The Story Behind the Burning Monk, 1963

By | May 11, 2016

In June of 1963, in a busy street in Saigon, Vietnamese Mahayana Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc burned himself to death as a protest to the South Vietnamese Diem regime’s discriminatory Buddhist laws. He hope to show that to fight all form of oppression, a sacrifice must be made. Hence his self-immolation.

Photographer Malcolm Browne of the Associated Press captured the scene and the black and white image became a paragon of a turbulent 1960s.


Buddhist discontent erupted in early May of the year when they were banned from flying the Buddhist flag during Vesak, the celebration of Gautama Buddha’s birthday. A large crowd of Buddhist defied the government and proceed on flying Buddhist flags during Vesak. They also marched on the government broadcasting station with their flags. Government forces fired on them, killing 9 protesters.

On the 10th of June, 1963, U.S. reporters were informed that “something important” would happen the next morning on the road outside the Cambodian embassy. Most of the correspondents ignored the message as the Buddhist crisis has already been an ongoing issue. The next day, only a few of the journalists turned up into the scene, including Malcolm Browne of the Associated Press and David Halberstam of The New York Times.


Duc arrived with the procession that had begun at a pagoda nearby. Around 350 monks and nuns walked the streets denouncing the Diem government and its policy against Buddhists.

Duc emerged from the car with two other monks. One placed a cushion on the road, while the other took out a five-galloon petrol can from the trunk of the car.

As the crowd of protesters formed a circle around him, Duc sat on the cushion assuming the traditional Buddhist meditative lotus position. The colleague poured the contents of the five-gallon can over Duc’s head. Duc rotated a string of wooden prayer beads, recited the words “Nam mô A di đà Phật” (homage to Amithabha Buddha), stroked a match and dropped it on himself.

Flames enveloped his robes and flesh, and black oily smoke emanated from his burning body. In English and Vietnamese, a monk repeated into a microphone: “A Buddhist priest burns himself to death. A Buddhist priest becomes a martyr”.

After about 10 minutes, Duc’s body toppled backwards onto its back, fully immolated.

Once the fire subsided, a group of monks covered the smoking body with yellow robes. They tried to fit the corpse in a coffin, but the limbs couldn’t be straightened out so they carried it to the nearby pagoda with one of the arms protruding from the wooden box.

Quang Duc’s last words before his self-immolation were documented in a letter he had left:

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 organize in solidarity to make sacrifices to protect Buddhism.

David Halberstam wrote:

I was to see that sight again, but once was enough. Flames were coming from a human being; his body was slowly withering and shriveling up, his head blackening and charring. In the air was the smell of burning human flesh; human beings burn surprisingly quickly. Behind me I could hear the sobbing of the Vietnamese who were now gathering. I was too shocked to cry, too confused to take notes or ask questions, too bewildered to even think … As he burned he never moved a muscle, never uttered a sound, his outward composure in sharp contrast to the wailing people around him.

More facts...

--Quang Duc’s body was re-cremated during the funeral. His heart did not burn and remained intact. It was considered to be holy so they placed it in a glass chalice at Xa Loi Pagoda. The heart became a symbol of compassion.

--Photos taken by Malcolm Browne quickly spread and were featured on the front pages of major newspapers worldwide. The self-immolation was said to have been the turning point in the Buddhist crisis and a critical point in the collapse of the Diem regime.

--The burning monk’s photo won Malcolm Browne the Pulitzer Prize for photography.

Photo: Malcolm Browne, Associated Press | Colored version made by mygrapefruit