It’s a very well known image in my circle of friends and I’ve little doubt that most of my generation are quite familiar with it too. Way back in 1992 Rage Against the Machine brought out their self-titled album and the image this was displayed on the front cover. Since then it’s become symbolic of the legendary metal band, but who can say they actually know anything about the man on fire in the… ahem, not so subtle image?
The first time I saw it I was about 12 years old and I was literally stunned. Speechless because I’d never seen anything like it in my life. I actually remember the feeling I had at the time and I’d never felt that kind of compassion before and not as strongly since. What I didn’t realise then and many now still don’t either is that this is actually a real photo of a real man…burning to his death and not a stuntman in a suit or some kind of photoshop forgery.
The burning man was a Vietnamese monk who in 1963 self-immolated only a hop skip and a jump from Sai Gon’s centra District 1. This image was famously circulated at the time and became re-introduced to a younger generation this time but it still carried the same underlying message that monk was proving. It still had to ability to shock and rattle the millions who saw it in the early 90’s as much as it had almost 30 years before.
In the early sixties big changes were seriously overdue in Vietnam, both North and South. One crucial change in the South was in regards
to the horrible treatment of it’s Buddhists, who while being the vast majority of population, had been under persecution for years by the devout catholic Prime Minister, Ngô Đình Diệm. His twisted dictatorship out-muscled them with their political power, guns and military which at this stage had been supported by both the French and Americans for many years already in ‘The War Against Communism’.
Months of torment resulted in the Buddhist Crisis of 1963 and the monks knew that whatever they did to defend themselves, the act had to be effective and worthy of global media coverage and support.
On June the 10th a memo was released locally to foreign journalists and local media stating that the day after there was to be a big political demonstration involving all the monks from the Southern Buddhist Headquarters (who resided at Xa Loi Pagoda, Saigon). At the time, few journalists paid attention or took it seriously because every day they were being faced with similar warnings of more and more important protests.
The next day a small crowd including a few prospective journalists had gathered at the busy intersection, at the arranged time. They were standing on the pavements in view of the then Cambodian Embassy and only a block away from the monk’s pagoda, Xa Loi.
After people were about to go home out of frustration, a pale blue car pulled up, a sixty-six year old monk got out of the back seat and walked to the middle of the road. He simply sat down on a pillow and began to meditate while his fellow worshippers systematically formed a wide circle around him. Any other movement on the street had stopped and there was a deafening silence as another calm monk came in from the circle and poured a drum of petrol over his friend. At this stage crowds starting to shout and try to push past security in an attempt to stop him. It was too late. Thích Quảng Đức while chanting a loud prayer, was seen striking a match before his body become engulfed in a fireball .
By-standers and journalists alike were left in silent awe for a few moments. No-one had predicted a scene like this to unfold. Tears then streamed from the crowds eyes as piercing cries of horror broke the previous silence. The dedicated believers suddenly dropped to their knees in prostration and prayer. Witnesses say his chants could still be heard as thick, black and pungent smoke started to waft over them. For the next ten minutes he continued to burn and his lifeless body remained seated in the lotus position until it finally fell backwards. At this stage several monks rushed in, doused the flames and then covered his body with cloaks.
Final words in a letter left by Thích Quảng Đức:
“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 organise in solidarity to make sacrifices to protect Buddhism.”
Thích Quảng Đức’s remains were taken directly to the Xa Loi Pagoda and in the coming weeks, he was re-cremated at a funeral service on the outskirts of the city but amazingly his heart was still intact after the cremation. It was returned and placed at the pagoda, to be admired and seen as a symbol of compassion.
Sadly, within a month the pagoda was stormed by Diem’s special forces, who confiscated the ‘heart’ and it was never seen again. The South Vietnamese Government wasn’t going to allow this ‘old fools’ self-sacrifice be celebrated or glorified and in any way to be used to inspire others future revolts.
Needless to say that the actions of Thích Quảng Đức that day were instantly transmitted across our globe and eventually forced important changes. It didn’t stop the war, but it finally forced J.F.K to back away from supporting the tyrannical ways of Diệm and they instantly demanded he make swift changes to policies, particularly to the one regarding the treatment of his own people. After an initial agreement with the Americans, the changes never came and in November that year Prime Minister Diệm and his Chief Advisor (who was also his brother) were assassinated in a U.S. backed coup. Perhaps not coincidentally, J.F.K was then chillingly assassinated three weeks later.
Thích Quảng Đức’s death is now still inspiring others in ways that he could never had imagined. His legacy lives on in the countless streets, memorials and temples named in his honour. He is a often a figure of worship and all Vietnamese are taught about what he did and why he deserves respect. Who knows what might have become had his death not happened the way it did? The most fitting memorial to him is at the intersection where he had tragically died. Its only a short walk or bus ride up the busy Cach Mang Tang Tam Street from District 1 and I recommend it as an absolute must-see for anyone’s trip to Ho Chi Minh City who’s into history.
I must admit to, it’s also a fitting cover for a great album whose band and lyrics are always ‘waking’ people up to injustice and encouraging them to both question and give demands to their governments. The cover of this CD doesn’t represent the band at all for me anymore but the ideas behind the original selfless act.
I commend you Rage Against the Machine and the respect you have for fighters of social justice.