Liberation: It’s All or Nothing

None of us is free until all of us are free. In America, says rev. angel Kyodo williams, that means outer and inner liberation from white supremacy.

Rev. angel Kyodo williams
20 November 2019
Photo by Macky Alston.

No one who has ever touched liberation could possibly want anything other than liberation for all. But obscuring the path of liberation for us all is race. When I say race, I mean ethnicity and heritage and skin color and all of those things that we have conflated into the concept of race for hundreds of years. In this country, white supremacy and hindrance from liberation are one and the same thing.

We have to begin by recognizing that the construct of white supremacy is an illness. I don’t wish it on anyone—not on myself, and not on you. We have all been told a lie, and our work—particularly for those of us who identify with the path of liberation—is to free ourselves of that lie, to get in there and observe the ways in which it limits us all from realizing our full potential. Every single one of us must be, because of our commitment to liberation, committed to being the cure.

The Buddha left us a 2,500-year-old religion that brings people in regardless of color, caste, and gender. That was his real teaching, not just the words someone captured hundreds of years later. He left us a religion based on giving people back the opportunity to be liberated no matter who they are. He stripped away the things that are most telling of where people come from—what class, what rank, what race—and said that every single person has the right to be free. The path of the Buddha was explicitly rooted in de-casting and de-classing—it was so much of what he did that he didn’t even have to say anything about it. It was all that he did.

Buddhism focuses on liberating the mind. But we can’t know our own personal minds without understanding the conditioning and the fabrication of our mind. Our social conditions are what make our mind. You don’t get your own mind—you only have a collective mind. You have only ever had a collective mind.

Many people in positions of dominance don’t know their own story, the history of causes and conditions that make them who they are. They don’t know their story in the way that when you’re marginalized, you are forced to know your story, to understand that you have a story, that you’re affected by a larger story, and that you’re working with all of it.

If you think you don’t have a story because you’re privileged, that just means you’re completely in the dark. It is only when you find your story—when you realize the way you think and how you are has been utterly conditioned—that you will understand that even if on the surface you’ve gotten to make all kinds of choices, in truth you’ve had no choice at all. You’ve had no choice other than to abide in this situation and be complicit in it for fear that to disrupt it would destroy who you are.

You have a right to reclaim yourself, and it is possible. But you have to do the work of finding out how who you truly are has been obscured. You have to actively engage with questions like, How did I come to be? How do I think of myself? How did I get what I have? Where did I come from? Whose land are we on? That is what the Buddha was about. He said, look at this delusion, look at how it lives in you, look at how it drives you and motivates you.

If you want to change what’s happening in this country, then rout out the thing that is stuck in you, the thing that is hindering your liberation. In this place and this time, if you can make your way through white supremacy, if you can see past social conditioning to a liberation beyond who you think you are or where you think you belong, you’ll find nirvana.

That’s how deep it goes—our very liberation is being held hostage by white supremacy and patriarchy. We’ve internalized oppression. We’ve internalized the idea that we should be divided, that we should be separated, that we are different, that we are better, that someone’s less than, that I am less than. I’ve internalized it too, and every day, with every waking breath, I push against it.

It’s an inside-out job. We need the container that our spiritual life provides and to find the resonant truth in ourselves that helps us see more clearly what is happening outside. We need to understand the parts of ourselves that we don’t want to know and the parts that society tells us we should be ashamed of. We need to understand our history and our context and then live through that, live into that truth.

We don’t have to know the answers. We just have to choose to live into the truth. But the truth, both universal and ever-unfolding from moment to moment, is not easy for most of us to apprehend. We would like it to be clear, to be fixed. We want to have a neat, packaged answer. We want somebody to come and give us the answer, to tell us what to do, so we can abdicate our responsibility, give up our agency, and hope for the best.

But you don’t get to walk a path of liberation and not be accountable. First and foremost, liberation is about choosing to be 100 percent accountable for who and how you are. To be 100 percent committed to the liberation of all.

If that sounds like a really big job that you are going to be working at for the rest of your life, it is. There are other things you could be doing with your time. If you choose them, that’s fine. You just don’t get to say you’re walking the path of liberation.

Rev. angel Kyodo williams

Rev. angel Kyodo williams

Rev. angel Kyodo williams, Sensei, peers at society, change, love, and justice through the lens of dharma. She sees liberation there. She is the author of Being Black: Zen and the Art of Living With Fearlessness and Grace, and co-author, with Lama Rod Owens and Jasmine Syedullah Ph.D., of Radical Dharma: Talking Race, Love, and Liberation.