The Symbol of Fire in the Self-Immolation of the Century

The symbol of fire is far more profound than the fire itself”  

     The West saw the Vietnamese monk burn through the lens of an American’s camera. The atrocities of June 10, 1963 brought another morning of piercing tension between the Roman Catholic government of Ngo Dinh Diem and the Buddhist contingent. The Xa Loi Buddhist Pagoda held a memorial march for the monks who died in recent attacks on temples. The government blamed these attacks on the Communists. Such allegations were not uncommon during the country’s “Buddhist Crisis.” (1) For months, South Vietnam’s repressive West-imposed regime had been pouring chemicals on praying protesters, outlawing Buddhist iconography and showering monks with bullets and grenades. The divide between remembrance and protest was already blurring when the procession walked from a temple to a crowded intersection. There was a collective pause. A wide circle was formed in the street and a monk, Thich Quang Duc, sat in the center.. Three younger monks carried a can full of gasoline out of a nearby car and poured the liquid on their elder like holy water. Color added to later reproductions of the scene show the sea of yellow robes, the light blue car, the black tar – those undefined pieces of background otherwise left ambiguous. However, there was never any doubt of the flame’s color, lit by Quang Duc himself. He blazed, both in depiction and in life, without moving a muscle.

     Unseen, but very much present, was the photographer. He was insignificant before the flame, armed with only a camera and a late-night whisper via telephone that “something important was going to happen.” Amidst the wailing in the street and the silence from the burning man, he took three shots.

     The fire caught the wind, in the image that is most famous today, like a phoenix leaving its human body behind, a few carbon-burned breaths away from the inevitable.

     And then, as it was printed fifteen hours later in an Associate Press office after traveling 9,000 miles of AP WirePhoto Cable, the world received the final image of a man’s dark silhouette surrounded by flame in a sunlit street.

     Quang Duc was on the cover of millions of printed papers slapped down on Saturday morning tables. His act was beyond conception, beyond communication to the West. It required debate, discussion, and yet no words could be found to describe the event depicted. It was a sacrifice, a protest, a tradition that the American public could not even imagine.

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      The image made the West pause. The West looked twice, imagining that the flames flickered when they blinked. And then again. They saw not the face of a terrorist peering out from the flames, but a face of something more terrifying: something that walked the line between peaceful and violent self-sacrifice. This was no bomb or Viet Cong. There was only a man who sat down in a square and lit the final match, a sacrifice in flame. Had it been another society or another time, it would have been another story: understandable, fanaticism, or just late night news. But instead, this was the Vietnam War Era, and animage had the potential to ricochet around the American mind. There was much at stake with this picture’s interpretation, the way in which western synapses connected the dots. So it was obsessively misinterpreted.

      First, the photographer became the hero. Quang Duc did not burn himself so Malcolm Browne could take a photograph, but it was Browne’s side of the story, the photographer as a representative of the viewer, that became the caption beneath this shot. So Browne represented this event. He won the World Press Photograph Award for it in 1963. It is his quotes that appeared in articles about Quang Duc, quotes like: “I just kept shooting and shooting and shooting and that protected me from the horror of it, the smell of the burning flesh, the expression of anguish, he never cried out, but his face…”

     And then, after finding a foothold of reductionism, the public boiled down the image to the manageable terminology of the time: namely, ‘Nam. Multiple copycats sprouted in the U.S., undergoing self-immolation in the interest of furthering the monk’s protest of the American war in his homeland. Browne’s image, on the President’s desk the morning after its publication, is credited with influencing Kennedy’s decision to increase the manpower in Vietnam. That increase led to a repetition of self-immolations in the region, up to thirteen in one week. Today, Quang Duc’s image is used in textbooks to supplement information about the Vietnam War, and has even been commodified as an album cover by Rage Against the Machine.

     But this was all a misunderstanding. We got it wrong. This picture was outside of the Western social construct of suicide, protest, and sacrifice, and thus decontextualized in its interpretation.

     The Vietnam War was a Western problem, and Western solutions were part of the issue the Buddhists were protesting against. It was an American-supported government that was repressing religions other than Catholicism, and self-immolation was a historical religious response to similarly dire circumstances. Now, the American assumption that these self-immolations were completely about them was an ethnocentric act. To some, it struck the same vein as a suicide bomber – something about self-immolation hurt them, no matter how far they were from the flame. To others, this was a glorified version of swinging from a noose, another form of on high jumping with an audience. But what divides all these acts from self-immolation is their intention. Quang Duc, as a Buddhist, was a man of intention. He understood that sometimes “sacred violence” inflicted by oneself upon oneself removes pain from the world, the inverse of the suicide bomber’s act. Sometimes a practical act, extreme or not, achieves a spiritual end, not a suicidal one. Sometimes, in order to save a suffering community, such as those repressed under the Vietnamese Catholic Republic of 1963, one must be an offering. The action in this photograph, labeled by the West as “The Ultimate Protest,” goes against its Western interpretation because of its deeply rooted Buddhist tradition. It is, perhaps the purest protest against a society that would misconstrue a culture for its own understanding, because Quang Duc’s act was self-referential. It did not attack his enemies, but still made them feel powerless.

