We must all learn to live together as brothers or we will all perish together as fools. We are tied together in the single garment of destiny, caught in an inescapable network of mutuality. . . . For some strange reason, I can never be what I am until you are what you ought to be.
—Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.
(“Remaining Awake in a Great Revolution,” March 1968)
We are nearly fifty years down the road from Dr. King’s prophetic vision, and never has it seemed more possible that we might actually perish as fools. The fools and the greedy and the hate-filled have great influence in the U.S. and in many parts of the world. To the extent that we allow them power and take advantage of privileges for ourselves, we partake of their foolishness, in oppression of the disempowered and despoliation of the world itself.
Our hazardous situation is nothing new. Think of the twentieth century’s World Wars; think of our own Civil War, the extermination of native populations in the Western Hemisphere, the Crusades, the Mongol conquests, and so on. In the Buddha’s time, he sat under the branches of a dead tree and witnessed the massacre of his own Sakya tribe by the neighboring Kosalans.
Nations have always threatened nations. Within the U.S. there is racial and economic violence. It seems that the voices of Dr. King and other teachers of justice, equality, and nonviolence are lost—as if their bold words were never spoken and their brave deeds never happened. But their words and example continue to inspire us.
Each of us can take up just one thread in Dr. King’s “garment of destiny” and do our best to make the cloth whole. In “The World House,” Dr. King writes: “We are inevitably our brother’s keeper because we are our brother’s brother. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.”
Drawing from Josiah Royce, the early-twentieth-century theologian and founder of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, Dr. King spoke of his own vision of Beloved Community. The Beloved Community resonates with the historical model of Buddhist sangha—community based on intention and vow to practice the Dharma. 2500 years after Shakyamuni Buddha’s life we celebrate sangha in Berkeley, vowing to practice together and to resolve our differences peacefully and nonviolently. Dr. King said:
The aftermath of nonviolence is the creation of the beloved community. The aftermath of nonviolence is redemption. The aftermath of nonviolence is reconciliation. The aftermath of violence is emptiness and bitterness.
Dr. King understood what Buddhists might call the illusion of self and other—one can strenuously oppose systems of oppression without hating the person of an oppressor. As we all know from our quotidian conflicts, this is a difficult practice. But it is the heart of spiritual practice. King said, “When the battle’s over, a new relationship comes into being between the oppressed and the oppressor.” This is the Beloved Community, which depends on diligent training and practice, transforming ourselves and others. Dr. King said:
Somewhere somebody must have a little sense, and that’s the strong person . . . the person who can cut off the chain of hate, the chain of evil. . . . 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.
A last word from King’s 1967 essay “The World House”:
We can no longer afford to worship the God of hate or bow before the altar of retaliation. The oceans of history are made turbulent by the ever-rising tides of hate. History is cluttered with the wreckage of nations and individuals who pursued this self-defeating path of hate.
We must do our Zen practice with determination. We must take on the work of love deeply, swiftly, and decisively. Otherwise we will soon find ourselves among that sad wreckage. We do have a choice. Each of us.
—Hozan Alan Senauke