They Call You a Bodhisattva

“Martin, you know something? In Vietnam they call you 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 to Martin Luther King Jr

Dear Beloved Community,
On this MLK Day, we honor Dr. King by sharing an except from a paper written by Dr. Larry Ward on how MLK embodied the bodhisattva ideal of no fear. The excerpt was originally published in Lion’s Roar. The longer piece was published in the book a link to this article as well as information on the book is at the end.

The following excerpt illuminates the profound nature of Dr. King’s understanding of how a deep transformation is required in America’s attitudes, values, habits, and systems: “I knew that I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today—my own government.” In this speech, Dr. King called for the United States to “undergo a radical revolution of values,” saying that “we must rapidly begin the shift from a ‘thing-oriented’ society to a ‘person-oriented’ society.”

He continued: “When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.” Certainly, this posture called into question the American status quo’s tolerance, maintenance, and protection of a system of oppression based on colonial models of thought, speech, and action both individual and collective.

To speak such truth to minds, hearts, and systems of power reveals Dr. King’s embodiment of the Bodhisattva’s deep practice of nonfear. This means the Bodhisattva learns continuously to face their fears and not be debilitated by them. In the words of Judith Lief, “Fear is not a trivial matter. In many ways, it restricts our lives; it imprisons us. Fear is also a tool of oppression.

Because of fear, we do many harmful things, individually and collectively, and people who are hungry for power over others know that and exploit it. We can be made to do things out of fear. Fear has two extremes. At one extreme, we freeze. We are petrified, literally, like a rock. At the other extreme, we panic. How do we find the path through those extremes?”

A Bodhisattva’s spiritual practice invites them to face and embrace their fears, understand their fears, and release them through wisdom and compassion in action. Dr. King describes the impact of fear in our lives: “The soft-minded man always fears change. He feels security in the status quo, and he has an almost morbid fear of the new. For him, the greatest pain is the pain of a new idea.”

Dr. King’s life called me in and out of hiding into my own unique voice. I found myself full of openness to the creation of a new future for America, and deeper still called into the Bodhisattva path of universal care. So, I call you in and out as Dr. King did me and as we must do for one another. In his words, “And so there are things that all of us can do and I urge you to do it with zeal and with vigor.”

I conclude this brief description of Dr. King as a Bodhisattva with a quote from TNH. It is a beautiful expression of the Bodhisattva’s vow: “We have enough suffering already, so we don’t want to make any more. We have enough suffering for us to give rise to awakening. We want to avoid making more suffering, if we can. We want to use the suffering that’s already here to help us to wake up, to awaken.” And will we wake, for compassion’s sake?

Originally published in the Lion’s Roar article: Celebrating Juneteeth 2022 with Reflections on Martin Luther King, Jr.

The longer paper is called, “They Call You a Bodhisattva: Homage to Martin Luther King Jr,” and is in the book, Afrikan Wisdom: New Voices Talk Black liberation, Buddhism, and Beyond. Valerie Mason-John (ed.) North Atlantic Books. Should you wish to purchase the book, we encourage you to do so via a Black-owned book store.

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