This Path Is Endless

Martin Luther King Jr.’s work is not finished, says Shinge Roko Sherry Chayat Roshi. We must continue it with gratitude on the endless path toward liberation for all.

Shinge Roko Sherry Chayat Roshi
15 January 2023

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”  —Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

“Hatred can never put an end to hatred; love alone can. This is an unalterable law. People forget that their lives will end soon. For those who remember, quarrels come to an end.” —The Dhammapada

We certainly live in interesting times. Looking at the political polarization and the surge in white supremacist violence in our nation, the inconceivable numbers of Covid cases and deaths, the paucity of vaccines when we need them most, we may feel cursed.

Yet, we are blessed. What had been somewhat buried has been fully exposed. It’s as if a festering infection has been lanced, and slowly, healing can occur.

For most of us, this has been a period of solitude. We’ve discovered that this is the best of times to study the way, which as Dogen put it, is to study the self — at once the personal self, the national and international self, the interconnected global self, and the boundless cosmic self.

We have to give ourselves to the process, sitting as if our lives depend on it — and they do.

In the enforced isolation of our ongoing Covid sesshin, we have no choice but to meet the challenges of our time with spiritual dedication and energetic motivation. We do this not by getting caught up in the outer churning and turmoil, but by simplifying and clarifying, noticing our inner fears, long-held anxieties, and reactive impulses. Only by recognizing them can we begin the process of letting them go.

As we study the self, many questions arise. Someone may ask, “How long have I been going through my life engulfed by shame, guilt, and self-hatred? How long have I been paralyzed by fear, a lack of self-confidence, and unable to act? When can I finally stop trying to fill the hole inside with food, substances, and others?” It takes time. It takes years of patient, consistent practice, bravely looking at variations on the theme of self-loathing.

At some point, a softening happens — forgiveness and compassion happen for the despair of many years ago. With that compassion, real change can occur. Seen into and fully acknowledged, the separate self is forgotten. Then who are we? This: all things, all phenomena. Mountains, rivers, the good earth.

Each one of us has the ability to experience this because each one of us, from the beginning, is endowed with buddhanature. It’s a matter of returning home. Perhaps we do not yet trust in this. So, we have to give ourselves to the process, sitting as if our lives depend on it — and they do.

We are here to fully engage in this rare human birth, to give ourselves to each moment. When we find ourselves entangled in dualistic interpretations and passing distractions, we return to the breath. We exhale completely. We come home.

Recent events, including the violent storming of our nation’s Capitol, have understandably been deeply upsetting and shocking to many. But to feel shocked is in actuality a mark of privilege. Our Black sisters and brothers are not surprised. All of us who have been on the receiving end of such violence — Black and Brown, Indigenous and Asian, Jew and Muslim, gender-nonconforming and LGBTQ — are not surprised.

The attack in Washington, and others like it, have to be viewed in the context of our nation’s history. Although many have claimed, in a kind of willful innocence, “this is not who we are,” the Washington Post got it right:

“This is not ‘un-American’ or alien to who we are — it is the fruit of everything we have ignored since Reconstruction was overthrown in South Carolina in 1876… We cannot assume that this failed putsch will be the end of the violent attempt to replace democracy — once again — with white power. And we cannot support them with our silence.”

Hilary Clinton said it, too: “It’s sobering that many people were unsurprised by what occurred last week, particularly people of color, for whom a violent mob waving Confederate flags and hanging nooses is a familiar sight in American history. Consider what we saw last June, when Black Lives Matter protesters peacefully demonstrating in Lafayette Square were met with federal officers and tear gas. If the first step toward healing and unity is honesty, that starts with recognizing that this is indeed part of who we are.”

This honesty is what we bring to our examination of the self, the personal and collective self. It starts by recognizing our own polarizing tendencies, rooted in the perceived need to protect the self as a separated identity.

When at long last we begin to accept ourselves,faith naturally deepens. Love naturally flows.

We notice the many ways, often subtle ways, in which we set up divisions between “us and them.” Can we be courageous enough to hear the inner monologue that demonizes others, that asserts our own self-righteousness?

We build this courage through the simple act of sitting still, and awakening to who we truly are: buddhas being sentient beings. Sentient beings discovering our birthright. Breath by breath, sitting after sitting, our faith in this grows. Through this deepening faith we can feel others as ourselves, and act from that sense of intimacy, out of which compassion blooms.

Even when circumstances seem most disruptive, we can return to our inner stability. We don’t need to become agitated; in fact we know that we cannot be of any help if we succumb to the swirling fear and turmoil of the situation. Someone we care about may be filled with anger, accusing us of not knowing what’s really going on. What is going on? There’s pain and fear fueling that rage.

So what is needed? Not our explanations about why that person is wrong; argumentative reasoning is of no avail. The only thing we can do is extend a loving heart. We don’t turn away from pain; rather, we extend the healing embrace of compassion.

2021 is the Year of the Metal Ox, which like all the signs of the Chinese zodiac, comes round every 12 years. Some traits of the Metal Ox are persistence, determination, strength, honesty, dedication, diligence, dependability, and unswerving commitment.

In Chinese Zen, the ox represents the human heart-mind; aspiration and training are essential for it to meet its potential. This relates to the analogy found in The Sutra on the Last Teaching of the Buddha: just as you lead your ox by a rope so that it doesn’t muck up your neighbor’s field, it is necessary to train the mind not to run wild, so that it doesn’t jump willy-nilly into the fray and cause more disturbance.

