What could be the most extreme but nonviolent form of protest that one could do to hopefully bring your message out there for as many people, especially those in power, to be heard? Of course, some would probably conduct a rally out on the streets? But, in this modern time, perhaps they could create and spread an online petition, something that could easily reach many people all over the globe.

In 1963, during the Vietnam War, one Buddhist monk decided to do something more than those when he protested against the government for the discrimination the Buddhists were receiving.

Discontent for the Biased Government

Vietnam is, no doubt, a Buddhist country. From as early as the first or second century CE, Buddhism had been practiced by the ethnic Vietnamese from the Indian subcontinent or China. During the Vietnam War, the majority of the country practiced Buddhism as their religion, around 70 to 90 percent. However, then-president Ngo Dinh Diem was a member of the Catholic minority in the country, which should not have been an issue until he decided to set discriminatory policies in favor of the Catholics in terms of public service and military promotions. He also had the same bias regarding land allocation, business arrangements, and tax concessions. As a result, officers of the Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN) started converting to Catholicism, worried about their military prospects.

Ngo Dinh Diem
Ngo Dinh Diem. (Department of Defense. Department of the Air Force. NAIL Control Number: NWDNS-342-AF-18302USAFCropping by User: PFHLai, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

When weapons were distributed to village self-defense militias, those who were Buddhists were denied receiving firearms, and Buddhists in the army were also denied promotion unless they converted to Roman Catholicism. Buddhists would also need official permission first to conduct public Buddhist activities.

Meanwhile, Catholic people were benefiting from the president’s bias: Some priests ran their private armies used to loot, shell, and demolish pagodas in some areas. Although unofficially, Roman Catholics were exempted from corvee labor, something that all citizens were obliged to perform. Aids sent by the United States were also disproportionately distributed to most Catholic villages. The white and gold flag of the Vatican was regularly flown at all major public events in South Vietnam, and in 1959, Diem dedicated the country to the Virgin Mary.

The peak of the discontent was when in early May, the Buddhists were banned from flying the Buddhist flag in Hue on Vesak, which was the birthday of Gautama Buddha. Days before that, Catholics were encouraged to raise their Vatican flag during a celebration for Diem’s elder brother, Archbishop Ngo Dinh Thuc.

A large crowd of Buddhists gathered and marched on the government station to protest the ban, defying the government order by flying their Buddhist flags on the Buddhist holy day of Vesak. In response, the government forces open fired into the crowd and killed nine people. However, Diem did not take responsibility and instead blamed the Viet Cong. That prompted Mahayana Buddhist monk Thích Quang Duc to do his extreme act of protest.

Day of Protest

On June 10, 1963, US correspondents were told that something important would happen the following day on the road just outside the Cambodian embassy in Saigon. The Buddhist crisis, at that time, had been going on for a month, so most reporters disregarded the message. The next day, only a few journalists turned up, David Halberstam of The New York Times and Saigon Bureau Chief for the Associated Press, Malcolm Browne, who took the photos.

Thích Quang Duc arrived shortly as part of a procession that started at a nearby pagoda. Three hundred fifty monks and nuns denounced the Diem government and its unfair policies with him.

At the intersection of Phan Đình Phùng Boulevard and Lê Văn Duyệt Street, which was just a few blocks from the Presidential Palace at that time, Duc arrived in a car, together with two other monks. One placed a cushion on the road while another opened the trunk and took out a petrol can.

The protesters formed a circle around him as he calmly sat in the traditional Buddhist meditative lotus position on the cushion. He was then doused in petrol. Finally, all the five-liter content emptied over his head.

Duc took his string of wooden prayer beads and said, “Nam mô A di đà Phật,” which translates to “homage to Amitābha Buddha.” He then struck a match and dropped it on himself, flames immediately consuming his robes and flesh, black oily smoke coming from his burning body. Duc sat calmly still.

Thích Quảng Đức's self-immolation during the Buddhist crisis in Vietnam.
Thích Quảng Đức’s self-immolation during the Buddhist crisis in Vietnam. (Malcolm Browne for the Associated Press, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

The people around him were stunned. Some began to cry, and the others started praying. Then, on a microphone, one monk repeatedly said in English and Vietnamese, “A Buddhist priest burns himself to death. A Buddhist priest becomes a martyr.”

After about ten minutes, Duc’s body was engulfed in the fire until it toppled backward. When the fire subsided, they covered his body with yellow robes, picked him up, and carried him to the nearby pagoda in central Saigon. His body was then re-cremated, although they took his heart and placed it in a glass chalice at Xa Loi Pagoda, regarded as a symbol of compassion.

Heart of Thich Quang Duc
Heart of Thich Quang Duc, which remained intact after self-immolation and cremation, and taken by Buddhists to be a sign of compassion. (Wikipedia)

Before his self-immolation, Thích Quang Duc left a letter. He said,

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“Before closing my eyes and moving towards the vision of the Buddha, I respectfully plead to President Ngo Dinh Diem to take a mind of compassion towards the people of the nation and implement religious equality to maintain the strength of the homeland eternally. I call the venerables, reverends, members of the sangha and the lay Buddhists to organize in solidarity to make sacrifices to protect Buddhism”.

Self-Immolation

A memorial to Thích Quảng Đức in HCMC
A memorial to Thích Quảng Đức in HCMC. (Nguyễn Thanh QuangCC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons)

Duc’s act shocked the Western public, although self-immolation had been a practice of Vietnamese monks throughout the centuries, usually to honor Gautama Buddha. As defined by The Journal of Indian and Asian Studies,

Self-immolation refers to ascetic Buddhist practices that include the voluntary termination of one’s life or the offering of parts of one’s body usually by setting oneself ablaze. In both the Northern (Mahāyāna) and Southern (Theravāda) Buddhist traditions, self-immolation has been considered a heroic bodhisattva act to end one’s life with a spiritual motivation and strong sense of determination.

After Duc, five more Buddhist monks self-immolated until October 1963 as the protests escalated. Finally, on November 1, Diem was overthrown by the ARVN in a coup.