Scholar Monks: Martin Luther King, Jr.

This is part of the ongoing Scholar Monks series, which explores the lives and works of people who have chosen to further knowledge while grounded in practice.

“I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality. This is why right temporarily defeated is stronger than evil triumphant.” (1)

Martin Luther King, Jr. is arguably the most notable scholar monk in the history of the United States. He came from a family of ministers and was himself ordained during his undergraduate studies, where the president of the college impressed upon King the power of Christianity to enact social change. King went on to complete doctoral work in systematic theology seven years later and became a minister-scholar. He considered continuing in the academy but accepted a position as a pastor in Alabama instead.

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King soon found himself at the head of a civil rights movement in which his academic acumen and religious leadership skills were exceptionally well suited and effectively deployed. He integrated Gandhi’s principle of nonviolence with Christian social action to undertake powerful social action toward the recognition of the rights of African-American people in the U.S. and the rights of all people within and outside of the U.S.

King’s social leadership contributed significantly to changes in national civil rights legislation in the U.S. Toward the end of his life, he included efforts against poverty and American militarism in his mission, continuing to draw on Christian social gospel principles and nonviolent practices.

As the only American scholar monk, and indeed the only non-president, to have a national holiday that honors him, I feel it important and appropriate to examine King’s life and work within the context of our discussion about scholar monks in the world today. King’s religious beliefs, training, and leadership, and his academic knowledge and abilities were regularly deployed together in his public speaking, preaching, and writings. From what I have read, it seems that King’s higher studies were an extension of his ministry and were deeply integrated into his ministry.

Precision with words and knowledge were utilized by King to do the good work that he deemed necessary as a follower of Christ and God. For King, this good work was the work of social action and social change. Similar to Xuanzang, in a different time, place, and in different ways, King worked toward the well-being of many, for the benefit of others, motivated and guided by his faith and his role as an ordained person.

I think all of us who live by vows, who have committed to a way that is larger than ourselves, have much to learn from Martin Luther King, Jr. His teaching, his work, and his way of life is as relevant as ever in this time of racial conflict, violence, and institutional oppression. Let us continue to consider King’s words, those that I have quoted above and the many others that he spoke and penned, as we usher in a new political era this Friday.

As always, please share your voice and your words through comments here or by contacting me personally.

Notes

(1) These words were spoken during Martin Luther King, Jr.’s acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. All of the biographical information for this post comes from The King Center website: “About Dr. King: Overview.” TheKingCenter.org. Accessed January 16, 2017. http://thekingcenter.org/about-dr-king

(2) Image from http://www.uky.edu/mlk/content/about-dr-king

Scholar Monks: Xuanzang

This is part of the ongoing Scholar Monks series, which explores the lives and works of people who have chosen to further knowledge while grounded in practice.

Xuanzang (loosely pronounced shwen-zahng) lived in Tang Dynasty China during the 7th century (1). The tale of this scholar monk’s life is nothing short of epic. At 26, he had studied the most advanced Buddhist theories and philosophies available to him in China, and found that there were questions that couldn’t be answered. So he decided to break the imperial decree against international travel and set off for India in search of the true teachings.

It took three years of travel before arriving at the Buddhist university of Nalanda in northern India. During his trek, he dodged an attempted stabbing by his guide, traversed deserts and high mountain passes, and refused numerous offers from kings to stay and hold positions in their royal courts, once fasting for three days to convince a particularly stubborn ruler. He was dedicated to moving forward with his quest.

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An image of Xuanzang from the Dunhuang Caves, China (2)

Once arriving at Nalanda, a tremendous center for Buddhist study at the time, Xuanzang studied under the abbot for five years, reading Buddhist texts, studying math, logic, and Sankrit, and writing treatises. On his way back to China he lost some scriptures in a river crossing and waited months for replacements. He continued through Dunhuang, in Western China where this image is from, and arrived back in his homeland after being gone for 16 years.

