robin William’s genius comedy routine about this famous event:

What does the Buddhist terrorist do? Goes in the middle of the street, takes the gas… Self barbecue! “What the f- are you doing?”

“Making your deal with your shit.”

Is there a lesson then?

Whatever the reason why this apposite anniversary strikes a chord with me, I say…

Here’s to a world where people don’t feel like they have to (or are told by others to) light themselves on fire, blow themselves and others up, or otherwise engage in “eye for an eye” behaviors to prove a point and make others “deal with their shit”. After all, violence is the weapon of the weak.

Here’s to a humanity that listens, empathizes, and accepts, not a humanity that hurries, divides, and grabs for power and control. Here’s to a humanity that realizes our differences are secondary to our infinite commonalities. Maybe we can view Thích Quảng Đức’s self-immulation as a step in that direction; maybe we just view is as another senseless act of fanaticism.

What do you think?


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