“I’m dedicated to promoting what the Buddha was dedicated to promoting, which is liberation,” says Rev. angel Kyodo williams.
Williams talks to Lion’s Roar’s Melvin McLeod about the meaning and impact of “radical dharma.” Read our profile of williams from the January 2018 issue of Lion’s Roar.
Melvin McLeod: Hi, this is Melvin McLeod, the editor-in-chief of Lion’s Roar magazine. We’re joined by my friend, Reverend angel Kyodo williams, a Zen teacher and activist who is profiled in the December/January issue of Lion’s Roar. Reverend angel, thanks for joining us.
Rev. angel Kyodo williams: Thank you for having me.
Melvin McLeod: You’re the co-author of a book called Radical Dharma. What do you understand “radical dharma” to be?
Rev. angel Kyodo williams: The root of radical is “radix” and that means a whole or complete, and dharma of course has many different inflections, I would say, rather than interpretations, and one of those is amongst others is truth. Of course we often as Buddhists think of dharma as the teachings of the Buddha and that’s when its “capital ‘D’ Dharma,” but it also has meanings such as one’s calling, one’s path, and also universal truth, which is why it was ascribed to the Buddha’s teachings. And so I think of radical dharma as the whole truth and what it means to enliven and inform one’s practice with the whole truth — both one’s practice formally in Buddhism, but also one’s practice of justice in the world.
Melvin McLeod: So you’ve said, which we publish, that you’re not actually dedicated to promoting Buddhism per se, but that when you go out into the world, and I think particularly out into the black community, the larger black community, which may or may not be familiar with an unusual Asian religion called Buddhism, that you’re actually interested much more in promoting certain values rather than Buddhism per se. So what is it that you go out, even though you may be identified as a Buddhist teacher, what is it that you’re dedicated to presenting if not Buddhism itself?
Rev. angel Kyodo williams: I think that I’m dedicating what the, I’m dedicated to promoting what the Buddha was dedicated to promoting, which is liberation. And that really, I’m talking about really core understanding of human dynamics — the dynamics of our mind, the dynamics of our behavior, the dynamics of how we relate to one another — and somewhere along the line that then got popularized by this fellow known as the Buddha and when it met with the West and we started to call it Buddhism. So I’m not doing anything particularly different in that sense of going into an experience of understanding and developing more skill, more awareness of understanding how it is we unfold as human beings on this planet, and how it is that we relate, and ultimately how it is that we find ourselves caught up in a kind of cycle of suffering. And often I say that the Buddha said he taught one thing and one thing only, which is suffering, and I think the way that I reframe it and think about it in modern times as “I teach one thing and one thing only which is liberation,” the end to suffering.
Melvin McLeod: So I have a challenge for you. I believe you said that you had come to a way that effectively you could encapsulate some of the key insights of Buddhism to be able to present them to a broader audience that may have no background, or even interest in the religion of Buddhism. So can you give us the 30-second elevator speech about what you would say to them about what those key insights are that you think will help them in their lives and help their community?
Rev. angel Kyodo williams: Yeah I think the key insight is we come to realize that we are, we suffer, that we experience our lives as running into difficulty, challenge, a sense of dis-ease, both on a small individual level, the day-to-day things that we run into — the way that life doesn’t work out the way we hope to, or the way that we plan, even when we try to plan — and also the very big and significant ways, you know, we say, you know, “old age, sickness, and death,” but also divorce, and moving, and political upheaval, and you know, really being at odds in terms of how to figure out how we manage the onslaught of incoming things.
So we as human beings find ourselves in the position, over and over again, of suffering and experiencing a kind of discontent with our lives and that there is in fact a path, a way, in which to begin to examine how it is that we make contributions to that suffering and how we can mitigate that and also how we can simultaneously find ease with the things that we’re not able to actually control and that itself brings about a sense of ease for us. And I just ask people “So is anyone interested in that?” All the hands go up, and it doesn’t matter what religion people are — we want to be, ultimately, we want to be liberated. We want to be in relationship. We want to love and be loved.