This is one of the world’s most popular photos. The burning man is Thich Quang Duc, a Buddhist monk who burned himself to death in June, 1963 to protest persecution of Buddhists by South Vietnam’s Catholic government. Photographer Malcolm Brown won a Pulitzer Prize for it. President John F. Kennedy said of the photo, “no news picture in history has generated so much emotion around the world as that one.”
Duc walked to his position, sat down, doused himself with gasoline, and set himself alight. He remained perfectly still the entire time.
Can you imagine lighting a burner on your stove and then holding the tip of your finger in the flame for 3-4 seconds? Your body’s reflexes would take over and you would pull your finger out even if you were trying to keep it in. So how in the world did Duc sit motionless while he burned to death?
That is the potential power of meditation. This is the self-control that is possibly attainable when you devote some portion of your life, every day, to cultivating peace. Now of course individual results will vary based on the amount of time that is spent in daily meditation and other life choice factors, but my guess is that none of my readers are going to need the self-discipline to burn themselves alive. But if this is potentially the high end of what is possible, how might meditation help me to cultivate peace in situations that right now make me anxious? How might it help me to at last bring lust, fear, greed, laziness, and all other manner of vices under control? If it enabled Duc to withstand the fires of death, it will surely enable you and me to deal peacefully with the trials and terrors of life.
That is my goal and desire, for myself and for my readers — that we would be people of peace, but not just because we’ve learned to act peaceful or just pretend. When the heat is really on, you have to have what it takes. You must have already done the work of cultivating peace, you must be a carrier of peace, because when the flames are lapping all around you, practice is over and it’s game time.
What flames are surrounding you? Where do you need peace in your life? Where in your life do you keep finding that no matter how hard you try you cannot seem to get a hold of yourself? I encourage you to spend time every single day cultivating peace in your heart and life so that, like Quang Duc, when the heat is on, you will be able to stand firm, immovable in the midst of the flames of life all around.
I have set the Lord always before me. He is at my right hand. I shall not be moved.
After Duc’s death he was re-cremated. But his heart didn’t burn. It’s true. Here’s the pic. After self-immolation and then a formal cremation, his heart remained intact. I don’t know if there might be some medical explanation for this, or if people who work in crematoriums see this kind of thing regularly. All I know is that it stands for exactly the powerful symbol that we need. I want a heart like this — a heart that manages to sit among the flames of my life in peace, that cannot not be dissolved — a heart that prevails through suffering and the grinding disappointments of everyday life. A heart that, in the end, not even death can destroy.
If you wanted to run a marathon, you’d do what some accomplished marathon runner did, wouldn’t you? If you wanted to learn how to play guitar, you’d do what a great guitar player does, right? Seems to me if we want to learn how to sit still in the middle of the intense heat that life sometimes brings, we could do no better than to pay attention to the way Quang Duc lived. In the end, it is how he lived that can make a bigger difference to us than how he died.