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In Terrifying Color: Vietnamese Buddhist Monk’s 1963 Self-Immolation

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In June of 1963, Vietnamese Mahayana Buddhist monk Thích Qu?ng ??c burned himself to death at a busy intersection in Saigon. The self-immolation was done in response to the persecution of Buddhists by South Vietnam’s Ngo Dinh Diem administration. The Catholic regime had cracked down on practicing Buddhists by banning the flying of the traditional Buddhist flag; prohibiting Buddhists from exercising the same religious freedoms as Catholics; and the continued detainment of Buddhist monks and nuns  — a moment referred to as The Buddhist Crisis. Journalist/photographer Malcolm Browne captured the scene in Saigon for the Associated Press, and the stark black and white image quickly became an iconic visual of the turbulent 1960s.

Yesterday, a colorized version of the photograph was posted on Reddit.com. To see this image in color imbues a new level of terror and awe (view full-size image). In the original black and white image, this lone Buddhist monk appeared otherworldly, a ghost from the past familiar to us only from repetitious use in coffee table books, historical slide shows, and even album covers (see: Rage Against the Machine’s self-titled debut). But now, rendered in color, Thích Qu?ng ??c’s immolation has a whole new gravity. We get a better understanding of what bystanders saw. And the scene, for whatever reason, feels more present in color. Reports from that day often reference Thích Qu?ng ??c’s unflinching demeanor, how he never uttered a word or showed traces of pain or suffering, just perfect calm as his body was consumed by flames and he eventually collapsed. The video footage included below, a purported dramatization of the event from a 1963 Italian documentary (source), helps give context to this moment:

In recounting his coverage of the event for PBS’s “Reporting America at War” series, Malcolm Browne discusses what it was like to be in that moment:

It was clearly theater staged by the Buddhists to achieve a certain political end. At the same time, there was a human element to it that was just horrifying, because the sequence of pictures showed the initial shock of the flames touching his face, and so forth. He never cried out or screamed, but you could see from his expression that he was exposed to intense agony, and that he was dying on the spot — and then, in the end, when the body was rigidly burned, they couldn’t stuff him into a casket because he was splayed out in all directions. As shock photography goes, it was hard to beat. It’s not something that I’m particularly proud of. If one wants to be gruesome about it, it was a very easy sequence of pictures to take. Work is a great panacea for the horrors of that sort of situation, or of a battle, for that matter. I think combat photographers are very conscious of the idea that the real fear comes later, after they get home and develop their film and have a look at what they were through. Then they are aware that they nearly died. TC mark

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  • http://kumquatparadise.tumblr.com aaron nicholas

    speechless

  • http://twitter.com/annemjw annemjw

    It should be noted (as it is inthe reddit thread) that that footage is from a reconstruction, and is not of the event itself. It is no less confronting for being so, but context is important.

  • champ

    jesus fucking christ

  • kelly huckaby

    i can't stop looking at it..

    • Anonymous

      that the point.

  • http://twitter.com/azigra Azi Graybar

    What the hell is wrong with all those people who could stand there and watch that. I don't care what it was about, it's sick.

    • Larry

      They are buddhists.

      • http://twitter.com/azigra Azi Graybar

        They're human.

      • Crazy Carrie Jakie

        They suppress their humanity. they are Buddhists

      • http://twitter.com/azigra Azi Graybar

        oh, and I guess that's a good thing?

    • eric

      What the hell is wrong with you.

    • Anonymous

      I’ll tell you what’s wrong with them. NOTHING!!

  • http://twitter.com/rislynsey christopher lynsey

    The color

  • kelsey

    there is nothing WRONG with them, the man wanted to do it. what were they supposed to do?

    • Girrawks65

      this is ridiculous. the acts that this monk is portraying are clearly not beneficial to human well being. it doesn't matter for what reason he was doing it. if buddhist monks removed the eyes of every third subscriber to their religion, that would be considered wrong, am I correct. these kinds of acts and your kind of response are the things holding the world back from pure morality.

      • eric

        what's going on… in this comment…

      • Rawr

        pure morality? morality is what is holding the world back from progress…

      • AndreaDanielle

        the act that he died for what he believed in because he was in protest against governmental anti-Buddhist policies was ridiculous ? i dont know about you but the fact that he was willing to give up his life to show his full dedication toward his religion and to bring awareness in the most powerful way is NOT ridiculous.

        they didnt stop him, that would be complete disrespect towards him and the message he was trying to for fill. they're Buddhist and i believe he attained enlightenment

      • Dbrown414564

        If you do not except Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior you go to hell for eternity. He did not attain enlightenment.

