The Transformative Power of Love

On November 17, 1957, Martin Luther King Jr. delivered a sermon on “Loving Your Enemies” at Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama. In order to love our enemies, King said, we must begin by analyzing our self. While we see weakness and evil in our enemy we must at the same time see the weaknesses and evils in our selves.

“There is something within all of us that causes us to cry out with Plato that the human personality is like a charioteer with two headstrong horses, each wanting to go in different directions. There is something within each of us that causes us to cry out with Goethe, ‘There is enough stuff in me to make both a gentleman and a rogue.’”

MLK Sermon

King’s message in this sermon was largely a reorientation towards the better angels of our nature. The reason for this is that “hate for hate only intensifies hate and evil in the universe that goes on ad infinitum.” Hate distorts the personality of the hater. Finally, “there is a final reason I think that Jesus says, ‘Love your enemies.’ It is this: that love has within it a redemptive power. And there is a power there that eventually transforms individuals.”

On January, 25, 1967, Martin Luther King, Jr. nominated the Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh for the Nobel Peace Prize. Among his reasons, King wrote, “Because no honor is more respected than the Nobel Peace Prize, conferring the Prize on Nhat Hanh would… remind all nations that men of good will stand ready to lead warring elements out of an abyss of hatred and destruction [and] would re-awaken men to the teaching of beauty and love found in peace.” The committee did not make an award that year.


The transformative power of love is the most deeply held belief by Buddhist practitioners. According to Nhat Hanh, “love, mettā, is a mind that is intent on bringing peace, joy, and happiness to others.” Love (mettā) and compassion (karunā) are the keystones upon which Buddhist philosophy is built.

Nhat Hanh describes mettā as “the intention and capacity to offer joy and happiness” and karunā as “the intention and capacity to relieve and transform suffering and lighten sorrows.” In other words, mettā includes the ability to teach because it requires knowing what someone needs to be happy and what must be done to bring that person happiness. Furthermore, mettā requires a deep level of understanding, not just in the worldly sense but also in the more specific sense on the level of individual interaction. To summarize, one must understand the other person in order to teach the Dharma. To bring joy and happiness, to alleviate a person’s suffering, one must understand that person’s specific needs. With understanding comes love, but what good is that love without the ability to communicate, to bring joy and alleviate suffering? In order to bring help and, must develop karunā. Karunā comes from mettā and therefore includes understanding, but without mindfulness, one can become frustrated and weary from trying to bring compassion. The Buddha is said to have had infinite compassion. Therefore, the suffering of the world did not affect him but this level of compassion had to be trained through mindfulness in the form of meditation, deep listening and deep looking.

Love is the foundation of knowledge in Buddhism and is why Nhat Hanh says, “When we understand someone deeply, even someone who has done us harm, we cannot resist loving him or her.” Mettā and karunā are as inseparable as the individual aspects of the Eightfold Path in the Buddhist philosophy.noble-eightfold-path This is part of what the Buddha learned upon attaining enlightenment and is what he passed on after he decided to teach.

The Buddhist philosophy is grounded on the transformation of suffering into love and compassion because of the teaching of interdependent co-arising (pratītyasamutpāda). As the Dalai Lama explains it, “The word pratitya has three different meanings–meeting, relying, and depending–but all three, in terms of their basic import, mean dependence. Samutpada means arising. Hence, the meaning of pratityasamutpada is that which arises in dependence upon conditions, in reliance upon conditions, through the force of conditions. On a subtle level, it is explained as the main reason why phenomena are empty of inherent existence.” Followers of the Tibetan tradition consider the Dalai Lama to be the incarnation of the Bodhisattva of Compassion. While any introduction to Buddhism course will explain that the escape from the cycle of rebirth is one of the principle goals in Buddhism, a bodhisattva foregoes escape from rebirth and instead vows to return time and time again in order to transform the suffering of others into love and compassion. This is because of the teaching of interdependent co-arising which also explains that the suffering of others is your suffering as well. We are all connected.

Dalai-Lama-there-for-his-people2One need not be a Buddhist or religious to believe these teachings of love and compassion. As the Dalai Lama writes, “although I have found my own Buddhist religion helpful in generating love and compassion, I am convinced that these qualities can be developed by anyone, with or without religion. I further believe that all religions pursue the same goals: those of cultivating goodness and bringing happiness to all human beings. Though the means might appear different, the ends are the same.” The Dalai Lama has been a global figure in the cause for peace, social justice, environmental protection stating, “we must consider future generations: a clean environment is a human right like any other.” After the 2011 Tsunami hit Japan, Zen monk Koyu Abe aided cleanup by helping dispose of irradiated dirt and distributing sunflower seeds in an effort to lift the spirits of residents. “We plant sunflowers, field mustard, amaranthus and cockscomb, which are all believed to absorb radiation,” said the monk. The Japanese response to the tsunami was the largest contribution to disaster relief by religious organizations in more than three generations.[i]

It’s therefore no surprise that Martin Luther King, Jr. nominated Thich Nhat Hanh for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1967. Nhat Hanh and King both speak the message of love for oneself and love for one’s enemies while simultaneously fighting for social justice. King fought and died for the Civil Rights Movement while Nhat Hanh aided his fellow monks in their non-violent peace efforts. Nhat Hanh has also been the leader of the Engaged Buddhism movement, a term he coined, promoting the individual’s active role in creating change.


King concluded his sermon by stating, “I’m foolish enough to believe that through the power of this love somewhere, men of the most recalcitrant bent will be transformed.” The transformative power of love is not Christian or Buddhist but rather an orientation towards the world that sees hate as a dead-end. Nhat Hanh writes, “The source of love is deep in us and we can help others realize a lot of happiness. One word, one action, one thought can reduce another person’s suffering and bring that person joy.”

Angela Davis came to Southern Illinois University yesterday, February 13, 2014. When she was introduced, the speaker thought if one word could encapsulate Davis’ courage it would be ‘love.’ “It was love that ignited the Civil Rights Movement… love for all people and humanity.”

Angela-DavisDavis decided that her talk would build upon the theme “Civil Rights in America” with a discussion on slavery and the prison industrial complex. Challenging the traditionally accepted 1865 date for the emancipation of slavery, Davis argued that, in a county where we have 100 more years with slavery than without, we are still struggling with the inheritance of slavery. The 13th Amendment, which Davis read in full, she argued, allowed for a new punishment apparatus in the form of the prison industrial complex.

Mass incarceration is the new Jim Crow and the prison industrial complex is the new fight in civil rights; a term Davis criticized as though the Civil Rights Movement had purged racism from our culture. Davis lamented that the media, following the death of Nelson Mandela, characterized him as a man who could forgive and forget. But it is not about forgiving and forgetting. It was about transformation. Mandela demanded that those who ruled under apartheid not remain the same and in doing so South Africa had made greater strides towards purging racism, exploitation, and violence than has ever happened in the United States after the Truth and Reconciliation Act.

Love and Transformation. As Angela Davis began her closing remarks, so as not to limit her focus to the dehumanizing structure of the prison industrial complex that transformed the idea of rehabilitation through penitence (hence, penitentiaries), to a system of mass incarceration and free labor, she added to her civil rights list the rights of immigrants, the disabled, those suffering war, homophobia, and the environment. A list of oppression that must be transformed through love.

Love is transformative.

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