THE SELF-IMMOLATION of THICH QUANG DUC
June 11, 1963, in Saigon, Vietnam, a Buddhist monk, Thich Quang Duc immolated himself in a busy intersection. The following is an excerpt taken from my Manufacturing Religion, pp. 167-177, which discusses this incident.
Representing Vietnamese "Self-Immolations"
The often-occluded relations among power, imperial politics, and the specific portrayals of religious issues is perhaps no more apparent than in the case of the interpretations American media and intellectuals gave to the much publicized actions of several Vietnamese Buddhists who, beginning in mid-June of 1963, died by publicly setting themselves on fire. The first of these deaths occurred at a busy downtown intersection in Saigon, on 11 June 1963, and was widely reported in American newspapers the following day, although the New York Times, along with many other newspapers, declined to print Malcolm Browne's famous, or rather infamous, photograph of the lone monk burning (Moeller 1989: 404). The monk, seventy-three-year-old Thich Quang Duc, sat at a busy downtown intersection and had gasoline poured over him by two fellow monks. As a large crowd of Buddhists and reporters watched, he lit a match and, over the course of a few moments, burned to death while he remained seated in the lotus position. In the words of' David Halberstam, who was at that time filing daily reports on the war with the New York Times,
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 burning 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. (1965: 211)
After his funeral, where his remains were finally reduced to ashes, Quang Duc's heart, which had not burned, was retrieved, enshrined, and treated as a sacred relic (Schecter 1967: 179).
In spite of the fact that this event took place during the same busy news week as the civil rights movement in the United States was reaching a peak (with the enrollment of the first two black students at the University of Alabama and in the same week as the murder, in Jackson, Mississippi, of the civil rights leader Medgar Evers), as the week progressed, Quang Duc's death and the subsequent demonstrations associated with his funeral were covered by the American media in greater detail. From the small initial article on page three of the New York Times on 12 June that reported the death accompanied only by a photograph of a nearby protest that prevented a fire truck from reaching the scene, the story was briefly summarized and updated on page five the next day and then was moved to the lead story, on page one on 14 June 1963, accompanied by the following headline: "U.S. Warns South Vietnam on Demands of Buddhists: [South Vietnamese President] Diem is told he faces censure if he fails to satisfy religious grievances, many o which are called just." The story, no longer simply involving the actions of a lone Buddhist monk but now concerned with the official U.S. reaction, remained on page one for the following days, was reported in greater detail by Halberstam in the Sunday edition (16 June 1963), and was mentioned for the first time in an editorial column on 17 June 1963, one week after it occurred. By the autumn o that year, the images of either protesting or burning monks had appeared in a number of popular magazines, most notably Life Magazine (June, August, September, and November issues).
In spite of the wide coverage this event received in newspapers and the popular presses, it seems puzzling that it received relatively little or no treatment by scholars of religion. Apart from a few brief descriptions of these events in an assortment of books on world religions in general (such as Ninian Smart's World's Religions, where it is interpreted as an "ethical" act [1989: 4471) or on Buddhism in Southeast Asia, only one detailed article was published at that time, in History of Religions, written by Jan Yiin-Hua (1965). This article was concerned with examining the medieval Chinese Buddhist precedents for Quang Duc's death, a death that quickly came to be interpreted in the media as an instance of self-immolation, or selfsacrifice, to protest religious persecution of the Buddhists in South Vietnam by the politically and militarily powerful Vietnamese Roman Catholics. According to such accounts, the origin of the protests and, eventually, Quang Duc's death, was a previous demonstration, on 8 May 1963, in which government troops aggressively broke up a Buddhist gathering in the old imperial city of Hue that was demonstrating for, among other things, the right to fly the Buddhist flag along with the national flag. The government, however, took no responsibility for the nine Buddhists who died in the ensuing violence at that time, blaming their deaths instead on Communists. Accordingly, outrage for what the Buddhists considered to be the unusually violent actions of the government troops at Hue was fueled over the following weeks, culminating, according to this interpretation, in Quang Duc's sacrificial death.
