Unarmed, Unconditional, Unlimited

Very near the end of his final State of the Union speech Tuesday night, President Obama said that the America he knows is a country “Optimistic that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word.”

Unarmed truth.  Think about it again: unarmed truth.

obama-martin-luther-king-jrThe President borrowed the line from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., who in his 1964 Nobel Peace Prize Acceptance address said, “I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right temporarily defeated is stronger than evil triumphant.”

I suspect that to Dr. King, a student of Gandhian philosophy, “unarmed truth” meant the principles of satya (truth), ahimsa (non-violence), and satyagraha (“firmness in truth”) or nonviolent resistance, which for Gandhi, were eternal principles. The Mahatma once wrote,

Mere non-killing is not enough. The active part of Non-violence is love. The law of Love requires equal consideration for all life from the tiniest insect to the highest man.”

Gandhi equated the law of love with the law of gravitity and said it will work whether we accept it or not.

gandhi_tagore2We don’t use the word ‘love’ very much in Buddhism, rather we speak of loving-kindness (metta) or compassion (karuna), and yet as the great Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore (one of the first people to refer to Gandhi as “Mahatma”) said that the way of the Buddha is “the elimination of all limits of love, the sublimation of self in a truth which is love itself.”

In Buddhism, true compassion consists of two aspects: empathy, to understand and care about the sufferings of others, and action, to remove the cause for suffering, to give peace and happiness. There is an element of sacrifice with love. There are great benefits, too. The greatest benefit is when we can benefit others.

Some people tell us the idea of universal compassion is too lofty, unrealistic. But what is the alternative? Love is not the cause of the turmoil in the world. Hate is the cause.

For others, compassion is not only the path to truth, it is truth, unarmed, unconditional, unlimited.

In his Autobiography, Gandhi stated,

The instruments for the quest of truth are as simple as they are difficult. They may appear quite impossible to an arrogant person, and quite possible to an innocent child. The seeker after truth should be humbler than the dust. The world crushes the dust under its feet, but the seeker after truth should so humble himself that even the dust could crush him. Only then, and not till then, will he have a glimpse of truth.”

Only then will he or she have a glimpse of love.

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Gandhi quote at beginning from The Essential Writings, Mahatma Gandhi, Judith M. Brown,Oxford University Press, 2008, 115


The Dharma Door of Confidence

In Stopping and Seeing for Beginners, the first meditation manual produced in Chinese Buddhism, T’ien-t’ai master Chih-i says, “When doubt veils the mind, it is difficult to open any dharma doors.”

Dharma doors refer to Buddhist teachings and practice, which open onto the path that leads away from suffering. Chih-i means that when we have doubts about the teachings or the practice, it is hard to make progress along the path.

We can interpret this another way: dharma doors refer to solutions, paths that lead to the resolution of dilemmas. When we have doubts about ourselves, it may be difficult to open the door to any solutions.

0427b3I once read that Martin Luther King, Jr. always said, “I have a dream.” Not just in his speeches, like the famous one at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963, but privately. He didn’t necessarily mean a dream for a new social order. He was speaking more in terms of a personal dream, a belief in his own potential. That was how he gained confidence to find solutions to the dilemmas he faced.

The tragic end of his life should not be as significant to us as the conviction and optimism he exuded while he was alive.

When doubt veils our mind, it is difficult to find any doors.

Buddhism is a doorway into the garden of life. In this philosophy, believing in ourselves means to have confidence about our Buddha-nature. When we step through the dharma door of confidence, we can discover that not only are we buddhas, but the entire universe is a buddha.


Waking Up

It has been a while since I have passed on any updates about Thich Nhat Hanh’s condition. The latest from Plum Village, is a message dated January 3rd: “In the last three weeks Thay has gradually emerged into wakefulness, and has his eyes open for much of the day, to the point where the doctors can now say that he is no longer in a coma.”

Today is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, and you may be aware of the connection between Dr. King and Thich Nhat Hanh. It was partly through his interaction with the Vietnamese Zen teacher, that Dr. King was persuaded to take a public stand in opposition to the war in Vietnam.

MLK-TNHIn June 1965, Thich Nhat Hanh sent King a letter to explain why monks in Vietnam were self-immolating in opposition to the war and to urge King to add his voice in protest against the widening conflict. He wrote in part,

I am sure that since you have been engaged in one of the hardest struggles for equality and human rights, you are among those who understand fully, and who share with all their hearts, the indescribable suffering of the Vietnamese people. The world’s greatest humanists would not remain silent. You yourself can not remain silent . . . You cannot be silent since you have already been in action and you are in action because, in you, God is in action, too — to use Karl Barth’s expression. And Albert Schweitzer, with his stress on the reverence for life and Paul Tillich with his courage to be, and thus, to love. And Niebuhr. And Mackay. And Fletcher. And Donald Harrington. All these religious humanists, and many more, are not going to favour the existence of a shame such as the one mankind has to endure in Vietnam.”

Dr. King and Thay first met during the latter’s visit to the United States in 1966. On January 25, 1967 King wrote a letter to The Nobel Institute in Norway, nominating “this gentle Buddhist monk from Vietnam” for the Nobel Peace Prize. Less than four months later, on April 4th, 1967 – exactly one year before he was assassinated – Dr. King, speaking at Riverside Church in New York City to the group Clergy and Laymen Concerned About Vietnam, delivered one of his greatest speeches titled “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence”, his first public denouncement of U.S. involvement in Vietnam:

The recent statements of your executive committee are the sentiments of my own heart, and I found myself in full accord when I read its opening lines: ‘A time comes when silence is betrayal.’ That time has come for us in relation to Vietnam.

