The Unforgettable Fire
I was twelve years old in June of 1963, living in a small town near an airbase in northern Alberta, Canada; and we, myself and my family that is, had a black and white floor model television set that was generally the center of our universe. John F. Kennedy was the illustrious president of the United States, and the Vietnam War was constantly on the news. So perhaps it was a little more than mere coincidence that I should eventually witness the shocking airing of the fiery self-immolation of a Vietnamese Buddhist monk in a busy Saigon intersection. For a rather shallow twelve-year-old going on thirteen, it was both a puzzling event and a crude awakening to harsh reality. Why would such a gentle soul carry out such a violent act against his own person? Obviously, all was not right with his world. And was not his world my world too? Afterall, no man is an island complete unto himself according to my grade seven English teacher.
Religion and Politics and War
Yes, back there in June of my twelfth year I was spontaneously awakened. Believe me, it was not the much-desired awakening of an ascetic courting truth and wisdom in an enchanted wood, but rather the brutal awakening of religion and politics and war. I, and millions of other media-enraptured viewers around the globe, sat transfixed in absolute horror bearing witness to the self-destruction of a reverent soul. What little innocence I may have had vanished then and there in the silvery smoke and flames of our glaring television screen. All of a sudden, there was no glory to war, just a fathomless sadness about the apparent tragedy of the human condition that to this very day taints my world view. They say he did not move a finger nor cry out during his self-inflicted cremation. The depiction of the crucifixtion of Christ doesn't come close to such a ghastly, yet hallowed scene. Why did this unassuming monk choose to end his life in such a violent manner? What mysterious forces beyond my understanding were at work here? For the first time in my superficial, barely-adolescent following of the war, I sensed we were not being told the whole truth about what was going on in Southeast Asia. Gentle beings do not resort to violent measures unless they have been pushed beyond their limits. Thank God summer holidays were waiting around the corner to lift me out of the sudden deep depression I found myself in. I remember tearing myself away from the television screen and looking over to my all-knowing and terribly stoical grandmother for some sort of rational explanation. She only shook her head and walked back into the kitchen to finish washing the supper dishes. Perhaps the unbearable weight of her silence was the best response. It seemed the television news soley existed to demostrate just how powerless we all were when it came to influencing the ways of the world, and afterall, Vietnam was so very far away. What did one Buddhist monk matter in the overall scheme of things? The communists had to be stopped in their tracks, even if it meant tolerating a brutally repressive regime in the south. Well, at least that is what we were led down the garden path to believe. If you couldn't trust the American government, then who could you trust? How about your own instincts!
Brave New Millennium
Now that I am older, and hopefully wiser, I can use the Internet and my own cognitive thinking skills to come to a more informed understanding about that fateful broadcast in June of 1963 when black and white television forever and a day torched my innocence and tranquility of mind. I now have a computer and a coloured television set that dish up the news any hour or minute of the day, although my senses have been totally dulled by the sensationalized reportings of ongoing global atrocities. The Vietnam War has been over and not done with for a long while, and there are now other smaller wars going on that grab the limelight from time to time. Innocent people are still resorting to desperate measures out in the killing streets, and the war propagandists are churning out their usual hype, lies and doctored video tapes. In the name of this or that religion or political charter, people are still being tortured and ruthlessly exterminated in this brave new millennium of ours. Martyrdom is at an all time high, and has undoubtedly become a constant feed for hungry news departments trying to work their way up in the ratings game. Still, despite all the depressing news of the present day, the image of the burning monk continues to flash across that inward eye. I know now that it must be exorcised, that it has become a cancerous growth requiring the exalted skills of a dedicated surgeon. I shall be that surgeon, ironically with a little help from the almighty world press via various cyberspace links on the raging information highway ...
