The Dharma of Martin Luther King Jr.
Hozan Alan Senauke
Berkeley Zen Center – 13 January 2013
I’ve been thinking about Dr. King. On Monday, January 15 Martin Luther King Jr. would have been 84 years old. A week later my wife Laurie and I are going to India, where in recent years I have been teaching young Dalit/ex-untouchable youth for the last four years. This year Laurie and I are planning to spend a week with Dalit students exploring the American civil rights movement, Buddhism, and the liberation movement of India’s most oppressed people.
Over the last fifteen years I have studied Martin Luther King Jr. — reading his sermons and speeches, examining his actions and strategies, and mourning his loss. We need him now more than ever. As much as any person of the 20th Century, he has been a dharma teacher for me. 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, came to the crowded sanctuary of a suburban Great Neck synagogue, in an era when Jews and Blacks still shared a sense of oppression.
I’m not talking about 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 image-makers preserve America’s self-congratulatory illusion of tolerance. (An aside: this U.S. postage stamp business is really strange. 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 because of their radical beliefs. What would they have thought of this phenomenon? I don’t think it is hard to guess.)
The essence of Buddhism is “the three treasures”— Buddha, Dharma, and Sangha. We can understand Buddha as our own enlightened nature. Dharma is thought of as “the teachings,” and these teachings are essentially a description of how things really are. Sangha is the circle of practitioners or the community of all sentient beings. Using these definitions, the dharma of Martin Luther King shines forth.
Dr. King was a Christian, a Baptist minister, but by inclination and education he was a religious inclusivist, which means he saw the workings of divinity in every being. In a sermon from Montgomery, Alabama Dr. King wrote:
“All that has just been said concerning the spiritual element in man gives backing to the Christian contention that man is made in the image of God. Man is more than flesh and blood.” (“What Is Man?,” July 1954)
In Zen terms we say, “All beings are Buddha.” One could quibble that this is not exactly the same as Dr. King’s proposition, but it is close, and his practice was to see what was good and true in each person, even in his enemies.
He did his best to meet each person with respect, and this was the training that was offered to each Civil Rights activist in the early days of the movement. Similarly it is our training in zazen and in our practice community to meet ourselves with acceptance and recognition of Buddha, and to relate to each other this way, Buddha to Buddha.
Dr. King’s dharma unfolds in so much of what he said and did. In the early 50s, doing graduate studies in theology he studied about Buddhism. I found a paper he wrote about Mahayana ideals. In its conclusion he writes approvingly:
“Buddhism became a religion for the laymen as well as for the monk. The emphasis on fleeing from the world was replaced by a desire to live in the world, while yet being not of the world.”
The mature vision of Martin Luther King was rooted in one of the Buddha’s great discoveries. In the first days of his awakening, Shakyamuni Buddha had insight into the workings of what we call dependent co-arising, that all life and all things are infinitely dependent on each other, that nothing has an inherent or permanent nature, but is always arising. King’s clear expression of this principle explains:
“We are all tied together in a single garment of destiny. An inescapable network of mutuality. I can never be what I ought to be until you are allowed to be what you ought to be.” (“Letter from a Birmingham Jail,” 1963)
And in a later essay, “The World House” (1967) he writes:
“We are inevitably our brother’s keeper because we are our brother’s brother. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.”
The third jewel, sangha, is the heart of Dr. King’s vision, which he expressed as the “beloved community,” a term he borrowed from the American philosopher/theologian Josiah Royce (1855-1916). In Dr. King’s day and ours the world is mired in violence and war. Not that things have ever been peaceful here in what Buddha called the saha realm, which means the realm of things which must be endured. But 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 effect, 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 retribution, 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 want 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/