Reflection on the Life and Vision of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr from the Buddhist Tradition.
I am grateful for the opportunity to join you today in friendship and reflection. I am thankful that we are able to take a moment out of our busy lives to embrace each other in the sacred and beloved community. In reflecting on the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, I am reminded of the Buddha’s teachings of interconnectedness, non-violence, and active compassion.
We do not exist independently from each other. In the Buddhist scripture, The Flower Garland Sutra, the Buddha uses the metaphor of Indra’s net, and I quote.
“Far away, in the heavenly abode of the great god Indra, there is a wonderful net which has been hung by some cunning craftsman in such a manner that it stretches out infinitely in all directions.
In accordance with the extravagant tastes of deities, the craftsman has hung a single glittering jewel in each eye of the net, and since the net itself is infinite in dimension, the jewels are infinite in number.
There hang the jewels, glittering like stars of the first magnitude, a wonderful sight to behold. If we now look closely at any one of the jewels for inspection, we will discover that in its polished surface are reflected all the other jewels in the net, infinite in number. Not only that, but each of the jewels reflected in this one jewel is reflecting all the other jewels, so that there are infinite reflections occurring.
This symbolizes our world where every sentient being (and thing) is interrelated to one another.”
It is because of this profound interconnectedness that the well-being of one person or group is intimately connected to the well-being of others in our community. This insight is the foundation of any kind of action that can bring peace and equity, and help remove injustice and despair. This truth is reflected in Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, wisdom in the “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” where he said,
“I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
Those words, written by Dr. King, Jr. in 1963, remain as relevant today as they were then. This is why, in the Vietnamese Buddhist tradition of Thich Nhat Hanh, he coined the term Interbeing. He said,
“I was looking for an English word to describe our deep interconnection with everything else. I liked the word “togetherness,” but I finally came up with the word “interbeing.” The verb “to be” can be misleading, because we cannot be by ourselves, alone. “To be” is always to “inter-be.” If we combine the prefix “inter” with the verb “to be,” we have a new verb, “inter-be.” To inter-be and the action of interbeing reflects reality more accurately. We inter-are with one another and with all life.”
In reflecting upon the legacy of Dr. King, Jr. and its connection to Buddhism, one is immediately drawn to his philosophy of nonviolence. In his book Stride Toward Freedom, Dr. King, Jr. discusses how his study of Gandhi convinced him that true pacifism is nonviolent resistance to evil. He was inspired by Gandhi’s nonviolent resistance in India, which he described as being “with as much vigor and power as the violent resistor, but he resisted with love instead of hate.” Gandhi’s dedication to nonviolence, also known as Ahimsa, is found not only in traditions within Hinduism, but also in Jainism and Buddhism.
In the Dhammapada, a collection of sayings of the Buddha, the Buddha says,
“All tremble at violence; all fear death. Putting oneself in the place of another, one should not kill nor cause another to kill.
All tremble at violence; life is dear to all. Putting oneself in the place of another, one should not kill nor cause another to kill.
One who, while himself seeking happiness, oppresses with violence other beings who also desire happiness, will not attain happiness hereafter.
One who, while himself seeking happiness, does not oppress with violence other beings who also desire happiness, will find happiness hereafter.”
As a child first learning of Dr. King Jr, I was impressed by his commitment to nonviolence. In our classroom, we were shown videos of his marches and sit-ins, and we witnessed the violence that was directed at those who participated in these direct actions.
I abhor violence and could not comprehend why individuals would place themselves in such situations. However, when I was older and learned that Dr. King Jr. used these situations for direct nonviolent actions as constructive and necessary for growth. I gained a new understanding of the courage those activists had. Again I refer to Dr King’s Letter from a Birmingham Jail where is says,
“You may well ask: “Why direct action? Why sit ins, marches and so forth? Isn’t negotiation a better path?” You are quite right in calling for negotiation. Indeed, this is the very purpose of direct action. Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. It seeks so to dramatize the issue that it can no longer be ignored. My citing the creation of tension as part of the work of the nonviolent resister may sound rather shocking. But I must confess that I am not afraid of the word “tension.” I have earnestly opposed violent tension, but there is a type of constructive, nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth.”
Influenced by Gandhi and his Satyagraha movement of nonviolent activists, Dr. King, Jr. understood that, after all other peaceful means have proven ineffective, the nonviolent activist engages in acts of voluntary suffering, using these direct actions to awaken the conscience of the community to the suffering being inflicted on the victims of injustice in the South, places such as Birmingham, Alabama.
Using Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. own words, he “resisted with love instead of hate.” He understood that evil was not inherent in people but rather in systems of injustice. The negative mental states of intolerance, hatred, and discrimination were the true evils. This resonates with Buddhists throughout the world.
In 1965, several years after Thich Quang Duc and other Vietnamese monks who had died by self-immolation in protest against the persecution of Buddhists by the US-backed South Vietnamese government, Thich Nhat Hanh wrote a letter to Dr. King Jr. titled “In Search of the Enemy of Man.” In the letter, he states:
“I believe with all my heart that the monks who burned themselves did not aim at the death of the oppressors but only at a change in their policy. Their enemies are not man. They are intolerance, fanaticism, dictatorship, cupidity, hatred and discrimination which lie within the heart of man. I also believe with all my being that the struggle for equality and freedom you lead in Birmingham, Alabama… is not aimed at the whites but only at intolerance, hatred and discrimination. These are real enemies of man — not man himself.”
The Buddha taught that the mind is the source of all suffering, and that the only way to achieve liberation is to purify the mind of the defilements of greed, hatred, and delusion. These defilements are the cause of all our problems, both personal and global.
When we purify our minds, we are able to act with love and compassion. Living in peace and harmony with ourselves and with others in beloved community. It is possible, and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. showed us the way. Thank you.