Venerable Thich Quang Duc
I have recently learned that the burning monk's name was Thich Quang Duc. It's not the sort of name that Westerners would find soothing to the ear, farless pleasing to pronounce. We here in the West don't warm up too quickly to foreign-sounding names, and Thich Quang Duc's name is about as foreign and discordant as any name can get; however, his carefully staged suicide was a media coup which definitely had a resonating influence on future political events in his country and around the world. The eventual fall of the blatantly corrupt Diem government was in many ways linked to Buddhist protests which were popularly supported by the South Vietnamese people. This elderly, astute Buddhist monk martyred himself in protest against the highly oppressive policies of the American-backed regime. Three other monks also immolated themselves in the same manner before Diem's goverment fell. Ngo Dinh Diem and his Vietnamese political allies were powerful Catholics who tirelessly discriminated against traditional Buddhists. Buddhist monks and nuns were being detained and tortured by Diem's secret police in the name of a higher cause, Christianity and the American Way. Buddhists were not allowed to teach or practice their own religion, and the traditional Buddhist flag of Vietnam was totally banned. The fiery incident at the busy Saigon intersection was the culmination of repressive events which began earlier in Hue during May of the same year, 1963. Nine protesting Buddhist monks died in Hue at the hands of overly aggressive government troops, but Diem turned around and blamed their deaths on the communists. The idea that the Americans would back such a brutally repressive government is now no longer news. Thich Quang-Duc was perhaps singularly responsible for turning many American television viewers against their own government's self-serving involvement in the Vietnam War. Horrifying television, newspaper and magazine images of the incinerating monk proved to be too powerful for the American war propaganda machine. It has been noted that Malcolm Browne's Pulitzer prize winning photograph of Quang-Duc's fiery demise, which ran in the Philadelphia Inquirer on June 12, 1963, was on President Kennedy's desk the very next morning. Browne's shocking portrait of a Buddhist monk's self-immolation in the faraway streets of Saigon was profoundly disturbing to Western viewers, who could not at first fathom the overall intent of such a seemingly senseless act.
It's only fair to admit that I was too young to grasp the political significance of such a desperate act when I witnessed Quang Duc's fiery martyrdom back in June of '63. Yet, even for a young person more concerned with the ending of another school year, I knew I was watching a historical event quickly unfolding. I immediately felt great sympathy for the frail monk's tragic action, and wondered what the world was coming to. I decided then and there that the war, all war, was wrong, and with the subsequent assassination of President Kennedy, I became very critical of the American Dream. Would you sit yourself down in the middle of a busy intersection, and have your friends pour gasoline over you so that you could sacrifice your life for a principle? I don't think so, as we here in the West are too greedy for life and material things to ever contemplate self sacrifice for a higher spiritual purpose. Many innocent lives were sacrificed in Vietnam, and I can recall other shocking television images that did not help America's cause during those tumultuous years that robbed me and others of our adolescence. Being Canadian, I never had to worry about being drafted, but thanks to television, the Vietnam conflict was constant fuel for contemplation. They say every picture tells a story, but certain stories have to be further told with words, words, words. May the gods bless you, Thich Quang Duc. Yours is truly an unforgettable fire that keeps on burning in the philosophical mind. Yes, yours is the eternal flame of all great spiritual beings. They say they enshirned your brave and sacred heart. How ironic in the Christian sense, and yet, how befitting a monk for all seasons. May I live to discover your buddha nature without ever having to strike a match in the same desperate fashion, for true heroes are very hard to find. Rest in peace. Om mani padme hum. Let the truth be the guide of man, for we all, the whole world over, could live with that. Yes, let us stand to your fire. When one is remembered, one's spirit never dies. Physicians, I have healed myself!
Letter of the Heart Blood
Before he sealed his fate, Thich Quang Duc wrote a letter to the Vietnamese people imploring them to unite and endlessly strive for the preservation of Buddhism in Vietnam and around the world. That letter has come to be known as the Letter of the Heart Blood. Ironically, a copy was entrusted to the care of the government of the day. You see, Quang Duc was no ordinary monk; in 1953, he was appointed Head of the Rituals Committee of the United Vietnamese Buddhist Congregation, a position that he held until the time of his self-immolation. No picture can tell the whole story, but it certainly can awaken an investigative mind in search of nothing but the truth!
