On 11th June 1963, 67-year-old Buddhist monk Thích Quảng Đức sat down in the lotus position at a busy crossroads in Saigon, doused himself in petrol, lit a match and burned to death. This spectacular public act of self-immolation in protest against the South Vietnamese government’s persecution of Buddhists sent shockwaves throughout the Western world, galvanising judgment and triggering alarm bells that – despite the American government’s assurances – all was not tickety-boo in Vietnam. The burning body of Thích Quảng Đức remains one of the most singularly vivid images of the 20th century. So just what caused this Most Venerable Buddhist monk to sacrifice his life so spectacularly?
French colonists had long favoured Indochina’s minority Roman Catholic population and had passed several punitive laws discriminating against Buddhists. In the wake of France’s withdrawal, the Buddhist position worsened under South Vietnam’s first president, Ngô Đình Diệm – a devout Roman Catholic authoritarian and American stooge. A full-fledged crisis was sparked on May 8th 1963 in the central city of Huế by the shootings of nine unarmed civilians protesting a national ban of the Buddhist flag. Diệm blamed the deaths on communist terrorists, but the barefaced lie fooled no one.
Buddhist leaders demanded an end to religious oppression. Diệm refused to respond. As tensions mounted, on 10th June a spokesperson for the Buddhists privately informed US journalists that “something important” would happen the next day on the road outside the Cambodian embassy in Saigon. The few reporters who bothered to turn up bore witness to an elaborate ceremony as 350 Buddhist monks and nuns marched in two phalanxes carrying protest banners. Thích Quảng Đức emerged from a car along with two other monks, who placed a cushion on the road. As the marchers formed a circle around him, Quảng Đức chanted a prayer to the Amida Buddha before striking a match. He remained eerily still and composed amid the flames.
The unprecedented television coverage of the Vietnam War brought the brutal realities of human conflict into the world’s living room for the first time, but few images would shock the world more than Thích Quảng Đức’s suicide-protest. President John F. Kennedy said that “no news picture in history has generated so much emotion around the world as that one.” Many Americans viewed Thích Quảng Đức’s act as a demonstration that Vietnamese lacked the most cherished of American liberties: freedom of religion. Such was the outrage that officials genuinely feared that it would lead to the end of Diem’s reign and the US effort to combat communism in Vietnam.
The global outrage, however, did not compel Diệm to end his persecution or even meet with leading Buddhists. In August, Diệm used regular troops to arrest and imprison more than one thousand Buddhists in Hue and Saigon. Protests spread, and Quảng Đức’self-immolation was followed by similar acts. People around the world began to question a regime that would oppress peaceful Buddhists and provoke such shocking sacrifice. The U.S. government found it increasingly difficult to continue its support of the man they had put in power. The JFK administration demanded that Diệm find a way to end the protests. Diệm refused, outrageously claiming yet again that communist infiltration lay behind the Buddhist protests. The Americans lost patience. On November 1st 1963, the CIA orchestrated a coup against the no-longer-useful Diệm. He was assassinated the following day.
For his extraordinary martydom, Thích Quảng Đức was deemed a bodhisattva – an enlightened being who delays nirvana to help those in need. And that he did. His heroic act precipitated the end of Diệm’s oppressive reign, and the regimes that followed pledged to accommodate the Buddhists.
Thích Quảng Đức’s heart, which miraculously survived the immolation intact, has become a holy relic.
Good ol’ Catholics, I bet they were rubbing their hands with glee seeing a member of another religious/spiritual group burning alive.
Reply to Paul Wyrd: your shockingly callous and ignorant comment shows how little you know of the Catholic church or the average Catholic in the 20th and 21st centuries.
JFK himself was a Roman Catholic, and the CIA could not have assassinated the brutal so-called “Catholic” Diệm without JFK’s authorization. Everyone, regardless of personal beliefs, was devastated by the monk’s self-immolation. I was a 10 -year-old Catholic at the time, although I am no longer a member of the Church.
Reply to Deirdre: Weren’t other Catholic’s in control as well? Non of them tried to help the poor Buddhists . JF didn’t help them out of goodness rather his name being spoilt due to support to Diệm .
Does anybody recognize or care that this man…this INCREDIBLE man…did not cry out or scream as his body was being burned? What an unbelievable act of human will and spirit. I kneel in his shadow.
amen to that. A true Master.
Absolutely, I recall this clearly to this day, and as a tiny infant living in the self-declared ‘more civilised & cultured’ western world. I recall this was being discussed (at the church I was dragged along to by my Christain parents each Sunday) as yet another barbaric display of backward beliefs & evil faiths.
I recall to this day how as a tiny child I still somehow knew inside my core, that Thích Quảng Đức actions demonstrated something far beyond the persecution of the South Vietnamese Buddhist majority & religious freedom as a whole. There was something more, something intangible, that I felt yet obviously as a 4-year-old child, I had no capacity to understand or comprehend what that may be and yet, as nonsensical as it may sound, I did sense beauty in Thích Quảng Đức act. It took nearly half a century before I was able to connect that precious childish innocence perceived ‘beauty’ and the bodhisattva Thích Quảng Đức gave freely.
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Indeed a very inspiring man. It moved me, i did not feel sorry for him..Instead i feel honored to have read such story..
That was some what smart of him to do that. It made him stand out and make a point in freedom of religion and the end as war.
He is crazy!!!
yes he is
Did this monk guy burn himself or did someone burn him while he was meditating? Search youtube for that. It’s the propaganda of the Buddhists to overthrow the Catholic president and supported Communism. Now the Buddhists in Vietnam must be happy under the Communist government 🙂 Wonder who they like better, to be under the Communist control or freely practice Buhhdism under the Democracy government by the Catholic president at that time? Why don’t the monks protest and burn themselves under the Communist government now 🙂 Propaganda, jealousy of other religion. They got the bad after they killed the good, can’t whine for that.
You clearly don’t even know what you are talking about.
Are you living in the same universe as the rest of us, spacy tracy?