The Suicide Felt Around The World

On June 11, 1963, a Buddhist monk named Thích Quang Duc was among the procession of approximately 350 monks and nuns who surrounded the intersection at Phan Dinh Phung Boulevard and Le Van Duyet Street, just outside the Cambodian embassy in Saigon, South Vietnam.

Thich Quang Duc burning monk

“Thích Quang Duc emerged from the car along with two other monks. One placed a cushion on the road while the second opened the trunk and took out a five-gallon gasoline can. As the marchers formed a circle around him, Thích Quang Duc calmly seated himself in the traditional Buddhist meditative lotus position on the cushion. His colleague emptied the contents of the gasoline container over Thích Quang Duc’s head. Thích Quang Duc rotated a string of wooden prayer beads and recited the words Nam Mô A Di Dà Phat (“homage to Amitabha Buddha”) before striking a match and dropping it on himself. Flames consumed his robes and flesh, and black oily smoke emanated from his burning body.

“The last words of Thích Quang Duc before his self-immolation were documented in a letter he had left:

‘Before closing my eyes and moving towards the vision of the Buddha, I respectfully plead to President Ngô Dình 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.’

(Thich Quang Duc, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thich_Quang_Duc, retrieved November 27, 2011.)

Thích Quang Duc—and those who would later follow his example—was protesting the systemic religious persecution of Buddhism by the Roman Catholic government under President Ngô Dình Diem. It is estimated that 70-90% of the Vietnamese population was Buddhist at the time.

The photo of Duc’s death—taken by Associated Press journalist, Malcolm Browne—quickly spread around the world. It is said the image of fiery self-immolation sparked a turning point in ending the Vietnam War, in part by piercing the Western world’s sleepy awareness regarding the social evils and religious persecution occurring in Vietnam.

Self-immolation by fire had been going on for centuries prior to this. Often, the suicide was seen as a show of great respect, in honor of Gautama Buddha. In the case of Duc, self-sacrifice was used as a public outcry against religious persecution. It is doubtful Thích Quang Duc could have fully foreseen the worldwide impact of his death, though the presence of the media had indeed been encouraged. The day prior to Thích Quang Duc’s death, a spokesperson for the Buddhists had informed U.S. correspondents that “something important” would be happening at the intersection the next day.

These suicide protests helped bring awareness to the languishing Vietnam War, making suicide a tool of shock, used to break through human apathy. On its own, Thích Quang Duc’s self-immolation—without a worldwide audience—would not have had the same impact. The press was a necessary partner, rendering the act considerably more effective as a result.

In Regard to the Concept of Respect

An environment of religious inequality and disrespect had already been fostered by the Diem regime. Signs of unrest included:

  • The Buddhist flag had been banned
  • Aid was being directed toward Roman Catholic villages, neglecting Buddhist villages whom refused to convert
  • Weapons had been taken from Buddhist soldiers and given to their Roman Catholic counterparts
  • Military officers converted to Roman Catholicism in order to gain access to promotions
  • Forced conversions under the threat of violence were becoming more prevalent
  • Buddhist protests were growing in frequency and size
  • Government intervention, intended to quell the protests, had already lead to numerous deaths

Vietnam was deep in the throes of conflict and the Buddhist majority railed against the growing atmosphere of intolerance.

In circumstances where respect for a population is extremely low, dissent will spring up, giving rise to civil unrest. The effect of the widespread disrespect by the Diem regime is obvious in this case, but where does the self-immolation of Thích Quang Duc and others fit into the concept of respect?

If suicide is an ultimate sign of self-disrespect (I think it is safe to state setting oneself on fire would not be a sign of physical respect,) what happens if it is used as a tool for ending disrespect against a people? In Thích Quang Duc’s own words, his death was a plea for “religious equality.”

Regardless of which religious belief systems were involved, I believe what matters is the idea that one group was ostracized by the other. In order to bring greater awareness to the issue of religious disrespect, Thích Quang Duc made his last act a symbol to be captured and promoted to the world.

Could Thích Quang Duc’s statement have been made as powerfully any other way?

Sanctity of Life Quotes

The world will not be destroyed by those who do evil, but by those who watch them without doing anything.
“I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing: therefore choose life . . .”
~ Deuteronomy 30:19

“We hold these truths to be self-evident . . . that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights, and among these life . . .”
~ Declaration of Independence

“Thou shall not kill.”
~ God

“There are two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.”
~ Albert Einstein

Abortion Quotes

“It is a poverty to decide that a child must die so that you may live as you wish.”
~ Blessed Mother Teresa

“Nothing we do to defend the human person, no matter how small, is ever unfruitful or forgotten. Our actions touch other lives and move other hearts in ways we can never fully understand in this world. Don’t ever underestimate the beauty and power of the witness you give in your pro-life work.”
~ Archbishop Charles Chaput
(view The Little Things Matter, a video series on the Butterfly Effect, by motivational speaker, Andy Andrews)

