A Mahayana MLK


I’m a day late for a post on MLK Day, but I did want to put something up. Mostly I want to offer the reflection of Charles Johnson, the brilliant novelist and philosopher, about the a potential connection between Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Mahayana Buddhist ideal of the bodhisattva — an individual intent on awakening for the benefit of all living beings.

Johnson writes:

“Martin Luther King, Jr. was, at bottom, a Baptist minister, yes, but one whose vision of the social gospel at its best complements the expansive, Mahayana bodhisattva ideal of laboring for the liberation of all sentient beings (‘Strangely enough,’ he said, ‘I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. You can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be’). His dream of the ‘beloved community’ is a sangha by another name, for King believed that, ‘It really boils down to this: that all of life is interrelated. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny.'”

As Johnson notes, the bodhisattva is motivated by this vast aspiration to benefit all living brings (known in Sanskrit as bodhichitta). King would describe it as agape — the overflowing love of God in the hearts of women and men. We might also note that another main task of the bodhisattva is to teach the interdependent nature of reality (known in Sanskrit as shunyata or pratitya-samutpada). It’s hard to find a better expression of that sentiment than King’s two quotations above.

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