Monday, January 20, 2014

The METTA of Martin Luther King Jr. (video)

The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Christian minister, with his friend, fellow peace activist, and anti Vietnam War agitator, the Buddhist monk Venerable Thich Nhat Hanh

Remembering Rev. King and the March on Washington, D.C. (
There are parallels between Dr. King’s ideas and the Buddha's teachings on metta (universal loving kindness).
Both figures show us love as a method of personal and social transformation. There are a few places where they overlap and in some ways potentially complement one another.

Metta is the traditional step-by-step method of Buddhist loving-kindness practice. It begins with oneself, moves on to those who are closest to us [usually our spiritual teacher(s)], and aims to reach a magnitude that includes everyone. It is a universal or illimitable state, one of the "Divine Abidings" (Brahma Viharas), because eventually it includes all living beings in all directions without bias.

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By contrast, Dr. King drew on Christian sources to speak of love. The first parallel is his teaching on the different types of love. "There are three words for 'love' in the Greek version of the New Testament; one is the word 'eros,' a sort of esthetic, romantic love. Plato used to talk about it a great deal in his dialogues, the yearning of the soul for the realm of the divine. And there is and can always be something beautiful about eros, even in its expressions of romance. Some of the most beautiful love in all of the world has been expressed this way."

It is interesting that Rev. King, a Baptist minister, starts here. It is an expression of love we can all relate to, not one too high up in the clouds. Metta practice also begins with the feelings we have for those closest to us. But the Buddha points out, as does King, that there is more to love.

Dr. King in living color in D.C. (
Metta teachings from the outset have us distinguishing between attachment and a purer (more altruistic) love between people. Basically, if we crave for something in return, if we are motivated by possessiveness, or if it is liable to turn into something else -- such as anger or hatred if it is unrequited -- then it is done with attachment (clinging, upadana) not with metta

We must be clear about this. King goes on to speak of another kind: "Then the Greek language talks about 'philia,' which is another word for love, and philia is a kind of intimate love between personal friends. This is the kind of love you have for those people [whom] you get along with well, and those whom you like on this level you love because you are loved."
This is also something we have all known in our lives. I recently came across a beautiful teaching on the most noble qualities of friendship in Fr. Wayne Teasdale's book, A Monk in the World. In it, he mentions the tradition of Latin Christianity, which "places the emphasis on friendship’s spiritual character, calling a friend in the monastic context acustos animi, or a guardian of one’s soul." 

Teasdale adds, "All friendship requires other centeredness," and this is "really knowing our friends’ hearts.

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It includes committed friendship’s usual intense affective power, but it also serves our friends’ ultimate well being." That metta practice moves from oneself, or those closest to us, to our friends, is intended to touch this vital quality of caring in us, to awaken and enhance it so we can share it with more and more people. There is refinement of our love, an elevating quality that we develop.

King concludes the passage: "Then the Greek language has another word for love, and that is the word 'agape.' Agape is more than romantic love, it is more than friendship. Agape is understanding, creative, redemptive good will toward all [humans]. Agape is an overflowing love which seeks nothing in return."

MLK, John F. Kennedy, and other prominent civil rights activists in black history
In the same way, metta aims to become mature love. In contrast to Christian methods, which have many wonderful features, the strength of the Buddhist tradition of metta is that it sets out a path of practice that shows us what step we can take next. This brings us to a second parallel teaching, one King called The Three Dimensions of a Complete Life.

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"There are three dimensions...length, breadth, and height. Now the length of life as we shall use it here is the inward concern for one’s own welfare. In other words, it is that inward concern that causes one to push forward, to achieve [one's] own goals and ambitions.

The breadth of life as we shall use it here is the outward concern for the welfare of others. And the height of life is the upward reach for God. Now you [have] got to have all three of these to have a complete life.

"Now let’s turn for the moment to the length of life. I said that this is the dimension of life where we are concerned with developing our inner powers. In a sense this is the selfish dimension of life. There is such a thing as rational and healthy self-interest. Before you can love other selves adequately, you’ve got to love your own self properly.

MLK, Thay, Dr. Browne (
"And you know what loving yourself also means? It means that you’ve got to accept yourself."
It is great King started here. A lot of us have problems being kind to ourselves. And even if it is not essential as the very first step towards loving others, from a Buddhist point of view, it is still something we all need to learn to do if we are going to make progress in our metta practice.
United We Stand - with love/metta
One of the skillful means in metta is that we should start with whomever we find easiest and progress from there. After cultivating thoughts wishing others well, beginning with those most dear, for days or weeks or months, we have some metta to work with.

We then start to see how we, too, are worthy of respect and the kindness of others.

For some people this is a long process, but it is something we can all do. This is very encouraging. 

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"Now the other thing about the length of life: after accepting ourselves and our tools, we must discover what we are called to do. And once we discover it we should set out to do it with all of the strength and all of the power that we have in our systems.

"Be the best of whatever you are. And when you do this, when you do this, you’ve mastered the length of life.

"Now don’t stop here, though. You know, a lot of people get no further in life than the length. They develop their inner powers; they do their jobs well. But do you know, they try to live as if nobody else lives in the world but themselves.
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A lot of people never get beyond the first dimension of life. So I move on and say that it is necessary to add breadth to length. Now the breadth of life is the outward concern for the welfare of others, as I said. And a [one] has not begun to live until [one] can rise above the narrow confines of...individual concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity."
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Metta is just this -- starting with what is nearest to us and extending outwards, becoming more and more inclusive until it reaches what are called the Divine Abodes: universal love, compassion (the active side of love), appreciative joy (happiness in others' success and happiness), and equanimity (non-bias) -- all born of the strength of our dedication. (Let us return to equanimity or upekkha, further on as it is a quality so impressively demonstrated by King and others in the Civil Rights movement). More

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