Happy Birthday, Martin Luther King, Jr.

I’ve been studying on Martin Luther King Jr. for the last decade — reading his sermons and speeches, examining his actions and strategies, and mourning his loss. As much as any person of the 20th Century, he is my dharma teacher. I was fortunate to have seen Dr. King twice in the sixties. First, at the 1963 March on Washington, listening to his famous speech as I stood with my high school friends under a tree on the north side of the reflecting pool.   Then, Dr. King and his associate Ralph Abernathy, in the crowded sanctuary of Great Neck Synagogue, in an era when Jews and Blacks still shared a sense of oppression. Today would have been Martin Luther King’s his 82nd birthday. We need him now more than ever.

Please understand, I don’t mean the King of postage stamps, sound bites, and carefully edited dreams.  In the forty-odd years since his assassination in Memphis, the man’s essence has been homogenized — broken into bits, and blended into a bland and unthreatening image soup that helps imagemakers preserve America’s illusion of tolerance.  (An aside: this U.S. postage stamp business is really strange. Smells like cooptation to me. Along with the MLK Jr. stamp in 1976, there are other USPS issues featuring Black revolutionaries: W.E. B. DuBois (1992), Malcolm X (1999), Paul Robeson (2004) and others.  Men who were hounded by the government for decades for their radical beliefs. What would they have thought of this phenomenon? I don’t think it is too hard to guess.)

Our world is mired in violence and war. Not that things have ever been peaceful here in the saha realm.  But the today’s violence belongs to us. It’s our responsibility; surely not the dream we wish to pass to our children.  Martin Luther King — seeing himself in a lineage that included Jesus Christ, Thoreau, Tolstoy, and Gandhi — was not so much a teacher about race — racism is an artifact of social violence — but about the life and practice of active nonviolence. He raised up the ideal of “the beloved community” — in Buddhist terms, the pure land; in the Gospel of Matthew, the city upon a hill.

The beloved community is not a land devoid of conflict.  But it is a society that solves its conflicts without falling into overt or structural violence. This community is rooted in love not hate. Radical means going to the root.  Preaching in Montgomery, Alabama in 1957, Dr. King said:

In the final analysis, love is not this sentimental something that we talk about. It is not merely an emotional something. Love is creative, understanding goodwill for all men. It is the refusal to defeat any individual. When you rise to the level of love, of its great beauty and power, you seek only to defeat evil systems. Individuals who happen to be caught up in that system, you love,

What is the alternative?  What do we see in the news each night; what do we realize at four in the morning in the dark nights of our soul?

… hate for hate only intensifies the existence of hate and evil in the universe. If I hit you and you hit me and I hit you back and you hit me back and go on, you see, that goes on ad infinitum. It just never ends. Somewhere somebody must have a little sense, and that’s the strong person. The strong person is the person who can cut off the chain of hate, the chain of evil. And that is the tragedy of hate, it only intensifies the existence of hate and evil in the universe. Somebody must have religion enough and morality enough to cut it off, and inject within the very structure of the universe that strong and powerful element of love.

So on this day, and every day, I hope to be reborn as truly human, a card-carrying member of the beloved community. My dream is not so dramatic. May we walk quietly, side-by-side, enjoying each other’s good company in peace.


If you would like to know more about Dr. King, read the extraordinary Taylor Branch trilogy on “the King Years”: Parting the Waters (from 1954 to 1963), Pillar of Fire (from 1963 to 1965), and At Caanan’s Edge (from 1965 to 1968).  See also the excellent website created by Stanford’s Martin Luther King Jr. Research and Education Institute  <http://mlk-kpp01.stanford.edu/>

— Hozan Alan Senauke

About asenauke

Zen Buddhist priest, activist, writer, father, musician
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5 Responses to Happy Birthday, Martin Luther King, Jr.

  1. Pingback: What To The Radical Is Martin Luther King Day? « Kloncke

  2. on Sat I was at an all day event of nonviolent protest training….we participated in some great exercises which made me see nonviolent action in a new way….more as quiet actions we can all make day-to-day, rather than the more typical view of non-violent response to a threat or as a protest. I found myself reviewing times in my own life where I used nonviolence to diffuse a situation…without thinking of it as nonviolent action—but more grounded in love and care for the people involved and I was a bit surprised at how many times this has happened. I think I was blessed to have a few extraordinary adults around me in my childhood who showed me this was how to behave…I only hope I can provide that example for others and pass it on…

  3. Ryan says:

    I’ve always been inspired by Dr. King, but have come to a different understanding of what “evil systems” there are to defeat than many folks who are really into him. How do we balance effectiveness at defeating the systems with imperatives to be nonviolent? For instance, at the end of his life, King was agitating against the Vietnam war……and it was then that he was killed. Would the protest movement in the US against that war have mattered without US (sometimes violent) GI resistance and the military resistance of the majority of Vietnamese? I’m doubtful, because I don’t think the ruling class of the US, then or now, inherently has to care whether there are massive protest movements in the United States.

