When Giants Meet

Thay+and+Dr MLK.jpeg

In honor of Martin Luther King Jr. day, please enjoy this excerpt written by Sr. Peace (Sister An Nghiem) and Dharma Teacher Peggy Rowe Ward for issue 72 Summer 2016 describing the encounter between Thay and Dr. King.

What Happens When Two Giants Meet?

We invite you to take a few moments to reflect on the times when you had an encounter with another person that changed the trajectory of your life. While this is an extraordinary event, it is also an ordinary miracle.

Thich Nhat Hanh and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. met for the first time in 1966; they met in person one other time before Dr. King was assassinated in 1968. They spent little time in each other’s company, and yet the energy of their meeting continues to ripple out into the world wherever people work for civil rights, peace, and community.

A Fortunate Encounter

How did Dr. King and Thich Nhat Hanh meet? And how did they come up with their ideas about peace, nonviolence, and community that were so profoundly at odds with the Western philosophy and religion of their day?

Thay first communicated with Dr. King in June 1965, when he wrote a letter asking Dr. King for his support to end the war in Vietnam. In the letter, Thay explained that the monks who immolated themselves in Vietnam were not committing suicidal acts of despair. Thay wrote, “Sometimes we have to burn ourselves in order to be heard. It is out of compassion that you do that. It is the act of love and not of despair.” (1)

A year later, in June 1966, Thay and Dr. King met in Chicago for the first time. Thay describes this meeting: “We had a discussion about peace, freedom, and community. And we agreed that without a community, we cannot go very far.” (2)

As a result of this meeting, Dr. King began to speak out against the Vietnam War, even though his closest friends and advisers urged him not to. They feared for his safety and were concerned that opposing the war would dilute their efforts to advance the Civil Rights movement. Dr. King realized that it was part of the Civil Rights movement to speak out against the war and to support the peace movement in the US.

Dr. King nominated Thay for the Nobel Peace Prize on January 25, 1967. Unfortunately, that year no Peace Prize was awarded.

In May 1967, Thay and Dr. King met again in Geneva, Switzerland, at the Pacem in Terris conference organized by the World Council of Churches. Thay was staying on the fourth floor of the hotel, and Dr. King invited Thay to breakfast on the eleventh floor. Thay was detained by the press and arrived late. He was moved that Dr. King kept their breakfast warm and waited for him to arrive before eating. At this meeting, Thay told Dr. King, “Martin, you know something? In Vietnam they call you a bodhisattva, an enlightened being trying to awaken other living beings and help them go in the direction of compassion and understanding.” (3) Later, Thay said he was glad he had a chance to say this to Dr. King, because less than a year afterward, on April 4, 1968, Dr. King was assassinated in Memphis.

Community members recall that when reflecting on that time, Thay said he was in New York City sick with the flu when Dr. King was shot. Thay was in despair, yet he knew that efforts to end the war in Vietnam were also planting seeds of the Beloved Community. Not long after that, he vowed to himself that even in exile he would redouble his efforts and put all his energy into the practice of building the Beloved Community he and Dr. King had discussed. He felt the seeds they had been planting were not lost; they had begun to sprout and come up everywhere.

Thay loved Dr. King, and any of us who has heard Thay speak about Dr. King has experienced this enduring love. Thay stated that “in loving Martin,” he also experienced love for Jesus Christ. Martin’s deep embodied love for Jesus penetrated our teacher through this energy of love.

Realizing Thay's Dream

On September 27, 2015, the Beloved Community Garden was dedicated at Magnolia Grove Monastery (also called Magnolia Grove Meditation Practice Center) in Batesville, Mississippi. The garden, with its monumental statue of Dr. King and Thich Nhat Hanh, commemorates the meeting and collaboration of these two bodhisattvas.

Photo by Paul Davis

Photo by Paul Davis

1. Interview, “Oprah Talks to Thich Nhat Hanh,” YouTube video published in part on May 12, 2013. 2. Ibid. 3. Orientation speech, “Colors of Compassion” retreat, Deer Park Monastery, 2004