Back in China, Xuanzang became a topic of interest of the emperor, who endorsed a giant translation project, led by Xuanzang, to convert the nearly 700 sutras and relics Xuanzang brought back from India. Xuanzang trained many in the imperial court in Buddhism, including the crown prince, although he declined an official position, stating that his life’s work was to clarify Buddha’s teaching. Interestingly, he did not write any commentaries on the texts, he translated.

Xuanzang’s legacy is vast. He greatly influenced the development of Buddhism in China, contributing to the founding of numerous new schools of thought and introducing Chinese Buddhisms to hundreds of new texts. The Heart Sutra, a brief and profound text that is considered by Zen to capture the essence of Buddhism, was translated by Xuanzang. It is the most widely chanted Zen text in the world. The Journey West, a 16th century Chinese epic tale involving a monk protected by a monkey king and other fantastic creatures, is based on the life and writings of Xuanzang. For any fans of the anime series Dragonball, a number of the themes of The Journey West would look very familiar.

Some key points, as I see them: Xuanzang was persistent in his single-minded focus to clarify spiritual teachings. He refused multiple offers from many kings and an emperor to take positions of power within their governments. That didn’t keep him from benefitting from the patronage of those governments, though. He went to great lengths to study, gather materials of study, and translate those materials, though not to comment on them. His writings were concentrated on theoretical issues and one exposition of the geographies he traversed in his travels.

What can we learn from this scholar monk? Perhaps, don’t get sucked in by power, but rather direct it for the benefit of many. Don’t lose track of what’s important to you, what drives you forward in your learning and practice. Maintain focus. Seek truth. Study with people you admire.

What are some of your takeaways? Please share any thoughts in the comments.

Notes

(1) All of my information on Xuanzang I take from the fantastic book by Kazuaki Tanahashi, The Heart Sutra: A Comprehensive Guide to the Classic of Mahayana Buddhism. Boston: Shambhala, 2014.

(2) The image of Xuanzang is from https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Xuan_ Zang.jpg

Scholar Monks: An Introduction

This is part of the ongoing Scholar Monks series, which explores the lives and works of people who have chosen to further knowledge while grounded in practice.

One of the main reasons I undertook this blog was due to a significant question of my own, one I had been mulling over for quite some time, and still am. That question is:

What does it mean to be a scholar monk today?

In my various studies and readings, I kept coming across figures from diverse geographies and traditions who fit into this category that I am calling “scholar monks”: Buddhist monks who traveled, collected, translated and transmitted the teachings of Buddha; Jesuit priests who were extensively educated in not only religion but linguistics, history and philosophy; Greek philosophers whose “philosophy” was both an intellectual endeavor and a way of living that prepared one for death; early theologians of the Christian Church who rooted their theological and philosophical writings in practice and liturgy. And in learning of these people whose springboard for intellectual endeavor was prayer and meditation, I began to wonder, what does it mean to live this kind of life today? How different is it now than it was in these snippets of history I have been examining?

Exploring these questions is at least one purpose of this blog. The ongoing series “Scholar Monks” will explore the lives of scholar monks of the past as a way both to honor those who have come before as well as to sort out what their legacy might mean for the present day. My feet are on this ground, here and now. I love studying what is in the past, and also find it critical to transfer that knowledge in some way to the present.

A final note. Much of my personal study has been in Buddhism, particularly in Zen, and much of my professional study has been in Christianity and Neoplatonism, and so my expertise tends to float around these core areas. I fully intend to include figures from these traditions. ADDITIONALLY, and I put this in all caps for a reason, I delight at the opportunity to explore traditions and figures who I know less about and especially those that history has had a tendency to forget.

With regards to the former, I am excited to research scholar monks from Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, indigenous, modern pagan, and other traditions, fully aware that the terms “scholar monk” may not even be appropriate for those traditions, and I will do my best to engage in discussing figures from those traditions respectfully. With regards to the latter, I am particularly thinking of women, whom histories written by men commonly forget, and others who live at the margins of society, including people of color and people who do not conform to whatever is “normalized” for that time and place. I hope to enlist the help of a number of guest writers in these efforts.

If anyone has suggestions for a scholar monk they would like featured, please let me know and I will do my best to oblige.