Saturday, June 19, 2010

Saigon suicide or supreme renunciation?

My unintended hiatus from blogging has been extraordinarily unsatisfactory. While I can certainly continue to write posts, I am hampered because I don’t have access to my image library until I purchase a new laptop and have my data from my old laptop transferred. My preference is to accompany my posts with images I made, photographs I took. I know I could get an external drive and just have the hard drive from my former unit removed, a route I may eventually take should I take much longer in determining what laptop to purchase. But today, I have a subject and I have an image (not my image, mind you).

As I have mentioned in the past, I have been reading the Lotus Sutra, the Leon Hurvitz translation. Along with this, chapter by chapter, I have been reading Thich Nhat Hanh’s, “Peaceful Action, Open Heart: Lessons from the Lotus Sutra.” Today I read the chapter “The Former Affairs of the Bodhisattva Medicine King.”

Thich Nhat Hanh’s commentary on this chapter revealed something to me I had not known, and that is the Vietnamese monk who self immolated on a Saigon street in 1963 did so based on this particular chapter of the Lotus Sutra. For years this riveting image troubled me. Why would a Buddhist monk commit suicide? Because that is how I, and I imagine many others, viewed this act – suicide.

The monk’s name was Thich Quang Duc, with whom Thich Nhat Hanh had a personal relationship. Thay, a familiar name used to address Thich Nhat Hanh, had studied with Thich Quang Duc and had for a time stayed at the monk’s temple. But before detailing the background leading to this spectacular act, an image that spread throughout the world nearly as quickly as the flames spread about and consumed the monk’s body, let’s examine the root of this seemingly desperate action.

This chapter describes how the bodhisattva Seen with Joy by All Living Beings transforms into the Medicine King Bodhisattva. Thay’s description of Seen with Joy by All Living Beings as being someone who brings joy and happiness to others just by his presence includes the suggestion that we probably all know or have encountered such a person before. When I read that, I immediately thought of my late Uncle Alvin. As a child, I remember seeing him with others and regardless of whether it was an adult or a young child, everyone he met smiled and was happy.

This bodhisattva studied with the Buddha Pure and Bright Excellence of Sun and Moon and came to realize a state of deep concentration in which he understood clearly that his body was just one of many bodies he would have. Contemplation of the body as body is one of the key parts of the meditative practice with the goal of understanding that “I am not my body, my body is not me; body is just body.” While on one level I understand this idea, I have not “realized it.” Seen with Joy by All Living Beings did realize this ultimate truth and, using supernatural powers, he made many offerings to the Buddha Pure and Bright Excellence of Sun and Moon. But after this, Seen with Joy by All Living Beings decided he would make a final offering of his own body through self-immolation, before which he made this vow:

“Those buddhas who cough or who make a sound by snapping their fingers are informing all this world and this world sphere in all 10 quarters. These and other miraculous qualities do they show who have compassion for the world, thinking, ‘Now how shall they joyfully bear this scripture at that time, when the Well Gone One is at peace? For many thousands of millions of cosmic ages will I speak the praises of the sons of the Well Gone Ones, who shall bear the supreme scripture when the leader of the world is at peace.’”

As Seen with Joy by All Living Beings’ body slowly burned, it sent a light throughout the world. The gist of all this is that the Buddha Pure and Bright Excellence of Sun and Moon was so pleased that he said he would leave this world to enter Nibbana and that Seen with Joy by All Living Beings would take his place as the Medicine King Bodhisattva.

Fast forward to Vietnam circa 1963. Thich Nhat Hanh reports in his book, “Peaceful Action, Open Heart,” that Thich Quang Duc had been writing many letters to the government in Saigon to end its persecution of Buddhists. Despite Vietnam being overwhelmingly Buddhist, its president at that time, Dihn Diem, was a Catholic, a relic of the days when Vietnam was a French colony. President Dihn Diem had banned celebration of Vesak, the Buddha’s birthday. Christmas, instead, was declared a national holiday. Despite his many peaceful attempts to persuade the government to rescind its edict, Thich Quang Duc was rebuffed. On June 11, 1963, he sat down on a busy Saigon street, poured gasoline over his body, and in a serene meditative pose, he lit a match.

In a few months, Diem was ousted in a military coup. Of course, not all was well again in Vietnam as there were many bloody years still ahead. But reporting of Thich Quang Duc’s act was so quickly spread around the world others noticed, perhaps for the first time, that the people in a small country in Southeast Asia were suffering.

A person who commits suicide does so out of desperation; it is a selfish act to relieve oneself of his or her own personal suffering. Thich Nhat Hanh explains that Thich Quang Duc’s act was not selfish, but done for the benefit of others, out of compassion for the suffering of his countrymen. For most of us, this concept is probably difficult to grasp. I know it is difficult for me. But on some level, I get it.

And yet, when I think about Thich Quan Duc and what he did, and then think about my own practice and my own understanding of the Dhamma, I am acutely aware of how I am so like an infant; a whore for sensual pleasure, so easily distracted by the ephemeral enticements of this world.


  1. Hello Richard, it’s nice to see you post again.

    It’s been awhile since I read Thich Nhat Nanh’s account of this event, so I don’t recall his reasoning for why Thich Quang Duc’s self immolation was not a selfish act. It had an immediate impact due mainly to its shock value, and it still lingers to some extent, but in the long run, I wonder if he could have been of more benefit to his cause, and to the world, if he had lived. How many people could he have helped? How many individual consciousnesses could he have raised?

    There is a line in the 16th chapter of the Lotus Sutra that goes, “Single-mindedly yearning to see the Buddha, they do not begrudge their lives.” Some translations have this as “they do not hold their lives dear” or “not caring for their own lives.” I prefer “begrudge” because it has the connotation of “To give with reluctance,” so then to not begrudge your life, means to not hold back, to live to the fullest measure, to never stop, never give up, etc. This, to me, is the opposite of ending one’s life in an act of self-sacrifice out of desperation over a cause or situation that in the short run seems futile.

  2. Hi David, thanks for the comment!

    In many ways I agree with you. So much of the Lotus Sutra, IMO, is sheer fantasy, pure allegory. And in the case of Seen with Joy by All Living Beings, he was already beyond the the "saha" world, was no longer constrained by mundane reality, so his "sacrifice" of his body, which I guess burned for a heck of a long time, is more metaphorical than literal.

    Which is why, I suppose, I prefer the Pali canon to the Sutras, because the Pali texts to me speak more directly to real life.