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a mountaintop shows the truth


Photograph by Matthew Moore

On December 23, 1962, Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh’s writes in his journal:


Even if it destroys you, you must hold to the truth. I knew early on that finding truth is not the same as finding happiness. You aspire to see the truth, but once you have seen it, you cannot avoid suffering. Otherwise, you’ve seen nothing at all. You are still hostage to arbitrary conventions set up by others. People judge themselves and each other based on standards that are not their own. In fact, such standards are mere wishful thinking, borrowed from public opinion and common viewpoints. One thing is judged as good and another as bad, one thing virtuous and another evil, one thing true and another false. But when the criteria used to arrive at judgments are not your own, they are not the truth.

Truth cannot be borrowed. It can only be experienced directly.

(…)

Our actions will be based on our own understanding, and we will follow only those rules we have tested through our own direct experience. We will discard false rules and conventions of the current social order. But we have to expect that society will turn on us with a vengeance. Human history is filled with the tragedies caused by that vengeance. History teaches that we die if we oppose the system, yet many individuals continue to challenge the darkness, despite that danger in doing so. Those who pursue the truth are members of the community of truth seekers and reformers throughout time and space. They do not resign themselves to a collective fate that offers no laurels.

(…)

But we have to stand up for the truth. We cannot just gather moss like an old stone or assume a false self, once we see the truth.



In 1967, Martin Luther King Jr. urged the Nobel Prize committee to honor “this gentle monk from Vietnam” Edward Kitch—AP

One of those pursuing and speaking the truth, probably like no other during that time, was Martin Luther King, Jr. Five days after Hahn muses about truth in his journal, King delivers a speech in Oakland, where he expands on themes that would later be part of his ‘I have a Dream’ speech the next year. In that same gathering he also inspires a certain Bobby Seale, who will later co-found the Black Panthers, to get involved with the social rights movement. Five years later, it seems King knew that society would soon turn on him ‘with a vengeance.’ But… “it really doesn’t matter with me know, because I’ve been to the mountaintop. I don’t mind… longevity has its place but I’m not concerned with that now…. I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land”


Watch the speech below. A speech he didn’t prepare beforehand. It would turn out to be his last. The next day he was shot and killed.



As Hanh writes, ‘History teaches that we die if we oppose the system, yet many individuals continue to challenge the darkness, despite that danger in doing so. Those who pursue the truth are members of the community of truth seekers and reformers throughout time and space. They do not resign themselves to a collective fate that offers no laurels.’

Hanh leading me to King, King inspiring Bobby Seale, connected and somehow still here, in a different time, different space…


Some background:



A longer excerpt from Hanh’s journal, ‘truth cannot be borrowed’:

Youth is a time for seeking truth. Years ago I wrote in my journal that even if it destroys you, you must hold to the truth. I knew early on that finding truth is not the same as finding happiness. You aspire to see the truth, but once you have seen it, you cannot avoid suffering. Otherwise, you’ve seen nothing at all. You are still hostage to arbitrary conventions set up by others. People judge themselves and each other based on standards that are not their own. In fact, such standards are mere wishful thinking, borrowed from public opinion and common viewpoints. One thing is judged as good and another as bad, one thing virtuous and another evil, one thing true and another false. But when the criteria used to arrive at judgments are not your own, they are not the truth.


Truth cannot be borrowed.


It can only be experienced directly. The fruit of exploration, suffering, and the direct encounter between one’s own spirit and reality - the reality of the present moment and the reality of ten thousand lifetimes. For each person, it is different. And it is different today than it was yesterday.


When we discover something to be true today through our own direct experience, we will see that our previous assumptions were wrong, or at least incomplete. Our new way of looking transcends yesterday’s desire, prejudices, narrow-mindedness, and habits. We see that to use the golden molds and emerald yardsticks of yesterday’s understanding is nothing less than slavery or imprisonment.


When we attain a new understanding of reality, it is impossible to accept things we know to be false. Our actions will be based on our own understanding, and we will follow only those rules we have tested through our own direct experience. We will discard false rules and conventions of the current social order. But we have to expect that society will turn on us with a vengeance. Human history is filled with the tragedies caused by that vengeance. History teaches that we die if we oppose the system, yet many individuals continue to challenge the darkness, despite that danger in doing so.


Those who pursue the truth are members of the community of truth seekers and reformers throughout time and space. they do not resign themselves to a collective fate that offers no laurels.(…) But we have to stand up for the truth. We cannot just gather moss like an old stone or assume a false self, once we see the truth.






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