Excerpt: Lotus Girl, by Helen Tworkov

Read a brief of Lotus Girl by Helen Tworkov, and an exclusive excerpt courtesy of its publisher, St. Martin’s Publishing Group.

By Helen Tworkov

Constance Kassor’s review from the Summer 2024 Buddhadharma:

Helen Tworkov’s Lotus Girl: My Life at the Crossroads of Buddhism and America (St. Martin’s) opens with the author’s first encounter with Buddhism in the 1960s, when the monk Thich Quang Duc set himself on fire to protest the persecution of Buddhist clergy in Vietnam. The memoir details Tworkov’s’s encounters with Buddhism, her travels to Asia, her study of Zen and Tibetan traditions, and the founding of Tricycle magazine. This book offers an intimate perspective on the history of Buddhism in America, combining personal reflection with historical touchstones.

The Excerpt:

Just before noon on June 11, 1963, a slow-moving baby-blue Austin sedan pulled up at a busy intersection in the heart of Saigon. Inside was the Vietnamese Buddhist monk and temple abbot Thich Quang Duc, along with two attendant monks. When the car stopped, the three immediatel got out. One attendant placed a cushion on the ground, and Thich Quang Duc quickly sat down in formal meditation posture. The other attendant removed a five-gallon can of gasoline from the trunk and poured it over the seated monk. As three hundred monks and nuns from his temple stood by, Thich Quang Duc pulled a pack of matches from his pocket and ignited his gasoline-soaked robes.

The monk was protesting the government’s crackdown on Buddhist clergy, an assault that most of the world knew nothing about, and it was not until the following morning, June 12, that the shocking image of Thich Quang Duc’s self-immolation reached the United States. That’s when I first saw Malcolm Browne’s black-and-white photograph of an unimaginable sight: an elderly monk seated upright and straight as a statue as flames consumed his body. Browne’s photograph later won a Pulitzer Prize, and no one who saw it ever forgot it. Within an inferno of his own making, Thich Quang Duc sat so still that the whole world stopped. When it moved again, to me it never looked quite the same.

I was twenty years old and had never seen a Buddhist monk before. I had no clear idea of where Vietnam was either. But I had been studying anthropology at Hunter College in New York City, and had been looking at photographs of strange behavior. Restless within the conventions of my own society, I had turned to anthropology as an avenue for exploring alternatives. Photographs of scarified faces, noses pierced by bone, and penises sheathed in dried gourds were part of my coursework; and I was drawn to anything that challenged prevailing authority: civil rights, women’s rights, psychedelics, the Beats. Nothing prepared me for Quang Duc. He was certainly challenging authority—in his case, the powerful ruling regime of South Vietnam—but his method upended every idea I had assumed about human behavior. In order to make a political statement he reset the very parameters of human potential. It was impossible to imagine sitting in the midst of flames without flinching. Impossible. And no degree of political passion or moral righteousness could explain it.

Journalists had been alerted to a newsworthy event, but demonstrations in Saigon had become so common and without consequence that only a few had shown up. Those who did reported their visceral alarm at watching living flesh turn to ash, but no eyewitness in the English-language press attempted to describe Quang Duc’s composure. His equanimity remained outside the media narrative, leaving it to hang in the air like a hologram: true but not real. It would have felt natural to project excruciating pain and anguish onto the monk. After all, he sat burning to death. Yet as much as I looked for signs of torment, the photograph does not show a man in the throes of physical or mental suffering. There was nothing to relate to, to identify with—and I kept wondering how this could be.

Thich Quang Duc (thich is the Vietnamese pronunciation of Sakya, the Buddha’s clan name), then sixty-six, had made it his mission to draw international attention to the persecution of Buddhist clergy in South Vietnam by President Ngo Dinh Diem, a fundamentalist Roman Catholic. He fulfilled his mission so successfully that in the process of focusing worldwide attention on the plight of South Vietnam’s Buddhists, he spotlighted Diem’s regime in all its corruption, as well as its alliance with the United States military and the covert buildup of American troops. Though Quang Duc was not protesting American intervention, the image of his self-immolation became forever merged with the war itself.

