Sangha Speaker Juliet Bost “MLK Day: A Jodo Shinshu Reflection”

San Mateo Buddhist Women’s Association Corresponding Secretary Juliet Bost shares her appreciation of the Dharma with a talk entitled “MLK Day: A Jodo Shinshu Reflection.”

Transcript

Please join me in Gassho.

“Primal Vow: If, when I attain Buddhahood, sentient beings in the lands of the ten directions who sincerely and joyfully entrust themselves to me, desire to be born in my land, and contemplate on my name even as many as ten times, should not be born there, may I not attain perfect enlightenment.”

Nembutsu.

Good morning everyone, and thank you for attending this morning’s youth-led service. I’d like to thank Jarrett, Josh, Haley, and Kate for taking the time to prepare and for being here this morning. It’s wonderful to see you all, if not virtually, and I hope there are more opportunities like this to allow our youth sangha members to step up and lead.

For those of you I haven’t had the pleasure of meeting: My name is Juliet Bost. I’m a third year at UC Davis majoring in Political Science – Public Service and minoring in Religious Studies.

In my sophomore year of high school, I participated in a Youth Minister’s Assistant (YMA) summer retreat hosted by the Youth Advocacy Committee (or YAC) at the Sacramento Betsuin, and returned to Sacramento once or twice a year after that for Advanced Trainings and other youth leadership conferences. At these retreats and conferences, I learned skills similar to that of Minister’s Assistants, like how to chant, how to ring the kansho, how to give a Dharma talk, and this has allowed me to get more involved in temple events and help Sensei with services. Outside of YAC, I was active in the San Mateo Buddhist Temple Jr. YBA and the Bay District YBA, and I was fortunate to serve two years in both of these Cabinets, including as Co-President for both in my senior year. Throughout all that time working, I was fortunate to make close friends, some of whom I still keep in contact with today. I wish every young sangha member can find a home in the young Buddhist community.

But that’s enough about me. Let’s move on.

As the title of my talk has hinted to, today I want to take some time to reflect on Martin Luther King, Jr., Day. To be quite honest, I had another topic in mind for this reflection, but the tumultuous events of the past two weeks have been too important to ignore. MLK Jr. Day is an opportunity for us to pause and process these events, and look to actions for the future.

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., or Dr. King, was a Christian reverend and a key leader and organizer for the Civil Rights Movement, which fought for racial and ethnic equality in America, mainly during the 1950s and 1960s and into the 1970s. The Civil Rights Movement specifically targeted racial segregation, which did not allow Black Americans and white Americans to eat together, sit on the bus together, work together, or live together. This separation allowed restaurants, businesses, buses, and other public utilities to discriminate against Black Americans by refusing to serve them based only on the color of their skin. Black Americans were even denied the right to vote due to a combination of literacy tests and racist “grandfather” clauses. Dr. King, along with other leaders of the Civil Rights Movement, worked to call attention to and protest segregation and the discrimination that came with it. He is probably most famous for his speech titled “I Have a Dream” which he gave during the March on Washington, one of the largest protests of the Civil Rights Movement. Dr. King is credited as a skilled organizer, someone who can coordinate big events and actions and gather enough people to make it successful, such as the Birmingham bus boycotts and the lunch counter sit-ins.

In 1968, a few months after Dr. King was assassinated, Congressman John Conyers introduced a bill that would create a nationwide paid holiday to honor Dr. King’s civil rights work and legacy. A bill like this wasn’t passed into law until 1986, almost two decades after Dr. King’s death, and it wasn’t until 2000 — the year I was born — that all fifty states had adopted this holiday into their state laws.

When I read this, I was confused at first. I had grown up in a post-MLK Jr. Day world, and no one really talked about how this came to be, only that it got us a day off from school. For those of us who grew up learning about Dr. King, who is undeniably the most well-known American Civil Rights activist and leader today, it seemed ridiculous that Congress didn’t immediately pass this bill into law. While our teachers spent so much time emphasizing Dr. King’s heroics, it turns out Dr. King didn’t used to be as popular as he is today. In fact, he was incredibly controversial, despite his dedication to nonviolent protest. So what was going on?

Here, I’d like to introduce one of Dr. King’s most famous writings: Letter From a Birmingham Jail. While doing research for this talk, I revisited this essay to get a handle of Dr. King’s philosophical approach — the reasons why he encouraged protest, and why it had to be nonviolent. As the title may reveal, Dr. King wrote this letter in 1963, while he was in jail in Birmingham, Alabama, for his involvement in organizing sit-in protests and boycotts in the town. This was his thirteenth time being arrested during the Civil Rights Movement, and it certainly wouldn’t be his last.

I’m first going to read a passage that seemed to resonate with the Buddha’s teachings, although I encourage you all to find and read the full essay. This passage is in response to clergymen, or Christian ministers, who didn’t think Dr. King should have traveled to Birmingham to support protests. They viewed him as an “outside agitator” — someone who travels into a town in order to stir up trouble and chaos. Dr. King wrote:

“I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states…Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

I should note here the “Dr.” in Dr. King is not a medical doctor, like one you’d go to for check-ups, but a “school” doctor. This means Dr. King went to school for many years after high school and did a lot of studying, a lot of reading, and a lot of writing. That is to say, if you find yourself scratching your head here, that’s completely understandable. Let me break it down a bit.

