As a young monk, Thich Nhat Hanh had friends who protested the Vietnam War by
pouring gasoline on themselves, and sitting in a meditation position called akshobya, and lighting themselves on fire. These sacrifices against the War drew widespread attention locally in internationally. In the United States, Norman Morrison set himself afire in front of the White House (Robert McNamara recently recalled the impression Morrison’s act made on him). But none of this stopped the war.
Nhat Hanh decided to follow a different course. The South Vietnamese client state for America prefigured the attitude of George W. Bush – you are with us or against us, good or evil. They forced Nhat Hanh out. He settled in France, eventually founding a monastery, and went to the United States. In a talk Nhat Hanh gave a couple of years ago in Denver, Vincent Harding, a great friend of Martin Luther King who wrote King’s speech on Vietnam, “A Time to Break Silence” delivered at the Riverside Church in Harlem, April 4, 1967, a year to the day before King was assassinated, introduced him. Nhat Hanh met King, Harding related, and in conversations with King, convinced him that he must speak out against the Vietnam War. During the next year, King nominated Nhat Hanh for the Nobel Peace Prize. Though profoundly deserving, I am sad to say, he has not received it, however. Nhat Hanh, Harding continued, had come to the United States again three months before King was murdered. At a gathering, he spoke to King and said, “we Vietnamese Buddhists consider you a Boddhisattva.” A Boddhisattva is a being of such compassion that (s)he will help other beings achieve nirvana, waiting, in fact, until everyone else enters nirvana before (s)he becomes simply absorbed in that state. Nirvana is a standpoint of being in the present in life, with an acceptance of human suffering and some delight, which anyone can achieve – these are words for what Buddhists refer to as enlightenment. Nhat Hanh’s speech was a celebration of King, and meant a great deal to him and others like Harding who were present.
As a Mennonite, Harding had driven with friends, one black and two white, through the South many years before. When they reached Atlanta, they had called King. Coretta Scott King had talked with them and invited them over. After they met with King, they were leaving when he took Harding aside and asked him to move to Atlanta and help with the movement. Harding did and lived a few doors from King. As I discovered in research Must Global Politics Constrain Democracy?, Harding had written the most insightful and radical articles about the Vietnam War in Reinhold Niebuhr’s journal Christianity and Crisis in 1965. I had cited them in a discussion of how great power realism changed during Vietnam, particularly in Morgenthau, to evoke a conception of the national interest – otherwise hazy – as a common good, with the thought that the war hurt most Americans as well as most Vietnamese. Thus Americans and Vietnamese had a common interest against the murderous policies of the Johnson administration. Harding’s articles sharply illustrated this point.
King, Harding said, had long been against the War. But Nhat Hanh crystallized the decision to speak out. As King’s speech relates, that decision, to be an advocate of nonviolent social transformation against imperialism, brought the enmity of the Johnson regime and more conservative civil rights leaders down upon him. Harding and the King family think the atmosphere of terror against King in the last year of his life – always subject to death threats and attempts on his life from his time in Birmingham at 26, those threats were intensified – led to his death. The King family does not think James Earl Ray pulled the trigger, and thinks the investigation should have led in a different direction (possibly back to LBJ). That the King family felt this and that some even visited Ray in jail, of course, did not count in terms of newspaper or television coverage or of further investigation of this “case closed.” King was on the road 300 days a year, speaking for the civil rights movement. He asked Harding to draft the speech because he didn’t have time, and because the two of them, having discussed the War and its impact on the civil rights movement many times, knew each other’s thoughts.
