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Buddhist-Christian Studies 20 (2000) 127-150

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They Who Burned Themselves for Peace: Quaker and Buddhist Self-Immolators during the Vietnam War

Sallie B. King
James Madison University

Nhat Chi Mai was a lay disciple of Thich Nhat Hanh and member of the Order of Interbeing, an Engaged Buddhist order founded by Nhat Hanh. On May 16, 1967, Vesak, the celebration of the birth of the Buddha, she burned herself to death outside the Tu Nghiem Temple, a nunnery. An idealistic young student with much to live for, she sacrificed herself in an effort to bring the war to an end. In a letter to the U.S. government she wrote,

I offer my body as a torch
to dissipate the dark
to waken love among men
to give peace to Vietnam
the one who burns herself for peace. 1

In her farewell letter to Thich Nhat Hanh she wrote, "Thay, don't worry too much. We will have peace soon." 2

On November 2, 1965, Norman Morrison, a devout Quaker and ardent pacifist, drove from Baltimore to Washington and burned himself to death at the Pentagon, at a spot estimated to be 40 to 100 feet from the window of Robert S. McNamara, then Secretary of Defense and one of the chief American prosecutors of the war. Shortly before his death, he wrote to his wife, "For weeks even months I have been praying only that I be shown what I must do. This morning with no warning I was shown. . . . Know that I love thee but must act. . . ." 3 Morrison took his baby daughter, Emily, along with him and held her in his arms as he prepared for his act. Somehow--accounts differ as to how it happened--she was separated from her father before the flames engulfed him and she emerged entirely unharmed, though her clothing smelled strongly of the kerosene with which Morrison had soaked himself. 4

There were others who burned themselves to death during the war in Vietnam. The venerable Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc was the first. On June 11, 1963, [End Page 127] at a downtown crossroads in Saigon, he sat in the lotus posture and, in a state of meditative control, burned himself to death in protest of the Diem regime's repression of the Buddhist religion. Many Vietnamese Buddhist monks and nuns followed his example; I do not know all their names, or exactly how many they were.

In America, to my knowledge, eight people burned themselves to death during the war. Two were Quakers: Norman Morrison and Alice Herz. Roger LaPorte, a former Trappist seminarian who had become a Catholic worker, burned himself to death one week after Norman Morrison. The others were: Hiroko Hayasaki, a Japanese-American Buddhist; Erik Thoen, a student of Zen Buddhism; another university student, George Winne; a high school student, Ronald Brazee; and Florence Beaumont, described as a "housewife." A number of others attempted self-immolation but survived. 5

In this paper I will focus upon the self-immolations of Norman Morrison and Nhat Chi Mai. I will also have a few comments on Thich Quang Duc. My remarks are intended, however, to have relevance to all the Buddhist and Quaker self-immolators. 6

Let us now consider in more detail some of the features of the self-immolations of Norman Morrison and Nhat Chi Mai, and some of the issues they pose to the Quaker and Buddhist communities, respectively.

Precipitating Events

While neither act was the result of a moment's impulse, we still would do well to ask what events most proximately precipitated the two self-immolations. In Norman Morrison's case, the precipitating events were two. The morning of the day he immolated himself he read a report of the American bombing of a village in Vietnam. Paris Match had published an interview with a French priest, recuperating in a Saigon clinic, who had witnessed and survived the bombing raid. The priest said, "I have seen my faithful burned up in napalm. . . . I have seen...