Friday, Aug. 23, 1963


THE readiness of South Viet Nam's Buddhist monks and nuns to burn themselves to death as a means of protest against the government both moves and repels the West. On the surface, it seems an odd phenomenon in a religion generally regarded as passive, gentle and full of reverence for life. The paradox is caused by the fact that Buddhism, though detached and otherworldly, can at times convulse itself into action, and that its view of life as transitional can lead to an almost indifferent embrace of death. Self-immolation is not merely a sit-in carried to Oriental extremes. Although it has not occurred often—and apparently never before in Viet Nam—the practice is deeply linked to the basic nature of Buddhism, the world's fourth largest religion.

Nirvana & Dharma. Buddhism consists of three spiritual components, two traditions, and a multiplicity of sects. The first of the three components, common to all Buddhists, is the legendary life of a handsome Indian prince named Gautama, who, about 600 years before Christ, abandoned his luxurious existence after seeing four facts of life for the first time: a sick man, an old man, a dead man and a holy man. He fled to the forest to seek enlightenment, tried and abandoned the ways of the hermit and the ascetic, and, after meditating under a sacred Bodhi tree for 49 days, at last achieved Buddhahood—enlightenment, or nirvana. He spent the rest of his life walking through India with his disciples, teaching until he died at 80, leaving a final admonition: "Work out your salvation with diligence."

Gautama's teaching, the second chief component of Buddhism, is summed up in the Four Noble Truths: 1) man suffers all his life, and goes on suffering from one life to the next; 2) the origin of man's suffering is craving—for pleasure, for possessions, for cessation, of pain; 3) the cure for craving is the practice of nonattachment to everything—even to the self; 4) the way to nonattachment is the Eightfold Path—right views, right intentions, right speech, right conduct, right livelihood, right effort, right mindfulness, right meditation. The Buddha said nothing about God; no divine judgment, but an inexorable law of cause and effect called dharma determines man's weal or woe.

Third essential component of Buddhism is the vast body of monks and nuns called the sangha. In addition to celibacy and vegetarian nonviolence, monks practice poverty; traditionally the only possessions permitted are robes, a begging bowl for food, a needle, prayer beads, a razor (to shave the head once a fortnight), and a filter to remove bugs from the drinking water so as not to kill them.

Greater & Lesser Vehicles. The two great Buddhist traditions are Hinayana and Mahayana. Hinayana, the so-called Lesser Vehicle, is generally more austere and uncompromising; it holds that only monks and nuns have hope of reaching nirvana. Mahayana, the Greater Vehicle, offers hope of enlightenment to laymen as well, and stresses the compassionate concern of the Buddha for humanity. The highest Mahayana ideal is the bodhisattva, or enlightened one, who sacrifices himself for others, and Mahayana mythology contains numerous examples of sacrifices as an act of love as well as a means of liberation. Zen Buddhism, one of the subdivisions of Mahayana, imported by the Japanese from China, emphasizes a combination of prolonged meditation and shock to achieve satori, or enlightenment.

Viet Nam's Buddhism, like China's and Japan's, is predominantly Mahayana, and the suicide monks and nuns knew the numerous legends of bodhisattvas' physical sacrifices, such as that of the holy man who gave his body to a famished tigress to keep her from eating her cubs. Some Mahayana monks still aid their liberation from the body by burning the fingers off their left hands, and in the 6th century—before gasoline—monks who decided to immolate themselves completely would eat waxy and fatty foods for a couple of years so they would burn better. Theoretically Buddhism does not permit suicide, and the word is carefully avoided in favor of "sacrifice." One of Gautama's testaments, the Lotus Sutra, as interpreted by monks in Saigon, calls for all Buddhists to sacrifice themselves if their religion is in danger. One early Buddhist martyr, it is said, took his life by first punching his body full of holes and sealing them with oil, then setting fire to himself.

Feasts & Magic. The grass-roots Mahayana Buddhism in the Viet Nam villages is a long way from such grim practices. It usually takes the form of the easygoing Amidism, in which a paradise called "Pure Land" awaits the intense faithful who repeats a simple prayer. It is strongly influenced by the magical practices of corrupted Taoism, imported from China around the 7th century, and by Confucianism, which stresses ethical behavior.

Confucius emphasized family obligations, evident still in Viet Nam's ancestor worship and cult of the dead. The 15th day of the seventh month is set aside annually for the departed; the shades swoop down upon the living, who do their best to placate them with a sumptuous feast. Dressed in their best black silk and carrying burning joss sticks, the women recite invitations to their dead ancestors to partake of roast pig's head and sticks of sugar cane, peanuts and white rice. As offerings to less trencher-minded spirits, they burn paper imitations of currency and clothes.

Crusader & Yogi. In many Western eyes, Buddhism is socially useless. It has only a limited tradition of good works; the chief duty of monks and nuns is contemplation. In The Lotus and the Robot, Arthur Koestler says of Oriental mysticism in general: "The messianic arrogance of the Christian crusader is matched by the Yogi's arrogant attitude of detachment towards human suffering."

Actually, Buddhists are quite capable of the crusading spirit. In Ceylon during the 2nd century B.C., a king led his army against Indian invaders with a relic of Buddha in his spear. In Viet Nam and elsewhere, Buddhists often took an active part in fighting against colonial powers. During the Korean war, at least some Buddhists were preaching that "to wipe out the American imperialist demons is not only blameless but meritorious." Ignoring the Chinese Communists' cruel persecution of Buddhism in Tibet, some Buddhists reason (as one scholar puts it) that when the Marxists' material needs are satisfied, they will "need something spiritual above and beyond," and that Buddhism will be able to supply it. It is this sort of self-delusion—existing alongside Buddhism's nobility of spirit—that makes the Eightfold Path so full of pitfalls.