Tuesday, January 07, 2014

A Poem, Madness [Vietnam 1963]

In October 2013 Denise and I visited the Thien Mu Pagoda in Hue, Vietnam.
After walking through the orderly, peaceful temple grounds we came upon an Austin A 95 Westminster I think it was, set into a recess. The plaque stated that this was the car that had taken the venerable Thich Quang Duc to a crossroads in central Saigon in 1963. The holy monk had then sacrificed his life by self immolation for the Buddhist cause which was at the time threatened by harsh government discrimination and persecution. The Diem government, initially supported by the US, were pro Catholic and anti Buddhist, despite Buddhism being practised by 86.5% of the population. The Catholic Archbishop of Hue was the brother of President Diem. The de facto First Lady Madame Nhu was the sister in law of the President, she was also Catholic and described by US Defense Secretary MacNamara as 'bright, forceful and beautiful, but also diabolical and scheming - a true sorceress'.

I wrote this poem in awe of the holy monk's sacrifice, and also in awe of Madame Nhu. The place where Quang Duc died is now commemorated by the Vietnamese Government. His heart did not burn – refer information below the poem - despite repeated attempts to turn it to ash, and it was stolen by Diem government forces in a raid on the Xa Loi Pagoda. Some biblical allusion is used in the poem, in fact Madame Nhu used the Judas analogy to bitterly denounce the USA's support of the assassination of Diem and his brother, Nhu her husband in 1963. 


On the eleventh day of June nineteen sixty three
the holiest of monks Thich Quang Duc sat
in a lotus position at a Saigon crossroads
and struck the match which exploded his being,

all that he had, into flame. The passion
of the fire was immense as it consumed
his gasoline doused body, becoming
sated in five minutes. But the fire within,

the Samadhi fire, which guided his vision
towards the Buddha of Infinite Light
was the greater. The holy monk uttered no sound.
There was no sound but the chanting and sobbing

of the Buddhist monks and nuns. In the gardens
of his soul perhaps he heard a bright bird
softly singing its freedom, perhaps there was
the sweetest tinkling of a bell in his

own tiered pagoda where the symmetry
of order in structure and grounds and surrounds,
the essential balance, was settling, becoming restored.
His sacred heart, fired within fire, remains forever.

Madame Nhu, the First Lady, applauded
and called for more Buddhist barbecues.
She was mad? Did this betray her compassion?
Sometimes madness must be kissed by madness.

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.[6]

In the evening of the 16th of June, a young monk came back from the crematory to report that the heart did not burn. We – the leaders at the time – instruct him to continue the cremation process for another 6 hours. The next morning the same young monk returned to Xa Loi temple with the brownish harder-than-rock heart of Quang Duc Bodhisattva, with tear on his solemn face. He reported that not only 6 hours but they tried for 10 more hours, and the heart was still intact. In my mind, I thought maybe the heart was made up of musculatory tissue which could be harder to burn – so much anatomy that I knew.”
But then four days later, another reverend master in the Tharavada tradition passed away, I witnessed his cremation, and there was nothing left but ash particles. It was only then that I remembered the joking question I asked Thich Quang Duc, and his serious promise to leave his heart behind, on the day he offered to sacrifice himself for protesting the persecution of Buddhists by the then-government regime. And this is the explanation I came up with for myself: While HT Quang Duc meditated when the fire started, he had used the Samadhi fire (v. Lửa Tam Muội) – the undaunted inner-strength fire – to consume his own heart – so that ordinary fire cannot burn his already-turned-to-quartz heart. This Samadhi fire converts the heart of Bodhisattva Quang Duc into Indestructible Diamond.”

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