I recently had the privilege of delivering a few opening remarks at one of the commemorations held at the University of Arkansas for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. It was a privilege for several reasons. I was able to praise Dr. King, which is a timeless pleasure, but I was also responsible for introducing Geshe Thupten Dorjee, a Tibetan monk who has been teaching classes at Arkansas since August, 2006. Geshe had been invited to speak by one of his former students who'd been moved by his class lectures on the philosophy of non-violence and, as it turned out, Geshe had always been an admirer of Dr. King. He also reminded us of what Dr. King continually reminded the nation, even when it seemed the reminder was falling on deaf ears in the American South: non-violence is the only method for effecting lasting change in a society.
Our students have proven surprisingly receptive to the philosophy of non-violence. But perhaps I shouldn't be surprised. While the attack on the Twin Towers seems to me to have occurrred last month, our sophomores, for example, were twelve years old when they heard that their country was under attack. They were eight when they got word that twelve students and a teacher had been slaughtered at Columbine High School in Colorado. They were just getting their drivers' licenses when they saw the attrocious images coming out of Abu Ghraib. And since most og our students had just entered their teens when we entered Iraq, their most impressionable years have passed with their country mired in another foreign war. So perhaps it's not surprising that Geshe's students have responded so whole-heartedly to a reasoned and logical presentation of the necessity of practicing non-violence, both at the personal and the national level.
As I was doing the background reading for my own remarks, I discovered a few things that have grown in significance over the intervening weeks as I've pondered them. First, two facts, two well known facts. Dr. King went to India to meet several of Gandhi's students, so convinced was he of non-violence's overall necessity in any campaign of social reform. And the Dalai Lama was forced to leave Tibet and seek asylum in India. We know these two things, clearly, and we talk about them frequently.
What had not occurred to me was that as King was leaving Delhi in March of 1959, a journey he had undertaken because of the persecution of his people, the Dalai Lama was arriving in India, a journey that he had undertaken . . . because of the persecution of his people. Same month, same year, two extraordinary figures, having come to rest in India. The Dalai Lama is still there, of course; Dr. King is not. We can only imagine, however, the dynamic conversations that would have occurred between Dr. King and His Holiness.
What had essentially drawn both men to India was the ancient practice of non-violence, a social code of behavior that is as innately a part of the Indian spiritual tradition as violence is a part of ours. Jawarlahal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India, had welcomed the Dalai Lama to India just as he had accompanied Mahatma Gandhi in many of his own campaigns. Clearly, Nehru was a statesman of extraordinary capability whose life overlapped two of the most influential men of the twentieth century. For a wonderful 60-second video of a meeting between His Holiness and Nehru from 1959, the year the Dalai Lama fled Tibet, and the year that Dr. King came to India--and with a very telling commentary--have a look at the following clip:
We learn here several things. The presence of China in Asian politics is long and oppressive. But we also learn that India, for all of its current faults and flaws, for its occasionally saddening attempts to become Westernized, rests on a bedrock sensibility that has deep roots in the practice of non-violence. It is a common-sense way of proceeding for many of the Indian people; it is their unspoken code of ethics.
We know this because of the kinds of people India has attracted and produced over the years. And we know this because it provided a safe haven for the Tibetan people in a time of atrocity, bloodshed, and genocide.
And I know this now because one of our students--and she speaks for many of them--immediately saw that Geshe Dorjee, born in Tibet, late of India, and most recently from Alabama, home of the American Civil Rights Movement, should have a prominent place in any celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
That it occurred to her at all is evidence of the impact that Geshe's work on non-violence is having on our students. And for its generosity in giving the Tibetan people a home, and for nourishing the non-violent model, we have, of course, India to thank.