Given that the event was generally acknowledged by most interpreters to be a sacrifice, an essentially religious issue, it is no surprise that the central concern of Jan was to determine how such actions could be considered Buddhist, given their usually strict rules against killing in general, and suicide in particular. In his own words, these actions "posed a serious problem of academic interest, namely, what is the place of religious suicide in religious history and what is its justification?" (243). The reader is told that the monks' motivations were "spiritual" and that their self-inflicted deaths were "religious suicides," because "self-immolation signifies something deeper than merely the legal concept of suicide or the physical action of self-destruction" (243). Given that the event is self-evidently religious (an interpretation that is based on an assumption that is undefended), the question of greatest interest has little to do with the possible political origins or overtones of the event but rather "whether such a violent action is justifiable according to religious doctrine" (243). It seems clear that for this historian of religions, the action can only be properly understood-and eventually justified-once it is placed in the context of texts written by Chinese Buddhist specialists from the fifth century C.E. onward (e.g., the Biographies of Eminent Monks by Hui-chiao [497-554 C.E.] and the Sung Collection of Biographies of Eminent Monks by Tsan-ning [919-1001 C.E.]). Jan's concern, then, is to determine whether these actions were justifiable (something not properly the concern of scholars of religion) exclusively on the basis of devotee accounts, some of which were written over one thousand years before the Vietnam War.
After a survey of these texts, the article concludes that these actions are indeed justifiable. Basing his argument on changing Chinese Buddhist interpretations of self-inflicted suffering and death, Jan finds a "more concrete emphasis upon the practical action needed to actualize the spiritual aim" (265). Accordingly, these actions largely result from the desire of elite devotees, inspired by scriptures (255), to demonstrate great acts of selflessness (acts whose paradigms are to be found in stories of the unbounded compassion and mercy of assorted bodhisattvas). The closest Jan comes to offering a political interpretation of any of these reported deaths is that the "politico-religious reasons" for some scriptural instances of self-immolation are "protest against the political oppression and persecution of their religion" (252).
In terms of the dominance of the discourse on sui generis religion, this article constitutes a fine example of how an interpretive framework can effectively manage and control an event. Relying exclusively on authoritative Chinese Buddhist texts and, through the use of these texts, interpreting such acts exclusively in terms of doctrines and beliefs (e.g., self-immolation, much like an extreme renunciant might abstain from food until dying, could be an example of disdain for the body in favor of the life of the mind and wisdom) rather than in terms of their socio-political and historical context, the article allows its readers to interpret these deaths as acts that refer only to a distinct set of beliefs that happen to be foreign to the non-Buddhist. And when politics is acknowledged to be a factor, it is portrayed as essentially oppressive to a self-evidently pure realm of religious motivation and action. In other words, religion is the victim of politics, because the former is a priori known to be pure. And precisely because the action and belief systems were foreign and exotic to the vast majority of Americans, these actions needed to be mediated by trained textual specialists who could utilize the authoritative texts of elite devotees to interpret such actions. The message of such an article, then, is that this act on the part of a monk can be fully understood only if it is placed within the context of ancient Buddhist documents and precedents rather than in the context of contemporary geopolitical debates. (And further, that the ancient occurrences of such deaths can themselves be fully understood only from the point of view of the intellectual devotees [i.e., Buddhist historians].) That the changing geopolitical landscape of South Asia in the early 1960s might assist in this interpretation is not entertained. It is but another instance of the general proscription against reductionism.
