The topic of this article was in the back of my head for quite some time. I tried to not come to hasty conclusion and also wanted to remain as much detached as possible. Well, still hardly as detached as Thich Quang Duc had to be, sitting on the streets of Saigon on June 11, 1963.
If you hear this name for the first time, let me make a short introduction of the man.
Thich Quang Duc was Buddhist monk from Vietnam. If you try to search for his biography, you will find essentially the same information all across the web — at the age of 7 he left to study Buddhism, at the age of 15 he became a novice, and at the age of 20 he was ordained as a monk. Fifteen years later, at the age of 35 he was appointed “an inspector for the Buddhist Association in Ninh Hoa before becoming the inspector of monks in his home province of Khanh Hoa.” During his life, he was responsible for construction of 31 temples (pagodas). He was also the Abbot of the Phuoc Hoa pagoda, and Chairman of the Panel on Ceremonial Rites of the Congregation of Vietnamese Monks. All in all, he was, as it seems, quite an ambitious man.
But Thich Quang Duc’s worldwide fame came only with the day of his death on June 11, 1963, when he performed a ritualistic self-immolation, a carefully prepared show (“On 10 June 1963, U.S. correspondents were informed that “something important” would happen the following morning on the road outside the Cambodian embassy in Saigon.”) in a protest against the ongoing discrimination of Buddhist majority by the regime of Ngo Dinh Diem, the newly-declared President of South Vietnam. This act was a direct response to the deaths of eight unarmed Buddhists during protests on May 8, 1963.
Things then took a quick turn. Thich Quang Duc’s self-immolation went viral thanks to iconic photographs of Malcolm Browne that quickly spread across the world. It sparked several further self-immolations of Buddhist monks, raids of Diem regime on Buddhist temples with over 1400 Buddhists arrested (and estimates ranging up to hundreds of dead and injured), and eventually “set in motion a series of crises” that ended up bringing America into the Vietnam War.
When I saw this story laid out like this for the first time, Buddha’s words immediately came to my mind, “Hatred is never appeased by hatred in this world. By non-hatred alone is hatred appeased. This is a law eternal.”
Setting aside the fact that, for whatever reason, in Vietnam, self-immolation seems to be particularly popular, I cannot help myself, but see Thich Quang Duc’s final performance as an act of a fettered man.
A man attached to his accomplishments (I could not find the link, but allegedly a younger monk offered himself for sacrifice, but Quang Duc’s rank took precedence), attached to pride in his skills, attached to politics and world in general.
And this leads me to the actual point.
Oftentimes, I come across Buddhists who are obsessed with dhyanas. They even rank themselves according to various levels of mental absorption and emotional detachment they are capable of, as if it meant something. However, such obsession is just another fetter. And a pretty insidious one at that.
No doubt, what Thich Quang Duc demonstrated is extraordinary (though not all that uncommon), and it proved the power of meditation beyond any doubt (according to eye witness David Halberstam, “As he burned he never moved a muscle, never uttered a sound, his outward composure in sharp contrast to the wailing people around him.”), but that’s that.
Anyone who tried meditating just a little bit can affirm that “breathing away” or just observing pain with complete calmness is possible (even more so when you do it for decades as your primary “activity”). There is simply no hidden secret or magic, that’s how meditation “works”.
But meditation is not an Olympic sport. It does not matter what dhyana you can enter at the snap of your fingers, if you still cannot grasp the nature of your mind.
Because that’s where it’s at — to understand that all you’ll ever see is your mind, the mind that goes out like a flame when you die.