     Perhaps this image transfixes us because it is not as isolated as the monk’s posture would suggest. Quang Duc comes from a religious tradition of martyrs, particularly in the areas of modern India and China, dating back to centuries before most of the West’s ancestors had adopted religions. Self-immolation was once a common religious act, particularly popular in the ninth and tenth centuries amongst Chinese Buddhists. Most of the recorded burnings were not politically religious or religiously political. Many of the ancient motives involved an expression of faithfulness and thankfulness to the Buddha, a compensation for their debt in connection to the ideal of alms-giving, or else as an expression of dislike for their bodies as a representation of worldly life. As Bernard Faure, Kao professor of religion at Columbia University, suggests of 6th century China: “If one does not burn one’s body, one’s arm or one’s finger as an offering to the Buddha, one is not Bodhisattva.” Bodhisattva is a practice in which one delays the achievement of Nirvana to relieve the suffering of others: Quang Duc’s intent. There are an abundance of canons and biographies of eminent monks that record instances of self-immolation, mostly inspired by doctrines such as the Lotus Sutra, in which the monk Bhaisajyaraja learns that mental concentration can lead to one manifesting in all forms. The fire that destroyed Bhaisajyara’s body lasted for 1,200 years, and his disdain for his body inspired many for its long-lasting effect, its long-burning flame. The Lotus Sutra is still read today as a positive incident, an achievement of “Bodhisattvahood”. He is as close to a hero as any being can get in Buddhist culture.

     Ultimately, it was another type of selfless action with a higher spiritual aim, like abstaining from food until death, classified by Chinese-Buddhist scholars as ‘wang-shen’ or ‘yi-shen,’ to abandon or lose the body. Alternatively, suicide is believed to be caused by an inability to handle suffering and is condemned without qualification. But, Self-immolation is not suicide because, through it, one cannot and is not trying to avoid suffering. Rather, they are transcending it. While modern Western cultures are very attached to the material, these ancient traditions have maintained their time-honored disdain for the mundane.

      Quang Duc’s act was religiously motivated protest, a sacrifice of himself for the sake of changing the world’s balance for the better. Though the West attempted to put his act into a political context, unable to see beyond an Occidental concept of justice, Quang Duc identified only as a Buddhist, a religious being without the confines of country-centric politics. His act was a holy reaction to external forces, deeply connected to the soteriology of self-sacrifice. It was meant to be a cure for the world’s violence, an act in homage to the Dharma, the principle of cosmic order. By surrendering himself, the wrongs of “the Buddhist Crisis” could be made right, and his people could transcend circumstance for greater religious expression.  The West’s interpretation was a desire to understand but not be blamed. It was a desire to be involved with the news, the frontline and the powerful picture on our Saturday morning breakfast table. But Quang Duc saw himself  part of something other than that. His belief gave him the knowledge few have.

     Quang Duc knew how quickly the human body burns when the flames are unhindered. At a temperature of 120 degrees Fahrenheit or higher, the skin first becomes red with swells, and then the swells quickly become blisters that bubble before peeling open. The body begins to char before turning white. The damage spreads into the lower layers of skin, underlying fat, then muscle and then bone. After this point, if the flame continues, there is no going back. It is this power, this knowledge, this act of undergoing flame that is more significant than all interpretations, than every attempt to understand.

     When we read between the lines of articles about Quang Duc, we are still removed because we were not there and we are not of his mind. We cannot hear the wailing of Quang Duc’s fellow monks, even as they lay down before fire engines to prevent their approach. We both try and hate ourselves for trying to imagine the smell joss sticks that were burned to appease the ancestors and how their smoke mixed with diesel, gasoline and charring skin. We obsess over the accounts how the monks brought out a makeshift, wooden coffin and filled it with all that was left of Quang Duc, his heart, which did not burn. We “Google” the shrine where it is kept. We stick his last moments in textbooks and t-shirts, trying to understand what could bring a man to strike a final match. But we cannot fully understand it. It is not even our place to understand it. It is an event that signals to us across a cultural gulf that we invaded. It becomes something we secretly wish was in the context of our society, so we could be vindicated, validated and transcend. But it is not our picture to frame, and that in and of itself is a comment upon our own nature. We focus on the physical photograph rather than the act itself. But, it becomes the self-immolation of the century because the West elevated it, because we obsessed and tried to give ourself agency against a violent, peaceful protest and because we cannot sit to be burned, we forget the relevance of the act. We can simply glance away from the photograph.

Notes 

  1. A period of religious and political tension in South Vietnam, characterized by repressive government actions and a campaign of civil resistance, largely led by Buddhist monks. (Adam Roberts, ‘Buddhism and Politics in South Vietnam’, The World Today, Royal Institute of International Affairs, London, vol. 21, no. 6, June 1965, pp. 240–50.)

Works Cited

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Gambetta, Diego. Making Sense of Suicide Missions. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2005. Print.

Kelly, B. D. "Self-immolation, Suicide and Self-harm in Buddhist and Western Traditions." Transcultural Psychiatry 48.3 (2011): 299-317. SAGE Journals. Web.

King, Sallie B. "They Who Burned Themselves for Peace: Quaker and Buddhist Self-Immolators during the Vietnam War." Buddhist-Christian Studies 20 (2000): 127-50. Project MUSE. Web.

@NBCNewsPictures. "Burning Monk Photo: How a Moment Became Breaking News in 15 Hours." Photoblog. NBC News, 11 June 2015. Web.

Sanburn, Josh. "A Brief History of Self-Immolation." Time. Time Inc., 20 Jan. 2011. Web.

Worth, Robert F. "How a Single Match Can Ignite a Revolution." The New York Times 11 Jan. 2011: n. pag. Web.

Yang, Michelle Murray. "Still Burning: Self-Immolation as Photographic Protest." Quarterly Journal of Speech 97.1 (2011): 1-25. Taylor & Francis Online. Web.