    The Gandhian anti-colonial movement in India is an example of kicking out an occupying army with nonviolent civil disobedience……but then again it occurred during a time of decolonization around the world, where the rich and powerful in the 1st world were shifting strategies from direct military administration and exploitation (costly but profitable) to indirect economic exploitation helped by “free market” institutions and ideology…..basically outsourcing the exploitation of the 3rd world to domestic ruling classes!

    I practice the Dhamma, and I think what is at the heart of many of the nonviolent teachings of MLK and Gandhi is true and very important: that acting with hate and anger instead of love for other beings MUST damage yourself and lead to bad consequences in the world. But I think one of the ways that MLK has been used for the interests of “evil systems” is by vulgarizing this message into “violence itself is the real enemy”, which leads a lot of people to take the side of the systems against the people who resist them. I heard some of this kind of rhetoric from convert communities around the bay area reacting to the resistance to the Oscar Grant verdict.

    I think an actually liberatory nonviolence would struggle seriously with the questions of when is volence useful or necessary, why, and how might we change the way it occurs in those situations. It would involve working to infuse struggle (ours and that of others) with compassion AND help it win…….rather than acting as a judgmental, conservative force. Despite my tone, I often struggle with the question of how to deal with attempts at resistance that are not of pure intention (which is all of them)……and I’m curious about your experience/approach Alan, and those of others reading.


  4. asenauke says:

    Dear Ryan,
    Thanks for your compelling questions. I don’t have answers, but I have thoughts. Let me go paragraph by paragraph.

    1. I think nonviolent protest against the Vietnam War mattered a lot. It brought down Johnson, and essentially brought down Nixon, with his own paranoia and crimes against the nation. The violent GI resistance was part of this, of course. But remember that the military (and Nixon) shifted direction when they realized the war could not be won on the ground. They withdrew troops and massively escalated bombing, attempting a strategy that they hoped would critically weaken the Vietnamese and tamp down domestic protest. In fact, the war did not end until Nixon was gone, and Ford was in. He paid the price for his ending of the war and his shameful pardon of Nixon.

    Meanwhile, the “anti-imperialist” left (of which I was a part) stupidly deconstructed SDS, the largest militant student movement in U.S. history, in favor of adventurist “armed-struggle” that blew up toilets. What were we thinking?

    2. You are totally right about Gandhi and the dissolution of outright colonialism. This was in the air. The Indians knew it and so did the English, who were broke after WWII. Gandhi also surmised correctly that British repression–at that historical moment–had limits. British violence would only go so far, and that is why Gandhi played as much to the British at home as to British in India. Much as MLK strategically played to all of America and to the U.S. Gummit, while acting in Montgomery, Birmingham, etc.

    These are different circumstances than, say, resisting the Nazis or facing the brutal SPDC junta in Burma, where the use of violence has much less of a limit.

    3. I think that violence is the enemy. But violence is not the same as power or even force. Gandhi’s principle was satyagraha — truth or soul force. King’s strategies, like Gandhi, depended on creative conflict. He is very clear about this in his “Letter from Birmingham Jail.” Change only happens if one creates circumstances that surface the conflict already present in the situation. That means forcing an opponent’s hand. It also means being prepared to receive violence without retaliation.

    The discipline and training involved in “active nonviolence” parallels a soldier’s training. Except that one does not retaliate with weapons. This kind of stance does not manifest without real training. This is a path I deeply admire.

    4. I struggle with these questions myself. All I can really speak to is my own intention. I do not wish to kill. But my ability to refrain from harm is determined by my practice and training. I can only see as far as my eye of practice reaches. That is, it is not realistic to do something other that what we are trained to do. This society trains us to violence. I try to train myself to nonviolence.

    I am unwilling to preach this to others. For example, I am not going to tell active combatants to lay down their arms on the battlefield. But I would be happy to consider with them other courses of action, when time and circumstance are appropriate.

    Well, these are some incomplete thoughts. Take good care.


  5. kloncke says:

    Just want to say I’m really appreciating the convo here, taking it into some deep and tricky territory. Thanks to all.

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