      • Justin

        How ignorant…

  • Dgdgdg

    fail

  • Justin

    No one is right and no one is wrong. No one can prove Christianity to be true or false. In the end, it doesn’t matter. He did it for the cause he believed in, and what we need to do is respect him for his action. We are all right in what we believe in, whether it be Buddism, Christianity, or Muslim. What we need is to learn to tolerate. However there is no question on his enlightenment. He achieved enlightenment and that photo proves it. Can you stay calm while you are burning to death? Can you set yourself on fire for the cause you believe in? Can you prove your religion better than others? I presume that your answers will be NOs. 

  • Anonymous

    They got the color of the car wrong. It was more of a robin’s egg blue. I’ve seen it. It’s now a holy relic in a pagoda in Hué.

    The story doesn’t mention it but just after this occurred, President Diem sent army troops to Thich Quang Duc’s monastery and threw about a dozen monks to their deaths from the roof.

  • Anonymous

    This is inspiring proof of mind over body. This is proof that with our minds we can be beyond this world. It’s proof that a human with the right training techniques can be beyond existence and the need to cling to existence like people in the West do.  For Westerners it’s horrifying because of the fear of non-existence.  For Easterners it is liberating. The Eastern belief is in renunciation, non-existence is the goal, the liberation.  In the monotheistic Western religions it’s Heaven (carrot) and Hell (stick) approach – a promise of continued existence, continuation of the ego, the self, reward and punishment, and all the problems that go with it.  The mind that clings to existence cannot understand this and there’s no point explaining it.

  • Jimbob

    Many of these comments are no better than youtube comments. An excuse for people to vent.  We are all dealing with our own negative mental states, internet comments is one way to let it out and perpetuate this negativty with ‘safety’ to the venter.
    Why are they standing around? Probably in shock, and also very much helpless, imagine the heat and the fear and the fact that it was all over in a very short time.
    As for people representing buddist thought, let me throw in my 2p. Renunciation is a big thing in buddhist thought, renunciation means evolving spiritually and emotionally to the point where you no longer need certain things, so they don’t hold you down any more. That’s not to say you can’t have those things (cars, tvs, gold watches, women/men/both hanging off your arm etc), but that one’s inner experience of them is different, one is no longr strongly attached to them, thus easing suffering.
    To say buddhists suppress their humanity is kinda hard to understand. Is humanity their negative emotions, normal attachments and normal reactions? Then yes. Is their humanity their good qualities, positive emotions, freedom, extraordinary actions? Then no, one of the aims of buddhist practice is to increase those. Is it both of those?
    “except jesus christ” bad spelling my friend. Poor grammarians are certainly going to some lower vision of Dante’s, in my mind. Aside from that, the  Catholic (that is to ay, Universal) Church’s view on who goes where, is that regardless of creed, the truely good/righteous in the world go to heaven. There all are naked beforegod’s eyes, an he ca see all those youtube comments too. Which particular ministry (of 1, with a website, probably maintained by someone in their mother’s basement that onlycomes out for food or to go to a casino) do you represent with that view?
    More good has been performed in the world by non “christians” than by christians, I’d wager At very lest i’d say 50/50. But lets avoid the long angry discussions about “‘what kind of a god…”.
    “Non-existence is the goal” somehow doesn’t sit right with me. The buddhist view of emptiness (this non-existence?) means that there isn’t anything that exists independently of any other cause or condition. Everything relies on previous causes and conditions, therefore normal appearances are only that, appearances. They don’t exist in any independent way, they are mearly the results of previous causes. We use labels because they are convenient, but then we forget that phenomena is not the label. If we could perceive previous moments, then we’d see the flow of causes and conditions that everything is in, rather than thinking in terms of fixed ideas/labels.
    Hating another’s creed or god is the lowest form of expressing love for one’s own. In fact, there’s no love there. All religions teach about loving kindness, basic human kindness. This is to be cultivated, hatred abandoned. Deal with your own emotions, rather than getting caught up in theological debates, or ranting on internet comments. If we focus outside all the time, and criticise, we never leave time for our own spiritual evolution, or to feel the closeness and love of our god, and one day we’ll die – and there’ll still be more to criticise, still more to fix. We have to fix ourselves. Love for no reason, be happy for no reason.

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