Your Liberation Is on the Line

No one who has ever touched liberation could possibly want anything other than liberation for everyone, says Rev. angel Kyodo williams. She shares why we must each fully commit to our own path liberation, for the benefit of all.

By Rev. angel Kyodo williams

Photograph from the series “The Bound” by Elizabeth Heyert.

I think we are finally at a place where we can accept the truth that no one escapes from oppression, not one of us. Everyone is deeply wounded.

It’s true, some people seem to be in a position of what we call privilege, but we have to rethink that word. We get stuck on this notion of white privilege, or dominant privilege, as if the marginalized people want what the people with privilege have. But I want no part of it. I want no part of any illness that renders people unable to see the beauty of all of our differences, the beauty of my own mixed raced-ness, blackness, queerness, all of the things I am. I want no part of an illness that renders me unable to connect to love. That is not a privilege. So 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 say we identify with this path of liberation—is to free ourselves of that lie, to get in there and observe that construct and the ways in which it limits us from our full potential.

Yes, liberation is possible even for you.

This disease keeps us from fully knowing each other, from seeing each other. Every single one of us must be, by way of our commitment to liberation, committed to being the cure. The so-called marginalized people are going to figure it out for themselves. The fact that they have joy in their hearts at all is phenomenal, given the weight that they bear in their trans bodies, their queer bodies, their disabled bodies, their neurodiverse bodies, their female bodies, their Black bodies. We should celebrate them all, because anyone who has insisted on liberation so that they may know joy and love represents for the rest of us the possibility, the promise that the dharma puts before us and says, yes, liberation is possible even for you. Liberation is possible even for you.

A problem of the dharma today is that it has become so limited. It has become constricted inside of a kind of fear. We want to maintain control of it, so we resist it evolving as it always has. We try to fashion the dharma within the limitations of a marketplace mindset—what will sound better to make this sell better? We’ve made it as limited as we can possibly make it, and as a result we no longer subscribe to the promise of liberation. We think, oh, we’ll just do this nice thing where we’ll meditate and we’ll be nicer people, we’ll be more compassionate and wiser, and as we do, we never say the word “love.” What’s wrong with us? What’s wrong with a culture that doesn’t have love as its central value? In this smallness, we miss the opportunity before us to liberate ourselves from the obscurations that keep us from knowing who we are, from knowing each other, from knowing that our birthright is exactly love.

Obscuring the path of liberation for us all, simply put, is race. And when I say race, I mean race and ethnicity and heritage and skin color and all of those things that we have conflated into it for hundreds of years. More than five centuries ago, Pope Nicholas V, in his Doctrine of Discovery, told European Christians to go forth and conquer even those “in the remotest parts unknown to us all.” He gave permission to “invade, search out, capture, vanquish, and subdue” all nonbelievers, take their possessions, and “reduce their persons to perpetual slavery.” Hence we have this myth of someone “discovering” a place that’s already there, where people already are. (A fellow once said to me, “If you want to see how much of a myth it is, just leave your purses and your wallets here, and let me discover them.” See how that feels.)

Too many of us have been resting in ignorance for far too long.

The Doctrine of Discovery completely upended what our spiritual path is supposed to be about and tainted it, poisoned it with white supremacy. And then that poison was brought to this land and we were partitioned, separated from one another and from our birthright. It’s important to learn those stories. If you don’t seek them out, you fall into the true meaning of the poison of ignorance: wrong knowing. It’s not, I just didn’t know, I had no idea. The poison of ignorance is willful wrong knowing. Consider the construct of the three poisons. There’s a reason it includes anger, which has a momentum, a direction, a willfulness to it. There’s also greed, which has its own negative momentum and willfulness. So why would ignorance be neutral? Too many of us escape through the doorway of ignorance: Oh, I didn’t know any better. Too many of us have been resting in ignorance for far too long.

This is where your liberation is on the line. Many people in positions of dominance don’t know their own story. 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. When you presume that this is just the way it is, or that you got here on your own strengths, then you don’t recognize that you even have a story. That process has to unfold—people need to hear testimony that reveals how patriarchy has limited them in their white male bodies, how it has limited their ability to feel and express love. Something got stolen from them. Something got stolen from all of us. So you have to have compassion for the voice of the heart that has been lost or obscured, whether in others or in yourself. People need spaces of their own in which they can find those stories, reclaim them. No one escaped—no one. So 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 get to do all kinds of things, in truth, you have absolutely no choices at all. You have no choice at all other than to abide in this location and uphold it and be complicit in it for fear that to disrupt it will destroy who you are. You have a right to reclaim yourself, but you have to do the work of finding out how it is that who you truly are has been obscured.