“I am cognizant [or aware] of the interrelatedness [or interdependence] of all communities and states…Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable [or unavoidable] network of mutuality [or closeness], tied in a single garment [or piece of clothing] of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

Hopefully, this sounds familiar to you all. This is the teaching of interdependence we encounter often in our Jodo Shinshu tradition. Interdependence teaches us that we are connected to all beings through a chain of causes and conditions — a golden chain, perhaps. Our actions as individual links in the chain have a ripple effect, like dropping a rock into a pond, so we must live our lives aware of the direct and indirect effect we have on ourselves and others, both near to us and far away.

Awareness is another basic teaching in Jodo Shinshu — that we must strive to be aware of reality, to see all things in life as they are, and be aware of the ways our own senses can change how clearly we see reality. Awareness was also on Dr. King’s mind when he was organizing protests. He thought long and hard about the best way to draw attention to the issue of segregation and racism in American society, and committed to civil disobedience, or protesting unjust laws and rules by choosing to disobey them. Dr. King wrote: “Nonviolent direct action seeks to create such a crisis and foster such a tension that a community which has constantly refused to negotiate is forced to confront the issue. [He then wrote:]…there is a type of constructive nonviolent tension which is necessary for growth.”

Now, you may have more questions about this passage than the last. At first reaction, it might seem “un-Buddhist” to want to create “a crisis” and foster tension, and that is generally true. We don’t want to purposely harm others or be mean or cause drama. But another important part of Buddhism is to not foster false realities or delusions and to work to become aware of the reality of the world we live in. This learning process often forces us to question ourselves and allows us the space to peel away layers of our ego that prevent us from seeing the world as it is. The point of nonviolent direct action, Dr. King says, is to bring attention to injustices that many people were unaware of, who may be too stubborn to let go of their egos. This, I found, was quite a Buddhist approach.

In many ways, Dr. King’s writing reminds me of Shinran Shonin’s teachings: an awareness of the state of the world, a dedication to spreading this awareness, and the use of nonviolent civil disobedience to advocate for the good of all. Like Dr. King, Shinran Shonin was a controversial leader with a controversial message during his time, although we don’t view him in this light today. Shinran’s teachings directly challenged the balance of political power during the Kamakura period, when Buddhist temples were closely connected to the leaders of Japan and violent conflicts were common among warring clans. Despite this tenuous period in history, Shinran embodied the spirit of Amida’s Primal Vow, which I read earlier. He could have studied Honen’s teachings for his own betterment and left us foolish beings behind, but Shinran recognized that he too was a foolish being, although endowed with teachings that could help us all become less foolish.

In the past four years, especially in the past ten months, I have never felt more foolish in my life. Some days I feel like all I do is react to things I read or see in the news and get angry over politics, which as a political science student I have quite a bit of exposure to regularly. I’ve seen this pattern in my family and friends as well, and perhaps you’ve been feeling similarly. Feeling intensely emotional about political issues is a normal reaction, and it’s actually been documented among numerous political science studies of “affective polarization” — the growing gap in dislike or hate between members of each political party.

Buddhism can help us overcome a knee-jerk emotional reaction. Being aware of your feelings and understanding where they come from is an important first step. Again, it’s completely normal to feel angry or frustrated or stressed, and that doesn’t make you a bad Buddhist. The goal is to become aware of these feelings and understand where they come from, and to be mindful of these same feelings in others. For example, I feel particularly annoyed when I’m walking on the street behind someone who is walking slower than me, especially if I’m a little late. In the moment, it’s a habit for me to huff and grumble and storm my way around them. But there are certainly days where I’m so tired that I don’t feel like walking home or to my next class, and I drag my feet. Or sometimes I walk a particular route because I enjoy the scenery, so I move much slower than if I were walking down the street. Hopefully, by understanding the reasons for why I feel annoyed — often caused by my own failure to plan ahead — and being aware that others may be tired or taking in the scenery after a long day, I can slowly change my response to a slow walker to be more compassionate.

This is not to say that walking behind someone is the same thing as debating politics with your family, which can be a much more frustrating experience. Making sure to approach these conversations with an understanding of what you believe and why is important, and taking the time to understand where the other person is coming from as well. Sometimes, you may encounter someone who is so wrapped up in their own ego that no amount of talking and good points you make will convince them otherwise. What should we do in this situation? I believe we must do what we can, while avoiding harm’s way. Sometimes that means staying engaged in the conversation; sometimes that means backing away to keep yourself safe.

In closing, I’d like to ask that all of us take advantage of MLK Jr. Day to reflect Amida Buddha’s wish for us all, that we may come to an awakened understanding of the world and help others to come to this same enlightenment. Take some time to appreciate the ways in which you’ve become more aware of the world around you, and figure out one thing you can do to pass this along our golden chain.

Please join me in Gassho.

“Primal Vow: If, when I attain Buddhahood, sentient being in the lands of the ten directions who sincerely and joyfully entrust themselves to me, desire to be born in my land, and contemplate on my name even as many as ten times, should not be born there, may I not attain perfect enlightenment.”

Nembutsu.

Thank you all for listening.

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