The Story of the Burning Monk


The internet is a rabbit hole of both priceless treasures and unspeakable horrors, depending on how one looks at it. On one such “trip,” I chanced upon a photograph that headlined an article in the “related posts” section. I cannot now remember the path that took me there, but I’m glad the web took me where it did. It was a vintage photo that caught my attention solely because I have never seen it before.

The story is fascinating but the photo alone is arresting: a monk being burned, meditating peacefully. If it wasn’t for the flames and the clearly agitated crowd, you could say he might as well have been meditating by the beach.

But he isn’t.

The monk is seated on what is clearly pavement, engulfed by flames. He should have been screaming, running for his life.

But he isn’t.

What was this all about, I wondered. I have never seen anything like it.

Taken in 1963 by Malcolm Browne in Vietnam for the Associated Press, this was one of those iconic photos that changed the world.

He is known in history as The Burning Monk. His name is Thích Quang Duc who immolated himself to protest the policies of the corrupt South Vietnamese government. A majority of the Vietnamese population were Buddhist but suffered from the discriminatory practices put in place by President Ngô Đình Diệm, a member of the minority Roman Catholic population.

Having had enough and wanting to get the attention of the government, Thich Quang Duc decided on self-immolation. A religious ritual in Buddhism, it is a practice that is solely for the purposes of drawing attention to a cause. It is considered a form of martyrdom in some Buddhist schools of thought, certainly in Mahayana Buddhism that Quang Duc belonged.

And draw the attention of the world he did. In an age of newspapers and television, the photo became viral enough, moving the governments of many countries to pile the pressure on Diem to relax his anti-Buddhist measures. Eventually, Diem would die after his government was overthrown. Soon, America was drawn into the Vietnam War.

Such was the effect of The Burning Monk on history.

But that is not what fascinates me. I remember staring at the photograph for a long, long time. The image became the visual version of an earworm, seared into my brain for weeks afterward. It’s not something anyone can shake off easily.

How does one burn himself and not feel the pain?

Such are the mysteries of the Buddhist tradition, meditation in particular.

In the West, it is still seen as something of the woo woo kind, but science is slowly coming to terms with the many benefits of meditation, what it does to the brain and consequently, the rest of the human body.

How powerful is meditation? You only need to know the story of The Burning Monk to appreciate it.

Not convinced? There are monks from China to India who have mummified themselves only through meditation. It is another type of Buddhist ritual, described as a deep spiritual meditative state, an attempt by practitioners to turn themselves into a Buddha.

You only need to do a quick Google search to know this does exist.

Scientific studies, at the very least, have shown that meditation has health benefits – lowers stress, to be specific.

It all does sound a bit woo woo but how does one explain all of this? Considering that normal humans use only five percent of the full capacity of the brain, while brain scans of meditating Buddhist monks show more activity and capacity than non-practitioners (for more on this topic, I suggest you read Huffpost’s How You Can Train Your Mind To Do the Impossible. It’s a fascinating read, at the very least).

And what about the world’s happiest man who happens to be a Tibetan monk? His name is Matthieu Ricard, a geneticist and Tibetan monk whose brain scans neuroscientists studied. When he meditated, his brain gave off gamma waves that were way beyond that of any normal human being. (To know more about this, read The World’s Happiest Man is a Tibetan Monk from

I don’t know about you, but meditation certainly gives me a lot of food for thought. And why not? If one is able to burn without feeling pain (and preserve the heart to boot, which is what happened with Quang Duc) or be the happiest person in the world, there must really be something there.

Wouldn’t hurt to learn more, yes?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.