Last fall, I attended a two-day workshop in Durham, North Carolina, with Rev. angel Kyodo williams that explored the dharma’s intersection with race, sexuality, and American history. The crowd, drawn from four Buddhist sanghas in central North Carolina, was largely but not all white, and we were asked to consider our positions of unequal privilege and consequent complicity in the racism that undergirds American society. Beaded bracelets clacking, eyes crinkled in smile, williams then invited us to meditate on our own reactions in order to awaken to our situations in relation to these larger systems.

williams, a Soto Zen priest, has been holding similar workshops around the country since publishing Radical Dharma: Talking Race, Love, and Liberation in 2016 with coauthors Lama Rod Owens and Jasmine Syedullah. williams’ early experience in Western Buddhist communities left her with the sense that the stratifications of American society were reproduced inside the meditation hall. On the cushion and off, her workshop’s chief concern is racism, which she defines as racial division combined with benefits accrued by one race at the expense of others. In our society, the beneficiaries of racial classification are historically and presently white; to acquiesce to the status quo from this position of privilege, williams suggests, is to act as a racist. But she also believes that the racialization of American society is just the sort of truth that dharma practitioners can and must confront on the path to liberation.

 If tears are to be taken as evidence, it was a powerful weekend for many, enhanced, I imagine, by the difficulty of conversing about race in America. I sat down with williams after the workshop to continue the conversation on democracy, dharma, justice, joy, and liberation.

Why do you characterize the United States as undergoing a spiritual crisis?
I think a spiritual crisis is essentially a crisis of identity. We’re at the heart of a crisis about who America is. Who does it belong to? Who made it? What will the country look like going forward? We’re really grappling with who we are.

A spiritual crisis is how we shed things that we’ve taken on that we never asked for. When we have a spiritual crisis in an appropriate container, we have a sense of trust—a willingness to step into the darkness that is a part of transformation. So we can shed an old identity, much like a caterpillar will shed its skin and step into the darkness of a chrysalis in order to transform. But when we don’t know how all this will turn out, it’s very disruptive to the fundamental nature of how the system has kept itself together—especially in a colonialist country with a patriarchal and capitalist system that is organized around having everything in order and controlled to keep the masses at bay.

What that sounds like is democracy: we shouldn’t know how it’s going to turn out!
That’s in some ways our crisis: that we’re beginning to engender some kind of actual democracy. That’s really disruptive to the myth—or the lie—of democracy that we’ve held onto for so long. “All men are created equal” was never true, was never intended to be “all men” in the sense of all human beings. People are demanding what’s always been promised, but that promise was never was meant to be fulfilled.

It must be hard to stand in front of a room of white people and tell them that they’re racist. Do you find that the dharma’s emphasis on basic goodness, as opposed to a Western emphasis on original sin, helps that message be more palatable?
That I believe in basic goodness helps indirectly, in that it guides the expression of my my co-existing beliefs that all white folks are racist and that we all have basic goodness, even though I don’t tag on explicitly “and we have basic goodness.” I marvel at it all the time, like, “I just stood in a room with a thousand white people and they heard me say they’re all racist, and nobody passed out!”

It’s something of the times. I think there’s a readiness [to speak frankly about race] that is really beyond me. I set out knowing this was a conversation we needed to have. I knew it needed to happen within dharma communities because it’s such a juxtaposition, and such a crime, to have a teaching so profoundly positioned to set people onto the path of liberation beset by the illnesses of racism and white supremacy.

Is the dharma’s focus on liberation what positions Buddhist communities to take this project on?
I’m using people’s attachment to their identity as Buddhists, yogis, and meditators to say, “If you want to be that, then you’re about liberation.”

Dharma positions itself well to be a container, but it needs to be directed, because it’s been here [in America for more than 150 years] without positioning itself toward liberation from racism, whiteness, and white supremacy as constructs. It’s insufficient to just have dharma. There’s a preciousness: people are like, “Oh the Buddha didn’t talk about that, that’s not Buddhist”—picking and choosing what is convenient or to avoid discomfort.  

Have you experienced resistance from white workshop attendees?
White folks, colored folks, all kinds of resistance. And it’s totally expected and understood. I’m surprised there hasn’t been more!

What are people rejecting? They’re rejecting the pain! They’re rejecting the exposure. When you’ve been acculturated into needing a sense of control, coming undone is not cool. But if you say to people, “You’re going to come undone, and here’s a way to start working with that,” then you’ve got something. Then the basic goodness that is everyone’s birthright simply emerges and does its own work.

What does liberation look like for you?
To be engaged in the face of choice, and to take responsibility for my choices. That’s liberation.

What about living with joy amid all the suffering in the world?
Joy in the midst of suffering is, for me, one of those gnarly Zen things. We do the work to create the opportunity for joy—to be silly, to have a good drink, to make love, and figure out the craziness of life. If we don’t live in that joy, then what are we doing this for?

We allow the fact of injustice to mean that it beats us.
We give in and we abdicate our right to joy, our right to live and thrive in the face of it. But if we choose joy over and over again, the suffering is transmuted into something that is generative, that we can use to live in a bigger way.

Nelson Mandela is such a great expression of this. He used a long period of suffering [in prison] to live in such a big and dynamic way. He was always a powerful figure, but in his post-jail time, he transmuted suffering. He found the joy.

One more thing: I think that the thing that a Buddhist philosophical outlook brings into view is systems. A Buddhist philosophical view prepares us to navigate systems if we are willing to take the lens of the dharma and move it outside of privilege, rather than holding it on the inside of privilege looking out. If we’re willing to include our privilege, patriarchy, every aspect of beingness in that lens, then that systemic take unveils the truth.

On privilege, I certainly don’t get the sense that most white people in America feel liberated. Even straight white men.
They weren’t designed to feel liberated. They’re designed to present as if they are. But the rates of suicide and drug use are telling a different story about the anxiety, the pressure, the burden.

Not to mention the reactionary impulse to prevent folks who aren’t a part of that group from asserting their joie de vivre.
That’s right. It’s a real plague to live inside that place of lack. Capitalism intensely contributes to this, patriarchy adds to it, and race just allows one to shift the blame until the point at which it can’t be shifted anymore.

And even power dynamics among groups aside, the way mass communication—social media, TV, magazines, and especially advertising—seems to work is that we’ve all accepted this low level of messaging that you’re not doing OK. Of course no one feels OK!
It’s the most effective form of control. Forget the stuff we have. If we felt OK about who we are, the system would just come apart, because it requires us to not feel OK. But can I draw my sense of OK-ness from the just-as-I-am-ness? That would be terribly disruptive.

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