“The self-burning of Vietnamese Buddhist monks in 1963,” explained the Venerable monk Thich Nhat Hanh in his June 1, 1965 letter to Martin Luther King, Jr., “is somehow difficult for the Western Christian conscience to understand.”
To King’s “Western Christian conscience,” the practice of self-immolation was indeed incomprehensible. Therefore, King “turned to” Thich Nhat Hanh (whom he considered a friend) for help in understanding this practice, which to King appeared to be suicide driven by despair about our nation’s war on Vietnam. “The Press spoke then of suicide,” Hanh continued in his letter, “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.” Steeped in their Buddhist practices, the nuns and monks who burned themselves thus performed an “act of construction” rather than “an act of destruction,” Hanh wrote, because to die in this way is “to suffer and to die for the sake of one’s people.”
This letter came to my mind when I heard that David S. Buckel had doused himself in gasoline and then set himself on fire in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park last Saturday. Like the Buddhist monks and nuns about whom Hanh wrote, Buckel, too, wrote letters in which he explained why he self-immolated, letters he sent to the press and to the police. “I am David Buckel and I just killed myself by fire as a protest suicide,” he wrote. “Pollution ravages our planet, oozing inhabitability via air, soil, water and weather. Most humans on the planet now breathe air made unhealthy by fossil fuels and many die early deaths as a result – my early death by fossil fuel reflects what we are doing to ourselves.”
Though he fought so ardently in the courts for what seemed, just two decades ago, impossible to achieve–the right of LGBTQ people, like me, to marry–David Buckel looked upon our climate politics and determined that, unlike the case of LGBTQ rights, litigating climate change would not be enough. It would not be enough, that is, to save us from climate catastrophe. Given his choice of protest, Buckel clearly believed as well that nothing we are doing now will save us from catastrophe.
So like the Buddhist nuns and monks of the Vietnam War era (Buckel actually likened his protest to that of Tibetans who self-immolated to protest the Chinese occupation of their country), Buckel set himself on fire. He set himself on fire to alarm us, to awaken us, to move our hearts, and to call our attention to the suffering we are causing because we continue to burn fossil fuels. He set himself on fire so that we would see ourselves, and our planet, on fire.
Yet, Buckel also set himself on fire because he held us in hope–hope that, as witnesses to his death, we would take action that actually reflects the scale of the environmental crisis we are facing. “This is not new,” Buckel said of his protest, “as many have chosen to give a life based on the view that no other action can most meaningfully address the harm they see. Here is a hope that giving a life might bring some attention to the need for expanded actions, and help others give a voice to our home, and Earth is heard. I hope it is an honorable death that might serve others.”
After he explained to King the meaning of the nuns and monks’ self-immolation, Thich Nhat Hanh turned his full attention on King himself. “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 cannot remain silent…You cannot be silent since you have already been in action and you are in action because, in you, God is in action.”
Speaking to his friend, Hanh made clear to King that ultimately what he needed to grapple with was not the fact that the monks and nuns burned themselves. Instead, King needed to come to terms with the fact that he and other well-meaning people looked upon the suffering our government inflicted upon the Vietnamese people and nevertheless remained silent. Though King had been “engaged in one of the hardest struggles for equality and human rights,” he was relatively quiet concerning the war on Vietnam, and so Hanh’s words were a gentle rebuke. Two years would pass before King would finally stand up and, in his own words, “break the betrayal” of his “own silences and…speak from the burnings” of his “own heart” regarding our nation’s war on Vietnam.
And speak he did.
“These are the times for real choices and not false ones,” King declared in his 1967 speech, “Beyond Vietnam.” “We are at the moment when our lives must be placed on the line if our nation is to survive its own folly. Every man of humane convictions must decide on the protest that best suits his convictions, but we must all protest.”
David Buckel decided on the protest that best suited his convictions. While we might declare, in spite of Buckel’s explanation, that his act is incomprehensible; and while we might get caught up in debates about whether or not his self-immolation was wrong-headed or dangerous or crazy or ineffective or brilliant, all of that is of no matter. In the end, we have to look at ourselves. We have to attend to our own silences or, rather, our relative quiescence in the face of what we are doing to one another, to other beings, and to our planet–silences that equal death, as Buckel’s burning body proclaimed. Moreover, if we are to survive our own folly–if we are to avoid setting ourselves on fire–then we will need to break, finally and decisively, the betrayal of our own silences. We will need to protest with as much conviction as our climate crisis demands.
This post originally appeared in Counterpunch.