Through discipline and commitment, our faith in that heart-mind deepens. Then, like a well-trained ox, we can walk purposefully on the path — not the path of least resistence but, in fact, the path of greatest demand. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. did this, risking everything — even his life — to meet that demand. He marched. He inspired us to join him for voting rights, for fair housing, to address poverty, to stop the war in Vietnam, and now, to stand up and march in the face of this era’s challenges.

Like many Black preachers, King was a great orator, but his words were particularly inspiring because they came from a place of absolute faith and unwavering love. At the very root of love, he said, is the power of redemption. We cannot love those we perceive as enemies; reconciliation doesn’t work that way. We can’t liberate all beings from suffering until we experience a radical acceptance, starting within ourselves.

When at long last we begin to accept ourselves, we find that there is simultaneously an acceptance of others. With that acceptance comes the realization that others are ourselves; that there is not the slightest gap between self and other. Faith naturally deepens. Love naturally flows.

For Martin Luther King Jr., faith and love were one and the same. He saw faith as a tool for change. He took up nonviolence in his activism, inspired by his mentors Bayard Ruskin and Mohandas Gandhi.

King first learned about Gandhi as a seminary student in 1949, just a year after the great Indian leader had been assassinated. Six years later, after the arrest of Rosa Parks, King mobilized the Black community in Montgomery, Alabama, for a boycott of the city’s segregated bus lines. He was around 25 years old. He said, “Christ showed us the way, and Gandhi in India showed it could work.”

King went through a period of wide-ranging study and spiritual doubt. One night, early in the bus boycott, he got a series of phone calls threatening to blow him up and burn his house down. That very night, he had a vivid experience. “I could hear an inner voice saying, ‘Martin Luther, stand up for righteousness, stand up for justice, stand up for truth. And lo, I will be with you, even until the end of the world.’”

Knowing that not everyone had the same firm conviction he did, he advised, “Take the first step in Faith. You don’t have to see the whole staircase, just take the first step.”

King’s life was short — his activism took place over a period of about 13 years — but it was extraordinarily consequential. Most of us know his “I Have A Dream” speech from the March on Washington in 1963. We know of the three marches for voting rights from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama. We’ve seen footage of the brutality protestors faced — knocked down by fire hoses, bitten by police dogs, clubbed, kicked, and hurled into paddy wagons. But we may not know that Chicago in 1966 was worse than what what went on in southern states in terms of sheer white hatred.

In the Great Migration, starting in 1916, Blacks moved to cities like Chicago looking for work and hoping to escape the Jim Crow segregation of the South. But post-Reconstruction racism was alive and well in the North. They were confined to neighborhoods with dilapidated housing and overcrowded, underfunded schools. The Chicago open housing movement, also known as the Chicago Freedom Movement, took place from mid-1965 until early 1967, organized by the Southern Christian Leadership Conference with King at the helm.

King moved into an apartment on Chicago’s West Side in January 1966, living among rats and roaches just as his neighbors did. That summer, he and a few hundred demonstrators set out on a march to promote open, nondiscriminatory housing. Almost immediately, he was knocked down by a rock thrown by one of some 700 white counter-protesters lining the streets and hurling a steady barrage of bricks and bottles. Shouting racial epithets, they waved signs with swastikas and the name George Lincoln Rockwell, head of the American Nazi party.

King told reporters afterward, “I’ve been in many demonstrations all across the South, but I can say that I have never seen, even in Mississippi and Alabama, mobs as hostile and as hate-filled as I’ve seen here in Chicago.”

“I have to do this, to expose myself, to bring this hate into the open,” he said.

Although the march was derided as a failure by local citizens, seeds were sown. Chicago’s first Black mayor was elected in 1983; another Black man from Chicago, Barack Obama, became President of the United States in 2008.

Martin Luther King Jr.’s work is not finished. We continue it with gratitude and a resolute spirit.

King’s activism broadened according to the needs he saw. After organizing the Poor People’s Campaign, he went to Memphis, Tennessee, to support sanitation workers in their strike for fair wages. On April 4, 1968, he was murdered there.

King gave his life to his conviction that all beings deserve justice; and that the only way to bring it about is to shine the light of freedom; to embody love. “Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that,” he said. “Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.” As the Dhammapada puts it: “Hatred can never put an end to hatred; love alone can. This is an unalterable law.”

King’s life’s work of putting himself at risk, being vulnerable, and exposing himself to bring hatred into the open, is more relevant than ever. The Civil War, fought to abolish slavery, formally ended in 1865, but did it? Confederacy statues have been taken down, but Confederacy views have expanded far beyond the Southern states.

Trump will leave the White House on Wednesday, but his slogan “Make America Great Again” — that is, Make America White Again — continues to be supported by a vast segment of the population. In a healthy, just society, we wouldn’t need to mobilize the National Guard to protect us at the Inauguration of our next president. In a healthy, just society, we wouldn’t need to continually remind people that “Black Lives Matter.” But this is the as-it-isness of our time. We cannot pretend otherwise. Our task is to recognize the polarization of our nation without getting drawn into a war within. Purifying our hearts of the three poisons of greed, hatred, and delusion, let us aspire to dismantle what King called the “triple evils” of racism, poverty, and militarism.

Martin Luther King Jr.’s work is not finished. We continue it with gratitude and a resolute spirit. This path is endless. With each step, faith grows. With each breath, our confidence in who we truly are deepens, and we march on bravely.

Each moment of this past year of dedicated practice, and this purposeful direction of the Year of the Ox, calls us to shine the light of our universal heart-mind everywhere; to extend our vow to save all beings without exception.

Shinge Roko Sherry Chayat Roshi

Shinge Roko Sherry Chayat Roshi

Shinge Roko Sherry Chayat is the Abbot of the Zen Studies Society.