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Jan 18

A Look Into the Friendship of Thich Nhat Hanh and Martin Luther King Jr.

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By Marc Andrus

Martin Luther King Jr. and Thich Nhat Hanh at the 1966 conference in Chicago | Photo courtesy Parallax Press

In the new book Brothers in the Beloved Community: The Friendship of Thich Nhat Hanh and Martin Luther King Jr., author Marc Andrus chronicles the relationship that developed between the two spiritual leaders as allies in the peace movement and as friends. The two met in 1966 and only knew each other for a few years before Dr. King was assassinated in 1968, but they bonded over a shared vision of the Beloved Community, where all are included and at peace with one another, and where each being in the community is connected to every other being. Read three passages from the book below:

Thich Nhat Hanh and Martin Luther King Jr.’s First Meeting in 1966

A. J. Muste, working on behalf of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, arranged a meeting between Thich Nhat Hanh and Martin Luther King Jr. in Chicago on May 31, 1966. They conferred privately for some time, discussing the latest crises in Vietnam, and then held a joint press conference at the Sheraton-Chicago Hotel.

The paradoxical nature of this meeting is that there are no detailed notes on the private conversation and no transcript or recording of the press conference is known at this time. In an interview with Oprah Winfrey, Nhat Hanh recalled, “We had a discussion about peace, freedom, and community. And we agreed that without a community, we cannot go very far.”

The main artifacts of the 1966 meeting are photographs of Nhat Hanh and King at the press conference. The power of these photographs is felt immediately: the men have an intensity of expression, and their youthful energy radiates from them. If the photographs can be considered to have iconic quality, it would be of friendship and solidarity. They are not two men working on isolated issues; the message is their commitment and their common cause.

At some point that day, likely during the press conference, they released a joint statement. The statement read:

“We believe that the Buddhists who have sacrificed themselves, like the martyrs of the civil rights movement, do not aim at the injury of the oppressors but only at changing their policies. The enemies of those struggling for freedom and democracy are not man. They are discrimination, dictatorship, greed, hatred and violence, which lie within the heart of man. These are the real enemies of man—not man himself. 

We also believe that the struggles for equality and freedom in Birmingham, Selma and Chicago, as in Hue, Danang and Saigon, are aimed not at the domination of one people by another. They are aimed at self-determination, peaceful social change, and a better life for all human beings. And we believe that only in a world of peace can the work of construction, of building good societies everywhere, go forward. 

We join in the plea, written June 1, 1965, by Thich Nhat Hanh in a letter to Martin Luther King, Jr., ‘Do not kill man, even in man’s name. Please kill the real enemies of man which are present everywhere, in our very hearts and minds.’”

This brief statement of mutuality and solidarity bursts with meaning; in it, deaths that had been conceived of as suicides are redefined as martyrs’ deaths. Further, common cause is made between those in the Vietnamese peace movement and Black civil rights activists. For some, the fact that Nhat Hanh was not a partisan for either North or South Vietnam must surely have been lost in the seeming enormity of King making a joint statement with a representative of a country at war with the United States.

Living in the Beloved Community meant, for King, living in what he called “the World House,” or as Nhat Hanh would express it, “becoming a citizen of the world.” King believed that living in the World House didn’t mean abandoning his national and local causes, but whatever he personally believed, the wider public wondered if King was trading civil rights for Blacks for peace for Vietnam, and other international causes, such as international justice.

To make this statement together, on their first meeting, was an extraordinary beginning to their relationship. At the May 31, 1966 meeting, with its private conversation followed by the press conference, we may say that Nhat Hanh and King began a friendship that is at the heart of the Beloved Community to which both men dedicated their lives.

Thich Nhat Hanh and Martin Luther King Jr.’s Last Meeting in 1967

In May 1967 the World Council of Churches held a Pacem in Terris conference in Geneva, Switzerland, and Nhat Hanh and King both attended. The New York Times reported that King delivered a “bitter denunciation” of the Vietnam War there. The conference was also the last time that King and Nhat Hanh would meet. Their meeting may be seen as a metaphysical exchange between friends, marked by human warmth and humor. Here is how Nhat Hanh describes their meeting:

Dr. King was staying on the eleventh floor; I was on the fourth floor. He invited me up for breakfast. On my way, I was detained by the press, so I arrived late. He had kept the breakfast warm for me and had waited for me. I greeted him, “Dr. King, Dr. King!” 

“Dr. Hanh, Dr. Hanh!” he replied.

We were able to continue our discussion on peace, freedom, and community, and what kind of steps America could take to end the war. And we agreed that without a community, we cannot go very far. Without a happy, harmonious community, we will not be able to realize our dream. 

I said to him, “Martin, do you know something? In Vietnam they call you a bodhisattva, an enlightened being trying to awaken other living beings and help them move toward more compassion and understanding.” I’m glad I had the chance to tell him that, because just a few months later he was assassinated in Memphis. 

