Did a Monk Burning Himself Help End the Vietnam War?

Last week, I put up an article on this blog expressing my opinion that Buddhism is not about politics. Individual Buddhists can be as political as they want, I said. But I do not believe that Buddhism itself should be mixed with politics.

Every time I post an article saying something like this, someone inevitably responds by posting a picture of that monk who burned himself to death in Vietnam. I guess this is to show me how a real Buddhist behaves when it comes to politics. I wish people would be more imaginative. I’ve seen that awful and terrifying photo a lot in the past year.

But is that monk setting himself on fire an example of Buddhist political action?

Before I studied up on the incident, I imagined that monk burned himself in protest against the horrors being ravaged upon his country during the Vietnam War — in large part by the United States.

I assumed that he saw villages being burned, little children fleeing from napalm attacks, thousands dying in bloody rice paddies, charred and broken bodies rotting in the streets. I believed that this one heroic monk decided to take the greatest stand he could against all of that misery and death by doing to himself what American and Vietnamese soldiers were doing to the people of his country.

I thought his self-immolation was part of the larger tide of protest against the Vietnam War. I thought that his death at his own hands was one of the many brave acts of resistance that finally forced the United States to withdraw from Vietnam and brought an end to all that carnage. He took the ultimate stand against suffering, I thought.

I was wrong. That’s not what happened at all.

Thich Quang Duc burned himself alive on a street in Saigon on June 11, 1963. He was 67. None of that horror had happened yet. In fact, far from ending the war in Vietnam, his ugly public suicide may have been a significant factor in starting it.

Duc was not protesting the Vietnam War — which, again, had not happened yet — but persecution of Buddhists by the South Vietnamese government under the leadership of its then-president Ngo Dinh Diem. Diem was part of a Catholic minority that emerged when Vietnam was under French rule. While Diem was president, Buddhists were treated unfairly and discriminated against by the government. Catholics were favored with tax concessions, promoted in the army over Buddhists, and favored for government contracts.

Many Buddhists converted to Catholicism to escape from economic hardships and there were even stories of forcible conversions. In mid-1963, during a mass protest mounted by Buddhists on the day of Buddha’s birth, the Vietnamese army opened fire on a crowd and nine unarmed people were killed.

Duc’s response to this unfair and sometimes brutal treatment of Buddhists was to burn himself alive in public.

This was not a spontaneous act undertaken by a single person, but a carefully planned and coordinated effort with Duc’s entire temple cooperating to get as much publicity as possible. They alerted the domestic and international press, telling reporters exactly where and when to be when “something important” happened and the monks and nuns turned out en masse to watch and participate.

Then-US President John F. Kennedy had previously favored the Diem regime, but changed his policy after seeing the photos of Duc’s suicide taken by journalist Malcolm Browne.

Kennedy’s response was to back a coup against Diem’s government. Diem was overthrown on November 1, 1963 and executed the following day. South Vietnam then experienced several other military coups as various factions battled for supremacy. The US got more involved. The Chinese got involved. And everything went to hell.

It’s never correct to say any single incident started a war. There were a lot of factors leading up to the conflict that lasted ten years and claimed the lives of 58,000 Americans and over three million Vietnamese.

But Thich Quang Duc’s grisly suicide was a significant turning point in what led to the United States becoming deeply involved in the fighting. Had Duc chosen to protest in another way, history might have been very different. Things were really bad in Vietnam already. But other spiritual leaders have dealt effectively with oppressive regimes without burning themselves alive in the street.

Perhaps the Vietnam War was inevitable, but Duc’s public suicide certainly played an important role in making it happen the way it did, particularly in terms of US involvement.

Given all of this, it is now impossible for me to see Thich Quang Duc as a hero. His suicide no longer seems to me like an act undertaken by a Buddhist follower of the Middle Way of avoiding extremes who was moved by deep compassion into taking a brave political stand.

Duc’s nightmarish suicide has also caused many who are otherwise unfamiliar with Buddhism to believe that killing oneself is considered acceptable or even honorable to Buddhists. It is not.

Suicide is considered by most Buddhists to be an act of violence leading to bad karmic consequences. Human life is precious and rare. Buddhists say that to be born as a human is the highest form of birth one can take. To throw any human life away is a terrible transgression. An act of violence upon oneself is as wrong as an act of violence toward someone else.

I also see this story as a cautionary tale about dramatic and violent political actions.

As in every aspect of life, the bigger the action, the bigger the response. You never know the outcome of anything you do. But you can be guaranteed that the larger and more public the action, the greater will be its unpredictable response. The more violence you put in, the more violence you can expect to get out.

Thich Quang Duc’s suicide does not seem to me to be an example of proper Buddhist political action. Rather, it seems to me to be perhaps one of the best examples of why Buddhism should not be conflated with politics.


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