I am often asked why I use the famous image of the self-immolation of Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc on my Facebook page, this website and it is also the planned cover image of my forthcoming book, so I thought id put together a post explaining my reasons.
Out of the billions of photographs that have ever been taken in the near 200 years since photography was first invented, there are some, a small selection that stands out above the rest. Of course we all have photos of fond memories; old holidays, parties, gatherings and references to past important life events, the first steps of a child, our graduation and those images held dear of loved ones, family and friends. But what about powerful images unrelated to our own personal experiences? It is here that photography enters a slightly different territory.
It is often said that a picture is worth a thousand words, due to the notion that a single image can invoke so much meaning, emotion and often challenge us on so many levels. When the subject appears somewhat contradictory to our normal, everyday worldview, or even what we are used to seeing in our daily routines, we find it’s meaning can take on many forms. Whether it confronts us to accept that others exist in a completely different reality to us, whether that be terrible famine or poverty or at the other end of the scale, swimming in exuberant wealth. Perhaps, it could provoke us, test us, annoy or shock us, whatever it may be, those photographs that has evoked so much in us, stays with us for life, imprinted on our subconscious like it has been branded with an iron.
I don’t have to physically show you the actual photographs but you should envisage immediately in your mind the exact picture when you hear the words ‘Neil Armstrong stood on the moon’ or ‘the final moments of President John F Kennedy in his open top limousine’. Go ahead, do a quick search on Google for both these images and I can guarantee that the images that you saw in your head, if only for a fleeing moment match the ones you shall now see on the screen!
For something as simple as a photograph to be committed so strongly to memory is testament to how powerful images can be. For me, the one single image which stands out above any other image I have yet to come across is the self-immolation of Vietnamese Mahayana Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc. This photograph, or series of photographs, speaks to me on so many levels, saying so many different things.
Taken during the Vietnam war on June 11th 1963 by Associated Press photographer Malcolm Browne, it won both the acclaimed Pulitzer Prize for international reporting and was awarded the World Press Photo of the Year. It is the fact that Thich deliberately covered himself in petrol and burned himself to death as an act of protest against the persecution of Buddhists by the South Vietnamese government which made the image so powerful, with John F Kennedy saying “No news picture in history has generated so much emotion around the world as that one”. So why do I find it so powerful?
Well, I suppose the most obvious answer is that the photograph not only depicts the suicide of Quang Duc, but a suicide carried out in the most horrific and painful way, but this is not the reason I find the photograph so potent. For me the answer lays in the control Quang Duc has over his mind. As an ordained Buddhist monk, he would fully understood that life is temporary. He also would have a complete understanding of reincarnation and the bardo process, as laid down within Buddhist scripture. So could we summarise that he saw his immediate life as only one in a long line of different incarnations and hence not really a big deal to leave this existence to go on to enter a new one. This is more likely true than not and even with this viewpoint, it would still take an extraordinarily amount of will to purposely end his own life in such a way.
Along with the photographer Malcolm Browne, the New York Times journalist David Halberstam was also present at the scene who gives us an extremely vivid and harrowing account of what he saw “I was to see that sight again, but once was enough. Flames were coming from a human being; his body was slowly withering and shrivelling 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“. To have control of one’s mind to the absolute optimum, requires an almost uncountable dedication to meditation, lifetimes even. This control has been demonstrated. On some level by many people over the years. From ‘normal’ mr Average using hypnosis through to the extraordinary beings of a higher consciousness.
There has been numerous stories throughout the ages of soldiers who continue on in the theatre of battle with what would be considered fatal injuries. These men continue to fight if they are in a position where they know their comrades are relying on them and quickly die as soon as the battle is over as if their mind and strength of will kept them going just that bit longer when they should of died from their injuries almost straight away. Within the treatment of terminal illness, the will and having reason to live has long been regarded as a crucial aspect of long term care.
British man Alex Lenkei had an 83-minute operation on his arm with no anaesthetic at all. He was fully conscious during the entire procedure when surgeons removed a walnut sized chunk of bone from his wrist. After his operation Lenkei said “I could feel the surgeon pulling and manipulating me – then I heard the cracking of bones. I heard him [the surgeon] say, “Can I have the saw please?” He used a hammer and chisel at one stage and I could hear him hammering away at the bone”. The medical team in the operation theatre had all the necessary anaesthetic equipment standing by but they were not needed as his heart rate and breathing remained constant throughout. This practise is common in Africa and India and in Belgium surgeons at the Cliniques Universities St. Luc say a third of their operations are done using hypnosis. Patients who undergo medical procedures under hypnosis also enjoy excellent post-operation success too. With the added suggestions given to them by the hypnotherapist to heal quicker, with less scarring and no pain all becoming evident.
The great Mahatma Gandhi had his appendix removed without the use of any anaesthetic and remained conscious throughout. Like being under a state of hypnosis, Gandhi achieved this state of his own accord, mentally turning off his pain sensations and this is the same for Quang Duc who mentally turned off the sensation of pain via a meditate state.
Although, I do have another theory as how Quang Duc achieved this feat without showing any signs of physical discomfort, in that he may have practised Mahasamadhi. This is an act which an enlightened person, as their final act, will consciously and intentionally leave their physical body. This is different than death that occurs for an unenlightened person, as a realised master knows that there is no difference of themselves and the universe around them, they have ‘mastered’ physical existence, broken the wheels of rebirth and will continue their growth on other planes. Therefore, Quang Duc may not of been actually present at the time the fire was lit.
It is interesting to note, that after the fire that had consumed Thich Duc has subsided, the monks prepared his body for a funeral and a re-cremation. After this second burning of his body, Quang Duc’s heart remained intact, the only body part to do so. It was taken as a sign by his fellow monks that indeed, enlightenment had been reached, and the heart remains on display to this day at Xa Loi Pagoda as a holy relic.
Mahasamadhi was made famous the the author of Autobiography of a Yogi, Paramahansa Yogananda, as he too took his Mahasamadhi publically. He had just finished giving a short speech at a banquet honouring India’s ambassador to the United States, Dr. Binay R. Sen, at the Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles. Like Quang Duc, Yogananda too left us with the sign of an enlighenten master, one that is best summed up by an exert of a letter from his funeral directors:
“The absence of any visual signs of decay in the dead body of Paramhansa Yogananda offers the most extraordinary case in our experience. Had the muscle protein and blood stream of the deceased not been comparatively free of bacteria, deterioration of the body could have set in as early as six hours after life had departed. No physical disintegration was visible in Paramhansa Yogananda’s body even twenty days after death.
The body was under daily observation at the Mortuary of the Forest Lawn Memorial-Park Association from March 11, 1952, the, day of the last public rites, until March 27, 1952, when the bronze casket was sealed by fire. During this period no indication of mold was visible on Paramhansa Yogananda’s skin, and no visible desiccation (drying up) took place in the bodily tissues. This state of perfect preservation of a body is, so far as we know from mortuary annals, an unparalleled one”.
So, for me the picture demonstrates that it is the mind which controls all; not only is the body subservient to it, it will be in good or bad health, reflecting our subconscious thoughts, but it also controls our immediate reality and environment. Quantum mechanics has demonstrated that in the microcosm, reality actually respond to our conscious thoughts, with each part (reality and consciousness) becoming entwined with each other.