Is Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. a Bodhisattva?

The main question I want to ask this morning is this, “Is Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. a bodhisattva?” Of course, I am going to take my sweet time getting to my answer so be patient. 

This week I saw a commercial  for Berlitz, a global language educational service, that illustrates how so much can get lost in translation. In it there is a radio operator for the German coast guard sitting at his desk when all of a sudden he gets a message in English, “Mayday! Mayday! Mayday! We are sinking! We are sinking! We are sinking!” which seems to intrigue the radio operator. So he leans into the microphone and asks with great curiosity in his voice, “What are you thinking about?” 

I thought that the commercial was very appropriate for a Unitarian Universalist church because when people visit our church on Sunday morning we often ask them, “What are you thinking?” without any recognition that they might also be sinking. Sometimes, it is intellectual curiosity that drives people through our doors but at other times it might be a death in the family or a divorce or a diagnosis or a bankruptcy. 

This morning I want to talk about the friendship between Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Thich Nhat Hanh, a Christian minister and a Buddhist monk, an American citizen and citizen of Vietnam. And one of the reasons I want to talk about this relationship is because even though Dr. King had enough challenges of his own leading the civil rights movement in our country in the 1960’s he could not help but be concerned about the people in Vietnam whose boats and whose hopes were sinking. 

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Thich Nhat Hanh shared a commitment to peace and nonviolence. Dr King applied these principles in our country, America, and Hanh applied them in his country, Vietnam. Both also spread these ideas all over the world. For this reason Dr. King nominated Hanh for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1967. 

Dr. King was a Baptist minister and Hanh was a Buddhist monk. Christianity is a theistic religion and Buddhism is a non-theistic religion, and yet the two men were able to find common ground despite their different ideas about God. 

Dr. King made a distinction between what he called “theoretical atheists” and “practical atheists” and he made it clear that he was more interested in practice than theory. He once said, “The most dangerous type of atheism is not theoretical atheism, but practical atheism -that’s the most dangerous type. And the world, even the church, is filled up with people who pay lip service to God and not life service. And there is always a danger that we will make it appear externally that we believe in God when internally we don’t. We say with our mouths that we believe in (God), but we live our lives like (God) never existed. That is the ever-present danger confronting religion. That’s a dangerous type of atheism.” In other words Dr. King was less concerned with what we say and more interested in what we do, less concerned with what we believe and more interested in how we live. 

Dr. King and Thich Nhat Hanh had different ideas about God but they had the same ideas about peace and nonviolence, kindness and compassion, love and understanding. And these ideas are not just about a common way of thinking but about a common way of being present with one another when someone is in times of crisis and pain. How we are present with someone when they have a death in the family or a discouraging diagnosis or a bankruptcy or other catastrophe. 

They were less concerned about orthodoxy (right thinking) and more concerned about orthopraxy (right living.)

Thich Nhat Hanh helped found a movement called engaged Buddhism during the Vietnam war. He described the foundation of this movement with these words, “As monks, nuns and lay people during the war, many of us practiced…meditation. But we could hear the bombs falling around us, and the cries of the children and adults who were wounded. To meditate is to be aware of what is going on. What was going on around us was the suffering of many people and the destruction of life. So we were motivated by the desire to do something to relieve the suffering in us and around us…we wanted to maintain our (spiritual) practice while responding to the suffering.” 

This is what Dr. King and Thich Nhat Hanh had in common, the desire for spirituality to inform our actions in the world and inspire us to work together to build the Beloved Community. Indeed it is this term that inspired a recent book by Marc Andrus, Brothers in the Beloved Community:The Friendship of Thich Nhat Hanh and Martin Luther King Jr. 

Earlier in the service we heard Eddie Chin share his new year’s resolutions in anticipation of the beginning of the Year of the Water Rabbit and one of the resolutions that we share is a desire for our congregation to live more fully into the 8th Principle of Unitarian Universalism which reads. 

“We, the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist Association, covenant to affirm and promote: journeying toward spiritual wholeness by working to build a diverse multicultural Beloved Community by our actions that accountably dismantle racism and other oppressions in ourselves and our institutions.” And this is why we are reflecting on Thich Nhat Hanh and Dr. King this morning because they are an excellent example of an interfaith partnership committed to building the Beloved Community together. As we approach the Year of the Water Rabbit we are mindful of members of the Asian community who have been targeted with violence and hate crimes including a recent attack in Bloomington, Indiana. Our meditations and our prayers cannot ignore the suffering around us caused by racism. 

