The university where I teach hosts an annual, community dinner in honor of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. This year, the event falls a full week after the official holiday, which has the effect -- a welcome one -- of encouraging people to spend more than a single day or weekend reflecting on King, his life and his teachings.
For me, that has meant, among other things, recalling an interview I did some years ago with one of King's prominent, non-American admirers, the Ven. Thich Nhat Hanh, a Zen Buddhist monk.
In our conversation, I asked Nhat Hanh whether he regarded King, whom he had known, as a bodhisattva, an enlightened being. The monk responded with an unequivocal yes. I'll return to that in a moment.
Nhat Hanh, who lives in France, is widely published in the West and is considered a teacher by countless thousands, left his native Vietnam in 1966, coming to the United States to make the case for a non-military solution to the war ravaging his homeland. He shortly met King, whom he is credited with encouraging to speak out against the American war in Vietnam. (To get a sense of how passionately King would denounce the war, you can find his speech, "A Time to Break Silence," preached April 4, 1967 at Riverside Church, online.) King, in turn, felt sufficiently impressed with Nhat Hanh to nominate him for a Nobel Peace Prize in 1967.
For Nhat Hanh, in our interview, to refer to King as a bodhisattva meant that the Vietnamese monk identified a non-Buddhist American as having reached the great goal in Nhat Hanh's tradition of Mahayana Buddhism. King had achieved an "awakened mind," like the historical Buddha, primarily through his development of extraordinary compassion and wisdom. True awakening leads to nirvana -- unless the awakened one stops short of that goal, deliberately, and instead dedicates himself or herself to helping others achieve enlightenment. Utimately selfless, the bodhisattva seeks re-birth, returning to the world to aid other humans spiritually.
I am not a Buddhist, but reflecting on the interview, I believe I heard a Buddhist place King on the same spiritual level as, say, the Dalai Lama. And to take this one step further, if that spirit of compassion and wisdom does refuse nirvana to take re-birth again and again, then is it among us now?