MESSAGE FROM OUR FOUNDER: Martin Luther King’s Legacy of Friendship with Thich Nhat Hanh
The following post is a letter written on Tuesday, January 17th by Project Pengyou’s Founder and President, Holly Chang, to our friends and supporters.
Dear Beloved Pengyou (Beloved Friend),
Yesterday was a day we remembered and celebrated the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr.
Many of you have heard me speak of one of my founding inspirations in shaping Project Pengyou. It is a quote from one of the greatest bridge-builders of our time, the legendary Reverend King:
“Power without love is reckless and abusive, and love without power is sentimental and anemic. Power at its best is love implementing the demands of justice… correcting everything that stands against love.”
It is towards the goal of cultivating both power and love, that we began to organize a global community of U.S.-China bridge-builders, to foster friendships and defend against a deep injustice of humanity – a war between two powerful nations. While war may not seem imminent at all times, Project Pengyou’s efforts of building and organizing this community have been intentionally proactive, because the alternative course would be a tragedy.
In just over two years, with the support of the Ford Foundation and too many friends and supporters to name, not to mention the leadership of amazing young Americans and Chinese, we launched 50 Project Pengyou chapters in over 30 states to create spaces on campuses for cross-cultural communion, and to promote people-to-people relations between the two most powerful nations on earth. I am in awe and humble gratitude of what we have accomplished together.
But the work of bridge-building, it seems, is far from finished.
To pass the New Year in 2017, I decided on a whim to attend a retreat at the Blue Cliff Monastery in Pine Bush, NY, established by a Vietnamese Zen Buddhist monk named Thich Nhat Hanh.
It was there I learned of the special friendship between Thich Nhat Hanh, a gentle Buddhist leader from Vietnam, and Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. It was also there that I first learned that Dr. King’s “Dream” of brotherhood, extended beyond America to Asia, namely Vietnam.
Some may remember, in June of 1963 in the midst of bloodshed and war, a peaceful Buddhist monk named Thich Quang Duc sat quietly in full lotus position on a busy street in Saigon, and set himself on fire.
Quang Duc died. His goal was to bring attention to the suffering of the Vietnamese people in the war. And he did. Journalists the world over reported on his act, awakening a global conscience around Vietnam’s pain.
In June 1965, after another self-immolation by a Buddhist monk in Vietnam, spiritual teacher Thich Nhat Hanh felt compelled to write an open letter to Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Dr. King had just received the Nobel Peace Prize the year before for his leadership in the struggle for racial equality. In that letter, Nhat Hanh attempted to explain the spiritual intent of the immolations. He also urged Dr. King to speak out for America’s withdrawal towards peace in Vietnam. In the letter, he writes:
“I believe with all my heart that the monks who burned themselves did not aim at the death of the oppressors but only at a change in their policy. Their enemies are not man. They are intolerance, fanaticism, dictatorship, cupidity, hatred and discrimination which lie within the heart of man. I also believe with all my being that the struggle for equality and freedom you lead in Birmingham, Alabama… is not aimed at the whites but only at intolerance, hatred and discrimination. These are real enemies of man — not man himself.”
Through this gesture, Dr. King and Thich Nhat Hanh began a conversation, which transformed them both. Their friendship led Martin Luther King to give a sermon called “Beyond Vietnam” in New York City at Riverside Church in April 1967. There, he spoke of the reasons for “bringing Vietnam into (his) field of moral vision.” He described “a calling that takes me beyond national allegiances”, where “beyond the calling of race or nation or creed is this vocation of sonship and brotherhood.” “We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for the victims of our nation, for those it calls “enemy,” for no document from human hands can make these humans any less our brothers.”
In studying Dr. King’s and Thich Nhat Hanh’s writings, I am reminded that war and military hostility have only one certainty, and that is to create bloodshed and suffering in humanity. I have come to fully embrace the notion that our enemies in a conflict are not men, but intolerance, hatred and discrimination. So if we must fight, we should fight our real enemies.
Prior to his speaking out in public about Vietnam, Dr. King was so moved by Thich Nhat Hanh’s work that he nominated him for the Nobel Peace Prize. After that speech at Riverside, King was criticized for being anti-American by both blacks and whites; he was accused by his friends of mixing peace and civil rights, and hurting the cause of his people.
