Nonviolence: Martin Luther King, Jr. and Tich Nhat Hanh

Upon engaging the text of Martin Luther King, Jr. ‘s anti-war speech “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence,” one recognizes an undeniable continuity between King’s thinking and that of his contemporary Thich Nhat Hanh. It is important to note, however, that King’s reflections in this discourse are not entirely beholden to his Buddhist counterpart. The overarching concepts of “interbeing” and interrelation which drive the speech were evident in King’s work and philosophy well before his correspondence with Nhat Hahn.
The similarities regarding each man’s approach to these notions should be expected given their respective spiritual vocations. Therefore, although King’s reflections in this address – which encompass the broader considerations of nonviolence and exhibit a direct rebuke of the war effort – mirror almost identically those made in writings by Nhat Hanh, it is unclear how directly the latter may have influenced the former. Regardless, this speech does reflect elements of Nhat Hanh’s nonviolent vision and does so specifically through considering the concept of mutuality in relation to addressing the roots of war, its effects and how to end it.
In his address, King makes clear that humanity’s failures and the origins of violence stem from the propagation of illusions and artificial perceptions. In particular, King asserts that “the war in Vietnam is but a symptom of a far deeper malady within the American spirit… ,” whereby Americans suffer from false “comfort, complacency [and] a morbid fear of communism… ” (King). This assertion is clearly reflective of Nhat Hanh’s observation that “thinking is at the base of everything [and that]…. ur thoughts can be misleading and create confusion, despair, anger or hatred,” and that “a civilization in which we kill and exploit others for our own aggrandizement is sick” (Nhat Hanh 68; 120). The societal illness both men perceive is rooted in a proliferation of fear and ignorance, or as King so forcefully asserts, “legions of half-truths, prejudices, and false facts” (King 14). The influence of these fallacies manifests itself most directly through manufactured notions about our enemies.

By reducing our enemies to concepts that we can thoughtlessly abhor, we take no serious deliberation concerning our inherent reciprocity to them, and thus fail to realize the true extent our similarities. Though King had expressed similar sentiments previous to this speech, such as in his sermon “Loving your Enemies,” one cannot ignore the presence of a comparable position advocated by Nhat Hanh in his 1965 letter to King entitled “In Search of the Enemy of Man. ”
In that letter, Nhat Hanh professes that “[our] enemies are not man… hey are intolerance, fanaticism, dictatorship, cupidity, hatred and [the]discrimination which lie in the heart of man” (Nhat Hanh). Nevertheless, it is clear that King recognizes this point, going so far as to declare: “We can no longer afford to worship the god of hate or bow before the altar of retaliation… we must not engage in negative anti-communism [but]… with positive action seek to remove those conditions of poverty, insecurity and injustice which are the fertile soil in which the seed of communism [as social strife] grows and develops” (King).
As a result of this revelation, part of King’s speech calls for peace through an attempt to understand the enemy and the effects war has had on the Vietnamese people. This call for mindfulness clearly resonates with Nhat Hanh’s belief that “[a]ny nonviolent action requires a thorough understanding of the situation and the psychology of the people,” enemy and self alike (Nhat Hanh 40). King exhibits this understanding when stating that the Vietnamese “must see Americans as strange liberators” and begins a chronological account of the effects an American presence has had in Vietnam since 1945 (King).
Speaking of the National Liberation Front, or what he deems in an ironic manner as “that strangely anonymous group we call VC or Communists… ,” King asks “[w]hat must they think of us in America when they realize that we permitted the repression and cruelty of Diem which helped to bring them into being as a resistance group [in the first place]… ” (King). In essence, King is imploring Americans to put their view of “the enemy” into context, noting that U. S. actions have done little but imbed a “deep but understandable mistrust” in its enemies (King). Again, almost all of these deliberations are present in Nhat Hanh’s work.
Nhat Hanh’s statement that “[e]very escalation of the war, every new contingent of U. S. troops… wins new recruits to the Vietcong” reflects each man’s belief that the U. S. is undermining is own efforts in Vietnam because it has implanted soldiers there that “[know] and [care] little about [Vietnamese] customs and practices and [who are] involved in destroying Vietnamese people and property” (Nhat Hanh 50-51). Moreover, King’s optimistic position that the United States has the capability to transcend its obtuseness, reorganize its priorities and lead the cause for a peaceful end to war is a sentiment most certainly shared by Nhat Hanh.
To this end, each man’s suggestions for ending the war are strikingly similar. In Love in Action Nhat Hanh offers five components that he deems necessary toward a U. S. solution to the war: 1) A cessation of bombing in the north and south. 2) A limitation of all military operations by the U. S and South Vietnamese. 3) A clear demonstration of U. S. intent to withdraw from the country. 4) A declaration of American neutrality and support of a popular government. 5) Extensive aid in the reconstruction effort. (Nhat Hanh 55).
Likewise, King calls for an end to all bombing, unilateral ceasefire, curtailing military buildup, an acceptance of the NLF’s role in a future Vietnamese government, and a definitive U. S. withdrawal date. The proposals in King’s address are almost identical as both men call for material support as well as ideological understanding by America toward its enemies. In addition to these provisions, King demands that the American public take into account the effects war has had on our own soldiers and that they take active steps toward ending it.
King calls for a movement away from a ” ‘thing oriented’ society to a ‘person-oriented’ society” where the “business of burning human beings with napalm, of filling our nation’s homes with orphans and widows, of injecting poisonous drugs of hate into veins of people, of sending men home… physically and psychologically deranged… ” is deemed unacceptable and impermissible (King). This too echoes portions of Nhat Hanh’s nonviolent vision, such as evidenced by his observation during the first Gulf War that “[s]oldiers live in hell day and night, even before they go into the battlefield, and even after they return home” (Nhat Hanh 75).
Hoping that the American public can grasp these realities, King demands that “we must all protest” in order to awaken others to the fact that “the American course in Vietnam is an dishonorable and unjust one” (King). Again, although King’s attitudes here are not surprising given his own previous writings in nonviolence, when referencing the afore mentioned letter from Nhat Hanh to King, one cannot help but wonder whether the former’s description of a fellow monk’s self-immolation aimed at “[calling] the attention of the world [to]…. he suffering caused by this unnecessary war” in turn caused King to declare – in reference to anti-war protest – that “these are the times for real choices and not false ones” (Nhat Hanh; King). On the whole, though it is clear that King’s “Riverside Address” reflects both the large and small aspects of Thich Nhat Hanh’s nonviolent vision, whether these parallels were intentional or not is unclear. By their very nature, philosophies of nonviolence concern themselves with discipline and awareness of the self, as well as with understanding and empathy for the other.
As a result, it is not surprising that King and Nhat Hahn, two practitioners of such philosophies, would both express their concerns about Vietnam around the same theme of humanity’s interrelated nature. Therefore, it is not so much important whether one’s work or ideas may have influenced the other’s as it is that both recognize a common bond between human beings and the supreme need to eliminate the conditions which threaten that inherent relationship.

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