Psychotic and Saint


San Francisco -- At the outset of the Persian Gulf war a man set himself on fire in the city where I live. Next to his charred remains the police found a copy of Bartlett's "Familiar Quotations" and a few anti-war pamphlets.

Now another young man has set himself on fire, this time in Amherst, Massachusetts, in the town square. He poured flammable liquid on himself, lighted a match, then another, and turned into a fireball. It was reported that the young man died screaming even as he refused help. He left behind a cardboard peace sign with his driver's license taped to the back and, curiously, a small white Buddha.

Heroic acts, or acts of madmen? Nearly three decades ago a Vietnamese Buddhist monk, in order to save his Buddhist compatriots from oppression, introduced this form of protest to the West. Photographs of him sitting serenely inside the ferocious fire captured our imagination. Some said his death eventually toppled the oppressive Diem regime in South Vietnam and liberated many Vietnamese Buddhists.

In the East the Buddhist monk's sacrifice suggests a sound mind and body. Unflinching in the flame, he reminds us that life is but an illusion. He gives his own to call the world's attention to the oppressed and tortured, to honor others' lives.

America does not yet know what to make of such drastic acts in its own back yard. Some eight Americans who committed self-immolation protesting the Vietnam war were shrugged off as anti-social. So far, three have died in fiery protests against the gulf war. Should we understand their acts as life-denying -- the ultimate angry suicide -- or as life-affirming, the supreme self-sacrifice? How in this secular country do we distinguish between psychotic and saint?

As children growing up near the battlefields of Vietnam, my elder brother and I would play with candle light. We moved our fingers ever so slowly through the flame, hoping to avoid it yet anticipating its singe. Now in the safety of America I stare often at the flame's wavering form. Contained, it hints of elegance and seduction. Out of control, it engulfs cities, souls, flesh. It attracts and destroys.

A moth plunges unhesitatingly into a night flame. Yet it is not suicidal. It responds instinctively to the flame which in the darkness it has mistaken as daylight, its source of energy. A country does no less. In the oil pockets of the Middle East the West found a spring that holds its source. This liquid flame may quicken death even as it provides the foundation of our modern mobile life. To preserve this life, our troops launch battles, our sorties emblazon the Arabian nights. Our endless quest for fire gives us direction. It consumes our lives.

The two young men who choose to die by fire knew something of this. They both denounced the car. One walked for miles instead of driving, his brother recalls. The other abandoned his driver's license. Perhaps each died to acknowledge that the source of our lifestyle is the provenance of our death.

Buddhists suggest that death is but a transformative stage. Death by fire gives it a transcendental clarity. Shamanists tell us blood sacrifice appeases the gods, brings down rain, pacifies volcanoes, renders plentiful crops. And on a lonesome hill Prometheus bemoans the enormous price we mortals must pay for what we dare possess.

Within the peace movement, the self-immolators, carrying the emotional baggage of an entire society, intone the purest note. Confronting a Mother of Battles, wary of a Desert Storm, two who men set their bodies ablaze beside a book of quotations and a small white Buddha become foreboding beacons of our age.

Andrew Lam, a native of Vietnam, writes for Pacific News Service.

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