By the time this editorial is published, it will be exactly a week since US president Donald Trump launched missile strikes against Syria. It might seem like hyperbole, but this open attack against the government of Bashar al-Assad raises fears of a possible third world war (regardless of what one thinks of Assad’s actions to maintain power). Syria is a firm ally of Russia and any strike by American weapons against Russian equipment or men could spiral into a confrontation between Putin and Trump. Reassurances that the US continues to maintain open communication, using the esoteric military term “deconfliction,” “so that there were no accidental incidents between American and Russian military forces in Syria” ring hollow. (NBC News)
We continue to hope that diplomacy will avert a major confrontation between two nuclear powers, and stop history from tragically repeating itself. America, after all, has a history of overreach that is now threatening to take root in Syria. The situation echoes George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq in 2003, which was an unprovoked act of aggression that destabilized the Middle East and indirectly led to the creation of ISIS. America’s history of overreach, however, did not originate in the Middle East. It began in Vietnam.
On 4 April 1967, Martin Luther King Jr. took to the airwaves to voice his passionate opposition to his country’s involvement in a war that was costing, as he saw it, far too many American and even more Vietnamese lives. Last Tuesday—just three days before Trump launched his missile strikes against Syria—was the anniversary of that historic speech. The speech was King’s most striking pronouncement against the Vietnam War, and led to increased surveillance and harassment of Martin Luther King Jr. by the FBI and other bodies of the American government. He received fake letters from the FBI urging him to commit suicide, and he was denounced in the press as a communist sympathizer. Yet in those dark moments, he emerged as a force for global peace, going beyond the advocate of racial justice. Strikingly, he quoted an unnamed Buddhist leader in his speech:
“Each day the war goes on, the hatred increases in the hearts of the Vietnamese and in the hearts of those of humanitarian instinct. The Americans are forcing even their friends into becoming their enemies. It is curious that the Americans, who calculate so carefully on the possibilities of military victory, do not realize that in the process they are incurring deep psychological and political defeat. The image of America will never again be the image of revolution, freedom, and democracy, but the image of violence and militarism.”
Perhaps this monk or nun was someone close to Thich Nhat Hanh, who was nominated the Nobel Peace Prize by King, in 1964. King evidently admired the peaceful values of Buddhism, and in his letter of support for Thich Nhat Hanh’s nomination, he praised the Zen Buddhist monk as “an apostle of peace and non-violence, cruelly separated from his own people while they are oppressed by a vicious war which has grown to threaten the sanity and security of the entire world.” One can only dream of the wonders Thich Nhat Hanh and Martin Luther King Jr. could have achieved together in the name of peace, had the latter not been so prematurely ripped away from us.
The Vietnam War was a conflict that, like the invasion of Iraq in 2003, fundamentally weakened American moral authority. “What do they think as we test out our weapons on them, just as the Germans tested out new medicine and new tortures in the concentration camps of Europe? Where are the roots of the independent Vietnam we claim to be building? Is it among these voiceless ones? We have destroyed their two most cherished institutions: the family and the village. We have corrupted their women and children and killed their men. Now there is little left to build on, save bitterness,” King said.
“If we continue,” declared King Jr. after quoting the unknown Buddhist monastic, “there will be no doubt in my mind and in the mind of the world that we have no honorable intentions in Vietnam. If we do not stop our war against the people of Vietnam immediately, the world will be left with no other alternative than to see this as some horrible, clumsy, and deadly game we have decided to play. The world now demands a maturity of America that we may not be able to achieve.”
His words sound almost prophetic, and it is the last sentence that is most alarming. The world at this very moment demands maturity of America, a sensibleness that seems to be lacking in the current feuding and chaos-riven administration.
This was also the speech in which King famously invoked his apocalyptic images of napalm-scorched human beings, of orphans and widows, of poisonous drugs of hate surging in the veins of once-reasonable people, and of dark and bloody battlefields. These are not the outdated images of a bygone era. They are images of the present, threatening to make their way to our television and computer screens, every day.
A broad coalition of Western Buddhist leaders recently invoked the spirit of protest and social justice in a call to action, published by the Buddhist journal Lion’s Roar: “Buddhism is respected around the world as a religion of compassion and peace. . . . We must explore and expose our own privilege and areas of ignorance, and address racism, misogyny, class prejudice, and more in our communities. We can set an example for the broader society by creating safe, respectful, and inclusive sanghas.” This statement evokes King’s legacy and references a history of religious engagement.
We agree with this call for action, as long as there is a clear doctrinal commitment to seeing the oppressors as Buddhas-to-be as well. Buddhism is both a this-world religion and a mystic tradition that emphasizes transcendence. King saw social and political justice as critical for humanity’s redemption in the eyes of God. This fundamentally tied his activism to his theology. Likewise, Buddhists following in his footsteps should not see their activism as merely secular activities divorced from their Dharma practice.
We must listen to Martin Luther King Jr. We must listen to our Buddhist instincts and our basic urge to love life. We need to extend these principles to include all people and all beings. We need these life-affirming urges and drives to overcome what King Jr. called “our tragic death wish;” a peculiar urge toward self-destruction in the name of pleasure and power. This “death wish” can only be overcome by humanity’s yearning for spiritual life and liberation from existential bondage. It is the spiritual life of practice, wisdom, and compassion that can counter what King saw as the final defeat of humanity: spiritual death. It can be done. It is never too late.
Beyond Vietnam (The Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute)
Trump: Why I Launched a Missile Strike on Syria (NBC News)
Martin Luther King, Jr – Letter to the Nobel Institute (Washington Mindfulness Community)
Stand Against Suffering: An Unprecedented Call to Action by Buddhist Teachers (Lions Roar)
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