According to Sister Chan Khong, [a Vietnamese nun and the first fully-ordained monastic disciple of Thich Nhat Hanh], it was at the Pacem in Terris meeting that King shared his understanding of the Beloved Community with Nhat Hanh. The importance of community was a mutual value for the two men; in fact, Sister Chan Khong holds that since before his ordination at the age of sixteen, Nhat Hanh has worked for “true sisterhood and brotherhood” in Vietnam.

In return, Nhat Hanh tells King that he is viewed as a “great bodhisattva” in Vietnam, an enlightened being with the quality of awakening compassion in others. King is not the only person Nhat Hanh calls a great bodhisattva. In other places, he calls the Earth, the Sun, the mother of the Buddha, and Sister Chan Khong “great bodhisattvas.” The designation by Nhat Hanh of non-traditional bodhisattvas is far more than a personal, affectionate bestowing of an honorific. Nhat Hanh is advancing his ideas of the restoration and reformation of Buddhism by his expansion of the beings who may be venerated as bodhisattvas. In Thich Nhat Hanh’s communities, well-known bodhisattvas, venerated throughout the Mahayana, are honored too, resettling the landscape of the holy. For instance, by invoking the mother of the Buddha and Sister Chan Khong, Nhat Hanh honors human women. A central goal of his reform of Buddhism in Vietnam has been gender equality in monastic Buddhism, and the honoring of a human woman as a bodhisattva furthers that goal. King, as a Christian American, might be another challenging entry into the lists of the holy for Vietnamese Buddhists, when placed next to Manjusri and Avalokiteshvara. Both King and Sister Chan Khong are also people of the contemporary world, bringing the idea of the holy close. The Earth and the Sun as bodhisattvas are in keeping with Nhat Hanh’s contributions to the Beloved Community; with Nhat Hanh, the concept is completely inclusive—all human life, all life we recognize as sentient, all beings of the cosmos.

As to what King made of Nhat Hanh’s message during their Geneva meeting, I can only join my hopes to those of Nhat Hanh’s, that it was a comfort to King as he faced the challenges of what would be the last months of his life.

Thich Nhat Hanh’s Reaction to Martin Luther King Jr.’s Death

The day after King’s “I Have Been to the Mountaintop” speech, he was assassinated on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. With him were several close friends and coworkers in the civil rights movement, including Andrew Young, Ralph Abernathy, and Jesse Jackson. The morning after hearing the news, Thich Nhat Hanh wrote a heartbroken letter to his and King’s mutual friend Raphael Gould, one of the directors of the Fellowship of Reconciliation: “I did not sleep last night. . . . They killed Martin Luther King. They killed us. I am afraid the root of violence is so deep in the heart and mind and manner of this society. They killed him. They killed my hope. I do not know what to say. . . . He made so great an impression [on] me. This morning I have the impression that I cannot bear the loss.”

Years later, Nhat Hanh recalled: “I was in New York when I heard the news of his assassination; I was devastated. I could not eat; I could not sleep. I made a deep vow to continue building what he called ‘the beloved community,’ not only for myself but for him also. I have done what I promised to Martin Luther King Jr. And I think that I have always felt his support.”

This brief statement, made before Nhat Hanh’s massive stroke in 2014, is replete with the qualities of friendship and love. At the affective level, we see that Nhat Hanh was deeply moved by King’s death. Nhat Hanh’s reaction to the news of King’s death was not that of a dispassionate observer, but rather of someone aware of their interconnection and of the love that provides the interconnection in both the model of reality that Nhat Hanh had inherited and in the model he adopted from King: the Beloved Community. One does not make a “deep vow” to continue a great work of someone at a great remove, but rather to continue the work of someone one loves.

Anyone who has known a great love in their life knows that the measurement of that loving relationship in days marked off on a calendar is perhaps the least meaningful way to measure the relationship, if measuring ever enters the picture at all.

The friendship between Nhat Hanh and King in the world we access with our senses spans a short period of time—from 1965 to 1968. The points of contact between the two men over that slender skein of years is equally meager: an open letter on the immolations in Vietnam, the meeting in Chicago, the Nobel Peace Prize nomination, a second meeting in Geneva, and a tiny number of errata—these constitute the historical deposit of their relationship. Yet Nhat Hanh’s 2014 statement about King is suffused with the warmth of friendship and brotherhood.

Reposted from Tricycle and Adapted fromBrothers In The Beloved Community: The Friendship of Thich Nhat Hanh and Martin Luther King Jr. by Marc Andrus (2021) with permission of Parallax Press.

Marc Andrus is the author of the newly released Brothers in the Beloved Community: The Friendship of Thich Nhat Hanh and Martin Luther King Jr. and the eighth bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of California.

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