Tag Archives: spiritual activism

Rev. Martin Luther King – Spiritual Activist

In the modern secular world, it takes courage to cross the boundary from watching the events of the world, to becoming an activist in bringing about change and transformation of the direction of society. Likewise, even for those immersed in a religious tradition, there is a boundary to becoming a truly spiritual being. The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. crossed both of those boundaries and changed our world. I was honored to be asked to write a piece about him for the Fellowship of Reconciliation which I’ve linked to here.

Rev. Martin Luther King – Spiritual Activist

                                                                                    –Alan Levin

“Hate cannot drive out hate: Only love can do that.” – Martin Luther King, Jr.

Hate never yet dispelled hateOnly love dispels hate.” – Buddha (from the Dhammapada)

 

With an iconic figure such as the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., whose brief life shook this nation forever, people pick and choose what they want to see of his multi-faceted legacy.

Currently we have the literal whitewashing of his very radical message as politicians who want to discredit affirmative action and impose voter I.D. laws use quotes from Martin Luther King to justify their supposed “color-blind” objectives.

On the other hand, activists of the Left often overlook the fact that Reverend King was a truly religious, spiritual man. He was a Christian. But more so, he was a holy man in the prophetic tradition that transcends any one religion.

I have no knowledge of King’s inner life, but from what I do know of his life and statements, he regularly sought counsel from the divine within for guidance and tried to walk and talk in alignment with that.

 

I do not know if he ever studied formal meditation from Eastern teachers, but he found deep friendship, mutual respect and admiration with Vietnamese Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh. It was after his talks with Nhat Hanh that Dr. King came out publicly against the Vietnam War. In 1967 Dr. King nominated Nhat Hanh for the Nobel Peace Prize.

In any case, King found from his inner sojourns, his reflections and prayers, his own unique understanding and expression of many of the deepest teachings of spirituality, East and West.

Everything is interconnected. Everything affects
everything else. Everything that is,
is because other things are.
–Basic Buddhist teaching of Dependent Origination

“All I’m saying is simply this: that all mankind is tied together; all life is interrelated, and we are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. For some strange reason I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. And you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be – this is the interrelated structure of reality … And by believing this, by living out this fact, we will be able to remain awake through a great revolution.”

–Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.
(Commencement Address at Oberlin College, 1965)

 

His call to, “remain awake” as a primary goal testifies to the importance King placed on consciousness, not just our behavior as humans, as activists. He wanted us to be awake not just to the suffering, or even the systemic causes of suffering, but awake to the nature of reality. In this, he is in alignment with His Holiness the Dalai Lama: “What the world needs is a spiritual revolution.”

I believe Dr. King understood from his own experience the need to take time to cultivate that spiritual consciousness, to cultivate a heart filled with compassion and love in the face of injustice, hatred, and violence. This cultivation is the very heart of meditation.

King’s good friend Thomas Merton, the Roman Catholic monk, deeply involved himself in Eastern philosophy and spirituality. He counseled us to “withdraw into the healing silence of the wilderness … not in order to preach to others but to heal in (ourselves) the wounds of the entire world.” And yet, King did preach once he felt his voice was a channel for that greater whole.

Somehow, through his inner searching and his confrontation with the realities of the world, King realized for himself that freedom from the fear of death is the promised land of spiritual work, the realization of the greater awareness that lies beyond the phenomenal world. What else could he have experienced that brought him to say:

“Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land.”

As I was writing this, a good friend, Sister Dorothy Maxwell, sent me a profound article, “The Ecology of Prayer” by Fred Bahnson in Orion Magazine. In it, Bahnson quotes the seventh century Saint Isaac of Syria, “An elder was once asked, ‘What is a compassionate heart?’ He replied: ‘It is a heart on fire for the whole of creation, for humanity, for the birds, for the animals, for demons and for all that exists.’”

Surely, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., was actively engaged in transforming his heart towards that fuller compassion through his meditations, his prayers, and his activism. Surely, it is our task to carry on that work.

Alan Levin is cofounder of Sacred River Healing. A member of the Fellowship of Reconciliation, Alan is involved in a range of initiatives in New York’s lower Hudson Valley that engage the intersections of racial justice, peacemaking, ecological sustainability, mind-body healing, and spiritual awakening.

Photos: (1) Rev. King with Thich Nhat Hanh in June 1966, courtesy of FOR Archives & Plum Village Monastery; (2) Photo by Bob Fitch, used with permission, FOR Archives.

Through the Buckskin Curtain – Embracing Indigenous Spirituality

b270cec1dc134cceb98f25795c1da365 The intense struggle to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline, led by Native Americans, highlights the original and continuing “sin” of the United States of America, the genocidal treatment of the indigenous inhabitants of this land and the centuries of betrayal of agreements. But it also offers us a possible pathway for the rectification of many of our present dilemmas, moving us to be guided by the wisdom of indigenous spirituality, respecting and honoring the sacredness and intelligence of the natural world.

