Self-Burning Confronts Us With Radical Concern, If We Let It.

Activism’s most inspiring power is to transmit the greatest aspirations of humanity to people who have no intention of receiving these aspirations. When activists grab our attention their consciousness can sometimes bleed into ours. Ultimately a different consciousness must be transmitted among ourselves if humanity’s most self destructive habits are to change.

That is why pictures, normally worth a thousand words, become worth many thousands in activism — the consciousness behind action can more easily be seen than said. Protestors in Birmingham, Alabama being knocked down by water cannons and dogs still challenge us to understand what it is to deeply hold dignity. More challenging still is asking how a Vietnamese monk, Thich Quang Duc, could burn himself alive in 1963. He did so with a disquieting calm as a way of confronting the world with what was happening, then, in Vietnam. He succeeded. John F. Kennedy said “No news picture in history has generated so much emotion around the world as that one.”

Thich Quang Duc’s Self-burning in protest of the French and American-backed South Vietnamese government’s suppression of Buddhism. Video can also be found with a search engine.

This image has been challenging to generations of activists so I have been drawn to contemplate it. Martin Luther King first distanced himself, but then embraced the action as an act of compassion after conversations with Quang Duc’s monastic brother Thich Nhat Hanh. If King learned something from this transmission of consciousness over ages within Buddhist communities, so should I. Thich Quang Duc’s image seems to ask me, now, what devotion our time needs.

I wrote most of this article in September inspired by Sunday nights dialogues among a circle of writers and activists held through lockdown on contemplative activism between a brought the burning monk to my mind. I have not contemplated Thich Quang Duc’s act not to ask if self-burning is right, or gather energy for an imitation. but to challenge myself to be aware of a consciousness, a devotion, that I can’t fathom. His act makes me instinctively gather my whole being every time I look at it. I feel its the least I can do for Wynn Bruce to allow him to do the same.

The fadedness of our current cultural memory for the great shock generated by self-burnings in the Vietnam era shows a collective will to look away, an ability to dismiss and disperse awareness. Part of this ability to disconnect has to do with distance between cultural traditions. Self-burning has a long history in Buddhism as a protest against repression of the Buddhist practice. Regardless of these boundaries, Thich Quang Duc grabbed minds across the world in the 1960s who could not understand his actions, and he asked souls, with his life, to stretch to make some sense of him. Of course many people agreed that Vietnam’s situation, and the role of Western powers in it, was deeply immoral. But how deeply did they see it ─ did they reckon the scale of pain and destruction much?

Thich Quang Duc’s fellow Vietnamese Zen (Thien) monk, Thich Nhat Hanh explained these acts to King in a 1965 letter, saying:

The press spoke then of suicide, but in the essence, it is not. It is not even a protest. What the monks said in the letters they left before burning themselves aimed only at alarming, at moving the hearts of the oppressors, and at calling the attention of the world to the suffering endured then by the Vietnamese. To burn oneself by fire is to prove that what one is saying is of the utmost importance. There is nothing more painful than burning oneself. To say something while experiencing this kind of pain is to say it with utmost courage, frankness, determination, and sincerity.

Thich Nhat Hanh’s description is a helpful guide to contemplation, for those who can find some space for themselves to stretch into.

Self-burning has been easy to dismiss as crazy, on intellectual level, but impossible to ignore on others. Like an inexplicable act of violence, a disturbing acts of selflessness can follow us around if we do not spend time with them. A powerful and well-placed nagging disquiet was Quang Duc’s gift to the world. Thich Nhat Hanh consistently used “self-burning” to describe his peer’s act rather than the standard “self-immolation”, to remove the abstract packaging we instinctively put it in.

To open oneself to knowing the mind underlying “self-burning” can be to ask how one has helped create the self-burned’s motivations. As soon as a glimmer of this awareness comes to me, my body slowly jolts with an inconvenient energetic sense of what Thich Quang Duc’s kind of awareness might guide me to do now. I am afraid. I do not feel guided to set myself alight to move hearts on any issue, including the millions of foreseeable deaths that are likely to come from climate change. But I can ask myself, as Bruce must have: “what is a million lives?” I can touch Thich Quang Duc’s devotion a little, though not as deeply as Wynn Bruce did. Deep understanding of Thich Quang Duc is inconvenient for anybody, in different ways.

