"I offer my body as a torch
to dissipate the dark
to waken love among men
to give peace to Vietnam
the one who burns herself for peace." Nhat Chi Mai
One of the iconic images of the 1960s is this picture of the Buddhist monk, Thich Quang Duc, burning himself in protest of the Viet Nam War. Actually there were several people who performed this act of protest. One of them was Nhat Chi Mai, a young disciple of Thich Nhat Hanh. Nhat Chi Mai immolated herself in Saigon on May 16, 1967.
These acts have at times been criticized as being violent and contributing to the suffering of the world. But there is little doubt that the shocking and horrific images, broadcast around the world, helped focus attention on the deep and prolonged suffering of the Vietnamese people and contributed to the war's end. It is said that the story of Nhat Chi Mai moved Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to speak out in opposition to the war. Thich Nhat Hanh wrote, "When Nhat Chi Mai burned herself because she wanted to be a "torch in the dark night," she moved millions of Vietnamese. The force she engendered was the force of love for non-violent action."
The gospels indicate that Jesus had forseen his capture and execution. It seems likely that he could have prevented his death if he had wished. But, if he had not suffered and died, how could the "Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world." have manifested to show us the way of true and unconditional love?
In my Christian practice, I approach all of the Biblical stories as literature, pointing to the deep truths of human life. This is in keeping with the Buddhist insight that all teachings are only relative truth and do not coincide with the deep reality of life. It also fits well with the Jewish tradition of midrash, in which history, stories, poems and prayers are woven freely together to create a living, loving guide and support for our lives. So, in my Christian theology, "lamb of God" is not so much a particular being or historical event, but a deep reality of human life which manifests over and over again.
The Lamb is the one who is the source of unconditional love, who speaks truth to power. When the powerful forces are threatened by the Lamb (his message, his following) and the hand of power comes down, the lamb responds still with love, treating his tormentors with compassion and love. He shows us that, no matter what is going on, we must try our best to respond with love. The presence of the lamb, the horror over her burning body, her gruesome death and her loving response to all of this, sows deep seeds of change in the hearts and minds of those who are witness to this profound courage and love.
For me, the Buddhist monks, Ghandi, Martin Luther King, and Jesus- all of these manifested the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.
It is one of the most deep and beautiful gifts of Christianity to shine a light on the truth of "the Lamb" through the story of Jesus Christ. In all great spiritual traditions we are called on to be as the lamb, speaking the truth, even when to do so may threaten our well being, and to respond in a loving way to the forces which cause us pain. One of the Mindfulness Trainings of the Order of Interbeing says, "We will do our best to speak out about situations of injustice, even when doing so may make difficulties for us or threaten our safety."
In conclusion I offer this beautiful poem by Thich Nhat Hanh, which he wrote to encourage his "School of Youth for Social Service" as they moved into the Vietnamese countryside in the midst of the war to put together makeshift schools and rebuild villages. Thich Nhat Hanh wanted to encourage these young people to respond to the violence and hatred they met daily with courage and love- he wanted to awaken the Lamb in them.
Also, please read (link below) Thay's heartbraking and beautiful poem, "Flames of Prayer" which tells the story of Nhat Chi Mai's last day on earth.