Thich Nhat Nanh. "In Search of the Enemy of Man (addressed to (the Rev.)
Martin Luther King)." In Nhat Nanh, Ho Huu Tuong, Tam Ich, Bui Giang,
Pham Cong Thien. Dialogue. Saigon: La Boi, 1965. P. 11-20.
Insert abstract here....
The self-burning of Vietnamese Buddhist monks in 1963 is somehow difficult for the Western
Christian conscience to understand. The Press spoke then of suicide, but in the essence, it
is not. It is not even a protest. What the monks said in the letters they left before burning
themselves aimed only at alarming, at moving the hearts of the oppressors and at calling the
attention of the world to the suffering endured then by the Vietnamese. To burn oneself by fire
is to prove that what one is saying is of the utmost importance. There is nothing more painful
than burning oneself. To say something while experiencing this kind of pain is to say it with
the utmost of courage, frankness, determination and sincerity. During the ceremony of ordination,
as practiced in the Mahayana tradition, the monk-candidate is required to burn one, or more,
small spots on his body in taking the vow to observe the 250 rules of a bhikshu, to live the
life of a monk, to attain enlightenment and to devote his life to the salvation of all beings.
One can, of course, say these things while sitting in a comfortable armchair; but when the words
are uttered while kneeling before the community of sangha and experiencing this kind of pain,
they will express all the seriousness of one's heart and mind, and carry much greater weight.
The Vietnamese monk, by burning himself, say with all his strengh [sic] and determination that
he can endure the greatest of sufferings to protect his people. But why does he have to burn
himself to death? The difference between burning oneself and burning oneself to death is only a
difference in degree, not in nature. A man who burns himself too much must die. The importance
is not to take one's life, but to burn. What he really aims at is the expression of his will and
determination, not death. In the Buddhist belief, life is not confined to a period of 60 or 80 or
100 years: life is eternal. Life is not confined to this body: life is universal. To express will
by burning oneself, therefore, is not to commit an act of destruction but to perform an act of
construction, i.e., to suffer and to die for the sake of one's people. This is not suicide.
Suicide is an act of self-destruction, having as causes the following:
This self-destruction is considered by Buddhism as one of the most serious crimes. The monk who
burns himself has lost neither courage nor hope; nor does he desire non-existence. On the
contrary, he is very courageous and hopeful and aspires for something good in the future. He does
not think that he is destroying himself; he believes in the good fruition of his act of
self-sacrifice for the sake of others. Like the Buddha in one of his former lives — as told in a
story of Jataka — who gave himself to a hungry lion which was about to devour her own cubs, the
monk believes he is practicing the doctrine of highest compassion by sacrificing himself in order
to call the attention of, and to seek help from, the people of the world.
- lack of courage to live and to cope with difficulties
- defeat by life and loss of all hope
- desire for non-existence (abhava)
I believe with all my heart that the monks who burned themselves did not aim at the death of the
oppressors but only at a change in their policy. Their enemies are not man. They are intolerance,
fanaticism, dictatorship, cupidity, hatred and discrimination which lie within the heart of man.
I also believe with all my being that the struggle for equality and freedom you lead in
Birmingham, Alabama... is not aimed at the whites but only at intolerance, hatred and
discrimination. These are real enemies of man — not man himself. In our unfortunate father land
we are trying to yield desperately: do not kill man, even in man's name. Please kill the real
enemies of man which are present everywhere, in our very hearts and minds.
Now in the confrontation of the big powers occurring in our country, hundreds and perhaps
thousands of Vietnamese peasants and children lose their lives every day, and our land is
unmercifully and tragically torn by a war which is already twenty years old. I am sure that
since you have been engaged in one of the hardest struggles for equality and human rights, you
are among those who understand fully, and who share with all their hearts, the indescribable
suffering of the Vietnamese people. The world's greatest humanists would not remain silent. You
yourself can not remain silent. America is said to have a strong religious foundation and
spiritual leaders would not allow American political and economic doctrines to be deprived of the
spiritual element. You cannot be silent since you have already been in action and you are in
action because, in you, God is in action, too — to use Karl Barth's expression. And Albert
Schweitzer, with his stress on the reverence for life and Paul Tillich with his courage to be,
and thus, to love. And Niebuhr. And Mackay. And Fletcher. And Donald Harrington. All these
religious humanists, and many more, are not going to favour the existence of a shame such as the
one mankind has to endure in Vietnam. Recently a young Buddhist monk named Thich Giac Thanh
burned himself [April 20, 1965, in Saigon] to call the attention of the world to the suffering
endured by the Vietnamese, the suffering caused by this unnecessary war — and you know that war
is never necessary. Another young Buddhist, a nun named Hue Thien was about to sacrifice herself
in the same way and with the same intent, but her will was not fulfilled because she did not have
the time to strike a match before people saw and interfered. Nobody here wants the war. What is
the war for, then? And whose is the war?
Yesterday in a class meeting, a student of mine prayed: "Lord Buddha, help us to be alert to
realize that we are not victims of each other. We are victims of our own ignorance and the
ignorance of others. Help us to avoid engaging ourselves more in mutual slaughter because of the
will of others to power and to predominance." In writing to you, as a Buddhist, I profess my
faith in Love, in Communion and in the World's Humanists whose thoughts and attitude should be
the guide for all human kind in finding who is the real enemy of Man.
June 1, 1965