“Pro-choice and pro-life activists live in different worlds, and the scope of their lives, as both adults and children, fortifies them in their belief that their own views on abortion are the more correct, the more moral, and more reasonable. When added to this is the fact that should ‘the other side’ win, one group of women will see the very real devaluation of their lives and life resources, it is not surprising that the abortion debate has generated so much heat and so little light.”
~ Kristin Luker

“An abortion kills the life of the baby after it has begun. It is dangerous to your life and health.”
~ Planned Parenthood Federation of America, 1952
(see the pamphlet)

Capital Punishment Quotes

“We oppose the death penalty not just for what it does to those guilty of heinous crimes, but for what it does to all of us, it offers the tragic illusion that we can defend life by taking life.”
~ Most Rev. Joseph A. Fiorenza

“You can’t save a man if he’s dead.”
~ Unknown

Respect Quotes

“That you may retain your self-respect, it is better to displease the people by doing what you know is right, than to temporarily please them by doing what you know is wrong.”
~ William J. H. Boetcker

“I’m not concerned with your liking or disliking me… All I ask is that you respect me as a human being.”
~ Jackie Robinson

“Men are respectable only as they respect.”
~ Ralph Waldo Emerson

Suicide Quotes

“Here in the bathroom with me are razor blades. Here is iodine to drink. Here are sleeping pills to swallow. You have a choice. Live or die. Every breath is a choice. Every minute is a choice. To be or not to be. Every time you don’t throw yourself down the stairs, that’s a choice. Every time you don’t crash your car, you reenlist.”
~ Chuck Palahniuk

“Suicide sometimes proceeds from cowardice, but not always; for cowardice sometimes prevents it; since as many live because they are afraid to die, as die because they are afraid to live.”
~ Charles Caleb Colton

“Settle down, precious. I know what you’re going through. Ten minutes before you got here, I was gonna jump too.”
~ Unknown

“The most authentic thing about us is our capacity to create, to overcome, to endure, to transform, to love and to be greater than our suffering.”
~ Ben Okri

“Suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem.”
~ Phil Donahue

“Anyone desperate enough for suicide…should be desperate enough to go to creative extremes to solve problems: elope at midnight, stow away on the boat to New Zealand and start over, do what they always wanted to do but were afraid to try.”
~ Richard Bach

“To make yourself something less than you can be – that too is a form of suicide.”
~ Benjamin Lichtenberg

“All healthy men have thought of their own suicide.”
~ Albert Camus

“The only reason I don’t end it all is because I keep waiting for it to get better, to make friends, and be prettier.”
~ Unknown

“No one ever lacks a good reason for suicide.”
~ Cesare Pavese

“Nine men in ten are would-be suicides.”
~ Benjamin Franklin

War Quotes

“He who joyfully marches to music rank and file, has already earned my contempt. He has been given a large brain by mistake, since for him the spinal cord would surely suffice. This disgrace to civilization should be done away with at once. Heroism at command, how violently I hate all this, how despicable and ignoble war is; I would rather be torn to shreds than be a part of so base an action. It is my conviction that killing under the cloak of war is nothing but an act of murder.”
~ Albert Einstein

“Patriots always talk of dying for their country and never of killing for their country.”
~ Bertrand Russell

“The direct use of force is such a poor solution to any problem, it is generally employed only by small children and large nations.”
~ David Friedman

“There is no instance of a nation benefitting from prolonged warfare.”
~ Sun Tzu

“There is nothing that war has ever achieved that we could not better achieve without it.”
~ Henry Ellis

“There was never a good war, or a bad peace.”
~ Benjamin Franklin

“War will exist until that distant day when the conscientious objector enjoys the same reputation and prestige that the warrior does today.”
~ John F. Kennedy

“What is the use of physicians like myself trying to help parents to bring up children healthy and happy, to have them killed in such numbers for a cause that is ignoble?”
~ Benjamin Spock

“You can no more win a war than you can win an earthquake.”
~ Jeannette Rankin

“Man has no right to kill his brother. It is no excuse that he does so in uniform: he only adds the infamy of servitude to the crime of murder.”
~ Percy Bysshe Shelley

“Mankind must put an end to war before war puts an end to mankind.”
~ John F. Kennedy

“It is forbidden to kill; therefore all murderers are punished unless they kill in large numbers and to the sound of trumpets.”
~ Voltaire

“All wars are civil wars, because all men are brothers.”
~ Francois Fenelon

“An unjust peace is better than a just war.”
~ Marcus Tullius Cicero

“I’m fed up to the ears with old men dreaming up wars for young men to die in.”
~ George McGovern

“If it’s natural to kill, how come men have to go into training to learn how?”
~ Joan Baez

“If we don’t end war, war will end us.”
~ H. G. Wells

“In modern war… you will die like a dog for no good reason.”
~ Ernest Hemingway

“Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies in the final sense a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.”
~ Dwight D. Eisenhower