At a recent gathering with an major white ally of King, John McGuire, Harding told the story of the first part of King’s speech. King had led the civil rights movement in the South, and also won the Nobel Peace Prize. He came to Watts to speak with young people who were engaged in the riot/rebellion/uprising against police brutality. He hoped to recommend nonviolence as a serous alternative to the destruction of black communities accompanying striking out at the ruling class represented by Watts. But the teenagers had never heard of this man, in a suit – black ministers wore suits then – who had come to talk with them. They raised with King the argument he reports in the speech – the US government is the most violent in the world, particularly in Vietnam. How can you ask us to be nonviolent? It was this that gave King an impetus, awakened by Nhat Hanh, to speak out against “my government “the most violent in the world.” It was this impetus which led King to speak of how a government “that spends more on military defense than on programs of spiritual uplift is approaching spiritual death.” It was this impetus which inspired King to speak of the imperialist war as “a demonic suction pump” which absorbed the “war on poverty” in America and fitted the poor only to be the shock troops of the Empire, to burn Vietnamese villages, blacks alongside whites, while they could never live in the same communities at home. King’s prophetic speech can be reworded today, replacing Vietnam with Iraq (or Afghanistan/Pakistan even in the Obama era) and every word rings as true today as it did 1967. April Guy, a wonderful social work student, made a slide show for my nonviolence course early in the Iraq War, which did precisely this. She gave a forum at the School of Social Work on this, at which Vincent Harding and I both spoke. I and several others made large numbers of signs for the Martin Luther King Day march in 2003 changing the words to refer to Iraq rather than Vietnam which thousands of marchers took up. Despite the organizers’ coalition with the city government, both in the Webb and later Hickenlooper administrations, their conversion of the march into “The State Farm Martin Luther King day” which invites the Denver Mayor but never Vincent Harding to speak, and their desparate attempt to suppress anti-War activity, the huge march turned into an anti-War march. The organizers from the Urban League (Michael Hancock, now city councilman was the chief culprit) had uninvited Cleo Parker Robinson, the great dancer whose studio enables many young people to learn to dance and who was against the War. Yet Webb, in his last speech, and Marques Houston, the football player driven from the University of Colorado to Colorado State spoke out, against the War and honored the spirit of King. Only the Denver Post published pictures of the demonstrators and signs, the now defunct Rocky Mountain News printed pictures with the signs whited out.
These words of King, along with his “Letter from the Birmingham City Jail,” a moving defense of civil disobedience, will be read as long as anyone reads American English. Their words are far more interesting and memorable than speeches and snippets of Presidents – though Obama’s campaign speech on race will probably, not as vital as these, still live on. As Vincent told me, that they killed his friend for giving the speech lived on with him, and he struggled with his role in it for many years. But of course the words and choices were Martin’s and eventually Harding came to terms with what had happened. Nhat Hanh not only pleaded with and persuaded King to speak out, however; he also named the greatness, in his own spiritual idiom, of what King had done. King had spoken for the internationalist compassion which Gandhi and Marx also fought for. King had raised up the most oppressed in Vietnam and here and said that a decent society must include and fight with and for them.
As a poet, Nhat Hanh has written about how, with “eyes of compassion,” we are all of these. We are all connected in the order of interbeing, and it is an accident where one is born. He feels with the twelve year old girl who is raped and murdered by a pirate, and the desolate village, without possibilities, in which the young man grew up to be a pirate, and committed this crime. He founded a monastery in France and makes many visits to the US to help those who committed crimes against the Vietnamese, his own people, achieve some remorse and genuine self-forgiveness. He is deeply an internationalist. In Nhat Hanh’s talk I heard in Denver, a veteran spoke up. In Vietnam, he said, I murdered a child. I have been silent and hurting about this for 30 years. “I know how to help,” Thich Nhat Hanh said. “See me afterwards, but you must work with orphaned Vietnamese children.” This is like the advice of Gandhi to the man who had lost his 10 year old son to a Muslim mob, and gone and killed a Muslim boy. He came to Gandhi saying “I am in hell.” In the midst of his hunger strike and faint, Gandhi said “I know a way out of hell. You must find a Muslim boy who is orphaned and raise him as your own. Only – you must raise him as a Muslim.” It is this spirit which permits self-forgiveness and healing which is the heart of nonviolence.