Such an idealist and conservative interpretation is also offered by several contributors to the Encyclopedia of Religion. Marilyn Harran, writing the article on suicide (Eliade 1987: vol. 14, 125-131), agrees with Jan's emphasis on the need to interpret these events in light of doctrine and in the light of spiritual elites. She writes that although religiously motivated suicide (an ill-defined category that prejudges the act) "may be appropriate for the person who is an arhat, one who has attained enlightenment, it is still very much the exception to the rule" (129). And Carl-Martin Edsman, writing the article on fire (Eliade 1987: vol. 5, 340-346), maintains that although death by fire can be associated with "moral, devotional, or political reasons," it can also be "regarded as promoting rebirth into a higher existence as a bodhisattva, an incipient Buddha, or admittance to 'the paradise' of the Buddha Amitabha" (344). In a fashion similar to the exclusive emphasis on the insider's perspective, and having isolated such acts in the purer realm of religious doctrine and belief, Edsman immediately goes on to assert that the "Buddhist suicides in Vietnam in the 1960s were enacted against a similar background; for this reason-unlike the suicides of their Western imitators-they do not constitute purely political protest actions" (344). The "similar background" of which he writes is the set of beliefs in a pure land, compassion, selflessness, and so on, all of which enable Edsman to isolate the Vietnamese deaths from issues of power and politics. Because similar deaths in the United States took place' without the benefit of, for example, a cyclical worldview and notions of rebirth, and the like, he is able to conclude that the U.S. deaths by fire may have been political. For Edsman, the doctrinal system of Buddhism provides a useful mechanism for interpreting these acts as essentially ahistorical and religious.
Some will no doubt argue that, if indeed the discourse on sui generis religion was at one time dominant, it no longer is. Even if one at least acknowledges that the study of supposedly disembodied ideas and beliefs is interconnected with material issues or power and privilege, it is easy to banish and isolate such involvements to the field's prehistory, its European, colonial past, in an attempt to protect the contemporary field from such charges (recall Strenski's attempt to isolate interwar European scholarship as a means of protecting the modern profession). To rebut such isolationist arguments, one need look no further than Charles Orzech's 1994 article, "Provoked Suicide," to find this discourse in its contemporary forma form virtually unchanged since jan's article was published some thirty years ago. Like Jan, Orzech attempts to overcome the "huge cultural gulf that separated the observer from those involved" (155) by placing Quang Duc’s tradition of what Orzech terms the "self-immolation paradigms" (149) as well as the many other stories of selfless action one finds throughout the mythic history of Buddhism (e.g., from the jataka tales, the story of the bodhisattva who willingly gives up his life to feed the hungry tigress). Also like Jan, Orzech is concerned to answer one of the questions often asked about these apparently puzzling Vietnamese Buddhists' actions: "whether 'religious suicide' was not a violation of Buddhist precepts condemning violence" (145). Using Rene Girard's theory of sacrificial violence, Orzech answers this question by recovering a distinction he believes to be often lost in the study of Buddhism: its sacred violence as well as its much emphasized nonviolent aspect (for a modern example of the latter emphasis, see the essays collected by Kraft ).
For our purpose, what is most important to observe about both Jan's and Orzech's reading of Quang Duc's action is that in neither case are historical and political context of any relevance. In both cases, it is as if the burning monk is situated in an almost Eliadean ritual time, removed from the terrors of historical, linear time-a place of no place, where the symbolism of fire is far more profound than the heat of the fire itself. For example, in his interpretation of the early selfimmolation tales, Orzech explicitly acknowledges that "(al)though little context information is available to us, it is clear that in each case the sacrifice is performed as a remedy for an intolerable situation" (154, emphasis added)--clearly, social and political contexts are of little relevance for authoritatively interpreting timeless ritual or religious actions. Several lines later, when he addresses Quang Duc's death directly, Orzech effectively secludes and packages this particular event within its insider, doctrinal, and mythic context, by noting that the "politics are complex, and I will not comment on them now" (154). At no point in his article does he return in any detail to the geopolitics of mid-twentieth-century Vietnam; instead, Quang Duc's actions are exclusively understood as "sanctioned by myth and example in Buddhist history" and as reworked, reenacted Vedic sacrificial patterns (156). Assuming that mythic history communicated through elite insider documents provides the necessary context for ultimately interpreting such actions, Orzech is able to draw a conclusion concerning the actor's motivations and intentions: "Quang Duc was seeking to preach the Dharma to enlighten both Diem and his followers and John Kennedy and the American people" (156); "As an actualization of mythic patterns of sacrifice it [the self-immolation] was meant as a creative, constructive and salvific act, an act which intended to remake the world for the better of everyone in it" (158). Simply put, Quang Duc's death is an issue of soteriology.