 

The encampments at Standing Rock alongside the Cannonball River that feeds the Missouri have brought together a multi-cultural movement that recognizes the leadership of Native American tribal elders and activists from over 300 Indian Nations. They have come together in a non-violent and spiritually centered movement for protecting the water and land. They have specifically defined their actions as protective rather than as protest. From their spiritual perspective, the true function of the Warrior is to protect, whether in reference to the body, the community, the nation, or the planet.

 

Stepping back from the particulars of this struggle to protect the land and water sacred to the Lakota Sioux and stop the continued expansion of fossil fuel infrastructure, it is important to recognize the significant inclusion of the indigenous spiritual attitude with social justice and environmental activism. This wider and deeper view of the human relationship with Spirit and Nature, e.g., calling attention to the sacred fire, sacred water, sacred sky, sacred Mother Earth, not just in words, but in the way we feel and the way we move about, is transformative and infectious. It holds keys to the healing power needed to shift humanity from the destructive trajectory we seem locked into.

 

How we as individuals and as groups of social justice and environmental activists learn from these ancient ways that are connected to Mother Earth herself, needs to be made very conscious. It will not be helpful (in fact it is disrespectful) to mimic the practices of Native Americans. But we can learn to re-awaken what is indigenous (innate) in all humans, the mutual and respectful sense of holiness in Creation and Creator, whether we currently experience them as distinct or as One. This sensibility has been covered over by a radical over-emphasis on the rational, logical, thinking-mind devoted to technological control of our environment and ourselves. What is being called forth is a heart-centered and holistic way of being and relating, one of communion-with rather than control-over.

 

Through the centuries of subjugation, native peoples have passed along the practices, stories and songs that sustain this consciousness in each region and on each continent. We immigrants have the opportunity to listen to them and hear the resonant tones of our own indigenous ancestors calling from within, finding our own pathways towards a balance of the elements of the web of life. Along the way, it’s important that we not confuse embracing “indigenous spirituality” with exploiting or coopting the objects, rituals and ceremonies of specific tribes or peoples. Native Americans are understandably very sensitive to this abuse. In “Native American wannabes: Beware the Weasel Spirit,” Lou Bendrick points out that, “Members of the Lakota tribe have declared war on exploiters of their ancient spirituality. Their declaration states that they have ‘suffered the unspeakable indignity of having our most precious Lakota ceremonies and spiritual practices desecrated, mocked and abused by non-Indian ‘wannabes,’ hucksters, cultists, commercial profiteers and self-styled ‘New Age’ retail stores and … pseudo religious corporations have been formed to charge people money for admission into phony ‘sweatlodges’ and ‘vision quest’ programs …’”

 

On the other hand, I personally know a number of White, Black and Latino women and men who have submitted themselves to decades of rigorous, disciplined education under the guidance of Native American elders and have been sanctioned to practice and teach certain aspects of those traditions. In my interview with Tom Pinkson, (see Crossing the Boundary – Stories of Jewish Leaders of Other Spiritual Paths), he describes his initial passing through the buckskin curtain when he began studying and being tested by a Native American teacher which led up to his decade-long apprenticeship with Huichol shamans in Mexico. Ken Cohen, also interviewed in Crossing the Boundary, studied intensively for many years with his teachers, Keetoowah, Rolling Thunder and Grandmother Twylah Nitsch, and was initiated and adopted by a tribal clan. These two, and quite a few other White (in this case, Jewish) men and women, respectfully entered into a relationship with indigenous spiritual teachers and tribes and only practice and teach what they have been given permission to share.

 

Though few will feel called to cross that boundary so deeply, by embracing an indigenous spiritual outlook the environmental and social justice movement is shifting the very mindset in which it has viewed the problems and solutions it addresses. We are finding ourselves gazing up at the sky, sitting by the sacred fire, getting down on our knees and kissing Mother Earth as we face those of our brothers and sisters who have forgotten what they have lost, forgotten what they’ve forgotten.

 

For more information see the Standing Rock Sioux Nation website: http://standwithstandingrock.net/

 

A personal observer’s account of the activity at the encampments: Mark Johnson’s, “Standing Rock #NoDAPL. It’s not so complicated, But it is complex.” http://clbsj.org/news/2016/11/23/standing-rock/

 

A deep mythological/archetypal/political view, “History in the Making at Standing Rock.” By Paul Levy: http://www.awakeninthedream.com/standing-rock/ 

 

A look at the growth of the indigenous spiritual focus in the environmental movement: “The growing indigenous spiritual movement that could save the planet.”https://thinkprogress.org/indigenous-spiritual-movement-8f873348a2f5#.u1q1rzood

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