Martin Luther King was a hero of mine long before I became a Buddhist. His assassination in 1968 was one of those seminal moments that caused me to dedicate myself with greater effort to the ideas of equality and justice that exemplified Dr. King’s life.
Later in my life, when I came to Buddhism through the teachings of Vietnamese Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh, I was delighted to learn that my teacher knew Dr. King and that they both had great admiration for each other.
Dr. King was deeply moved and influenced by Thich Nhat Hanh’s heroic non-violent peace efforts for his country of Vietnam. Far from being a pacifist, Thich Nhat Hanh called for an “engaged Buddhism” that put the Buddha’s compassionate, wise teachings into non-violent action in society as well as in one’s own life.
In 1967, Dr. King nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize, saying, “I do not personally know of anyone more worthy of [this prize] than this gentle monk from Vietnam. His ideas for peace, if applied, would build a monument to ecumenism, to world brotherhood, to humanity.”
For me, Martin Luther King Day always has a somber, sad element, because of how this great man’s life was cut short by a bigot’s bullet. But Thich Nhat Hanh reminds us:
“People think they can eliminate what they don’t want: they can burn they can kill. But it’s not by destroying that they can reduce something to nothing. They killed Mahatma Gandhi. They shot Martin Luther King. But these people continue to be among us in many forms and their being continues. Their spirit continues.”
With this continuing spirit in our hearts, let’s commemorate Dr. King and what he stood for with our lives as well as our words. Though written in the midst of his battle for equality for African Americans, his mighty words still challenge us today. They still call good-hearted people everywhere to speak up against injustice. They still call us to action, to stand up for the rights of people and to fight injustice.
“A great people which had created a great civilization had become a nation of silent onlookers. They remain silent in the face of hate, in the face of brutality and in the face of mass murder…America must not become a nation of onlookers. America must not remain silent. Not merely black American, but all of America.
It must speak up and act, from the president down to the humblest of us, and not for the sake of the Negro, but for the sake of the image, the idea and aspiration of America itself….If one is to heed the condemnation of his conscience, if one is to be guided by the unseen star, if one is to share the passion and action of our times, is the time not at hand to forsake the silence of the onlooker?” Martin Luther King, April 21, 1965, to Association of the Bar of the City of New York.