Monks & Mandala art installation - Burning Man 2003
(17-foot-tall painted images of saffron-robed monks)

Gregg Chadwick ~~ Dimitri Kourouniotis~~ Clay Vajgrt


Monks & Mandala, Burning Man 2003

--Gregg Chadwick, Dimitri Kourouniotis, Clay Vajgrt

Photo: Nicole DeMeo



Monks & Mandala, Burning Man 2003

--Gregg Chadwick, Dimitri Kourouniotis, Clay Vajgrt


Monks & Mandala Procession



Through the flames



by Kent Chadwick



Holocaust, self-sacrifice, strange fire,

they chose to burn, burn alive in protest—

Vietnamese religious suicides

followed by American—flames to end

a regime, a war, all wars through horror.

Immolations for freedom, for world peace,

terrible acts of purity and faith,

death and violence against killing, war,

suspect yet effective inspirations.

10        See the Saigon intersection where monks

have gathered, blocked traffic, parked a small car

on June 11, 1963.

See through Malcolm Browne’s lens, see through David

Halberstam’s newswire, reporters called

by western-savvy organizers

to be the carriers, the conduits

of the Buddhists’ message to Kennedy:

“Stop the Ngo brothers’ persecutions.”

Ngo Dinh Diem is the president,

20        Ngo Dinh Nhu the security chief,

Ngo Dinh Can warlord of Hué province,

Ngo Dinh Luyen an ambassador,

Ngo Dinh Thuc the archbishop of Hué,

French-educated, Catholic quislings,

last oligarchs of the ancien régime

at war with the Buddhist sects, having banned

public displays of faith—flags or marches.

But the monks of Hué, the scholars’ city,

Vietnam’s center of Buddhist learning,

30        defied the ban on Buddha’s birthday that

the Ngo’s had not enforced days before

on the twenty-fifth anniversary

of Dinh Thuc’s installation as bishop.

Armored army troops attacked the faithful—

nine killed, two children, and fourteen wounded.

Thousands marched in outrage.  The Buddhist sects

united around a manifesto

to the government of South Vietnam

demanding punishment, compensation,

40        equal treatment for Buddhists, Catholics.

Diem considered compromising but

Tru Le Xuan, Nhu’s grasping wife, ridiculed

the effort and he equivocated,

signed a communiqué but then added

a note calling the Buddhist sects “damn fools.”


See Thich Quang Duc emerge from the Austin.

He’s 73, practiced ascetic,

a rebuilder of temples, director

of rituals, monk at Hué’s Quan The Am

50        temple and prepared in his saffron robe,

though weak now.  He’s helped to the street crossing  

where he sits in the lotus position

how he has sat his whole life, whole career,

looking to become a bodhisattva,

volunteer for a Buddhist martyr’s death.

His life is his to give away today.

His fellow monks pour the pink mix of half

gasoline half diesel fuel they tested

for the hottest, longest possible flame

60        onto Quang Duc’s robes and head, as he stays

silent, meditating, holding the match.


Does he think of ancient Godhika high

on Black Rock, Isigili mountain, who’d

reached release six times in meditation

only to fall back into samsāra?

The seventh time Godhika slit his throat.

Buddha and his monks were traveling then

to see him, but saw a dark cloud instead,

raging across the whole sky.  “That’s Mara

70        the Wicked,” Buddha said, “looking to see

where Godhika’s consciousness has been hid.

But Godhika has achieved nirvana;

his consciousness is established nowhere.”


Quang Duc says “nan mo amita Buddha,

nan mo amita Buddha,” repeating,

saying “return to eternal Buddha,”

strikes the match and drops it on his wet robe.

Flame becomes a force around him, billows

of orange flames, black smoke separating

80        him from his fellow monks and gray-robed nuns

consuming him as he maintains perfect

posture, meditating through the flames and

into death.  The flames around him, over

him, reaching up to twice his sitting height.

Duc’s robe, face blackening, eyes clenched in pain,

the sickening smell of his burning flesh

affecting the crowd. Halberstam notes how

“human beings burn surprisingly quickly.”

Monks block a fire truck from responding,

90        and unfurl a sign for the western press:

“A Buddhist priest burns for Buddhist demands.”

Quang Duc burns for ten minutes—forever

in Browne’s photos, shaking America.


Nothing like this in Christianity

where suicides were assigned, by Dante,

as bleeding stumps to hell’s seventh circle.

