When I witnessed the monk set fire on himself some forty years ago, the streets of Saigon had less traffic than it does now.
An American photographer got words that there might be something happening’. By day’s end, morning in Washington,
his shot sent shock waves over the wire, as flammable as the content it carried: a monk set fire on himself in protest against the iron grips of the Diem’s brothers.
My understanding of Buddhism, at least in theory, was that the monks were not supposed to act that aggressively or with open hostility
against the authority, in this case, a very repressive regime (whose leaders were later taken out).
Now, at that same street corner I found an old version and a newer memorial worthy of his protest.
Rage against the machine.
Burning napalm and burning monk.
Ambassador Lodge then must have pulled out his hair.
I have been at both places to envision how big a PR disaster it must have (nearby Salem, MA was known for burning gothic witches, but that’s a different Puritanical story).
(AP) Wire went wild.
The younger monks and nuns were all chanting, songs for the living and the dead (and in between – while waiting for the kerosene to soak up his cloak). As soon as the younger monk walked away, barely a few feet, flame started to rise.
The photo captured a young bystander leaning against his bicycle, unable to register the significance of the moment.
Stillness. Heaven and Earth froze.
No survival instinct.
No kicking or screaming.
One way ticket.
Aller sans retour.
Religion against regime.
Turn of event and of public opinion.
How can a just war gave full support to an unjust dictatorship?
It will take a lot more than PR to “spin” this.
We all know the ending to the story, from our vantage point.
The vantage point that has Vietnam on HD.
No matter what kind of technology or lenses viewers can now afford to replay the past, what’s ugly remains ugly.
To view the Vietnam conflict in all its blood and gores on HD lends new meaning to the term ” irony”.
At the memorial for the monk, as soon as I flipped the match to light an incense, I felt chill down my spine.
Someone, perhaps the younger monk, did the same on that fateful day.
After all, it’s just fire and flame.
But this one was for keeps.
It must have crossed the minds of the Diem’s brothers, before they went down, how quickly things had spiraled out of control. Perhaps as quickly as that combustible flame I saw nearly four decades ago. Time stood still that day, yet its impact reverberates for eternity.