11th June 1963, Vietnam : A small Buddhist uprising is ongoing. Protests against the Diem regime are now commonplace, the situation has been so for one month already. A small group of American journalists gathered outside of the Cambodian Embassy in Saigon, the busy road intersections traffic producing a low roar which permeated the air, the Journalists had been told that the Buddhists would do something, but they don’t know what. A small car approaches, a pale blue Austin Westminster, it is being followed by 2 phalanxes of Buddhists, 350 Monks and Nuns in total. In the wind their banners wave, they denounce the Diem government and its persecution of Buddhists and other religious groups. The car and procession stopped. The event began.
Thich Quang Duc and two other monks emerge from the car, the two other monks go the boot of the car and pulled out 5-gallons of gasoline and a cushion. The cushion was reverently placed in down in the centre of the road and the Buddhists form a circle around the site. Thich Quang Duc leisurely took a seat and assumed the Lotus position, both legs fold and his feet atop his lap. Wooden prayer beads hung from on hand, the reporters were nonplussed.
He began to meditate, then his associates emptied the gasoline can over his head. He made no motion to suggest he was aware of the gasoline. There was no apprehension or fear, he simply rotated the string of prayer beads, chanting a homage to Amitabha Buddha. His chanting stopped. He took a match, struck it, and dropped it.
He ignited instantly, his self-immolation began. Flames consumed his robes and flesh, black oily smoke billowing out.
The smell of burning flesh, roast pork, was covered up by the acrid burning of the gasoline and the dyes in his robes.
During the burning most spectators were shocked into silence, many people tried to save him but were repelled by the Buddhist circle he was enshrined in. Some prostrated themselves before him and his devotion. He did not stir.
Nothing but calm was displayed on his face.No sound or expression crossed his lips. A Vietnamese monk chanted over the microphone for the duration. He declared, “A Buddhist priest burns himself to death. A Buddhist priest becomes a martyr.” After ten minutes the burning stopped and the withered corpse was picked up and put into a coffin, too stiff to be moved very much, it was carried to the car with one withered arm hanging awkwardly out of the coffin.
This was photographed and widely reported, practically no-one in the Western World knew of, or had ever seen the extreme act of self-immolation, and it terrified them. The photographs of his burning are still some of the most famous photographs in the world. The shock they inspired is still considered to have been a major influence on the worlds view of Vietnam’s situation and the Diem regime.
After the photographs though, things became rather more curious. That night hundreds of Vietnamese claimed to see the face of Buddha in the sunset, and that Buddha wept. Then later, on the night of his re-cremation and funeral, 19th June, he wouldn’t burn. The thorough process had worked on everyone else but when the monks observed the ashes of Thich Quang Duc they saw a lump. His heart had remained intact, refusing to burn throughout the whole thing, a survivor of two trials by fire.
It was seen as a sign of his great compassion and to this day that heart is a holy relic. The heart of Thich Quang Duc, placed in a Glass Chalice.