In both Jan's and Orzech's readings, as well as those of Harran and Edsman cited earlier, the death of Quang Duc has nothing necessarily to do with contemporary politics. In fact, it appears from the scholarship examined here that to understand this death fully requires no information from outside of elite Buddhist doctrine whatsoever. In all four cases-much as in the case of the comparative religion textbooks examined earlier-the discourse on sui generis religion effectively operates to seclude so-called religious events within a mythic, symbolic world all their own, where their adequate interpretation needs "little contextual information." For example, in all these studies, Quang Duc is never identified as a citizen of South Vietnam but is understood only as a Buddhist monk, a choice of designation that already suggests the discursive conflict I have documented. In other words, from the outset, the parameters of the interpretive frame of reference are narrowly restricted. Quang Duc is hardly a man acting in a complex sociopolitical world, in which intentions, implications, and interpretations often fly past each other. Instead, he is exclusively conceptualized as a transhistorical, purely religious agent, virtually homologous with his specifically religious forebears and ancestors. It is almost as if Thich Quang Duc--the historical agent who died on 11 June 1963, by setting himself on fire at a busy downtown intersection in Saigon--has, through the strategies deployed by scholars of sui generis religion, been transformed into a hierophany that is of scholarly interest only insomuch as his actions can be understood as historical instances of timeless origin and meaning.
However, it is just as conceivable that for other scholars, the death of Thich Quang Duc constitutes not simply "spiritually inspired engagement" but a graphic example of an overtly political act directed not simply against politically dominant Roman Catholics in his country but also at the American-sponsored government of South Vietnamese President Ngo Dinh Diem. This alternative framework, one that recognizes the power implicit in efforts to represent human actions, is best captured by Catherine Lutz and Jane Collins:
Coming to political consciousness through the period of the Vietnam War, we were acutely aware of the power of photographic images to evoke both ethnocentric recoil and agonizing identification. Malcolm Browne's famous photo of a Buddhist monk's self-immolation in Saigon was profoundly disturbing to Western viewers, who could not fathom the communicative intent of such an act. (1993: 4)
According to Paul Siegel, this event constituted an act of protest against the Vietnamese government "which was carrying on a war of which they [the Buddhists] were profoundly weary" (1986: 162). The distance between these two readings is great indeed. On the one hand, one finds representations varying from the Diem government's own press release that, according to the New York Times, maintained that the event was an example of "extremist and truth-concealing propaganda that sowed doubt about the goodwill of the Government" (12 June 1963), to the Times' and Orzech's (1994: 154) portrayal of the protest as being against the specifically religious persecution of the Buddhists by the powerful Roman Catholics. On the other hand, however, one can question the relations between the presence of Christianity in South Vietnam and European political, cultural, military, and economic imperialism in the first place as well as question the relations between Diem's government and his U.S. economic and military backers. To concentrate only on the specifically religious nature and origins of this protest, then, serves either to ignore or, in the least, to minimalize a number of material and social factors evident from other points of view using other scales of analysis.
