Thích Quảng Đức – the burning monk

Thích Quảng Đức (1897 – 11 June 1963; born Lâm Văn Túc) was a Vietnamese Mahayana Buddhist monk who burned himself to death at a busy Saigon road intersection on 11 June 1963. Quảng Đức 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 Đức 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.

Quảng Đức’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, Ngô Đình Nhu, launched nationwide raids on Buddhist pagodas, seizing Quảng Đức’s heart and causing deaths and widespread damage. Several Buddhist monks followed Quảng Đức’s example, also immolating themselves. Eventually, a U.S.-backed Army coup toppled Diệm, who was assassinated on 2 November 1963.

Accounts of the life of Quảng Đức are derived from information disseminated by Buddhist organizations. He was born in the village of Hội Khánh, in Vạn Ninh District of Khánh Hòa Province in central Vietnam as Lâm Văn Túc, one of seven children of Lâm Hữu Ứng and his wife, Nguyễn Thị Nương. At the age of seven, he left to study Buddhism under Hòa thượng Thích Hoằng Thâm, who was his maternal uncle and spiritual master. Thích Hoằng Thâm raised him as a son and Lâm Văn Túc changed his name to Nguyễn Văn Khiết. At age 15, he took the samanera (novice) vows and was ordained as a monk at age 20 under the dharma name Thích Quảng Đức. The Vietnamese name Thích (釋) is from “Thích Ca” or “Thích Già” (釋迦), means “of the Shakya clan.” After ordination, he traveled to a mountain near Ninh Hòa, vowing to live the life of a solitary Buddhism-practicing hermit for three years. He returned in later life to open the Thien Loc pagoda at his mountain retreat.

After his self-imposed isolation ended, he began to travel around central Vietnam expounding the dharma. After two years, he went into retreat at the Sac Tu Thien An pagoda near Nha Trang. In 1932, he was appointed an inspector for the Buddhist Association in Ninh Hòa before becoming the inspector of monks in his home province of Khánh Hòa. During this period in central Vietnam, he was responsible for the construction of 14 temples. In 1934, he moved to southern Vietnam and traveled throughout the provinces spreading Buddhist teachings. During his time in southern Vietnam, he also spent two years in Cambodia studying the Theravada Buddhist tradition.

Upon his return from Cambodia, he oversaw the construction of a further 17 new temples during his time in the south. The last of the 31 new temples that he was responsible for constructing was the Quan The Am pagoda in the Phú Nhuận District of Gia Định Province on the outskirts of Saigon. The street on which the temple stands was later renamed Quảng Đức Street in 1975. After the temple-building phase, Đức was appointed to serve as the Chairman of the Panel on Ceremonial Rites of the Congregation of Vietnamese Monks, and as abbot of the Phuoc Hoa pagoda, which was the initial location of the Association for Buddhist Studies of Vietnam (ABSV). When the office of the ABSV was relocated to the Xá Lợi Pagoda, the main pagoda of Saigon, Đức resigned.

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