But Christendom had witnessed in the past

suicides of faith and of defiance.

The First Crusade in 1095 began

100      with a little Rhineland house cleaning

rampaging knights killing Jewish neighbors

who refused to convert.  And many Jews

chose to follow the example of the

defenders of Masada—suicide

before apostasy or agony.

Then again during the Black Death, blamed on

Jews by the Christian public, crowds attacked,

razed throughout Europe five hundred Jewish

neighborhoods.  Vienna’s Rabbi Jonah

110      gathered his people in their synagogue

where they killed themselves before being killed.

The synagogues of Worms, Krems, Oppenheim,  

and Frankfurt did the same.

The New World too—defiant suicides—

Indians by the thousands in Spanish

America killed themselves instead of

submitting to church, state, and slavery.


Quang Duc’s body twists forward as the flames

diminish.  His compatriots gather

120      his rigid, sitting corpse, which cannot fit

in the coffin they brought.  As they drive past,

Browne sees a charred arm sticking out, smoking.


Tru Le Xuan, when she hears the news, declares

Duc’s death a barbecue and offers free

gasoline and matches to other monks.

“Let them burn!” she said, “We shall clap our hands.”

But the Kennedy Administration

wasn’t clapping, not with such a photo

on the front page.  “How could this have happened?”

130      asks, shouts JFK, “Who are these people?

Why didn’t we know about them before?”

Then fiery August: Thich Nguyen Huong

burns himself alone in Phanthiet, and

next seventeen-year-old Thich Thanh Thuc in Hué,

then a Buddhist nun, Dieu Quang, in Ninh Hoa,

and again in Hué, elder Thich Tieu Dieu.

The administration shifts its support

and signals encouragement for a coup.

Secretary of State Rusk, when asked why

140      by Ambassador Nolting in Saigon,

says, “We cannot stand any more burnings.”

But they continue with monk Thich Quang Huong

in October near the Saigon market—

Halberstam, others alerted again—

Quang Huong alone pours the gas, lights the match.

Police grab, kick the watching journalists.

A hundred more Buddhists prepare to die.


November, the Ngo’s are overthrown,

Diem, Nhu, and Can assassinated

150      by American-minded generals,

Thuc, Luyen, and Tru Le Xuan in exile.

Three weeks later Kennedy lies dead too.

The U.S. now takes control of the war.

And the other war continues between

the new South Vietnamese Government

and the sects.  The Buddhist leaders engage

in continued social protest trying

to define a Third Way, not that of the

Viet Cong nor that of the government.

160      Self-sacrificial burnings their main strength.


“Such grisly scenes have not been witnessed since

Christian martyrs marched hand in hand into

Roman arenas,” Senator Frank Church.

lamented to his Senate Committee.

Nothing like this in Christianity.

Until Alice Herz, 82 year-old

pacifist, Quaker, Unitarian

Universalist, on March the 16th

1965, utterly alone,

170      no monks, no nuns, no priests standing with her,

covers herself with cleaning fluid flames

on a downtown street corner in Detroit.

“I did it to protest the arms race all

over the world,” she told a fireman

attending to her burns in the ambulance,

“I wanted to burn myself like the monks

in Vietnam did.”  Her note denounced the

“use of high office by our President,

in trying to wipe out small nations.

180      I want to call attention to this problem

by choosing the illuminating death of a Buddhist.”


Then exactly two years after the coup

against Diem, Norman Morrison acts

out the tale of Abraham and Isaac

outside the Secretary of Defense

Robert McNamara’s office at the

Pentagon.  Secretary of the Friends

Meeting in Baltimore, Morrison is

32, father of three, including

190      one-year-old Emily whom he carries

with his accelerant to the very

steps of the Pentagon.  He puts her down

away from where he makes his own altar

and lays himself upon it with fire.

“Unreasonable, unconventional

act of faith” he said once teaching the tale,

and he wrote to his wife, “Dearest Anne, Please

don’t condemn me … For weeks, even months,

I have been praying only that I be

200      shown what I must do.  This morning I was shown …

At least I shall not plan to go without

my child, as Abraham did.  Know that I

love thee but must act for the children …” 


Outside the United Nations one week

later, Roger LaPorte, a 22

year-old Catholic Worker sits at dawn

and sets himself on fire.  U.N guards

put out the flames, ask him why he did this.

“I am against war, all wars,” he explains,  

210      “I did this as a religious action.”

