Before we left for Vietnam, each of us had to provide extra information to the Hue provincial authorities, who thought a group of Americans traveling together might constitute a problem. Or at least be worth keeping track of. There is, after all, a history of activism in the area.
In May of 1963, a protest in Hue against President Ngô Đình Diệm’s brutal persecution of Buddhists ended in nine deaths that Diệm, a Roman Catholic, blamed on the Communists. On 11 June 1963, the Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc went by car from the An Quang Pagoda in Saigon to a busy intersection where he sat in the lotus position while gasoline was poured over him and set himself on fire. Malcom Browne’s photograph of this event stunned the world, which saw in it proof that all was not well with the propping up the United States was doing to the South Vietnamese government.
The car Thich Quang Duc rode in, an Austin, now sits in an open shelter at Thien Mu (Celestial Lady) Pagoda in Hue. Browne’s photograph hangs on the back wall. In it the car, a pale robin’s egg blue, sits across the middle ground behind the orange flames of the burning monk. (The hood of the car is open. Is that important? I think it must be but I can find no mention of this detail.)
Someone drove that car from Saigon to Hue, a distance of over 900 kilometers, where it was set in a shelter as in a niche for a holy image. It is not meant only for the monks, for it is on display along the path, the sign in front of it written in both Vietnamese and English. For me, the sight of the car jarred loose the memory of the event, the horror of the act and the discipline required to endure it. I have no tools with which to approach self-immolation as an act of protest so I return to the car.
If I understand correctly, the Buddhist concept of “vehicle” as referring to the spiritual path derives from a word that means a literal mode of transportation. The sign in front of the car identifies it as a “relic.” Perhaps it has been preserved in this way because those familiar with the teachings would see in it not the machine that took the monk from the pagoda to the intersection but a metaphor for the spiritual journey that brought him to his final act? I can only speculate about this and would welcome instruction.
I walked around the grounds of the Thien Mu Pagoda enjoying the pleasing proportions, the tended gardens, the color and light. I assumed I understood beauty in such a place. I carried with me my desire to see only the harmony of human-made creation within the natural environment. I wanted to believe that such a place reflected the tranquility of a life spent in meditation.
But then there is that car.