Concerning the links between Christianity and European imperialism in Southeast Asia, it should be clear that much is at stake depending on how one portrays the associations among European cultures, politics, religion, and the ever increasing search for new trading markets. For example, one can obscure the issue by simply discussing an almost generic "encounter with the West," where "the West" stands in place of essentially religious systems, such as Judaism and Christianity (for an example, see Eller 1992). Or one can place these belief and practice systems within their historical, social, and political contexts-a move that admittedly complicates but also improves one's analysis. For instance, in practice, the presence of Christianity was often indistinguishable from European culture and trade. This point is made by Thich Nhat Hanh, in his attempt to communicate the significance of Quang Duc's death for his American readers. Much of his small book, Vietnam: Lotus in a Sea of Fire (1967), is concerned with contextualizing this event by placing it not simply in a religious but also in its wider historical, social, and political framework. Accordingly, of great importance for him is not simply to identify elements of Buddhist doctrine for his reader but to clarify early on that, since its first appearance in Vietnam in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, Roman Catholicism has always been "closely associated with white explorers, with merchants, and ruling classes"-specifically with the explorers, traders, and cultural and political elites of France between the years 1860 and 1945 (1967: 15). Whether intentional or not, the exportation of Christianity throughout the world brought with it new people, new architecture, new languages, new legal and ethical systems, new styles of dress, new economic arrangements, new trading goods, and so on, all based on the standards of large, powerful, and distant European countries. Because of these interrelated issues, it is inaccurate and misleading to understand Christian missionaries exclusively in terms of what may very well have been their good intentions. Such missionaries were part of a complex and interrelated system or bloc of power relations, all of which presupposed that the other was in desperate need of European-style education, economies, technologies, trade, wisdom, and, ultimately, salvation. To understand missionaries as somehow removed from this system of power would be to inscribe and protect them by means of the sui generis strategy. Without the benefit of such a protective strategy, however, it is easily understood how, at least in the case of Vietnam, the popular belief arose that Christianity was the religion of the West and "was introduced by them to facilitate their conquest of Vietnam." As Thich Nhat goes on to conclude, this belief "is a political fact of the greatest importance, even though [it] may be based on suspicion alone" (20).
It is completely understandable, therefore, that Thich Nhat takes issue with circumscribing these provocative actions that took place in Vietnam in the early 1960s as essentially sacrificial, suicidal, and religious. In his words,
I wouldn't want to describe these acts as suicide or even as sacrifice. Maybe they [i.e., the actors themselves] didn't think of it as a sacrifice. Maybe they did. They may have thought of their act as a very natural thing to do, like breathing. The problem [however,] is to understand the situation and the context in which they acted. (Berrigan and Thich Nhat Hanh 1975: 61)
The context of which Thich Nhat Hanh writes is not simply the context of mythic self-immolation paradigms so important to other scholars but the context of Vietnamese meeting Euro-American history over the past several centuries. Emphasizing this context, Thich Nhat's remarks make it plain that insomuch as sui generis religion plays a powerful role in dehistoricizing and decontextualizing human events, the very label by which we commonly distinguish just these deaths from countless others that took place during the Vietnam War-for example, "religious suicide"--is itself implicated in the aestheticization and depoliticization of human actions. What is perhaps most astounding about Thich Nhat Hanh's comments is that, despite the discourse on sui generis religion's tendency to limit scholarship to the terms set by religious insiders (recall Cantwell Smith's methodological rule), Thich Nhat Hanh -most obviously himself an insider to Vietnamese Buddhism-is the only scholar surveyed in this chapter whose remarks take into account the utter complexity of human action as well as the many scales of analysis on which participants and nonparticipants describe, interpret, understand, and explain these actions.
That the death of Quang Duc had a powerful influence on the events of 1963 in South Vietnam is not in need of debate. It has been reported that Browne's photograph of Quang Duc burning, which ran in the Philadelphia Inquirer on 12 June 1963, was on President Kennedy's desk the next morning (Moeller 1989: 355). And virtually all commentators acknowledge that the imminent fall of the Diem government was in many ways linked to the Buddhist protests and their popular support among the South Vietnamese. In the least, most commentators would agree that the deaths had what they might term unforeseen or indirect political implications. The question to be asked, however, is just what is at stake for secluding politics to the margins of these otherwise self-evidently religious events.
