Koan: In Memory of Thích Quảng Đức


In memory of Thích Quảng Đức

For a week, we have studied the grain
of the wood, seen how the floor grows
golden in the afternoon light. We eat
our meals in silence, see how white
beans glow like moons on silver, and after-
wards, we dedicate the merit of these
things we eat to help free all beings.
But in the afternoon, especially, I am skeptical.
I want to know what all this
sitting has to do with war.
Novices, we are learning to focus
on a single breath. Our minds wander,
and when the pain becomes
too much, we move our legs. We shift
on the cushions. We learn that if you stay still
long enough, you can see the mind spinning
like a prayer wheel on its own axis, how time is
a flickering picture, moving backwards and forwards.
Breathe in you flash on Baghdad,
Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, stress positions,
the hooded figure atop the box
standing for hours, a human
emotion detector. Breathe out,
the soldiers are children at home,
studying the only way they know
to lose themselves. Wired for hours
to the flickering box, they learn to move
the almost human figures, make them fight,
hold the controls. Breathe in and it is
1963 and Thích Quảng Đức
arrives with his retinue of monks,
the can of gasoline, an anointing, and then
the match falls, the gasoline flares.
The reporter reports, “As he burned,
he never moved a muscle, never uttered a sound,
his outward composure in sharp contrast
to the wailing of people around him.”
Here, we are all novices. We are studying
complicity, what to do with our eyes,
how to let go of ideas, how to see
without flinching. This much I
know: we are worlds
away from knowing
how to respond to
the sound of
one body burning.

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Desiree Hellegers is a co-founder and affiliated faculty of the Collective for Social and Environmental Justice at Washington State University Vancouver. She has just completed a play based on her 2011 book No Room of Her Own: Women’s Stories of Homelessness, Life, Death and Resistance (Palgrave, 2011).

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