One of the world’s most powerful, infamous photographs of all time is the news agency photograph of the self-immolation of 73-year-old Thich Quang Duc in Saigon, South Vietnam.
It was June 11, 1963. At a busy intersection in downtown Saigon, Thich Quang Duc seated himself in the lotus meditation pose. Two fellow monks then poured gasoline onto him. A crowd of citizen bystanders and news reporters had gathered, then witnessed as the monk lit a match and ignited himself. Moments later, he burned to death.
Photographs were shot by Malcolm Browne. Many of them were flashed through the news wire services and appeared as front page images in newspapers across the globe. Later, President John F. Kennedy said, “No news picture in history has generated so much emotion around the world as that one.”
The monk’s action symbolized the frustration of Vietnamese Buddhists about the suppression and activity against Buddhists by the Catholic regime of Ngo Dinh Diem. The incident escalated tensions between the CIA sponsored Diem government and Washington. A plot had been in the works by some of Diem’s generals and advisors to overthrow the government. In November, those men were personally responsible for Diem’s ousting and death.
The self-immolation and some more immolations that followed Quang Duc’s death along with the resulting political aftermath received great coverage by the world press. Aside from very superficial commentary by scholars and authors, there has been very little analysis by philosophical and religious experts about the incident. Most, rightly attributed the act as a continuing protest by the Buddhist minority against the politically and militarily powerful Vietnamese Catholic church.
Historians have forgotten that Thich Quang Duc’s actions were the result of the previous month’s activities by the Vietnamese government. On May 8, 1963, soldiers attacked a Buddhist meeting that was advocating for the right to fly the Buddhist flag alongside the Vietnamese national flag. The self-immolation was partially interpreted by experts as a religious sacrifice.
Quang Duc was born in 1897, as Lam Van Tuc in the village of Hoi Khanh in central Vietnam. The boy left home to study Mahayana Buddhism at the age of seven. At the age of 15 he took his novice vows. Then, when he turned 20, he was ordained as a monk and was given his Dharma Name Thich Quang Duc. At that time he traveled to a nearby mountain to live as a solitary, practicing hermit for the next three years.
When Quang Duc returned to society, he was appointed inspector for the Buddhist Association in his home province of Khánh Hòa. He moved to southern Vietnam in 1937 to spread the Buddhist teachings. He also spent two years on retreat in Cambodia to study the Theraveda Buddhist traditions. It was during this period that he oversaw the construction of 31 new temples in Vietnam.
Following the temple building phase, he was appointed as Chairman of the Panel on Ceremonial Rites of the Congregation of Vietnamese Monks. He was also appointed to serve as abbot of an important area pagoda.
At the time, Vietnam had about an 85 percent Buddhist majority population. President Ngo Dinh Diem belonged to the Catholic minority. He promoted discriminatory policies in favor of Catholics and against Buddhists in all areas of life. These included service and military promotions, land allocation, business deals, and tax policy.
Many Catholic priests had their own private armies. Those armies looted, and bombed villages and demolished pagodas. Several Buddhist villages were forcibly converted to Christianity to avoid resettlement by the Diem regime. In addition, foreign aid from the United States to the CIA sponsored Diem government was disproportionately distributed to Diem’s favorite Catholic villages.
It was at this time that Diem’s ban on flying of the Buddhist flag on Buddha’s Birthday, in May, was enforced. It was the last straw for the oppressed majority. The time had come for the ultimate religious protest. The press was notified of a planned, major event. The next day, the senior monk set himself alight.
The Blue Jay of Happiness honors the sacrifices of five more Buddhist monks in the aftermath.