Thich Nhat Hanh, a scholar in the field of philosophy of religion and an internationally revered figure of Zen Buddhism, was born Nguyễn Xuân Bảo in Vietnam in 1926. (The word “Thich” [pronounced tick] is not a title, but a name that, for Buddhist monks and nuns, replaces the family name to which they were born.) Thich Nhat Hanh became a Zen monk at the age of 16 and was ordained in 1949. He founded the School of Youth for Social Services, a neutral relief corps, and the Van Hanh Buddhist University in Vietnam in 1957. In 1969, Nhat Hanh was the representative for the Vietnamese Buddhist Peace Delegation at the Paris peace talks during the Vietnam War; when the Paris Peace Accords were signed in 1973, he was officially denied reentry into Vietnam. He has been a student at Princeton and a professor at Columbia. Having lived in exile since 1966 (he has been allowed to visit Vietnam regularly since negotiations in 2005), he now lives in Plum Village, a Buddhist retreat center he cofounded in southwestern France, and conducts mindfulness retreats in Europe and North America.
To protest the anti-Buddhist policies of the Catholic president of South Vietnam, Ngo Dinh Diem, during the Vietnam War, in June 1963, an elderly Buddhist monk, Thich Quang Duc, went to the crossroads at Phan-Dinh-Phung Street in Saigon, sat in the lotus position, poured gasoline on himself, and set himself on fire in order to call attention to the sufferings of the Vietnamese people under Diem’s oppressive regime. As he burned to death, a disciple read his last words to the press. Other Buddhist monks and nuns followed Quang Duc’s example: six burned themselves to death within a short period. Unimpressed, Madame Nhu, Diem’s sister-in-law, described these self-immolations as a “barbecue.”
It is the self-immolations of Thich Quang Duc, Thich Giac Thanh (mentioned in the selection presented here), and the other Buddhist monks and nuns that Nhat Hanh is attempting to explain to a sceptical world in the letter reprinted here. The letter is intended particularly for Westerners who see these acts as suicides, acts of self-destruction stemming from lack of courage, loss of hope, or the desire for nonexistence. . . . Although Giac Thanh was young at the time of his death, Quang Duc was over 70. Nhat Hanh had lived with the older monk for nearly a year at Long-Vinh pagoda before he set himself on fire, and describes him as “a very kind and lucid person . . . calm and in full possession of his mental faculties when he burned himself.” Nhat Hanh insists that these acts of self-immolation are not suicide, which, he says, is one of Buddhism’s “most serious crimes.” Nhat Hanh’s letter “In Search of the Enemy of Man” is addressed to Martin Luther King, who nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Thich Nhat Hanh, Vietnam: Lotus in a Sea of Fire, foreword by Thomas Merton (New York: Hill and Wang, 1967), pp. 106-108. Quotations in introduction also from Thich Nhat Hanh, Love in Action: Writings on Nonviolent Social Change, foreword by Daniel Berrigan (Berkeley, CA: Parallax Press, 1993).
from VIETNAM: LOTUS IN A SEA OF FIRE: IN SEARCH OF THE ENEMY OF MAN
From a letter by Thich Nhat Hanh addressed to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., June 1, 1965
The self-burning of Vietnamese Buddhist monks in 1963 is somehow difficult for Western Christian conscience to understand. 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. During the ceremony of ordination, as practiced in the Mahayana tradition, the monk-candidate is required to burn one or more small spots on his body in taking the vow to observe the 250 rules of a bhikshu, to live the life of a monk, to attain enlightenment, and to devote his life to the salvation of all beings. One can, of course, say these things while sitting in a comfortable armchair; but when the words are uttered while kneeling before the community of sangha and experiencing this kind of pain, they will express all the seriousness of one’s heart and mind, and carry much greater weight.
The Vietnamese monk, by burning himself, says with all his strength and determination that he can endure the greatest of sufferings to protect his people. But why does he have to burn himself to death? The difference between burning oneself and burning oneself to death is only a difference in degree, not in nature. A man who burns himself too much must die. The importance is not to take one’s life, but to burn. What he really aims at is the expression of his will and determination, not death. In the Buddhist belief, life is not confined to a period of 60 or 80 or 100 years: life is eternal. Life is not confined to this body: life is universal. To express will by burning oneself, therefore, is not to commit an act of destruction but perform an act of construction, that is, to suffer and to die for the sake of one’s people. This is not suicide. Suicide is an act of self-destruction, having as causes the following: (1) lack of courage to live and to cope with difficulties; (2) defeat by life and loss of all hope; (3) desire for nonexistence (abhaya).
This self-destruction is considered by Buddhism as one of the most serious crimes. The monk who burns himself has lost neither courage nor hope; nor does he desire nonexistence. On the contrary, he is very courageous and hopeful and aspires for something good in the future. He does not think that he is destroying himself: he believes in the good fruition of his act of self-sacrifice for the sake of others. Like the Buddha in one of his former lives—as told in a story of Jataka—who gave himself to a hungry lioness which was about to devour her own cubs, the monk believes he is practicing the doctrine of highest compassion by sacrificing himself in order to call the attention of, and to seek help from, the people of the world.
I believe with all my heart that the monks who burned themselves did not aim at the death of the oppressors but only at a change in their policy. Their enemies are not man. They are intolerance, fanaticism, dictatorship, cupidity, hatred, and discrimination which lie within the heart of man. I also believe with all of my being that the struggle for equality and freedom you lead in Birmingham, Alabama, is not really aimed at the whites but only at intolerance, hatred, and discrimination. These are real enemies of man—not man himself. In our unfortunate fatherland we are trying to plead desperately: do not kill man, even in man’s name. Please kill the real enemies of man which are present everywhere, in our very hearts and minds.
Now in the confrontation of the big powers occurring in our country, hundreds and perhaps thousands of Vietnamese peasants and children lose their lives every day, and our land is unmercifully and tragically torn by a war which is already twenty years old. I am sure that since you have been engaged in one of the hardest struggles for equality and human rights, you are among those who understand fully, and who share with all their heart, the indescribable suffering of the Vietnamese people. The world’s greatest humanists would not remain silent. You yourself cannot remain silent. America is said to have a strong religious foundation and spiritual leaders would not allow American political and economic doctrines to be deprived of the spiritual element. You cannot be silent since you have already been in action and you are in action because, in you, God is in action, too—to use Karl Barth’s expression. And Albert Schweitzer, with his stress on the reverence for life. And Paul Tillich with his courage to be, and thus, to love. And Niebuhr. And Mackay. And Fletcher. And Donald Harrington. All these religious humanists and many more, are not going to favor the existence of a shame such as the one mankind has to endure in Vietnam. Recently a young Buddhist monk named Thich Giac Thanh burned himself [April 20, 1965, in Saigon] to call the attention of the world to the suffering endured by the Vietnamese, the suffering caused by this unnecessary war—and you know that war is never necessary. Another young Buddhist, a nun named Hue Thien, was about to sacrifice herself in the same way and with the same intent, but her will was not fulfilled because she did not have the time to strike a match before people saw and interfered. Nobody here wants the war. What is the war for, then? And whose is the war?
Yesterday in a class meeting, a student of mine prayed: “Lord Buddha, help us to be alert to realize that we are not victims of each other. We are victims of our own ignorance and the ignorance of others. Help us to avoid engaging ourselves more in mutual slaughter because of the will of others to power and to predominance.” In writing to you, I profess my faith in Love, in Communion, and in the World’s Humanists, whose thoughts and attitude should be the guide for all humankind in finding who is the real enemy of Man.