King’s Dream: Barack Obama and the Dalai Lama
by Waddell Hamer
Recently, President Barack Obama was inaugurated for his second term as President of the United States. As fate would have it, his second Inauguration happened to fall on the national holiday of Dr. Martin Luther King. The significances of the two events are obvious and easy to point out for most people. Many people like to imagine that what we witnessed that Monday was part of what Dr. King was referring to on the steps of the National Mall on August 28, 1963. It is a very inspiring and beautiful moment in our nation’s history. It is something that many who attended that event and many who watched it all around the world will never forget, because for many, it’s something that many thought they would never see in their lifetime. But I would like to direct your attention to a much smaller and much less publicized event that happened two days later that more reflects the dream that Dr. King was referring to on that day.
Two days later, on the 23 of January, because of my work through Americorps, I found myself in a small Tibetan temple in Louisville, Kentucky attending a press conference for the highly anticipated arrival of the Dalai Lama to their city. This is an event that was awarded to the city for being voted the most compassionate city in America, which was part of the platform of the city’s mayor when he assumed office in January of 2011. When we entered the room and everyone took off their shoes in respect of Buddhist traditions. We all gathered in the main temple room and ate a lunch that was provided by the center. Let me explain that this was outside of Buddhist traditions as well. Usually in the temple everyone sits down on the ground for worship and other events and seldom is food allowed in the temple. But there we sat in chairs in circles talking about our various jobs and projects and other events of the day. It was the first beautiful sign of plurality, compromise, and compassion; this was a theme that would be revisited throughout the day.
As the program began, it was opened up with a greeting from a local Monk who was a spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhists in the area. After him, various local leaders from Louisville spoke, including Mayor Greg Fisher. Many of the speeches were the same. They all talked about why their particular center and department was excited for the arrival of the Dalai Lama and what their center would be doing on and around the event. Nothing special, right? But following that were a few photos of many of the leaders in the room. Again, most people aren’t too excited about that kind of stuff. But as you look at the photo, you see representatives from just about every religion and culture that you can think about. The pictures features leaders from the 3 Abrahamic religions; Christianity, Islam, and Judaism. Also included in that photo were leaders from other religions, including Buddhism and Hinduism. Filling out the photo were assorted leaders from politics and business in the community. In my opinion, this was the highlight of the event. This, more than anything that I had witnessed on MLK/Inauguration day, reminded me of the dream of Dr. King.
When Dr. King was referring to his “dream”, I like to think he wasn’t referring to a highly politicized event with a figure that has separated the country to the levels of the 60’s. And I say this as a huge Obama supporter! But let’s be honest, while half of the country was celebrating the re-election of the president, the other half was using this as a sign of the downfall of the America as we know it. And as much as I think King would have been proud to witness that event, he would not have been happy with all of the nastiness that is too common apart of the political rhetoric of today. I do imagine that King would have been proud to sit in that event from Wednesday and to see the different leaders from Louisville, including the mayor of the city openly talk about compassion and making sure that the citizens do whatever they can to make their community a more compassionate community. I’d like to imagine that he would have just been another leader in that picture, not trying to stand out or show off but to blend in. It would have been in an effort to show that it takes people and leaders from all cultures, religions and nationality, a true pluralistic society, to truly bring about what he referred to in his famous speech as an “oasis of freedom”.
The common mistake made by many people is boxing Dr. King into the category as a leader for the civil rights of African Americans only. Nothing could be further from the truth. While he became famous through being a leader of the 1955 bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, his writings, actions, and heroes reveal something much different. He read literature from many different religions, ate dinner with people from many different cultures and races, and marched and risked his life with African Americans, Asian Americans, Italian Americans, Irish Americans, Africans, and any other nationality you can imagine. At the heart of Dr. King’s message and mission, he was a pluralist and recognized that it would take people from all nationalities and religions and classes and cultures to finally bring about the American proclamation that all men are created equal. This is why I feel that he would have been right at home in that Tibetan Buddhist temple on Wednesday, perhaps even more so than in Washington D.C. on this past Monday. I feel that about his speech and his work, he would say look beyond the glossy words and feel good messages and pay attention to the fact that he is calling for us to be a more compassionate nation to all around us and even to those we continue to welcome to the country. Along with that he would say that it takes every last one of us, treating human beings like human beings, to truly achieve this goal.