This vision of the Beloved Community is not only the concern of famous people like Dr. King and Thich Nhat Hanh. This vision of the Beloved Community is what brings us to this church on Sunday morning. Yesterday, we held a memorial service for Erven Williams who named his son after Frederick Douglass. Erven was a Unitarian Universalist but he also identified himself as a Christian. And he identified as Christian in the same sense that the 19th century abolitionist Frederick Douglass identified as a Christian, a follower of Jesus and a fierce critic of every form of religion used to support slavery, racism and white supremacy. 

On more that one occassion Erven read these words by Frederick Douglass from our pulpit, “Between the Christianity of this land, and the Christianity of Christ, I recognize the widest possible difference—so wide, that to receive the one as good, pure, and holy, is of necessity to reject the other as bad, corrupt, and wicked…I love the pure, peaceable, and impartial Christianity of Christ: I therefore hate the corrupt, slaveholding, women-whipping, cradle-plundering, partial and hypocritical Christianity of this land.”

So when Erven described himself as a Christian he was aligning himself with the Christianity of Christ and not the Christianity too often practiced in this land that is unwilling to challenge white supremacy.. 

And Erven’s religion, like Dr. King’s, was informed by his friendships with members of the Buddhist faith. Erven served in the Air Force and was stationed in both Thailand and Vietnam where he made friends with Buddhist monks, and these friendships would shape his whole life. 

He once told me that it was this experience, more than many others, that set him on the path to becoming a Unitarian Universalist. It was his time in Southeast Asia that revealed to him that there are good people in every faith and wisdom in all the great world religions. 

This week Elnora shared with me some pictures of Erven in Thailand including one with him and a friend who was a Buddhist monk. In my hands I hold two books that belonged to Erven, a cookbook on how to prepare Asian cuisine and another called The Teaching of the Buddha written in Japanese with an English translation, food for the body and the spirit. 

The two books remind us that we often build the beloved community around food. Our church has hosted many interfaith dinners, where people of all faiths can sit at the same table and learn more about each other. And we also study the scriptures of the world’s religions here at TVUUC. Including these verses from Erven’s book about Buddhism, wisdom from the Dhammapadda. 

“Hatreds never cease by hatreds in this world. By love alone they cease. This is the ancient law. 

Though we should conquer a thousand soldiers on a battlefield a thousand times, it is not until we conquer ourselves that we become the noblest victor.” 

After Dr. King’s assassination, Thich Nhat Hanh described some of his last words to Dr. King, “I said to him, ‘Martin do you know something? In Vietnam they call you a bodhisattva, an enlightened being trying to awaken other beings and help them move toward more compassion and understanding.’” 

With these words in mind, the question might be raised, can a Baptist be a bodhisattva? A bodhisattva is someone who reaches the mountaintop of enlightenment but then feels led by compassion to return to the valley to help others struggling to find their way to that experience. And I would argue that in so much as the memory of Dr. King inspires us to live a compassionate life today, to reach out to those who are suffering today, then I believe we can say, “Yes, Dr. King is a bodhisattva,” even now. 

Erven Williams once gave a sermon in this church where he said, “As an individual it is easy to look at differences, but if we are really concerned with living in harmony with each other we look for likeness. What we share together is what holds us together.” 

One way to look at all the different religions of the world is to focus on those differences. Another way to look at them as different languages, differing words trying to speak about the same things. Our challenge is to make an accurate translation. If we adopt this latter point of view then we will spend more time thinking about our similarities than our differences. We will spend more time thinking about what we have in common and not what divides us. And if someone asks us what we are doing we can say, “We are thinking. We are thinking. We are thinking.” For as Mahatma Gandhi reminded us, “Our thoughts become our words. Our words become your actions. Our actions become our habits. Our habits become our values. Our values become our destiny.”

Dr. King used to say to his fellow Americans, “We all came to this country on different boats but we are in the same boat now.” So our challenge is to turn our thoughts into words and our words into actions and do everything in our power to keep this boat (and every boat) from sinking. 

(The Reverend Chris Buice gave this sermon at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church on Sunday January 15, 2023) 


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