Humbly, We Move Forward
By the ARISE Sangha Core Group
“Martin, in Vietnam, we speak of you as a bodhisattva [...] an enlightened being trying to awaken other living beings and help them go in the direction of compassion and understanding.” Thich Nhat Hanh spoke these words to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at one of their last meetings. A few years earlier, in a letter nominating Thay for the Nobel Peace Prize, King said, “I know Thich Nhat Hanh, and am privileged to call him my friend.”
Throughout the firestorm of the Vietnam War and civil rights protests, Thich Nhat Hanh and King shared a vision of peace, compassion, and love galvanized by non-violent social engagement, taking inspiration from Gandhi and others. In April 1967, several months after meeting Thich Nhat Hanh and facing tremendous opposition from the political and military establishment and some in the civil rights movement, King spoke eloquently, powerfully, and prophetically against the Vietnam War. He insisted on a “true revolution of values” from a “thing-oriented” society to a “person-oriented” society.
Today, our society faces the firestorm of racial and ethnic injustice, as well as systemic and structural oppression and discrimination. Similar to Thay’s teachings that “happiness is not an individual matter” and “liberation is not an individual matter,” justice and love are not individual matters. Creating the Beloved Community for which King and Thich Nhat Hanh have worked so diligently towards manifesting necessitates individual transformation supporting societal transformation. With this framework in mind, we can continue in Thay’s footsteps as we co-create a truly inclusive Buddhism right where we live, akin to his establishment of Socially-Engaged Buddhism in Vietnam through such initiatives as the School of Youth for Social Services.
The ARISE Sangha works at this very intersection of social justice and spiritual engagement. We seek for ourselves, for our community, and for society a “true revolution,” a new order of justice grounded in compassionate action, peace, and love that challenges us all to wake up to the roots of current inequities. While we commit to this intention with clarity, we know that intention must be joined with impact and action to transform suffering into compassion, understanding, and love. We humbly move forward to create a more equitable world that is within our reach.
The ARISE Sangha invites you to join our efforts by connecting with us at arisesangha.org/connect/.
A Time to Remember and Reflect: Martin Luther King and Thich Nhat Hanh
by Br. Chân Pháp Ấn
Since visiting Norway, home of the Nobel Peace Prize, to lead an EIAB outreach program last October, I have been moved to reflect upon how, 50 years earlier, the Nobel Peace Laureate Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., nominated our teacher, Thầy, for the 1967 Peace Prize. Though none was awarded that year, Dr. King recognized in Thầy “an apostle of peace and non-violence”, like himself.
At the time, I was a small boy in central Vietnam, crawling away and hiding in terror as soldiers camped in front of our house at sunset, preparing for a military strike. I began to see no point in growing up as it would mean becoming a soldier and killing or being killed. I became ill and suffered for years from deep sadness and depression, especially at sunset.
How joyful I feel, now, to know that all the while I was sinking into despair as a child, Thầy and Dr. King were working tirelessly together to end the war and create hope for a future of peace in Vietnam and beyond. How grateful I am that my own suffering from war led me eventually to Plum Village in France, the first monastic community Thầy established in exile and where I first experienced personal healing and transformation.
The inspiring story of the partnership between Thầy and Dr. King is, I believe, worth sharing anew as we remember Dr. King 50 years after his assassination1 and, in EIAB’s tenth anniversary year, contemplate how deep roots in the suffering of war and discrimination prepared us for our primary mission: to help people recognize, embrace and transform their painful feelings and emotions, and to resolve conflicts in their relationships at home, in their workplaces and within their communities.
“Please kill the real enemies of man.”
Thầy and Dr. King met at a pivotal time in each other’s lives. Both were towering intellects, spiritual leaders and social activists at the forefront of non-violent movements for radical change amid escalating violence in their respective countries. Both had experienced threats, oppression and danger. Through humanity, compassion, leadership and respect for each other, they brought the Vietnam peace movement and the US civil rights movement together. This meeting of two enlightened minds helped to change the course of history.
The relationship began on 1 June 1965, when Thầy directly addressed Dr. King in an open letter entitled “In Search of the Enemy of Man”. This was shortly before US President Lyndon B. Johnson took a further step towards committing America to full-scale war in Vietnam by announcing he would raise “our fighting strength” almost immediately from 75,000 to 125,000 men, with more to be sent later.
Already, Dr. King, the Nobel Peace Laureate of 1964, was wrestling with his conscience over Vietnam. But “I did not march, I did not demonstrate, I did not rally.” He believed that the bloodshed would end sooner if Americans moved from the battlefield to the peace table, without prolonging debate over the war. The strategy of the veteran civil rights leader was, at this time, to be “a quiet actor” pushing behind the scenes for peace through negotiation.
