Thich Quang Duc’s Hauntingly Peaceful Immolation
As beautiful as it is horrifying, the photograph of Thich Quang Duc’s immolation is as awe-inspiring as Tank Man or the execution of a Viet Cong soldier. Today, most know it as the cover of a Rage Against the Machine album, but it was so striking when it first appeared in newspapers that even President John F Kennedy commented on its profundity.
Subjected to French colonialism for many years, then-South Vietnam suffered through the dictations and discriminations of a Catholic ruling class, many of whose pro-Catholic effects were most widely felt by the huge Buddhist majority. Protests broke out following the ban of the Buddhist flag, and the shooting of eight unarmed Buddhist civilians sparked a religious revolt that would soon draw the attention of the whole world. But before Americanization began, the Buddhist monks of South Vietnam engaged in a series of public immolations that began with Thich Quang Duc’s.
The monk remained so calm and still during his suicide that the Diem government charged the monastery of drugging Quang Duc, but their guilt-defering accusations only served to embolden the revolt against the government. With the release of the photo, worldwide opinion against Diem permanently soured, and within six months his regime would be toppled and his life ended. Curiously, Quang Duc’s heart remained well intact, even after his funeral cremation. It is heralded as a holy relic, and Quang Duc was declared a bodhisattva, or “enlightened one,” by Vietnamese Buddhists.