We Dharma brothers Jiryu and Hondo, like many people, have been talking this weekend about Martin Luther King, Jr. We’ve been talking about what today’s celebration of his life and work mean to us as Zen practitioners wrestling with the koan of the American Bodhisattva a week away from Trump’s inauguration. We are each struck by different points, and we thought we’d share them in this one post.
It’s hard to think or write clearly about MLK. The brilliant and complex human being can be hard to retrieve from beneath the many layers of simplification, glorification, appropriation, coopting, distortion and misunderstanding that have covered him over. Maybe that always happens to historical figures. In any case, we don’t pretend to understand him or his work in any particularly profound or insightful way. But as we reflect on what we do know, the shorelines our “eyes of practice” reach today, this is some of what we see.
Jiryu: Resistance in Love, Standing Up, and Using the Church
For me, there are three pieces that are ringing the loudest.
The first is the model MLK offers (in hagiography at least) of resistance without hate – or better, resistance in love. It’s easy to miss, easy to get wrong. How do we push against something, how do we shout to the world or to a person “change!” without demeaning what is here now? Without loving what the world, the person, is today, before we “get” them to change? Isn’t Buddhist practice especially about acceptance, and isn’t that the most important thing? The template of resistance in love shows something about the possibility of Bodhisattva action, a Bodhisattva response that doesn’t lack acceptance, doesn’t lack love, but still leans towards – because we all lean, because we must lean, because our vow demands a lean – towards a preference for the well-being of all, and a willingness to work for that. To sacrifice for that.
If MLK and the family of the great non-violent resistors embody “resistance in love,” there is in the Dharma a chance I think for a complementary “resistance from emptiness.” This is a theme that is very alive for me now, and that I want to continue to develop. In the whole universe there is not a single thing – therefore, stand up for one another, here and now.
Second, in the weird and paradoxical and uncomfortable national ritual of honoring MLK, we are all together expressing and at least tacitly affirming that sometimes it is good to stand up, sometimes the circumstances demand it. No one thinks anymore that the MLK and the Civil Rights Movement was “too much” or “too alienating.” To many (white folks) at the time it did seem like too much, uncalled for, not time, inappropriate. But we’ve decided now as a country that they were wrong. It was time, and it wasn’t too much to ask. And we can see now too that the people who said “let’s stay out of it,” “it’s not that big a deal,” were not actually neutral. Opting out or standing above was as much a stand as any, just as it is today. So what does that mean for those of us now in the Buddhist community hearing “too much” or “alienating” or “inappropriate” or “don’t take sides”? That the Civil Rights Movement was in the end “on the right side of history” does not give a free pass to people working for change today – sometimes the conservatives and reactionaries may be right. But it is food for thought. We are all glad (or say in the national ceremony, at least, that we are glad) that they didn’t heed those voices.
Third, and related to this standing up, this taking sides whether we like it or not, is the churches. I don’t know enough about this – I’d like to know more and maybe you can help me. But we are talking about the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., remember? The movement flowed through the churches, it was wound up with them. Pray and worship, then march together. There was not a hard line, and while there may have been some talk about not alienating by taking sides, it certainly didn’t stop the church from standing up together as one body, one voice. Did this cheapen, say, the Baptist Church? The Quakers? Do we wish they hadn’t so narrowed their flocks, become so politically homogenous? Or is it just that we as Buddhists want to be different? (Indeed we often do seem to say that we’re above and apart from those ordinary religions…) Do we think that unlike the Baptists or Quakers we can be truer to our values, accomplish more for the world, by staying out of such struggles?
It is said that the teaching of the Dharma is the teaching of Fearlessness, and that a teacher of the Way is a teacher of Fearlessness. In my last post I wondered what that fearlessness might mean in the Age of Trump, and I think the memory of MLK can offer a perspective.
A few years ago, I came across a brilliant piece by blogger Hamden Rice called “Most of you have no idea what Martin Luther King actually did.” I’ll summarize parts of it here, but really you should go read the whole thing if you’ve never seen it. In the essay, Rice tells the story of coming home from his first year of college and arguing with his father about Dr. King. Rice, newly enamored of Malcolm X and black nationalism, wonders out loud what MLK accomplished other than give some good speeches, and his father “told me with a sort of cold fury, ‘Dr. King ended the terror of living in the south.’”
Rice backs up here to remind us of what that terror was:
“white people, mostly white men, occasionally went berserk and grabbed random black people, usually men, and lynched them.”
(Just a note here about gender. I’m interested, as I re-read this essay, about the voices of the women in Rice’s father’s family. This is a conversation between Rice and his dad, and concentrates on the experience of black men in the pre-Civil Rights South. The situation for women, I think, had more to do with gendered violence, with sexual assault, and it would be good to know how Rice’s point about fear and fearlessness relates there. For now, I’ll just let that question stand.)
Back to the essay. Rice lays out the complicated, humiliating lengths to which African-American men of his father’s generation went to try to avoid provoking white people, and tries to communicate the depth of the transformation his father described, what a big deal it was to move from a kind of constant low level dread to the freedom of no longer being afraid.
And how did that transformation happen, how did people move from terror to freedom? That transformation happened, according to Rice, because Dr. King helped convince people to do precisely the things they were most terrified of. In the context of people going to incredible lengths to avoid white violence, Dr. King encouraged them to walk right up to white violence and allow it to begin. Rice writes:
They told us: Whatever you are most afraid of doing vis-a-vis white people, go do it. Go ahead down to city hall and try to register to vote, even if they say no, even if they take your name down.
Go ahead sit at that lunch counter. Sue the local school board. All things that most black people would have said back then, without exaggeration, were stark raving insane and would get you killed.
If we do it all together, we’ll be okay.
White people sometimes go crazy and beat you up? Walk up to them and allow the beating. They sometimes throw you in jail for no reason? Walk up to them and allow them to throw you in jail.
I’ve always been moved by the way our tradition talks about fearlessness in the context of generosity—that fearlessness is a gift we can give and receive. What I love most about Rice’s essay is that it offers a lens for thinking about the Civil Rights Movement not in terms of legislative accomplishments or strategies for organizing, but in terms of giving and receiving the transforming gift of fearlessness. I think that’s incredibly valuable.
What will the gift of fearlessness look like for us in the Age of Trump?