In his letter, Thầy sought to explain to Western Christians that the widely-publicized self-burning of four Vietnamese Buddhist monks and a nun in the summer of 1963, beginning with that of Ven. Thích Quảng Đức - whom Thầy had known personally - was not suicide. It was not despair or even protest; but an act of courage, love, and compassion of the highest order; an act of hope, an aspiration for something good in the future. The monastics were willing to suffer and die for the sake of their people at a time when Buddhist leaders and followers were being discriminated against and brutally suppressed by South Vietnam’s Ngô Đình Diệm regime.
Thầy said that he believed with all his heart that those who had sacrificed their lives in this agonizing way did not seek the deaths of their oppressors but only a change in their policy. Their “enemies” were not people, Thầy said, but intolerance, fanaticism, dictatorship, greed, hatred, and discrimination within the heart of man.
“I also believe with all of my being that the struggle for equality and freedom you lead in Birmingham, Alabama, is not really aimed at the whites but only at intolerance, hatred, and discrimination. These are real enemies of man - not man himself,” he wrote to Dr. King. “In our unfortunate fatherland we are trying to plead desperately: do not kill man, even in man’s name. Please kill the real enemies of man which are present everywhere, in our very hearts and minds.”
“You cannot be silent”
Thầy went on to describe how countless Vietnamese peasants and children were being killed every day in a tragic war that had already gone on for twenty years. “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 heart, the indescribable suffering of the Vietnamese people.”
Thầy put it to Dr. King that “the world’s greatest humanists” would not remain silent. He continued: “You yourself cannot remain silent. America is said to have a strong religious foundation and spiritual leaders would not allow American political and economic doctrines to be deprived of the spiritual element. You cannot be silent since you have already been in action and you are in action because, in you, God is in action, too…”
“I was in the presence of a holy person.”
Thầy left Vietnam in May 1966 for a US speaking tour to bring Americans first-hand information about “the real situation in Vietnam” which, for the most part, they were not getting from their media, and to plead for an end to the suffering. It was in Chicago, on 1 June 1966, that he and Dr. King met in person for the first time. Thầy later wrote of that meeting: “From the first moment, I knew I was in the presence of a holy person. Not just his good work but his very being was a source of great inspiration for me.”
Thầy and Dr. King held a press conference in Chicago on 1 June 1966.
At a joint press conference, Thầy called for non-violent ways to remove “the real enemy”: anger, hatred and discrimination. He said that Dr. King’s activities for civil rights and human rights were perfectly in accord with efforts in Vietnam to stop the conflict.
For his part, Dr. King came out very strongly against the war. “That was the day we combined our efforts to work for peace in Vietnam and to fight for civil rights in the US,” Thầy later wrote. It was also around this time that Thầy was banned from returning to Vietnam, forcing him into what would become nearly four decades of exile.
“This gentle Buddist monk from Vietnam…”
Encountering Thầy had a profound effect on Dr. King and his deeper awakening to the humanitarian and moral challenges the Vietnam War posed for the world. On 25 January 1967, Dr. King sent the following letter to the Norwegian Nobel Institute in Oslo:
As the Nobel Peace Prize Laureate of 1964, I now have the pleasure of proposing to you the name of Thich Nhat Hanh for that award in 1967.
I do not personally know of anyone more worthy of the Nobel Peace Prize than this gentle Buddhist monk from Vietnam.
This would be a notably auspicious year for you to bestow your Prize on the Venerable Nhat Hanh. 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.
Because no honor is more respected than the Nobel Peace Prize, conferring that Prize on Nhat Hanh would itself be a most generous act of peace. It would remind all nations that men of good will stand ready to lead warring elements out of an abyss of hatred and destruction. It would re-awaken men to the teaching of beauty and love found in peace. It would help to revive hopes for a new order of justice and harmony.
I know Thich Nhat Hanh, and am privileged to call him my friend. Let me share with you some things I know about him. You will find in this single human being an awesome range of abilities and interests.
He is a holy man, for he is humble and devout. He is a scholar of immense intellectual capacity. The author of ten published volumes, he is also a poet of superb clarity and human compassion. His academic discipline is the Philosophy of Religion, of which he is Professor at Van Hanh, the Buddhist University he helped found in Saigon. He directs the Institute for Social Studies at this University. This amazing man also is editor of Thien My, an influential Buddhist weekly publication. And he is Director of Youth for Social Service, a Vietnamese institution which trains young people for the peaceable rehabilitation of their country.
Thich Nhat Hanh today is virtually homeless and stateless. If he were to return to Vietnam, which he passionately wishes to do, his life would be in great peril. He is the victim of a particularly brutal exile because he proposes to carry his advocacy of peace to his own people. What a tragic commentary this is on the existing situation in Vietnam and those who perpetuate it.
