Throughout much of history, religion has had a role to play in conflicts. It often has been used to legitimate violent acts, such as the brutal colonization of Latin America by the Spaniards, the Spanish Inquisition, or the Crusades, all done in the name of Catholicism. Religion also has often been the actual cause for conflict, as seen in the numerous wars in Europe following the Protestant Reformation. Many religious leaders and organizations, however, have protested vehemently against wars and all of the horrors associated with them, using a variety of different tactics. One case of this involves the Buddhists of Vietnam during the Vietnam War and self-immolation. Their goal was peace, and their method was fire.
Self-immolation is the voluntary destruction of one’s own body (in whole or in part) for religious reasons. Goossaert explains the reasons for doing this as being “mostly for transformation into a bodhisattva or Buddha, but also for more mundane aims, such as raising funds, thanking a patron, or conveying a political message.” The methods for destruction usually involve fire, such as burning a part of an arm or finger, but there have been cases of self-immolation by drowning or allowing wild animals to attack. Fire is the most common method, however, probably due to the spectacular nature of it (Goosaert).(Image retrieved from Daum and Curran)
The most famous case of self-immolation in Vietnam was also the first associated with the crisis that culminated in what is known as the Vietnam War. Thich (Venerable) Quang Duc, a Buddhist monk, doused himself in gasoline and lit himself on fire in Saigon on June 11, 1963. He was surrounded by approximately 700 other monks and nuns, as well as media he had invited. This resulted in Malcolm Browne’s famous photograph and sparked worldwide indignation (Daum and Curran).
Thich Quang Duc’s self-immolation was an act of protest against the suppression of Buddhist religious leaders and their followers by the minority Catholic government in South Vietnam, led by President Ngo Dihn Diem. In August, 1963, two months after Quang Duc’s self-immolation, President Ngo Dihn Diem declared martial law and began raiding Buddhist pagodas. Due in large part to Quang Duc’s act, international opinion had taken a turn for the worse in regard to the government in South Vietnam. Thus, when South Vietnamese security officials asked President John Kennedy what the U.S. response to a coup d’état would be, he decided there would be no repurcussions. President Ngo Dihn Diem regime fell and he was assassinated in November, 1963 (John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum).
Self-immolation by Buddhists would continue as an act of protest throughout the Vietnam War. While Buddhist monks would discourage people, both publicly and privately, from using self-immolation to further the cause of peace, they held those who went through with it on a pedestal as martyrs who had sacrificed themselves for a worthy cause. Cases of self-immolation even spread to American protestors as the war progressed.
Many of those who sacrificed themselves left notes, allowing a glimpse into the reasoning behind such a drastic measure. Nhat Chi Mai, who burned herself alive in 1967, wrote an open letter to the government of the U.S.A. Part of the letter reads, ““I offer my body as a torch to dissipate the dark, to waken love among men, to give peace to Vietnam, the one who burns herself for peace. I am only an ordinary Vietnamese woman, without talent or ability. But I feel pain every time I look at the situation of my country. I want to say that the empty words you have been using, ‘to defend freedom and happiness for Vietnam’, have lost all their meaning…” Nguyen Tuong Tam, burning himself in 1963, wrote a letter that exemplified how desperate many of these Buddhists were. ““History alone will be my judge. The arrest and trial of all nationalist opponents of the regime is a crime which will force this nation into the hands of the communism. In protest against this, I take my life” (Park).
Self-immolation blends the concepts of religion, politics, and desperation together in one drastic, spectacular measure. Each individual did it for reasons of varying emphasis on each concept until finally making the decision to take their own life. This shows that protests against the war and U.S. involvement were not limited to college campuses in the United States. They were on the very streets soldiers were fighting to control, and they were often seen globally. Religion still had a role to play in that conflict, and it appears it will have a role for years to come.
Daum, P. S., & Curran, T. (2011). Thichquangduc. InEncyclopedia of the vietnam war: A political, social, and military history. Retrieved from http://search.credoreference.com.www.libproxy.wvu.edu/content/entry/abcvw/thich_quang_duc/0
Goossaert, V. (2009). Burning for buddha: Self-immolation in chinesebuddhism (review). Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, 69(1), 221-225. Retrieved from http://muse.jhu.edu.www.libproxy.wvu.edu/journals/harvard_journal_of_asiatic_studies/v069/69.1.goossaert.html
Park, B. C. B. (2004). Sociopolitical contexts of self-immolations in vietnam and south korea. Archives of Suicide Research, 8(1), 81-97. doi: 10.1080/ 13811110490243796
Vietnam, diem, the buddhist crisis. (n.d.). Retrieved from http://www.jfklibrary.org/JFK/JFK-in-History/Vietnam-Diem-and-the-Buddhist-Crisis.aspx