The Thien Mụ Temple (Temple of the Celestial Lady) is located thousands of miles north of the Murray River. It stands on the northern bank of the Perfume River, about 5 km upstream of Hue, the imperial capital of Vietnam. The Nguyen Dynasty commenced building the temple in 1601, and the iconic seven-story pagoda is now regarded as the unofficial symbol of Hue. We visited the site on a rainy day.
Apart from the historical significance of the temple, I wanted to see an extraordinary exhibit there – the car that took Thich Quang Duc (on 10 June 1963) to the road outside the Cambodian embassy in Saigon. The car is exhibited in this place because it belonged to the Temple’s Abbot. Although we might never know why Vincent van Gogh took his own life, we understand why Thich Quang Duc, a monk, set himself on fire with photographs of the suicide splashed worldwide. He burnt himself alive in protest.
As I looked at the car, my mind drifted back to my schoolboy days. I remembered reading the newspaper report and the horrific picture of a man in flames. The vehicle was well-preserved, and I could see a picture of a burning monk on a wall next to the car. Another photo showed a nun holding his charred heart, which remained after all the other soft tissues disintegrated in petrol-fuelled flames. His heart is now interred in the largest pagoda in Ho Chi Minh City, the Xa Loi Pagoda, the headquarters of Buddhism in Vietnam.
What prompted Thich Quang Duc to sacrifice his life? He wanted to draw attention to injustice, inequality, and corruption in the South Vietnamese Government.
Ngo Dinh Diem, the first president of the newly created South Vietnam, was born into a prominent Catholic family. His father was a high-ranking civil servant and received his education at French-speaking schools. Most Vietnamese were Buddhist (90%). Diem, however, pursued discriminatory policies favouring Catholics for public and military services, land allocation, businesses, and tax concessions. At that time, the Catholic Church was the largest landowner in the country and enjoyed special privileges. The Vatican flag was regularly flown at all major public events in South Vietnam.
The immediate event that triggered the self-immolation was the ban on flying the Buddhist flag in Hue on Vesak Day, the birthday of Gautama Buddha (May 1963). Just days before, the Government encouraged Catholics to fly the Vatican flag during a celebration for the Archbishop of Hue, Ngo Dinh Thuc (Diem’s elder brother). These events triggered a protest resulting in Government forces opening fire, killing nine people. The President refused to take responsibility and blamed the communists for stirring up trouble. This led to further Buddhist protests.
Thich Quang Duc sparked a chain reaction that changed history forever. As the Buddhist crisis deepened and spread over the ensuing months, Vietnamese generals began preparations for a coup (after obtaining tacit approval of the Americans). On 1 November 1963, the Vietnamese Army staged a coup. Ngo Dinh Diem was arrested and assassinated in the back of an M113 armoured personnel carrier. The “Burning Monk” photograph of Thich Quang Duc’s death is now a universal symbol of rebellion and the fight against injustice.
Vincent van Gogh shot himself and died a slow, quiet death. Thich Quang Duc burnt himself and died quickly for a cause larger than himself. If they did not die the way they chose, the world of Art and the World of Vietnamese nation-building would have been quite different.