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.”

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