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Lions Roar : January 2018
about Roshi Bernie Glassman and his socially active work at the Greyston Mandala in Yonkers. Connecting social action and Zen appealed to her. At the Village Zendo in New York City, led by Roshi Pat Enkyo O’Hara, williams discovered something else. “She was queer and there were gay men there. It was like, ‘ These are my people.’” Even- tually williams was ordained as a Zen priest and as a dharma name she chose “Kyodo,” which means “way of teaching.” From the beginning, her relationship with what she calls the Western convert Buddhist world was uneasy. “We have a chal- lenge because meditation and mindfulness have largely landed in a privileged community of older white folks,” she notes. In reaction, williams wrote her first book, Being Black: Zen and the Art of Living with Fearlessness and Grace, as an invitation to people of color to embrace Zen. Yet the problem, williams says, was that the convert Buddhist world did not really welcome people of color or, for that matter, the book she wrote raising the issue. “When the teaching itself is becoming some sort of incarceration, you have to liberate your- self from the teaching,” she says. “You leave the boat.” So she left the “lineage bound thing” and “started to unfold my own path to follow the truth.” This meant forming the New Dharma Community, which focused, among other things, on the needs of people of color practicing the dharma. With Lama Rod Owens and Jasmine Syedullah, williams co-wrote Radical Dharma: Talking Race, Love, and Liberation as a call to trans- form sanghas and communities so that queer folk, people of color, and members of other marginalized groups could achieve the healing needed to recover from centuries of social injustice. The book is also an exploration of what it is to practice Bud- dhism in a society where African Americans are routinely killed by police and incarcerated in vast numbers. But though williams thought she was done with Zen, Zen was not done with her. A surge in interest in Buddhism by queer and Black folk and other previously excluded groups led williams to reconnect with her original Zen lineage. Williams is quick to note that this doesn’t mean that she thinks all is right in the American Buddhist world, any more than she thinks all is right with America. The road to liber- ation is what mainly preoccupies her. If williams has a central lesson for the world, it’s that suffering is the doorway to liber- ation, and that “by being honestly willing to engage with our suffering, we find our connection to the suffering of the world.” The trouble with the American Buddhist world, in her view, is that its older, white, male, middle-class adherents find it diffi- cult to connect with the suffering that exists beyond their priv- ileged circumstances. “I’m obsessed with the question of how we shift that,” wil- liams has said, adding, “There’s something in the way we are practicing Buddhism that actually seems to make us more insu- lated. Even this practice, which is supposed to be about how we relate to the world and to the people around us, becomes hyper-individualized.” Williams says now is the time to cut through this. “We can’t let such a powerful tool as meditation be limited by people’s personal circumstances,” she states. “We don’t have the numbers to move this country toward greater social justice if the only driving force is whether or not people are feeling the pain personally.” Though Buddhism is williams’ practice, when she speaks to people in the African-American community, she doesn’t use traditional terms like the four noble truths. “With all due respect, I don’t care about Buddhism. I’m not nation-building around Buddhism,” she has said. “I just want it to work. I want people to be liberated.” Instead, williams exhorts the Black community to take the suffering that “has contributed to our great compassion and resili- ence and beauty” and relate to it in a way that “frees them to be truly who they are.” By doing this, she says, Black Americans gain “access to the full embodied joy and happiness that we are entitled to, not because we are Black, but because we are humans.” SINCE SHE FOCUSES HER ATTENTION on whatever moves her, williams’ life is peripatetic. Home is Berkeley, where she lives with her fiancée, Elena Margarita Williams. She also spends a few months of the year in New York and the rest of the time is on the road—teaching, speaking, and spreading wisdom any way she can. Williams acknowledges it’s not a great time to be an American, let alone a Black, queer Buddhist woman. “Is it the land of the free and home of the brave for everyone, or is it the land of the free and home of the brave if immigrants know their place and ‘true’ Amer- Rev. angel Kyodo williams with her fiancée, Elena Margarita Williams. PHOTOBYCHRISTINEALICINO LION’S ROAR | JANUARY 2018 50