Diem’s cronies attributed his dramatic achievement to anesthetic drugs. Others might have categorized it as a one-off magic trick of sensational street theater. Or perhaps the Buddhist robes and formal meditation posture told a story of training and discipline, of a mind that could not be harmed by the flames that destroyed his body. This possibility was especially difficult to consider in the West, where the meditative disciplines of his tradition were still largely unknown. It was, however, the version I wanted to believe, and I wondered if it made sense to Buddhists, even while stumping the rest of us. After all, he was a monk within a celebrated religious tradition, a revered abbot, not a faithless misfit; nor was it just the lone warrior against the establishment that made me cheer Quang Duc. The inexplicable version of this event stirred up questions from my childhood that I had not considered for many years. 

By the time I was five, I played private games of make-believe—becoming other people, living with other families, exploring ways to disappear in plain sight. Later in life, psychotherapists would try to help me figure out my need not to be where I was. Nonetheless I became familiar with hidden aspects of the mind—the ones that no one ever talked to me about and were not taught in school—and l learned something of how secret and invisible worlds could run interference with unwanted circumstances and emotions. I was an unhappy little girl, so my curiosity about how reality could be manipulated was not whimsical. There was a precarious safety in conjuring my own hiding places and knowing that stories that came from inside my head could make life less scary—at least for a little while. When my father was unreasonably and irascibly critical of something my mother served for dinner, and my mother sat withering at the table, I wanted to protect her, which I could not do, but I didn’t have to stick around to witness something so troubling. I could remove myself to the safety of pastoral harmony, sunshine, and leafy trees. When the look on his face suggested an imminent explosion, or when his angry disapproval was leveled directly at me—for my table manners, my rude interruptions, dirty fingernails, swear words (which I had learned from him), or my insistence on trying to discreetly carve my name into the edge of the wooden table—then I would resort to the most reliable and recurrent escapes. In one favorite daydream, I was a ballerina in a yellow leotard with a matching tutu and a golden cardboard crown; in another I was Tarzan’s Jane, swinging from jungle vines.

When I saw the photograph of Quang Duc, I had to wonder if he had used his mind to create a field of protection; or had told himself a story that had separated his mind from his body. As his body burned, where was his mind?

Through the therapeutic lens, my flights of fancy had been reduced to escapism. In some prototypical psychological portrait, daydreaming was always in a negative classification; no therapist ever suggested that it might have been a healthy search away from sadness. Anthropology was viewed as another dive down the rabbit hole; yet comparing different cultures had also revealed how the mind processed or distorted or restructured sensory and emotional matter. This version of mind made it a blank screen that reflected distinct values through varying interpretations of sensory input; and this could account for why some societies relished eating dogs, while others found this culinary delight repulsive yet chowed down on pigs and cows. Or maybe this so-called blank screen had sentient qualities of its own. Maybe it had the capacity to make choices and not be automatically subject to conventional dictates, or to sensory response such as, for example, extreme heat. Quang Duc raised the question.

Following his death, I began revisiting my little-girl strategies for coping with anxiety and fear. When I think back to 1963, I can’t remember one basic feature of my life that didn’t bewilder me: my mind, Quang Duc’s mind, school, sex, drugs. But the encounter with Quang Duc inspired questions that felt more alive than my routine preoccupations with boyfriends, with how I looked and what I wore, and with what I wanted to be when I grew up. Within this muddle, Quang Duc roused my search for meaning, although it would take a few years before either Buddhism or the war in Vietnam began to shape the rest of my life.

Excerpted from From Lotus Girl by Helen Tworkov. Copyright © 2024 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin’s Publishing Group. We thank CSt. Martin’s Publishing Group for providing this excerpt, and we thank our readers for supporting dharma publishers.

For more on the latest dharma books, read this issue’s edition of Buddhadharma on Books. Or see more excerpts and other digital exclusives for Buddhadharma readers here.

Helen Tworkov

Helen Tworkov is the founding editor of Tricycle: The Buddhist Review, the first and only independent Buddhist magazine; the author of Zen in America: Profiles of Five Teachers; and the co-author, with Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche, of In Love with the World: A Monk’s Journey through the Bardos of Living and Dying. She first encountered Buddhism in Japan and Nepal during the 1960s, and has studied in both the Zen and Tibetan traditions. She began studying with Mingyur Rinpoche in 2006 and currently divides most of her time between New York and Nova Scotia.