The most radical Buddhist leader you need to know
By Isaac Luria
I had the pleasure last week to speak with Reverend angel Kyodo williams, an inspiring Buddhist Zen teacher and one of the deepest thinkers on race and contemplative traditions in the world. She literally blew my mind — and what she teaches is so relevant to the moment of our election season and as we reel from the tragedy in Orlando.
Rev. angel’s life’s work is putting into practice her unwavering belief that the key to transforming society is transforming our inner lives.
She’s out with a new book called Radical Dharma that calls on the Buddhist community to more seriously engage racism and calls on the activist community to integrate contemplative practice into our lives so we can be more prophetic and grounded in what we do.
Rev. angel also rides a motorcycle and lives with a gorgeous parrot Mitra (which means “spiritual friend” in Sanskrit). Stick around until the end of the video interview (or the last excerpt transcribed below), and you’ll get to meet the parrot and see how tender Rev. angel is with her Mitra. You might even hear the parrot in the background while we’re talking!
She also has recently accepted an invitation to become an Auburn Senior Fellow, and we are deeply grateful to include her in our Senior Fellow community.
Rev. angel has been called the “most vocal and intriguing African-American Buddhist in America,” and her bio calls her a maverick spiritual teacher (love that) and master trainer. She’s the second black woman to be recognized as a teacher in her lineage of Zen Buddhism.
She calls for a deep paradigm shift that “changes the way change is done, envisioning the building of a presence-centered social justice movement as the foundation for personal freedom, a just society and the healing of divisions of race, class, faith, and politics.” As she notes, “love and justice are not two. Without inner change, there can be no outer change, without collective change no change matters.” As she writes in Radical Dharma:
Until our capital-V vision for liberation gives way to an accessible, translatable, adaptable yet rigorous praxis at meaningful scale — one that can match in energy and rebound through rhythm from the sustained stress the structures of oppression are designed to burden our minds, our bodies, and our hearts with — we cannot uproot those forces.
Reverend angel is quickly becoming a teacher of mine, and I was honored to engage her in conversation about her new book.
On how Rev. angel came to Zen Buddhism:
“I found this book that the Zen people will know what I’m saying called Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind. Reading the book was like someone had reached inside my head and said all of the ways in which your thinking is different than much of the Western Judeo-Christian religious fear is right here in this book.
Once I got to Zen, I was all in. I’m pretty much like that and so I checked it out and I appreciated the Buddhist admonitions that you shouldn’t just take this as and believe it, that you should try it out, you should put it, apply it in your life and experience it and then if it works for you like go for it. I got a Zafu which is the small round cushions that are very much popularized in terms of Zen meditation and meditation in general. That really cemented something for me, and I have to say that when I found myself on the other side of the country waking up so that I could go to participate in meditation. I was waking up at 5:00 AM so I could get there. I was like, okay, something has happened.”
On being a person of color practicing Zen:
“You can’t be a person of color that doesn’t recognize that you’re the only person of color there, and that that’s a repeated experience wherever you went. I was very, very strongly influenced by the Shambhala Buddhist tradition that was founded by Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche. It was very much rooted in this notion of warriorship, which I think, as a person of color coming to terms with oppression in society and the way in which people of color were being treated, and how I could see that and how I was being politicized at the same time, was a very important access point for me. It felt empowering. I very much felt people that were often victimized, experience themselves as victims, could take on victimhood as a form of internalized oppression, so it was working for me on multiple levels, and I think it was the confluence of both the Zen tradition as well as the Shambhala tradition.”
On why she wrote Radical Dharma:
“I wrote Radical Dharma because I needed it. First and foremost, I needed something that would bridge the streams of liberation that were important for me. So the liberation of people of colors, of Black people in particular is important to me.
I found profound peace and the potential for a life from my deepening into personal practice and inner transformation. So I feel so strongly that my people that are working towards their liberation on a social landscape will be so strengthened by having a spiritual tradition. The best example I could think of is Mandela and the way in which the external conditions of his incarceration — and we could say that in many ways, people of color and Black folks in this country are in a form of incarceration by the racialization of society and the oppressions that follow — and yet Mandela did not internalize that incarceration in such a way.
In fact, he altered his inner landscape in such a way that he lived a free life regardless of where his body was. He lived a free life; he lived a liberated life regardless of the conditions. I’m determined to convey and communicate the message that we can have a liberated life regardless of the external oppressions that exist in a paradoxical way that turns things on their head. We bring that liberated life socially into being by choosing a liberated life on a personal level.”
Why she Istanbul personified is her lover, and how she sees power in understanding race more deeply by leaving the U.S.:
“Istanbul personified is my lover. I get there and something changes in my cellular organization at a deep level. I love the people. I love the language that I don’t understand. I love this salty yogurt drink much to my chagrin. I eat too much breaded fries when I’m there but I love every aspect of it. I love the way that it feels on my body, my being, and that’s where I would stay.
Why do I love it? Well, I could talk about the golden horn and about the way that I think that the goddess wakes up in the morning. She looks at the golden horn and she says, ‘Yes, everything is okay,’ and she turns around and she goes back to sleep and she shines the light of her eyes upon that body of water in this amazing city that sits on two continents, but you really can’t say why you are in love with someone.
One thing about going to countries in which the racialization of people is not the primary order of society is that it is so liberating in a way that is truly profound. You don’t really know it and feel it until you’ve been there for a while. So I want to invite anyone that is doing deep thinking and to recognize that like the deep thinkers about race in our country, in our history, has all spent time abroad. Angela Davis, Malcolm X, Marcus Garvey, James Baldwin, the list goes on. Ta-Nehisi Coates too. When I’m there, I’m actually able to take more responsibility for the ways in which I unknowingly have played a part in those forms of oppression. So if anybody wants to ever contribute to angel’s Istanbul fund, you are more than welcome.”
The one thing we should do:
“Invest rigorously today in creating more liberated life for yourself. Discover whatever it is, probe, test, make notes, recognize it when you see it and invest in a more liberated life for yourself right this very moment, in every moment that you become aware that you are becoming smaller, that you are shrinking, that you are not living into who you fully are. Do that for yourself because you doing that for yourself is the best gift that you can offer me.”
Rev. angel’s bird named “Mitra”:
“Okay, Mitra, now that I’m not talking, you don’t want to talk? I’ll let you come and say hello. Come and say hello. His name is Mitra, which means spiritual friend in Sanskrit, and that’s why I often tell people he’s not my pet, he’s my spiritual friend.
He makes me a much better human being. Before Mitra came to live with us here about — well, how long have he been here? About eight and a half years ago, I can actually talk to people that I live with.
I mean, I talk for various specific occasions and needs, but I didn’t banter, but he requires that kind of connection. He is so smart; they actually take up human orientation around like, you know, being neurotic if they get left out of things. So if he’s not talked to, then his development, his psychological and emotional development suffers. So he made me talk to people more because then it — of course it wouldn’t do that I talk to the bird but I wouldn’t talk to everybody else. I had to give up a little bit of my zen cool when he came. Not only do you have to talk to them, he much prefers like high pitch voices and emphasis. It’s like talking to like a child around, right? You then have to coo and all those kinds of things. He’s totally a co-author of Radical Dharma. Yes. He’s a boy. Yes, I love him terribly.”