Cheap Seats 2018
Life Aflame - 04/18
By Rich Trzupek
On June 10, 1963 Buddhist monk Thích Quang Duc changed the course of history, for better or for worse. He was 65 years old at the time. By all accounts he lived his life as a devout and peace-loving man.
On that day 55 years ago, Quang Duc quietly assumed the classic Buddhist lotus position perched atop a cushion placed at the intersection of Phan Dình Phùng Boulevard and Lê Van Duyet Street in what was then the city of Saigon in South Vietnam. A colleague doused him with five gallons of gasoline, while hundreds of Buddhist monks and nuns formed a circle around Quang Duc.
In June 1963 South Vietnam was in the midst of what would become known as the “Buddhist crisis.” The residents of South Vietnam, a former French colony, were predominantly Buddhist, but a Catholic minority ruled the nation. Ngô Dình Diem, a Catholic, was president and many Buddhists felt that Diem both unfairly favored fellow Catholics in the government and military and simultaneously suppressed Buddhists.
Quang Duc reflected on the Buddhist crisis in a note that constituted the last words he would communicate to his fellow human beings on this temporal stage:
“Before closing my eyes and moving towards the vision of the Buddha, I respectfully plead to President Ngô Dình 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.”
Quang Duc struck a match, dropped it on himself and was immediately consumed by flames. Associated Press correspondent Malcom Browne captured the moment in a photograph. The word “viral” was not yet used to describe public impact, but had it been Browne’s photo and others taken on that fateful day would have fully qualified for the label.
Quang Duc did not only light himself on fire, he set his nation aflame as well. His last words suggest that he did not intend to do so, but – whatever his intentions – he did. The Buddhist crisis grew. Diem floundered and was soon deposed in a US-backed coupe and was then assassinated. The long, hard road to the Vietnam War and all the changes to follow had been opened.
To me, suicide is about the saddest act that a fellow human can commit. Life is such an amazing, wondrous gift. It’s a gift we can never truly understand. I cannot begin to imagine the degree of despair that would motivate someone to willingly throw that gift away. Please understand that I do not mean to vilify in any way those who choose that course. Quite the opposite: I am overwhelmed by the thought that anguish can run so painfully deep.
Perhaps Quang Duc’s suicide is not the most famous or the most impactful in world history, but it’s up there. While I cannot believe that there is any cause that demands suicide as a solution, I do believe that Quang Duc sincerely believed that his self-sacrifice would help create a better world to come. He killed himself, in other words, not to escape personal despair, but to try to improve the world, however misguided his method.
There can be no doubt that 60-year-old attorney David S. Buckel was tremendously despondent before he chose to commit suicide by lighting himself on fire in a moment reminiscent of Quang Duc’s. All of us, as human beings who care for and hope for the lives of our fellow human beings, should grieve for Buckel’s decision to make an early departure from this life. Clearly, the hurt of continuing to exist outweighed the wonder of existence. That’s deeply depressing.
Buckel’s suicide note was equally depressing. He wrote: “Pollution ravages our planet, oozing inhabitability via air, soil, water and weather, Most humans on the planet now breathe air made unhealthy by fossil fuels, and many die early deaths as a result — my early death by fossil fuel reflects what we are doing to ourselves.”
Sadly, Buckel’s final lament was an excuse, not an explanation. Clearly he was a troubled man, who – as his life neared twilight – searched for a way to justify ending the pain. His suicide did not do anything to save a planet that is in pretty damn good shape. It rather highlighted how much fear-mongering environmental activists can dupe the masses.