The history of Vietnam is filled with chapters of exploitation by outside powers and corrupted men of wealth, until even now the Vietnamese are harshly ruled, ill-fed, poorly housed, and burdened by all the hardships and terrors of modern warfare.
Thich Nhat Hanh offers a way out of this nightmare, a solution acceptable to rational leaders. He has traveled the world, counseling statesmen, religious leaders, scholars and writers, and enlisting their support. His ideas for peace, if applied, would build a monument to ecumenism, to world brotherhood, to humanity.
I respectfully recommend to you that you invest his cause with the acknowledged grandeur of the Nobel Peace Prize of 1967. Thich Nhat Hanh would bear this honor with grace and humility.
Martin Luther King, Jr.
“Never again will I be silent...”
In his autobiography, Dr. King pinpoints the “existential moment” when he knew he finally had to speak out against America’s involvement in the war. It was after reading an article entitled “The children of Vietnam”. He said to himself: “Never again will I be silent on an issue that is destroying the soul of our nation and destroying thousands and thousands of little children in Vietnam.”
In February 1967, at a symposium in Beverly Hills, California, Dr. King presented a searing analysis of what he called “The Casualties of the War in Vietnam” which, he said, included America’s principles and values – and some one million Vietnamese children. He insisted that the US was in an untenable position morally and politically. “We must combine the fervor of the civil rights movement with the peace movement,” he urged. “We must demonstrate, teach and preach, until the very foundations of our nation are shaken. We must work unceasingly to lift this nation we love to a higher destiny, to a new plateau of compassion, to a more noble expression of humane-ness.”
The speech provoked criticism of Dr. King across the political spectrum, including from his own supporters. But he was not to be deterred. In an impassioned speech entitled “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence”, delivered at the Riverside Church in New York City on 4 April 1967, Dr. King took his strongest personal stand against America’s “disgraceful” commitment to “this tragic war”.
“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,” he told the overflowing congregation. “At the heart of their concerns this query has often loomed large and loud: Why are you speaking about war, Dr. King? Why are you joining the voices of dissent? Peace and civil rights don’t mix, they say.”
Risking his future as the leader of the civil rights movement, as well as his relationship with the Johnson White House, Dr. King argued that the issues of the war in Vietnam and civil rights in America were inseparable. He noted the cruel irony that young black men crippled by American society were being sent “to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem”. Dr. King did not stop there. He knew that the issue of the war in Vietnam had gone beyond civil rights to the very soul of America. “If America’s soul becomes totally poisoned, part of the autopsy must read Vietnam. It can never be saved so long as it destroys the deepest hopes of men the world over.”
Fingerprints on History
Dr. King painted a devastating picture for the Riverside congregation of the war’s impact on the Vietnamese people and society, echoing much of what Thầy had revealed through his scholarly writings and speaking tours. “We have destroyed their two most cherished institutions: the family and the village,” said Dr. King. “We have destroyed their land and their crops. We have cooperated in the crushing of the nation’s only non-Communist revolutionary political force - the unified Buddhist church. We have supported the enemies of the peasants of Saigon. We have corrupted their women and children and killed their men.”
He called for the madness to cease immediately, saying that the initiative of the war was America’s and the initiative to stop it must also be America’s. “This is the message of the great Buddhist leaders of Vietnam. Recently one of them wrote these words:
‘Each day the war goes on the hatred increases in the heart of the Vietnamese and in the hearts of those of humanitarian instinct. The Americans are forcing even their friends into becoming their enemies. It is curious that the Americans, who calculate so carefully on the possibilities of military victory, do not realize that in the process they are incurring deep psychological and political defeat. The image of America will never again be the image of revolution, freedom and democracy, but the image of violence and militarism.’”
The unnamed Buddhist leader whose words Dr. King quoted was Thầy.
“Martin, they call you a Bodhisattva.”
In May 1967, soon after the Riverside address, Thầy and Dr. King met again at a conference entitled “Peace on Earth”, organized in Geneva by the World Council of Churches. It was there, over a convivial private breakfast in Dr. King’s hotel room, that they continued their brotherly discussion on peace, freedom, the building of community and what steps America should take to end the war.
Thầy said to him: “Martin, do you know something? In Vietnam they call you a Bodhisattva, an enlightened being trying to awaken other living beings and help them move towards more compassion and understanding.” Thầy later wrote that he was glad he had the chance to say that because, in less than a year, on the exact anniversary of his historic Riverside address, Dr. King was dead.
“I was in New York when I heard the news of his assassination; I was devastated. I could not eat; I could not sleep,” Thầy later recalled. “I made a deep vow to continue building what he called ‘the beloved community’ not only for myself but for him also. I have done what I promised Martin Luther King Jr. And I think that I have always felt his support.”