But Dr. King remained forthright in his opposition to the war, and later said, channeling Nhat Hanh’s teachings, “Here is the true meaning and value of compassion and nonviolence, when they help us to see the enemy’s point of view, to hear his questions, to know his assessment of ourselves. For from his view we may indeed see the basic weaknesses of our own conditions, and if we are mature, we may learn and grow and profit from the wisdom of the brothers who are called the opposition.”
Dr. King’s message was a universal one, not only applicable in Montgomery, or in wartime Vietnam, but also across the United States today.
At the end of last year, the U.S. election exposed our nation’s spectacular capacity for divisive and polarizing rhetoric. Regardless of your political leanings, the discourse in every corner of American society displayed tendencies to demonize the “other’s” views.
Some of you asked me to speak up and dispel uncertainty and fear in the Pengyou community after the election. But I wasn’t ready. I was struggling with, and truth be told became overwhelmed, by many difficult questions at the heart of our movement to build bridges; questions such as:
- What is the cure to division in our community, nation, and the world, when the act of standing up for one’s belief concurrently offends or demonizes another group?
- How do we harness the energy and best heroic intentions of activists who believe in something greater than themselves, without unleashing self-righteousness, pride and arrogance, escalating to animosity and oppression towards others.
- How do we communicate and live up to our deepest values while resisting the temptation for hostility towards those who do not speak our same language?
- How do we find peace amid two opposing communities, who each seek justice and protection for their own people and thus resistance towards each other? Isn’t one-sided justice the seed of all pain and war? Is our strive for justice and defense of any group a pre-cursor for aggression with another? Is anger a necessary resource for change?
- Is gratitude the antidote to anger? And if so, how will we reside in the space of gratitude without diminishing our desire for much-needed social change?
- If U.S. citizens from different political leanings can’t agree on what America should look like, is there hope for Americans and Chinese to forge an equal and collaborative relationship, with our vastly divergent languages, histories and values.
- Do any of us really have the power to create change? And can we call for action without adding energy to the spirit of loathing and social violence?
CHALLENGE, POWER, AND HOPE
As Pengyou-men, we travel to distant lands, and we experience the difficult and sometimes lonely process of navigating complex and nuanced dilemmas and contradictions when languages and perceptions differ dramatically. In doing so, we widen our humanity and gain capacity to forge new friendships. This challenge is what defines our unique journey.
Dear Pengyou-men, hope abounds in this beloved community.
There is hope when you tell your sacred stories and move the hearts of a new audience. There is hope when you can be fully present, in anticipation of an “aha” moment. There is hope in your actions, when you pay it forward on Chinese New Year, or any time of year, so that others can share in your grace. There is hope when you listen deeply to one who protests, and you recognize their pain as your own.
Thich Nhat Hanh says, “The primary meaning of love is friendship.” So if Dr. King’s notion of justice and peace hinges on the harnessing of both power and love, then justice and peace hinge on the friendships we build.
While status and positions bring the appearance of great influence and resources, let us remember that those with the greatest power to truly affect our own lives need no titles or fame.
Each and all of us have more power than we know to uplift, destroy, or heal those around us. It is a matter of choice how we decide to spend our limited time. So let us not buy into the hype. In moments of greatest conflict and uncertainty, engagement is the greatest equalizer and source of our power; friendships are our source of healing and hope.
In his final year of life, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave a series of sermons later named “Trumpet of Conscience”. In spite of being called anti-American and irresponsible, King never abandoned his friend Thich Nhat Hanh, nor the cause for peace. In one of his last sermons, he paints the vision of a global beloved community:
“We have hardly begun to build the skills and the strategy, or even the commitment, to planetize our movement for social justice…In a world torn between the tensions of East and West, white and colored, individualists and collectivists, in a world whose cultural and spiritual power lags so far behind her technological capabilities that we live each day on the verge of nuclear co-annihilation; in this world, nonviolence is no longer an option for intellectual analysis, it is an imperative for action.”
With gratitude for your support and friendship,
Co-Chair and Founder
Golden Bridges Foundation | Project Pengyou