Today our nation is celebrating the birthday of Martin Luther King, Jr. Well, most of us celebrate. I wasn’t alive when Dr. King was born, but I surely remember the day he died. I lived in New Orleans at the time. There were no riots, as in some other cities, but a great deal of tension and fear for several days afterward.
There are some who feel that Dr. was the victim of a conspiracy (a view upheld by a civil trial in 1999) and that his opposition to the Vietnam War was the tipping point that sealed his doom. During the 1999 trial, Reverend James Lawson testified that King alienated President Johnson and other powerful men in the government when he repudiated the Vietnam War on April 4, 1967, exactly one year before his death, in a speech at the New York City Riverside Church, “Beyond Vietnam”:
Somehow this madness must cease. We must stop now. I speak as a child of God and brother to the suffering poor of Vietnam. I speak for those whose land is being laid waste, whose homes are being destroyed, whose culture is being subverted . . . I speak as a citizen of the world, for the world as it stands aghast at the path we have taken. I speak as one who loves America, to the leaders of our own nation: The great initiative in this war is ours; the initiative to stop it must be ours.”
Dr. King went on to say, “This is the message of the great Buddhist leaders of Vietnam. Recently one of them wrote these words” and then he offered a quote. (read the entire speech) I have never seen the author of that quote identified, but I suspect it might have been Thich Nhat Hanh. They first met during the Buddhist monk’s visit to the United States in 1966. The meeting had quite an impact on Dr. King, and influenced the “Beyond Vietnam” speech.
In a 2010 interview with Oprah Winfrey, Thich Nhat Hanh recalled that meeting:
In June 1965, I wrote him a letter explaining why the monks in Vietnam immolated themselves. I said that this is not a suicide. I said that in situations like the one in Vietnam, to make your voice heard is difficult. Sometimes we have to burn ourselves in order to be heard. It is out of compassion that you do that. It is the act of love and not of despair. And exactly one year after I wrote that letter, I met him in Chicago. We had a discussion about peace, freedom, and community. And we agreed that without a community, we cannot go very far.
Oprah: How long was the discussion?
Nhat Hanh: Probably five minutes or so. And after that, there was a press conference, and he came out very strongly against the war in Vietnam.
Oprah: Do you think that was a result of your conversation?
Nhat Hanh: I believe so. We continued our work, and the last time I met him was in Geneva during the peace conference.
Oprah: Did the two of you speak then?
Nhat Hanh: Yes. He invited me up for breakfast, to talk about these issues again. I got caught in a press conference downstairs and came late, but he kept the breakfast warm for me. And I told him that the people in Vietnam call him a bodhisattva—enlightened being—because of what he was doing for his people, his country, and the world.
Oprah: And the fact that he was doing it nonviolently.
Nhat Hanh: Yes. That is the work of a bodhisattva, a buddha, always with compassion and nonviolence. When I heard of his assassination, I couldn’t believe it. I thought, “The American people have produced King but are not capable of preserving him.” I was a little bit angry. I did not eat, I did not sleep. But my determination to continue building the beloved community continues always. And I think that I felt his support always.
Nhat Hanh: Yes.
In 1967, Dr. King nominated Thich Nhat Hanh for the Nobel Peace Prize. In his letter of nomination, King wrote, “Here is an apostle of peace and non-violence, cruelly separated from his own people while they are oppressed by a vicious war which has grown to threaten the sanity and security of the entire world.”
Although he was not awarded the Nobel Prize (there was no award that year), Thich Nhat Hanh’s peace work has earned him the respect of the world. His opposition to the war exiled him from his native land. When a person stands up for a great cause, the result is often sacrifice. Sacrifice is the heart of the bodhisattva. And so is integrity, a quality that men like Martin Luther King, Jr. and Thich Nhat Hanh exemplify, a word summed up magnificently by crime fiction writer John D. MacDonald,
Integrity is not a conditional word. It doesn’t blow in the wind or change with the weather. It is your inner image of yourself, and if you look in there and see a man who won’t cheat, then you know he never will.”