Bodhisattva Thich Quang Duc
"The orange-robed monks and the grey-robed nuns appeared to be part of a quiet protest as they walked slowly down Phan-Dinh-Phung Street in Saigon on a hot June afternoon. Heading the procession was an automobile filled with monks. At the intersection of Phan-Dinh-Phung and Le-Van-Duyet streets the priests got out of the car and lifted the hood. It appeared that they were having engine trouble. The procession parted around the car as if to move on, but instead the monks and nuns formed a surrounding circle seven and eight deep. Slowly they began to intone the deep, mournful, resonant rhythm of a sutra. The priests in the auto walked to the center of the circle and seventy-three-year-old Thich Quang-Duc sat in the lotus position, a classic Buddhist meditation pose. Nuns began to weep, their sobs breaking the measure of the chant. A monk removed a five-gallon can of gasoline from the car and poured it over Quang-Duc, who sat calmly in silence as the gasoline soaked his robes and wet the asphalt in a small dark pool. Then Thich Quang-Duc, his Buddhist prayer beads in his right hand, opened a box of matches and struck one. Instantly he was engulfed in a whoosh of flame and heavy black smoke that partially obscured him from view. The chanting stopped. The smoke rose and, as the fierce flames brightened, Quang-Duc's face, his shaven skull and his robes grizzled, then blackened. Amidst the devouring flames his body remained fixed in meditation".
Above passage from Taking Refuge in L.A. by Rick Fields and Don Farber.
Quang Duc's sacred heart is kept intact in the Reserve Bank of Vietnam.
The Fall of Saigon
April 30, 1975
The war in Vietnam ended today as the government in Saigon announced its unconditional surrender to the Vietcong.
The President, Duong Van Minh, who has been in office for just three days, made the announcement in a radio broadcast to the nation early this morning. He asked his forces to lay down their arms and called on the Vietcong to halt all hostilities.
In a direct appeal to the Communist forces, he said: "We are here to hand over to you the power in order to avoid bloodshed."
The announcement was followed swiftly by the arrival of Vietcong troops. Their entrance was virtually unopposed, confounding predictions of a bloody and protracted last-ditch battle for the city.
Decades of War Come to an End
The front line of tanks smashed through the gates of the presidential palace within minutes, and at 1130 local time (0330 GMT), decades of war came to an end.
Vietcong troops, many barefoot and some no more than teenagers, rounded up government soldiers, and raised their red and blue flags. The looting which has ravaged the city over the last 24 hours stopped, and power was restored later in the day. Only the United States embassy remained closed and silent, ransacked by looters.
Saigon was immediately renamed Ho Chi Minh City. A statement by the Provisional Revolutionary Government, or PRG, in Paris, promised a policy of non-alignment, and the peaceful reunification of Vietnam.
The British government is now urgently reviewing the possibility of recognising the PRG. France has already recognised the new regime, and other Western countries are preparing to follow suit.
The capitulation of the South Vietnamese government came just four hours after the last frenzied evacuation of Americans from the city. President Ford, who has requested humanitarian aid for the Vietnamese, let it be known that he was proud to have saved what Vietnamese he could in the last, frantic helicopter evacuation.
But there is said to be deep humiliation in the United States government at the desperation and chaos of the final hours of America's presence in Vietnam.
The President ordered United States ships to remain indefinitely off the Vietnamese coast to pick up refugees: but even this gesture has been snubbed by the North Vietnamese, who have prevented any more refugees from fleeing.
In the immediate aftermath of the fall of Saigon, the Communist forces held victory parades and placed posters of Ho Chi Minh, the leader of the Viet Minh, on public buildings.
While most South Vietnamese were relieved at the end of the war, some who remained loyal to President Thieu committed suicide.
North and South Vietnam were reunified under communist rule in 1976. Ten years later, the government relaxed its regime, allowing elements of market forces and private enterprise to flourish.
There is still, however, opposition within the Vietnamese government to too much economic liberalisation.
In November 2000, President Bill Clinton visited Vietnam. It was hoped that this would be the culmination of US efforts to normalise relations with its former enemy.
Original source: BBC News - On This Day
edited @buddhavision 2006