As World of Wonder writer Trey Speegle posted yesterday, a man lit himself on fire near the White House on Wednesday afternoon and he was caught on video appearing to calmly stroll through a park before cops extinguished the flames. The man, identified as Arnav Gupta from Bethesda, died later Wednesday night. Whether this act might have been politically motivated is not clear. The Fox News website where I read the account, was followed by comments from supporters of POTUS who all declared that more Democrats should pour gasoline on themselves and strike a flame. Because, you know, they are Pro-Life.
The Buddhist Crisis (Biến cố Phật Giáo) was a period of political and religious tension in South Vietnam between May and November 1963, characterized by a series of repressive acts by the South Vietnamese government and a campaign of civil resistance, led mainly by Buddhist monks.
The crisis really came to a head with the shootings of nine unarmed civilians on May 8 in the central city of Huế who were protesting a ban on Buddhist flags.
On June 11, 1963, Thích Quảng Đức sat down in lotus position at a busy intersection in Saigon, doused himself with gasoline, lit a match and then burned to death.
This spectacular public act of self-immolation protesting the South Vietnamese government’s persecution of Buddhists sent shock waves throughout the Western world, despite the American government’s assurances that all was going just swell with the Vietnam War. The burning body of Quảng Đức continues to be one of the most vivid and iconic photographic images of the 20th century.
European colonists supported French-Indochina’s minority Roman Catholic population and had passed several laws discriminating against those dreadful Buddhists. In the wake of France’s withdrawal, the Buddhist position worsened under Ngô Đình Diệm, the devout Roman Catholic despot and American puppet. Diệm blamed the killing of Buddhists on “Communist terrorists”.
Buddhist leaders demanded an end to religious oppression. Diệm refused. On June 10th, a spokesperson for the Vietnamese Buddhists privately informed American journalists that “something important” would happen the next day on the road outside the Cambodian embassy in Saigon. The few reporters who showed up witness an elaborate ceremony as 350 Buddhist monks and nuns marched carrying protest banners. Quảng Đức placed a cushion on the road. As the marchers formed a circle around him, Quảng Đức chanted a prayer to the Buddha before striking a match. He remained composed amid the flames.
The unprecedented television coverage of the Vietnam War brought the brutal realities of war into the USA living rooms for the first time. I had terrible fights over the war with my father at my family’s dinner table. But few images would shock the world more than Thích Quảng Đức’s suicide-protest. My mother begged me to stop studying the photograph.
President John F. Kennedy stated that “no news picture in history has generated so much emotion around the world as that one”. Many Americans viewed Quảng Đức’s act as proof that Vietnam lacked that most cherished of all American liberties: Freedom of Religion. The world’s outrage forced U.S. officials to fear that it would lead to the end of their hand-picked regime’s reign and the American effort to combat communism in Asia.
The planet’s displeasure could not compel Diệm to end his persecution or even meet with the Buddhists. Diệm used troops to arrest and imprison thousands of Buddhists in Saigon. Protests spread. Quảng Đức’s self-immolation was followed by similar acts. People around the world began to question a regime that would oppress the peaceful Buddhists and provoke such shocking sacrifice.
Our own government found it increasingly difficult to continue to support the man they had placed in power. President Kennedy demanded that Diệm end the crackdown on the protests or find a way to stop them once and for all. Diệm refused, outrageously claiming yet again that communist infiltration lay behind the Buddhist protests. The American people lost patience. On November 1, 1963, the CIA orchestrated a coup against a no-longer-useful Diệm. He was assassinated the very next day.
Thích Quảng Đức was deemed a “Bodhisattva”, an enlightened being who delays nirvana to help those in need. His heroic act precipitated the end of Diệm’s oppressive reign, and the regimes that came after, even the godless Communists pledged to accommodate the Buddhists.
Quảng Đức’s heart, which miraculously survived the immolation intact, is held as a holy relic for Buddhists.
The photograph is by Malcolm Browne. Browne, a New York Quake was given a Pulitzer Prize for it. He died in summer 2012 of complications from Parkinson’s.