Sri Lanka to honour Vietnam Buddhist martyr

by Janaka Perera, Lankaweb, July 10, 2014

Colombo, Sri Lanka -- Sri Lanka’s Ambassador in Vietnam Dr. Ivan Amarasinghe will be a special guest invited by the Vietnam Buddhist Sangha Council at the ceremony on Saturday July 12 – National Martyrs Day – to commemorate the sacrifice of the Buddhist monk, Venerable Thich Quang Duc 51 years ago in protest against the American-backed dictator Ngo Din Diem in what was then South Vietnam.

The commemorative event is being organized by the Vietnamese Government and the Sangha Council to be held at the National Martyrs Cemetery in Dong Ha City, Quang Tri Province.  (The 50th Anniversary of the Ven. Quang Duc’s supreme sacrifice was commemorated on July 11, last year).

At the commencement of the war against the U.S. occupation, Americans used to ridicule Vietnamese resistance fighters as “bare footed Buddhist paddies” seeking shelter under the Communist flag.

Washington began giving military aid to the Diem regime the repressive policies of which led to the formation in 1962 of the South Vietnam National Liberation Front. The NLF gained control of the rural areas by the following year. Large scale demonstrations – in which South Vietnamese workers, artisans, students, Buddhists, intellectuals and a section of the middle classes played an active role – were held in towns.

Among these the event that created the greatest impact was the much publicised self-immolation of the Buddhist monk, 66-year-old Venerable Thich Quang Duc. On June 11, 1963, he calmly sat down in a busy intersection of Saigon (now Ho Chi Minh City) in front of the Cambodian Embassy, while a fellow monk poured gasoline over his head. A moment later he set himself on fire.

Thich Quang Duc was protesting against the Diem Regime’s systemic religious discrimination against Buddhists who were not allowed to practice their religion in public, serve in the armed forces, and were routinely discriminated against despite the fact South Vietnam was in pre-dominantly Buddhist (90 percent).

Outside the country many Buddhists who had lived through the Western colonial domination in Asia and having had similar experiences of denial of religious freedom and true equality for their religion, were very much moved to extend support for South Vietnam’s Buddhist struggle.

On May 9th, 1963 unarmed Buddhists in Hue, South Vietnam attempted to fly a Buddhist flag on Phat Dan, the birthday of Gautama Buddha, they were shot dead in the street by the dictator’s army. This incident incited the major protests and civil disobedience among the country’s Buddhist population, known as the Buddhist Crisis.

Ven. Quang Duc, along with several other monks, demanded that Diem submit to their five-point -plan for equality. All they were asking for was freedom to fly the Buddhist flag, religious equality between Buddhists and Catholics, compensation for the victims’ families, an end to arbitrary arrests, and punishment for the officials responsible. Although Diem claimed he’d hear them out, upon meeting with the Buddhist delegation, he basically just told them to get out, insisting that none of this discrimination” was happening.

 The photo taken by Associated Press Photographer Malcolm Browne of Ven. Quang Duc self-immolating sent shock waves around the world. It had such a strong impact on the then U.S. President John F. Kennedy, though formerly an ardent Diem supporter, that he was quoted as saying: “No news picture in history has generated so much emotion around the world as this one“.

 Even when the fire engulfed the monk he did not even flinch, according to eye witnesses and continued to sit in meditative posture (as the pictures show) until the charred body collapsed to the ground. Even after the self-immolation and later cremation the Ven. Quang Duc’s heart remained intact.

Though the world was moved by the event South Vietnam’s de facto First Lady (1955-1963), the vicious and arrogant Madame Ngo Dinh Nhu scoffed at Ven. Quang Duc’s self-immolation and called it a barbecue.”  She said: Let them burn and we shall clap.”

She was the wife President Diem’s brother and Chief Adviser Ngo Dinh Nhu. 

Ven. Quang Duc’s self-immolation sparked a sense of solidarity among Buddhists in Vietnam and brought the fight for religious equality and freedom to a success in 1963. His remains were later re-cremated at 4,000 degree Celsius, but his heart did not burn and remained intact. Therefore, the heart was considered to be holy and placed in a glass chalice in Xa Loi Pagoda.

