Martin Luther King, Jr., and the interbeing of poverty and wealth

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Dear Still Water Friends,

The Martin Luther King, Jr., celebration and holiday this year are special. Had Martin survived he would be celebrating his 85th birthday this January. This year is also special because it marks the 50th anniversary of the War on Poverty, one of LBJ’s Great Society initiatives. While politicians and researchers continue to debate the success or failure of the War on Poverty, it is clear that massive poverty continues to exist in our country and around the globe. It is also clear that MLK, throughout his quest for human rights, fought against poverty and for economic empowerment for the powerless.

This Thursday after our sitting and walking meditation we will watch two segments from speeches by MLK on economic justice ( MLK Day World Hunger & Poverty and MLK on Poverty in America). They are as fresh and relevant to our present times as they were when they were delivered decades ago. Please join us to listen to MLK’s powerful words and to reflect together on how his message relates to our lives and our practice of mindfulness.

Below is a related reading by Thich Nhat Hanh on the interbeing of poverty and wealth.

Peace and Love,

Paul Flippin

Flowers and Garbage

by Thich Nhat Hanh, from Peace Is Every Step: The Path of Mindfulness in Everyday Life.

Defiled or immaculate. Dirty or pure. These are concepts we form in our mind. A beautiful rose we have just cut and placed in our vase is pure. It smells so good, so fresh. A garbage can is the opposite. It smells horrible, and it is filled with rotten things.

But that is only when we look on the surface. If we look more deeply we will see that in just five or six days, the rose will become part of the garbage. We do not need to wait five days to see it. If we just look at the rose, and we look deeply, we can see it now. And if we look into the garbage can, we see that in a few months its contents can be transformed into lovely vegetables, and even a rose. If you are a good organic gardener, looking at a rose you can see the garbage, and looking at the garbage you can see a rose. Roses and garbage inter-are. Without a rose, we cannot have garbage; and without garbage, we cannot have a rose. They need each other very much. The rose and the garbage are equal. The garbage is just as precious as the rose. If we look deeply at the concepts of defilement and immaculateness, we return to the notion of interbeing.

In the city of Manila there are many young prostitutes; some are only fourteen or fifteen years old. They are very unhappy. They did not want to be prostitutes, but their families are poor and these young girls went to the city to look for some kind of job, like street vendor, to make money to send back to their families. Of course this is true not only in Manila, but in Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam, in New York City, and in Paris also. After only a few weeks in the city, a vulnerable girl can be persuaded by a clever person to work for him and earn perhaps one hundred times more money than she could as a street vendor. Because she is so young and does not know much about life, she accepts and becomes a prostitute. Since that time, she has carried the feeling of being impure, defiled, and this causes her great suffering. When she looks at other young girls, dressed beautifully, belonging to good families, a wretched feeling wells up in her, a feeling of defilement that becomes her hell.

But if she could look deeply at herself and at the whole situation, she would see that she is the way she is because other people are the way they are. How can a “good girl,” belonging to a good family, be proud? Because the “good family’s” way of life is the way it is, the prostitute has to live as a prostitute. No one among us has clean hands. No one of us can claim that it is not our responsibility. The girl in Manila is that way because of the way we are. Looking into the life of that young prostitute, we see the lives of all the “non-prostitutes.” And looking at the non-prostitutes and the way we live our lives, we see the prostitute. Each thing helps to create the other.

Let us look at wealth and poverty. The affluent society and the deprived society inter-are. The wealth of one society is made of the poverty of the other. “This is like this, because that is like that.” Wealth is made of non-wealth elements, and poverty is made by non-poverty elements. It is exactly the same as with the sheet of paper. So we must be careful not to imprison ourselves in concepts. The truth is that everything contains everything else. We cannot just be, we can only inter-be. We are responsible for everything that happens around us.

Only by seeing with the eyes of interbeing can that young girl be freed from her suffering. Only then will she understand that she is bearing the burden of the whole world. What else can we offer her? Looking deeply into ourselves, we see her, and we will share her pain and the pain of the whole world. Then we can begin to be of real help.