This piece was originally written as a communication that honored Black History Month in February of 2019.
“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.