Thích Quảng Đức (1897 – June 11, 1963, born Lâm Văn Túc), was a Vietnamese Mahayana Buddhist monk who burned himself to death at a busy Saigon road intersection on June 11, 1963.
Quang Duc was protesting the persecution of Buddhists by the South Vietnamese government led by Ngô Đình Diệm. Photographs of his self-immolation were circulated widely across the world and brought attention to the policies of the Diệm government. John F. Kennedy said in reference to a photograph of Duc on fire, “No news picture in history has generated so much emotion around the world as that one.” Malcolm Browne won a Pulitzer Prize for his photograph of the monk’s death.
Quang Duc’s act increased international pressure on Diệm and led him to announce reforms with the intention of mollifying the Buddhists. However, the promised reforms were not implemented, leading to a deterioration in the dispute. With protests continuing, the ARVN Special Forces loyal to Diệm’s brother, Ngo Dinh Nhu, launched nationwide raids on Buddhist pagodas, seizing Quang Duc’s heart and causing deaths and widespread damage. Several Buddhist monks followed Quang Duc’s example, also immolating themselves. Eventually, an Army coup toppled Diệm, who was assassinated on November 2, 1963.
On June 10, 1963, U.S. correspondents were informed that “something important” would happen the following morning on the road outside the Cambodian embassy in Saigon. Most of the reporters disregarded the message, since the Buddhist crisis had at that point been going on for more than a month, and the next day only a few journalists turned up, including David Halberstam of The New York Times and Malcolm Browne, the Saigon bureau chief for the Associated Press. Duc arrived as part of a procession that had begun at a nearby pagoda. Around 350 monks and nuns marched in two phalanxes, preceded by an Austin Westminster sedan, carrying banners printed in both English and Vietnamese. They denounced the Diệm government and its policy towards Buddhists, demanding that it fulfill its promises of religious equality. Another monk offered himself, but Đức’s seniority prevailed.
The act occurred at the intersection of Phan Đình Phùng Boulevard (now Nguyễn Đình Chiểu Street) and Lê Văn Duyệt Street (now Cách Mạng Tháng Tám Street) a few blocks Southwest of the Presidential Palace (now the Reunification Palace). 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, Duc calmly sat down in the traditional Buddhist meditative lotus position on the cushion. A colleague emptied the contents of the gasoline container over Đức’s head. Đức rotated a string of wooden prayer beads and recited the words Nam mô A di đà Phật (“homage to Amitābha 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.
Quang Duc’s last words 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 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 organize in solidarity to make sacrifices to protect Buddhism.
David Halberstam wrote:
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 human 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.
The spectators were mostly stunned into silence, but some wailed and several began praying. Many of the monks and nuns, as well as some shocked passersby, prostrated themselves before the burning monk.
In English and Vietnamese, a monk repeated into a microphone, “A Buddhist priest burns himself to death. A Buddhist priest becomes a martyr.” After approximately ten minutes, Duc’s body was fully immolated and it eventually toppled backwards onto its back. Once the fire subsided, a group of monks covered the smoking corpse with yellow robes, picked it up and tried to fit it into a coffin, but the limbs could not be straightened and one of the arms protruded from the wooden box as he was carried to the nearby Xá Lợi pagoda in central Saigon. Outside the pagoda, students unfurled bilingual banners which read: “A Buddhist priest burns himself for our five requests.”
By 1:30 p.m, around one thousand monks had congregated inside to hold a meeting while outside a large crowd of pro-Buddhist students had formed a human barrier around it. The meeting soon ended and all but a hundred monks slowly left the compound. Nearly one thousand monks accompanied by laypeople returned to the cremation site. The police lingered nearby. At around 6:00 p.m, 30 nuns and six monks were arrested for holding a prayer meeting on the street outside Xá Lợi. The police encircled the pagoda, blocking public passage and giving observers the impression an armed siege was imminent by donning riot gear.
Despite the shock of the Western public, the practice of Vietnamese monks self-immolating was not unprecedented. Instances of self-immolations in Vietnam had been recorded for centuries, usually carried out to honor Gautama Buddha. The most recently recorded case had been in North Vietnam in 1950. The French colonial authorities had tried to eradicate the practice after their conquest of Vietnam in the nineteenth century, but had not been totally successful. They did manage to prevent one monk from setting fire to himself in Huế in the 1920s, but he managed to starve himself to death instead. During the 1920s and 1930s, Saigon newspapers reported multiple instances of self-immolations by monks in a matter-of-fact style. The practice had also been seen in the Chinese city of Harbin in 1948 when a monk seated down in the lotus position on a pile of sawdust and soybean oil and set fire to himself in protest against the treatment of Buddhism by the communists of Mao Zedong.