As should be evident, depending on how one portrays this historical event, one thing that is at stake is whether it could be construed as having possible causes or direct implications for American political and military involvement in the escalating war or whether, as many commentators seem to assume, it was: (1) a localized Vietnamese issue, Of (2) an essentially religious nature, which (3), due in large part to the Diem government's mishandling of the protest and its unwillingness to reach a compromise with the Buddhists, only eventually grew from a local religious incident into an international political issue. The event is thereby domesticated and managed. As the children's literary critic Herbert Kohl has convincingly demonstrated, in the case of the surprisingly homogeneous and depoliticized school textbook representations of the events surrounding the 19551956 Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott, the story is truncated, presented completely out of context, and portrayed as the single act of a person who was tired and angry. intelligent and passionate opposition to racism is simply not part of the story. [In fact, often] there is no mention of racism at all. Instead the problem is unfairness, a more generic and softer form of abuse that avoids dealing with the fact that the great majority of White people in Montgomery were racist and capable of being violent and cruel to maintain segregation. Thus [in the dominant textbook account of this event] we have an adequate picture of neither the courage of Rosa Parks nor the intelligence and resolve of the African American community in the face of racism. (1995: 35)
The very act of representation, in both the cases of the Buddhist death and the bus boycott, acts to defuse what might otherwise be understood as the tremendous sociopolitical power of the events and acts in question. In the case of the self-immolations, the image of the monk burning has by now become so decontextualized that it has been commodified; it is now a consumer item in popular culture. For example, the photograph appears on the cover of a compact disk for the alternative rock music group Rage Against the Machine.
Although both the example of the Montgomery bus boycott and the Vietnamese deaths arise from dramatically different historical and social contexts, both actions are clearly part of an oppositional discourse that is today communicated to us through, and therefore managed by, the means of dominant discourses school textbooks in one case, and as a mechanism for selling both scholarly privilege and expertise as well as a Sony Music product in another. Therefore, it should not be surprising that, in both cases, we find strategies that effectively package these actions in a decontextualized and delimited fashion. It is in this precise manner that the strategies of representation that constitute the discourse on sui generis religion are complicit with such larger issues of cultural, economic, and political power and privilege. One way to support this thesis further would be to examine carefully media, government, and scholarly interpretations of other specific historical episodes and demonstrate the ways in which it may have been economically, socially, or politically beneficial for a specifiable group to portray events as essentially and exclusively religious rather than, say, political or military. The example of what was widely termed the self-immolation-a term that from the outset does much to isolate the event as being exclusively concerned with issues of religious sacrifice--of Vietnamese Buddhists is a particularly useful example, because it seems that there was, and may yet be, a great deal at stake, economically, politically, and militarily, in the interpretation and representation of these events.
Another example well worth study would be the interpretations given to the practice of suttee or, the practice of a woman following her deceased husband to his funeral pyre, for only within an interpretive system founded on sui generis religion and which privileges the insider's account could such a practice evade contemporary feminist analysis. As van den Bosch has recently argued, the "question whether the custom [of suttee] should be regarded as religious depends upon the definition of religion within this context" (1990: 193 n. 76). In other words, one of the primary differences between the frameworks that represent this practice as, on the one hand, an example of pious female religious duty that embodies lofty motives (as suggested by Tikku 1967: 108) and, on the other, an instance of institutionalized misogyny is primarily the assumption of the autonomy of religious life from social and, in this case, specifically gendered ideology (van den Bosch 1990: 185). As already suggested, the deaths of the Buddhists could be seen as a statement either against American-backed imperialism and war or simply against the localized persecution of one religious group by another, all depending on the scale of the analysis. If the former, then the repercussions of the event strike deeply not only in Vietnam but in the United States as well. If only the latter, then the problem is isolated, it remains in Saigon, and it is up to the decision makers in Washington simply to distance themselves from Diem's mishandling of the episode. Washington's decisions are then based on reasons varying from declining public opinion in the United States, once the images reach the popular media, to the realization that in fact Diem did not represent the majority of South Vietnamese and therefore was the wrong leader to back in the war against the North (this is the dominant theme of the Times editorial on 17 June 1963). Clearly, there are practical and political advantages and disadvantages depending on which of the two above intellectual interpretations is favored. Furthermore, it is intriguing that there exists a general correspondence between the interpretations offered in the New York Times and those offered by scholars of religion. Although differing in many ways, it appears that both are part of a complex system of power and control, specializing in the deployment of interpretive strategies-the politics of representation.
Southwest Minnesota State University
Source: http: //www.smsu.edu/relst/