I first saw this image when I was a kid, in an old issue of Life Magazine. I asked my father to explain to me why this monk had set himself on fire and could sit there so calmly as he burned to death -- in what must have been extreme pain. He had no good answer, and whatever answer he did offer was presented through the lens of his Roman-Catholic beliefs.
Over the years I have seen the image again and again, but I had never encountered a good explanation of what motivated the monk, until the other night. Most explanations I have seen are framed in politics, the desire to end the war -- which is certainly a part of it. But Lama Surya Das offers a slightly different take on it, one that feels right to me.
Quang Duc's final act -- which in succeeding months and years inspired a handful of other Buddhist monks and nuns to also immolate themselves -- represents a practice of supreme generosity that has its roots in the Lotus Sutra, one of the most significant scriptures of Mahayana Buddhism. Because these Vietnamese monks and nuns realized their ultimate, unborn, deathless nature and were no longer attached to an idea of the physical body as the self, they were free to use their bodies to deliver a powerful wake-up message to others. You could say they transformed their bodies into torches to illuminate the terrible suffering of the Vietnamese people. Only those Bodhisattvas who have truly liberated themselves by seeing deeply into the profound prajna truth of the universe can undertake this ultimate gesture of generosity with complete clarity and wisdom and without doubt or negative karmic repercussions. Contemporary master Thich Nhat Hanh, who knew Quang Duc personally, remarked on Quang Duc's act, "It was not made out of despair, but out of the wish to help, out of his great love for humankind." It has taken me years to understand this statement, but it has been worth the journey.
~ Buddha Is as Buddha Does
This is an inspiring level of generosity. Few of us, if any, will ever know that level of pure love and intention to help others. But that doesn't mean we can't aspire to be the most kind and generous people we can be.
Generosity is such a simple act -- all we need to do is consider the happiness and well-being of others. We don't have to sacrifice our own happiness, although sometimes we might trade our personal attachments for freedom from them in order to assist others. Seems like a good deal.
In fact, selfless generosity makes us happy -- it feels good. More importantly, however, it makes other people feel good, feel cared for, and that can make them more likely to do something generous for another person.
With each generous act we can initiate a chain reaction of kindness.