As he’s treated for his critical burns

New York goes dark—it is the great blackout

of ‘65.  LaPorte dies in two days.


Now in Vietnam Thich Quang Duc becomes

a Buddhist hero and bodhisattva.

The car that carried him will be enshrined,

and the tactic of self-immolation

is celebrated in repetition

against the government, against the war,

220      peaking in ’66 and ’67.

In May ’66 four young women burn

themselves to death and three more burn in June.

A year later Nhat Chi Mai prepares a

poetry banner that proclaims her wish:

“Kneeling down with my lotus-shaped hands

I ask Virgin Mary and Bodhisattva

Avalokitesavara to help

me to have my wish fulfilled.  I offer

my body as a torch to repel

230      darkness, to awaken human beings,

to bring peace to Vietnam,” before she

burns herself on Vesak, Buddha’s birthday.

50,000 march in her funeral.


But in America after LaPorte’s

suicide, the Catholic Worker leaders

Dorothy Day and Tom Cornell, with priest

Daniel Berrigan, all urge activists

not to follow this path, question whether

self-immolation was true non-violence.

240      Their lives aren’t theirs, but God’s to give away.

The movement turns from this tactic, believes

there are living sacrifices as strong

as dying ones, remembers with regret

burning Buddhists—burning monks, burning nuns—

burning Catholics, and burning Quakers,

calling for peace with their flesh through the flames.





Lines 10-18:     A.J. Langguth, Our Vietnam: The War 1954-1975, (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000), pp. 211-214.

Line 21:           Howard Jones, Death of a Generation: How the Assassinations of Diem and JFK Prolonged the Vietnam War, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2003), p. 253.

Lines 26-45:     Langguth, pp. 211-212.

Line 45:           Jones, p. 253.

Line 47:           Jones, p. 268.

Lines 47-50:     Rollie Hicks, “Self-Immolation of Thich Quang Duc,”

Lines 51-61:     Lannguth, pp. 214-215.

Lines 62-73:     Edward J. Thomas, The History of Buddhist Thought, (New York: Dover Publishing, 2002), p. 131. The story of Godhika achieving nirvana is from the Dhammapada.

Lines 74-76      Jones, 268.

Lines 77-92:     Lannguth, p. 215.

Lines 97-105:   Will Durant, The Age of Faith, (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1950), pp. 389-392.

Lines 106-113:  Will Durant, The Reformation, (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1957), p. 731

Lines 114-117:  Durant, The Reformation, p. 765.

Lines 118-126:  Langguth, pp. 215-216.

Line 129-131:   Jones, p. 271.

Line 132-133:   David Halberstam, “Suicide’s Body Kept From Buddhists in Vietnam,” The New York Times, August 6, 1963, pg. 3.

Line 134:         David Halberstam, “Another Buddhist Immolates Himself,” The New York Times, August 14, 1963, p. 1.

Line 135:         David Halberstam, “Nun’s Act a Surprise,” The New York Times, August 16, 1963, p. 3.

Line 135:         Vietnam Culture & Information website, “Dieu Quang,”

Line 136:         Associated Press Wire Service, “2 More Buddhists Suicides by Burning in Vietnam Protest,” The New York Times, August 16, 1963, p. 1.

Line 139-141:   Jones, p. 317.

Line 142:          Vietnam Culture & Information website, “Quang Huong Gia Lam,”

Line 142-147:    Jones, p. 386.

Lines 162-165:  Jones, p. 271.

Lines 166-181:  Matt Sollett, “Alice Herz, Roger LaPorte, George Winne,”

Lines 182-203:  Anne Morrison Welsh, “Norman Morrison, Deed of Life, Deed of Death,” Winds of Peace: Newsletter for Madison Friends’ Project in Vietnam, January 2003, pp. 4-5,

Lines 204-210:  Thomas Buckley, “Man, 22, Immolates Himself In Antiwar Protest at U.N.,” New York Times, November 10, 1965, A-1.

Lines 211-213:  Tom Cornell, “Catholic Worker Pacifism: An Eyewitness to History,” Catholic Worker website,

Lines 220-222:  Robert Topmiller, Ph.D., “Struggling For Peace: The Unrecognized Sacrifices of Buddhist Women During the Vietnam War,” Thu Vien Quang Duc website,

Lines 223-232:  Dr. Quan Nhu, “Nhat Hanh’s Peace Activities,”

Line 233:          Topmiller.

Lines 234-238:  Cornell.