“Transmission” in Zen Buddhism is communication of true insight and ways of being from mind to mind, especially in ways that are not verbal. Those Americans who accepted the confronting transmission, the activism, offered by Thich Quang Duc while Vietnam still raged, had inconvenient feelings. Alice Herz was a bottomlessly energetic and deeply spiritual peace activist, an 82-year-old woman who escaped from the Holocaust in Nazi Germany. She set herself alight after struggling and failing to make her opposition to killing on unfathomable scales in Vietnam heard with endless letters to US powers-that-be. The note she left behind said “I have chosen the flaming death of the Buddhists” as a way to finally make herself heard. Unfortunately, her gender and age and the fact that her act was done an unremarkable part of the downtown in her adopted home of Detroit, probably explain why her act was still ignored within the US (though the wider world was more attentive.)

Her act made an impression, however, on Norman Morrisson, a 31-year-old Quaker and father of three young children, who self-burned eight months later, in the Pentagon parking lot leaving a lasting impression on the mind of Robert McNamara from whose office window the immolation was visible. McNamara, the architect of Vietnam, seems to have been reacquainted, against his will, with the human dimension of his Machiavellian chess match. He was said to never be the same again. The act captured the nation’s attention, setting off a string of similar incidents. Wynn Bruce was obviously the recipient of a transmission by these spiritual ancestors. One may not know if his thoughts about climate change were accurate, or his tactics for addressing it were skillful, but we can still stretch for him.

The important worldly details of the effectiveness of self-burning helps to underline that it is not an act for adoring worship, but for contemplation. Self burnings are spiritual transmissions and also strategic maneuvers open to criticism. Personally, I see no contradiction between these two ways of looking at two dimensions of activism, tactical and spiritual. It is worth knowing that neither Herz’ activist circles, nor Morrison’s Quaker community, nor Quang Duc’s Buddhist sangha encouraged their actions, though Quang Duc’s community accepted his decision and supported him in it.

It seems no spiritual community was comfortable with agreeing definitively that there were good reasons for such an action or endorsing it, but when their friends had made up their mind to send this message, most communities simply encouraged the world to listen, as Wynn Bruce’s friend and teacher, Kritee Kanko, has. Contemplation of these events can transform us, quite separately from the opinions we arrive at as to whether their acts were “worth it”, but the strategic dimension is of undeniable importance.

Morrison made an impression because of his chosen location, his tactics and his gender, rather than only his spirit. At the same time, such acts cannot be done within a purely utilitarian or tactical mindset. Even they could be done tactically, they would not have the same effects. The abnormal mindset underlying self-burining is part of their power to capture our attention. So the acts all say: Abnormally concerned consciousness is possible. Whether they are heard is also up to us.

Contemplation of self-burning draws me into the insight of interbeing. Would Morrison have self-burned in such a public place without Herz’ showing him that Americans would ignore such a protest, if given any chance? Clearly neither of them would have done so without Quang Duc, who was following his own ancestors in performing his act. Our minds are trained to see direct consequences, but self-burning shows faith in “indirect action”. Its main purpose is to build a community of awareness even across thousands of miles and years.

If allows such actions to reach us, we can turn from being unwillingly impacted to having new ancestors. My soul does not let itself become a descendant of Thich Quang Duc or Alice Herz, Morrison or Bruce because of my judgments of their successes or failures, but through felt experience of how contemplating their consciousness and concern transforms me.

Curiously, part of me scolds myself for claiming ancestry, here, which is silent when I claim Thich Nhat Hanh or Siddhartha Gautama as ancestors. They are accepted to have many “children”, mostly quite wayward. The energy of activism is identified with “moral height” and so adopting activist ancestors can sound like claiming moral superiority. Humble aspiration to incredibly difficult paths does not easily translate from spiritual to activist spheres. Perhaps it should. You do not have to be Wynn Bruce or agree with his tactics to appreciate the consciousness that has been transmitted from ancient times through Thich Quang Duc, to Bruce, to us.