Thich Quang Duc: Monk on Fire 

The Self-Immolation of Thich Quang Duc

On June 11, 1963 amidst what became known as the “Buddhist Crisis” a Vietnamese Mahayana Buddhist monk known as Thich Quang Duc self-immolated (committed sacrificial suicide) at a busy intersection in Saigon. While Malcolm Browne’s Pulitzer Prize winning photo of Thich Quang Duc during self-immolation is one of the most famous and powerful photographs to this day, many people do not know what led the monk to end his life in protest.

Thich Quang Duc

Thich Quang Duc was born as “Lam Van Tac” in 1897 in Hoi Khan in the Van Ninh District, Khanh Hou province of Vietnam to Lam Huu Ung and Nguyen Thi Nuong. One of several children, Thich Quang Duc left his family at the age of eight to begin studying Buddhism under his uncle and spiritual master, Hoa Thuong Thich Hoang Tham, who raised him as though he were his own son. When Thich Quang Duc was fifteen, he took his Samanera (novice) vows and changed his name to Nguyen Van Khiet. At twenty he became an ordained monk and was given the name “Thich Quang Duc”. “Thich” (short for “Thich Ca”) is the surname given to all Mahayana Vietnamese Buddhist monks and nuns. The name means “Sakya” and indicates they are “sons of Sakyamuni the Buddha”. “Quang Duc” is a Dharma name which is traditionally chosen by one’s spiritual leader and is descriptive of the person’s admirable attributes. Once he became an ordained monk, Thich Quang Duc chose to travel to a mountain near Ninh Hoa to live in solitude; Afterwards, he opened the Thien Loc pagoda near the mountain on which he had spent three years as a hermit. In 1932 Thich Quang Duc was appointed as an inspector of monks for the Buddhist Association in Ninh Hoa, later being appointed as inspector to his home province of Khanh Hoa. Duc devoted two years to studying the traditions of Theravada Buddhism in Cambodia. He spent much of his life spreading the teachings of Buddhism throughout southern Vietnam and in his lifetime, was responsible for the construction of 31 Buddhist temples; One of them being the Quan The Am pagoda in the outskirts of Saigon. The street the temple sits on is now named after Thich Quang Duc in honor of his work and the sacrifice he made for the Buddhist population through self-immolation.

Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem

Vietnam’s first President, Ngo Dinh Diem was a devout Roman Catholic who took office in 1955. While the Roman Catholic minority had long been favored by French colonists in the area, Diem was well-known for severely persecuting the Buddhist population within the country. At the time, 70%-90% of the population was Buddhist and had been suffering mass discrimination during Diem’s presidency. Many Roman Catholic priests had formed their own armies which were instructed to brutalize the Buddhist population and force them to convert their religion under threat. The government refused to intervene while Buddhist pagodas were being looted and destroyed by these Catholic troops. The Buddhist flag had been banned in Vietnam and on May 8, 1963 during a protest regarding the ban, nine unarmed Buddhist protestors were shot and killed by government guards in the city of Hue. While Ngo Dinh Diem blamed communist terrorists, it was perfectly clear he had a hand in the shootings. On June 10 a spokesperson for the Vietnamese Buddhist population quietly informed a U.S. journalist covering the Buddhist Crisis that “something important” would happen the next day on the road outside the Cambodian Embassy in the city of Saigon. Three-hundred and fifty Buddhist monks and nuns carrying protest banners marched down the street that day while Thich Quang Duc and two other monks rode in a car.

The car Thich Quang Duc rode in to his June 11, 1963 self-immolation.

Once they were near the busy Saigon intersection, Thich Quang Duc and his companions exited the car as the protesters surrounded them in a protective circle. One monk placed a cushion in the road for Thich Quang Duc to sit on. He sat on the cushion in the lotus position before taking out his wooden holy beads and chanting, “Nam mo A di da Phat”, a prayer to Amida Buddha.

 One of the monks accompanying him retrieved a 5 gallon petrol can from the vehicle and began to douse Thich Quang Duc in petroleum. After the prayer was finished, Thich Quang Duc self-immolated with the aid of another monk who lit the match.

 David Halberstam, who witnessed the event wrote, “I was to see that sight again, but once was enough. Flames were coming from a human being; his body was slowly withering and shriveling up, his head blackening and charring.

 In the air was the smell of human flesh; human beings burn surprisingly quickly. Behind me I could hear the sobbing of the Vietnamese who were now gathering. I was too shocked to cry, too confused to take notes or ask questions, too bewildered to even think…

 As he burned he never moved a muscle, never uttered a sound, his outward composure in sharp contrast to the wailing people around him.”.

It took approximately 10 minutes for the 66-year-old monk to completely self-immolate. Once the fire that had consumed Thich Quang Duc began to burn out, monks covered his smoldering body in yellow robes and placed his corpse inside a wooden coffin. The monks were unable to straighten his charred body; One arm protruded from the coffin as his remains were carried to the Xa Loi pagoda.

 Astoundingly, despite being “re-cremated” at his funeral, the heart of Thich Quang Duc remained unscathed and was placed in a glass chalice where it, along with his ashes, remained at the Xa Loi pagoda. Photos of Thich Quang Duc’s self-immolation circulated the world, putting more pressure on President Ngo Dinh Diem to reform his policies as he had previously promised the citizens of Vietnam.

  American President John F. Kennedy commented on the photo saying, “No news picture in history has generated so much emotion around the world as that one.” Still, the Buddhist Crisis of Vietnam continued. In August of 1963 Diem arrested over 1,000 Buddhists in the cities of Hue and Saigon and conducted massive raids on Buddhist pagodas including Xu Loi. During the raid, two monks managed to escape with the urn containing the martyred monk’s ashes. Unfortunately, Duc’s heart was confiscated by government forces. Many Buddhist monks across Vietnam were killed, others chose to join Duc in self-immolation to ensure their death would matter. Finally, on November 2, 1963 a coup was staged on President Ngo Dinh Diem and his brother/advisor, Ngo Dinh Nhu, who many believe may have been behind most of the anti-Buddhist policies across Vietnam.  After being arrested and promised safety in return for their surrender, Diem and Nhu were assassinated in the back of a truck while being transported to military headquarters. It began when Nhu was stabbed with a bayonet 15-20 times by one of the arresting officers (who Nhu had been insulting during transport) while the truck was stopped at a train crossing.

Body of President Ngo Dinh Diem after his assassination.

Diem was then shot in the head with a revolver at point-blank range. When it was noticed Nhu was still barely clinging to life, he too was shot in the head and killed. The assassinations of President Diem and his brother, Nhu, proved to be a huge turning point in the Vietnam War. Before his self-immolation, Thich Quang Duc documented his final thoughts in a letter, “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 [meaning “association”/”community” in Sanskrit and usually referring to ordained monks and nuns] and the lay Buddhists to organize in solidarity to make sacrifices to protect Buddhism.”.

The heart of Thich Quang Duc

Thich Quang Duc’s heart was recovered and is now kept in the Reserve Bank of Vietnam; It is considered to be a holy relic. Due in part to the miraculous preservation of Thich Quang Duc’s heart, he was deemed a Bodhisattva, “Enlightened Being”.

The following is news footage of the Buddhist Crisis in Vietnam and the self-immolation of Thich Quang Duc on June 11, 1963 in Saigon. If you only wish to watch the self-immolation, skip to 6:00 minutes.
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