Thich Quang Duc was declared and honored as a Bodhisattva in 1964.

The last words of Thich Quang Duc before his self – immolation contained in a letter were as follows:

Before closing my eyes and moving towards the vision of the Buddha, I respectfully plead to President Ngo Dinh Diem to take a mind of compassion towards the people of the nation and implement religious equality to maintain the strength of the homeland eternally. I call the venerables, reverends, members of the sangha and the lay Buddhists to organise in solidarity to make sacrifices to protect Buddhism.”

Sri Lanka provided meaningful support to the Buddhists of South Vietnam. Venerable Narada Maha Thera heads the list of supporters in having made 17 journeys on Dharmaduta missions to that country. The Bauddha Jatika Balavegaya (BJB) ( Buddhist National Force) led by L.H. Mettananda spearheaded the campaign of public protest. There were public meetings and public demonstrations throughout the country.

One huge public rally held at Ananda College, Colombo sponsored by the BJB following a three hour long Buddhist demonstration in Colombo called on the Government to extend maximum support to the beleaguered Buddhists in South Vietnam.

Prime Minister Sirmavo Bandaranaike who was very sympathetic to the cause of Buddhism, promptly instructed Sri Lanka’s Ambassador to the United Nations R S S Gunawardena to highlight the grievances of Vietnamese Buddhists at the UN. His pleas articulated in an outspoken manner and with mounting evidence coming almost daily over the wires of repression of Buddhists in South Vietnam, resulted in the UN General Assembly adopting a motion on October 8, 1963 to send a UN fact – finding mission to South Vietnam to inquire into the grievances of the Buddhists.

While the UN team was in Vietnam Ngo Dinh Diem’s Government was overthrown in an Army Coup on Nov. 2, 1963.  Diem and his two brothers were killed as a result. Their downfall led to the disappearance of even a semblance to a government which the U.S. tried to establish and keep in power in the South Vietnam capital – despite the Americans installing new puppet rulers.

When Saigon fell to the liberation forces on April 30, 1975 two years after U.S. troops pulled out of Vietnam there as widespread jubilation both in and outside the country.  The Ceylon Daily News of Thursday May 1, 1975 ran pictorial article under the headline, VIETNAM IS FREE: STORY OF AN EPIC STRUGGLE.

Ambassador Amarasinghe has also been honoured to assist in building a lasting memorial in the form of a large Buddha statue in Quan Tri, around the 17th Parallel – the demilitarized zone, separating the South and North of Vietnam.  It is also where over 600,000 soldiers laid down their lives during 20 years of war (1954-1975).  The river nearby was red with blood of the dead.

The decision to build the Buddha statue was taken by the Peoples Committee of Quang Tri Province to commemorate the dead on both sides of the conflict.

According to the ambassador, the Vietnamese believe that the Sri Lankan Buddha statue has a face that emanates a special calmness, peace and radiance unparalleled elsewhere.  He has already supplied the statue in Padmasana where it will be on display in a special pagoda complex now under construction in Quang Tri. Ambassador Amarasinghe has been invited to open the complex and name it Lankaramaya in honour of Sri Lanka.

He hopes to plant there a sapling from the Sr Maha Bodhi, Anuradhapura in view of the fact that the Vietnamese believe that the spirits of their dead tend to frequent their houses and pagodas until sufficient merits are bestowed on them to move on to higher levels of the journey through samsara – the cycle of birth, death and rebirth.  Even some top Government officials have on the highest position in their residences, a Buddha Statue and on either side pictures of the departed.

They light incense every morning and pray for the departed and in turn their spiritual blessings for a productive and peaceful day. They also have similar regular practices at the cemetery where the dead were laid to rest or the Pagoda where the ashes were interred. They also believe, similar to Native Americans and many others around the world with spiritual beliefs that the “spirits” of the dead prefer to rest on trees nearby.

The three Bo saplings brought to Viet Nam by the well-known Sri Lankan Buddhist monk Most Venerable Narada Maha Thero in the 1950s are now massive trees thriving in three Pagodas in the South.

Today, Vietnam is a veritable phoenix arisen from the ashes.