The Self-Immolation of a Monk: Non-Violent Resistance.

Via elephant journal
on Dec 11, 2009
get elephant's newsletter

This iconic photo shocked, horrified and yet inspired the world.

buddhist protest fire photo

The Self-Immolation of a Monk: the Ultimate Expression of Non-Violent Resistance. A New Musical Contemplation.

Via the artist:

Someone yells fire
They scream of a fire

Closed Eyes
Calm mind
The peaceful resistance
We know
Brings more than just burned flesh
And smoke

You turn heads without screaming
You won’t be forgotten
Not tomorrow

Tomorrow the papers will
Note of a tragedy
But who will honor
That sacrafice

Someone yells fire
They scream of a fire

How we
Got here
Is less of a
More a mirror
The pages and headlines
Our fire

Destruction of future
Deception of smoke clouds
And ash
Blind tomorrow

Whether or not the images of innocent humans lighting themselves on fire was impacting to the U.S. in 1966, it had a direct impact on me. Throughout history and religion self-sacrifice is the most powerful gift or form of resistance. I think that the Buddhists gave a gift in showing their resistance. Due to these images I was inspired to write a song surrounding the idea of self-immolation, and its connection to the Vietnam War.
The first stanza of the song that is repeated again after the chorus was a combination of looking at the faces of those in the pictures who watched the burning bodies, and my reaction to those images. It started with fire, and confusion as to what was happening, but as time went on, there was both internal and external chaos. So the speechless whisper of fire turns to someone yelling fire, then screaming fire. For me the images evoked a feeling of panic.
The second stanza was in response to the utter peacefulness of those who spoke out this way. In such a calm state they were set on fire in an eerie protest of complete peace and innocence. In the midst of chaos, they were at peace with destroying their earthly body. And with this all it brings more than just the physical damage, it brings a strong profound statement of suffering and injustice as well.
In the third stanza talks of how each burning made such a statement with out any sounds or cries of pain. This allowing it to be a protest that cannot be forgotten by those who observed it, or heard of it, even if a veil of apathy is applied.
The chorus explains how not only with this event, but many in the Vietnam War, tragedys like these were rarely disclosed, and if they were, there was little or no action to correct them. So the papers and magazines would speak of something occurring, but make excuses and the government would derive new military plans and tactics. In the midst of turning it into something its not, there is little recognition and honoring of the sacrifices that were made in Vietnam, not only from the Buddhist monks and nuns, but also from all sides. Its repeated to show the repetition of that, the way it cycles on constantly.
After the chorus the initial stanza repeats again, once more representing repetition, but this time specifically of the self-immolation protests. The fourth stanza is about the United States reaction and the irony of it. To get to the point where monks are burning themselves to death, there has to be a catalyst, and we are basically looking in the mirror at it. We put Diem into power and supported him, up until he was no help to us, then we supported Ky. Both of these powers oppressed the Buddhist community that made up the majority of the Vietnamese population. Any articles and stories that show the tragedies in Vietnam like these protests were a direct reflection of our policies in Vietnam.
The last stanza is a question of where things can go from that point of self-sacrifice. There is deception of the smoke because it seems so dark and horrific, yet the Monks knew it would draw attention to an extremely unjust war. So while the future seemed like it was being destructed, there was hope with the smoke and ash, that people still might care enough to do something.
The art project is an extension of the song. It was a response to the honor I felt they needed from doing something so sacrificial as burning themselves. The mirror underneath is to remind us that we need to be happy with what our reflection on the world is, the shape of that mirror is a heart. The heart is to represent the hearts of the Buddhists, that myth says never would burn, so they are still present on earth as a reminder of those men and women. The glass in back is dark to represent the smoke and the color of the ashes, but around it is hemp symbolizing the growth and life that can come from protesting for peace. The candles are burnt because of the high importance placed on honoring the dead in Vietnam, and the sand or dirt is at the bottom to show how they sat on dirt roads to end their lives.
Its simple, however I felt it was necessary in some way to recognize the twelve Vietnamese that gave up their lives in hopes it would bring peace to a broken country.


About elephant journal

elephant journal is dedicated to "bringing together those working (and playing) to create enlightened society." We're about anything that helps us to live a good life that's also good for others, and our planet. >>> Founded as a print magazine in 2002, we went national in 2005 and then (because mainstream magazine distribution is wildly inefficient from an eco-responsible point of view) transitioned online in 2009. >>> elephant's been named to 30 top new media lists, and was voted #1 in the US on twitter's Shorty Awards for #green content...two years running. >>> Get involved: > Subscribe to our free Best of the Week e-newsletter. > Follow us on Twitter Fan us on Facebook. > Write: send article or query. > Advertise. > Pay for what you read, help indie journalism survive and thrive.


7 Responses to “The Self-Immolation of a Monk: Non-Violent Resistance.”

  1. Comments on FB:
    Interesting art project. Although I can't agree that violence inflicted upon oneself is the ultimate expression of non-violence. It is still violence.

    good point-Ehron.

    Waylon Lewis
    Altho, the Buddha said that if your only choice to prevent violence was to kill an aggressor and save many, that was best. From that pov the monk inspired and woke up half the world with his (in)famous expression of non-violent protest.

  2. More via FB:

    While I agree that it was effective in bringing attention to the issues, and feel that I understand the Buddha's teaching which you've quoted — I still do not agree with the idea that self-violence is the ultimate expression of non-violence. It might have been an effective form of protest at the time, but to say that it was a non-violent protest is just not true. Self-violence is violence, no matter what the intent or result.

    interesting debate here….

    Ahimsa begins with one's self!

    Waylon Lewis
    Great points and hard to disagree. Still, I think ahimsa begins and ends even more fundamentally, with one's intention—clearly this monk was trying in the only way he could to bring international attention to the thousands upon thousands of villages, families, children, land being destroyed by a senseless war. He did that. He clearly had zero aggression toward himself—his aim was not violence, but peace.

  3. elaine says:

    A violent act, regardless of intent.

  4. Liz says:

    I agree with Waylon here. I classify self-immolation differently than suicide. The intention is not to get oneself out of suffering (as suicide is likely to be) but to relieve the suffering of others. It is a strong, unselfish act to point to the atrocity and ultimate folly of war and killing others. If they truly felt there was no other way to send that message then they were doing the most peaceful thing they could. Sister Chan Khong (Vietnamese student of Thich Naht Hanh starting in Vietnam in the 60's), in "Learning True Love: How I Learned and Practiced Social Change in Vietnam" (1993, Parallax Press) says, "I know in the West it is hard to understand why Vietnamese burned themselves. It looked like a violent act. Please try to be in the heart and mind of the person forming such an act of great love and sacrifice. To move the hearts of the hardest men and women, you have to give a gift of great value– even your own life" (p. 39).

  5. Jim Tolstrup says:

    Another photo of the same period shows a Vietnamese girl running down the road naked because napalm had burned her clothes (and much of her skin) off. I think this monk and others like him felt that awareness needed to be brought to the level of violence the people were living with. It's a timely discussion with Obama's remarks upon receiving the Nobel Prize that sometimes violence is justified because there is evil in the world. But who is to say who the evil one is?

  6. I saw about this subject several days ago in another article and the dominant facts that you bring to attention here are very alike

  7. […] road, you know you are sacrificed. Instead of retreating to the empty promises of the low road, you accept the sacrifice even if puts nails through your wrists (or, in our slightly more civilized age, plastic handcuffs). Of course, not everyone is meant to be […]