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