Over the past two years, as I have moved to break the betrayal of my own silences and to speak from the burnings of my own heart, as I have called for radical departures from the destruction of Vietnam, many persons have questioned me about the wisdom of my path.

And when I hear them, though I often understand the source of their concern, I am nevertheless greatly saddened, for such questions mean that the inquirers have not really known me, my commitment, or my calling. Indeed, their questions suggest that they do not know the world in which they live.”

That was a crucial moment in Dr. King’s crusade, and some historians believe it may have the action that sealed his fate.  Without a doubt, opossing the war cost him many political allies, including President Johnson.

At the end of his letter to King, Thich Nhat Hanh says that he was writing as a person in communion with the great humanists of the world “whose thoughts and attitude should be the guide for all human kind in finding who is the real enemy of Man.”

That enemy is ignorance (advidya), which Buddhism describes as a state of mis-knowing, a fundamentally flawed way of viewing the world. Shantideva in the Bodicaryavatara (“Guide to the Bodhisattva Way of Life”) tells us that the power and the degree of damage this internal enemy can exact upon us is what makes it our foremost adversary.

Awakening is the counter-agent that removes the infection of ignorance from our minds. Even someone as socially conscious as Martin Luther King, Jr. had to “wake up” to the horror of the Vietnam War. Likewise we must continually awaken, and continually remember, as the great humanists of the world have, what was phrased so well by Dr. King himself, that “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”


Every Day Should Be A Day of Service

Today, Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, is not only a time for remembering the life of a courageous man, it is also meant to be a Day of Service. As explained on the mlkday.gov site,

The MLK Day of Service is a way to transform Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s life and teachings into community action that helps solve social problems. That service may meet a tangible need, or it may meet a need of the spirit. On this day, Americans of every age and background celebrate Dr. King through service projects that strengthen communities, empower individuals, bridge barriers, and create solutions.”

Buddhism teaches that every day should be a day of service. It is not alone in promoting this idea, but I would argue that Buddha-dharma has a unique conception of what service means. And service is the core, the heart and soul, the supreme path of Buddhism, at least in the Mahayana branch.

The ideal that epitomizes the spirit of service is that of the bodhisattva. This means “enlightening being,” a person who helps others, primarily by assisting others to light their inner light – by awkening them. Formally, a bodhisattva vows to liberate all beings without exception from suffering. What’s more, the bodhisattva resolves to remain in this world for “as long as beings remain” and not only liberate them but assume the burden of their sufferings, to take into his or her body the sufferings of all living beings.

For some time now, I’ve been of the opinion that the hidden message of Mahayana Buddhism is that it is more important to be a bodhisattva than it is to become a buddha. The seed of this idea was planted in my mind by something the Dalai Lama said at UCLA in 1997. I’ve posted it before, but a good teaching can’t be repeated too many times. He was talking about a passage in Nagarjuna’s Precious Garland that deals with feeling discouraged over the length of time required to become “enlightened”:

If, as a result of one’s commitment to the principles of the Bodhisattva ideal, one sees that the purpose of one’s life is to be of benefit to others, and from the depths of one’s heart there is a real sense of dedication of one’s entire life for the benefit of other sentient beings, and that kind of strong courage and principle – for that kind of person, then time doesn’t seem to matter much. Whether or not that person becomes enlightened, as far as he or she is concerned, it doesn’t make any difference, because the purpose of existence is to be of benefit to others, and if the person is able to be of service to others, then that person is really able to fulfill his or her true purpose. Such is the kind of courage and determination to altruistic principles that bodhisattvas should adopt.”

In promoting the bodhisattva ideal, the Mahayana Buddhists were rejecting the notion that Nirvana meant extinction. This very world of suffering is Nirvana, they said. Buddhahood is not some supra-mundane state, and this is perhaps why in the Mahayana sutras the Buddha was elevated to a mythological, celestial status, a reality that could not possibly be realized. Bodhisattvahood, on the other hand, is a state of being for this mundane world, and can be realized by everyone. Indeed, most Mahayana schools teach that Buddhahood or enlightenment is possible in this very life, with this very body.  Some teachings put the Buddha and the bodhisattva on the same level. For instance, Nagarjuna in his Treatise on the Maha-Prajna-Paramita Sutra wrote,

The Buddha and the bodhisattva are one, undivided. It is therefore that the bodhisattva is considered to be the same as the Buddha is.”

Unfortunately, many Buddhist chase after Buddhahood as if it were a prize.  They are so busy trying to realize supra-mundane states, that they neglect the mundane but necessary work of helping others.  They never know the joy of bodhicitta, the thought of awakening, the starting point of the bodhisattva path.  I can’t help but feel that the path of a solitary buddha must be a lonely one.

Had he been a Buddhist, Martin Luther King, Jr. would have understood all this. Actually, he did understand it, in his own way, on his own terms as a Christian. He knew that every day should be a day of service, which is why he once said,

Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘What are you doing for others?’”


“Integrity is not a conditional word.”

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.”

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Thich Nhat Hanh

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.

Oprah: 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.”