Sacred Fires: Betty Shabazz, MLK, and Thich Nhat Hanh

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I first wrote to Dr. King on June 1, 1965, explaining to him why some of us in Vietnam had immolated ourselves in protest against the war. I explained that it was not an act of suicide, or of despair; it was an act of love.

~ Thich Nhat Hanh

One year later, on June 1, 1966, Martin Luther King Jr. and the Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh met for the first time, in Chicago.

We had tea together in his room, and then we went down for a press conference. In the press conference, Dr. King spoke out for the first time against the Vietnam War. That was the day we combined our efforts to work for peace in Vietnam and to fight for civil rights in the US. We agreed that the true enemy of man is not man. Our enemy is not outside of us. Our true enemy is the anger, hatred, and discrimination that is found in the hearts and minds of man.

~ Thich Nhat Hanh

Exactly 31 years later, on June 1, 1997, Betty Shabazz, the advocate and educator, wife and widow of Malcolm X, was set on fire.

On June 1, 1997, young grandson Malcolm set a fire in Shabazz’s apartment. Shabazz suffered burns over 80 percent of her body, and remained intensive care for three weeks…Shabazz died of her injuries on June 23, 1997.” (Wikipedia)

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The death of Betty Shabazz haunts me – another woman burned alive. And why? Was her death a cruel trick of fate – caused by inherited anger and pain? Her husband was murdered. Her daughter, Qubilah, was arrested for allegedly plotting the murder of Louis Farrakhan, implicated in her father’s death. Qubilah’s son, Malcolm Jr., suffered from his mother’s frequent absence, and finally was taken in by Betty. He set fire to her house, causing her death. Malcolm Jr was murdered in 2013.

In this microcosm of family tragedy, I still see the sacred flame Thich Nhat Hahn spoke of – the twisting fire of protest and self-immolation in the name of Love.

How is this possible?

Following her husband’s death, Betty devoted her life to furthering the cause of civil rights – primarily through education, public awareness, and mentoring women and students. Myrlie Evers-Williams, widow of another Civil Rights’ era leader, Medgar Evers, describes Shabazz as:

a “free spirit, in the best sense of the word. When she laughed, she had this beauty; when she smiled, it lit up the whole room.”

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The sacred flame was inside her. Betty Shabazz, or Bahiyyih (to use the name she was given on pilgrimage) burned with the love of service, justice, faith. The fire that killed her was rage and pain – the inner suffering of her own grandson unleashed to devour the woman who loved him.

This is the parable of our times. The feminine spirit is still being burned alive by the unwanted, unhealed, unloved aspects of ourselves. The feminine spirit is within us all, and until we free her loving, healing flame, we will continue to relive horror and holocausts.

We can learn from the lives Betty Shabazz, MLK, and Thich Nhat Hanh. Their words and actions expressed the light of love, in direct contact with the fires of hate. These souls help us see that light and fire, love and hate, are twin faces of one reality.

Hate is what happens when our innate love is brutalized, raped.

Hate is what happens when our truth is denied, when our bodies are condemned, shunned, X-ed.

Hate is what happens when love is perverted into despair and self-destruction so powerful it consumes everything and everyone in its way.

We cannot push hate aside, shun it, condemn it. This only increases its raging force, like dry fuel added to a wildfire. Instead, we must stretch our arms and hearts wider and wider and wider…

The rejection of hate will never quell hate. Rather, the powers of understanding, forgiveness, prayer and quiet reflection must be married with the powers of purified anger, active listening, and the creative medicine of art, music, and science in the path of justice. We cannot reject. We must crack open our hearts and peer inside….

Inside all of us, we cradle the grandson of Betty Shabazz, the little boy who lost his mother, set fire to his grandmother, and was killed by a world of crime and shadow that grows from the bones of injustice and unmercy.

Inside all of us, we must wrap and perfume the burned bodies of Betty Shabazz…the monks who immolated themselves…the fragments of teenagers who become suicide bombers…and the husbands, aunts, and children who happened to be riding a bus, on the wrong day.

As we wrap and perfume these charred bodies, who all exist, inside ourselves, we begin to wrap and perfume the burned, scarred, scared truths, in our own past and present.

Love, abiding love, wells up.

Martin Luther King, Jr. knew that words are action – words are the outstretched hands of our striving spirits, reaching out into the world, to touch and stir other souls awake.

“I believe that unarmed truth and unconditional love will have the final word in reality.”

“We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

~ Martin Luther King, Jr.

So, on this day of memory and action, which Coretta Scott King fought and faithed into being, I give you all my love and respect for what you are striving to do, for who you are. And I reach out my words to join yours, in the bright chorus singing for justice and peace.

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Read more:

Letter of Thich Nhat Hanh to Martin Luther King, Jr.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Boddhisattva

Letter by MLK, Nominating Thich Nhat Hahn for Nobel Prize

A Brief Look at the Life of Betty Shabazz

Medgar Evers’ Son Honors Civil Rights Icon

Strong Quotes for Martin Luther King Jr. Day

A Holiday in My Heart: Honoring Coretta Scott King

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