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The Religions of South Vietnam in Faith and Fact, US Navy, Bureau of Naval Personnel, Chaplains Division [1967], at

Vietnamese Self-Sacrifice Customs

Vietnam is a land of tradition and ancient customs. From time to time the American is "shocked" to see, read or hear of Buddhists who set themselves afire as part of a technique to achieve certain goals in which they believe. The difference of religiously influenced cultures may create an obstacle to ready understanding of this custom.

According to ancient Vietnamese custom, anyone who feels themselves to be mistreated, or has a claim which demands satisfaction but does not receive attention, may secure redress by going on a "hunger strike", by lying down and refusing to move until the "guilty party" gives in. This may continue until death occurs if necessary. The origin of this custom seems to have arisen from the Vietnamese horror of scandal in a society which has a basic tenet of getting along with one's fellowman. Such a sense gives vivid evidence that the accused must not be a good person, or such a scene would not be necessary.

By such actions as lying down, refusing to move or eat, etc., the victim attracts attention of neighbors and even the authorities to his claims, and these increase pressure on the "guilty" and promote chances of success in "obtaining justice". It is a personal martyrdom as a protest against bad judgment!

Suicide is not uncommon, but in such cases either someone is told the reasons of this drastic action or else a note is left in which the grievances are set forth as the cause of the action. Ancient Vietnamese law incriminates those who cause such suicide and classify it "murder by oppression".

The procedure for creating such scandal is an outgrowth of the Confucian teachings of the ideal relationships that are to exist between child and parent, wife and husband, ruled and ruler, individual and society. When the Buddhist concept of the endless "Wheel of Existence" is added, the climate is established wherein

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suicide for cause is given a radically different slant than most Americans accept.

Awareness that hunger strikes and "suicide for cause" have a long tradition in Vietnam should provide a better understanding of such actions when these occur. Should one be present when self-destruction is about to occur, intervention to save life is acceptable if timed to "save face" as it provides adequate opportunity to express one's grievance without the necessity of painful death. Since such possibly violent actions are viewed in a different context by the Vietnamese population as a whole than is normal for Americans, it is imperative that acceptable solutions which do not violate principles be sought when possible. Having considered all possible solutions to a situation and having accepted one as being the only valid recourse of action, it may be just as necessary to act or refrain from acting as it is for the sincere Buddhist to set himself afire to express protest.

Since it is normally the Mahayana Buddhists of Vietnam who engage in this fiery death voluntarily, the statement of a leading Vietnamese Buddhist monk may be of help in understanding just how such deaths are viewed by the Buddhists, and to what extent these may be either encouraged or discouraged by religious doctrines found in Vietnam. "Reverend" Tich Tam Giac is a graduate of the Vietnam Institute of Buddhist Studies, Saigon, South Vietnam and his statement "The Meaning of Self-Burning in the Doctrine of Buddhism", was in December 1963 "World Fellowship of Buddhist Bulletin", p. 3. Since he is a Mahayana Buddhist monk speaking about a Mahayana Buddhist custom in Vietnam, his words are quoted:

To burn oneself by fire is to prove that what one is saying is of the utmost importance. There is nothing more painful than burning oneself. To say something while experiencing this kind of pain is to say it with the utmost of courage, frankness, determination and sincerity. During the ceremony of ordination, as practiced in the Mahayana tradition, the monk-candidate is required to burn one or several small spots on his body in taking the vow to observe the 250 rules of a Ghiksu (Monk), to live the life of a monk, to get enlightenment, and to devote his life for the salvation of all beings. One can, of course, say these things while sitting in a comfortable arm chair, but when these words are uttered when kneeling before a community of Sangha (Buddhist clergymen) and experiencing this kind of pain, they will express all seriousness of one's heart and mind, and carry much greater weight. In the Sadharma Pundarika, one of the most famous suttras (Chapters of Scripture) of Mahayana Buddhism, we see a Bohhisattawa burning one of his arms to express the determination to work for the salvation of all beings.

The Vietnamese monk, by burning himself, says with all his strength and determination that he can endure the greatest of suffering to protect Buddhism, that he is protesting with all his being the policy of religious oppression and persecution. But why does he burn himself to death? The difference between burning oneself and burning oneself to death is only a difference in degree, not nature. A man who burns himself too much must die. The importance is not to take one's life, but to burn. What he really aims at is the expression of his will and determination, not death. In the Buddhist belief, life is not confined to a period of 60 to 80 or 100 years. Life is eternal. Life is not confined to this body--life is universal. To express will and protest by burning oneself, therefore, is not to commit an act of destruction but to perform an act of construction (or consecration), i.e., to suffer and to die for the sake of one's religion and one's people. This is not suicide. Suicide is an act of destruction having the following causes:

-- lack of courage to live and cope with difficulties

-- despair of life and loss of hope

-- desire of non-existence (Abhava)

This self-destruction is considered by Buddhism as one of the most serious crimes. The monk who burns himself has lost neither courage nor hope, nor does he desire nonexistence. On the contrary, he is very courageous, hopeful and aspiring for something good in the

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future. He does not think he is destroying himself; he believes in the good fruition of his act of self-sacrifice for the sake of others. Like the Buddha in one of his former lives--as told in a story of Jataka--who gave himself to a hungry lion which was about to devour her own cubs, the monk believes he is practicing the doctrine of the highest compassion by sacrificing himself in order to call the attention of, or to seek help from, the people of the world.

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