Learn the stories. Learn your own. We can’t know our own personal minds without understanding the conditioning and the fabrication of that 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. It’s ridiculous to say, “That’s not the path of the Buddha. Buddha never talked about social justice.” The path of the Buddha was explicitly rooted in de-casting and de-classing—it was so much what he did that he didn’t even have to say anything about it. It was all that he did.

The Buddha left us a 2,500-year-old institution that brings people in regardless of color, caste, and now even gender. That was his teaching—not solely the words someone captured hundreds of years later. He left us an institution based on giving people back the opportunity to be liberated no matter who they were. He stripped away the things that were most telling of where they came from—what class, what rank—and he said, every single person has the right to be free. Only those who sit in a position of perceived supremacy would imagine that they somehow understand better what this brown man, whose teachings they have appropriated, was up to. It is the people who are most marginalized, the people who have most been bound by societies, who most deeply understand what it is to be free. But we turn that upside down—we get some idea in our heads that the people who have the most access, who build the institutions, who create the buildings, who have the money, might somehow know better.

So when dharma teachers try to tell me that this work is not the dharma, I say they’re confusing the true dharma with the dharma they’ve made small. Even the notion that the dharma is somehow limited to the historical Buddha’s teachings says a lot about the work they’ve been doing and their understanding of what this is. The dharma—understanding, peering into the nature of reality—is not specific to Buddhism. The dharma is truth. And the only choice we really have is whether to try to be in relationship with the truth or to live in ignorance. There are no other choices. You have to actively engage. How did I come to be? How do I think of myself? How did I get what I have? (I don’t mean your degrees.) Where did I come from? What land are we on? If it sounds like a lot of work, it is. All of us, in some way, have profited from our wrong knowing.

You don’t get to not engage. You don’t get to decide on your own that this is just how it is, because you cannot possibly understand the nature of your mind without understanding the nature of the collective mind. And in this country, the nature of the collective mind is oppression. It is white supremacy. It is patriarchy. That is what we were born into. If we do not understand the nature of it, how it unfolds, then we can’t see how it lives in us. We can’t understand how we push the gears of it every single day.

Are you one day going to extract yourself from it completely? I have no idea. That’s not an interesting question. Just get started. People sometimes get the idea that maybe they’re going to solve it. Maybe, maybe not. But you don’t get to use not solving it as an excuse: “I’m not going to earn a single dime because I may not earn a million dollars”; “I’m not sure I’m able to solve world hunger, so I’m not going to do anything.” That is the most childish kind of excuse-making. If that’s your thinking, then you’re done. You’ve already used up all of the air you’re entitled to.

Outcomes are not our business. We don’t get to decide the outcomes. The quest for certainty, for purity, is all bound up in white supremacy. This quest for having the answer, knowing exactly how it’s going to unfold, being able to control, to dominate—it’s dominator culture. Free yourself. Get yourself out of that. Because if you’re not working to get out, it’s got you. That’s the only way it works. No one, not one single one of us escapes from perpetuating domination. We are born into it; it is the language that we all share. You may not speak English, but if you were raised in this country, you speak domination. You may not know your history, but you are complicit in white supremacy if you are not actively working against it. I don’t care what color you are. No one escapes.

Those who don’t see it, who don’t want to see it, are trying to fabricate liberation. They’re trying to give themselves a way to own it. But no one who has ever touched liberation could possibly want anything other than liberation for everyone. So if you ever run into a dharma teacher who isn’t saying, “This path is for all,” if they would withhold liberation from anyone—then I tell you, they are a shyster. It means they don’t know what liberation is. They have not yet touched it. I wish it for them, but they have not yet touched it. Our role is to hold them accountable in our fierce determination to have that liberation for ourselves. The only way we can do that is to insist, insist—and I don’t want to draw that back—not that teachings be made available but that people not get in the way of teachings, that people not obstruct them, that people not steal them.

When we insist on that as the truth for our communities, for our government, for our institutions, what we’re asking is to be free. If you’ve not yet felt that down to the core of your being, if you’ve not yet touched it, you have work to do. If any part of you feels the impulse, even a little, to hold back anything that opens the doorway, the pathway, the possibility of liberation, from someone else, it is not a reflection on anyone but you. If you feel that impulse, it means you have work to do. So when you walk out into the world, or you’re in your dharma centers and you feel that contraction—when you see a big dark brother rolling in and you think maybe you have to worry, or maybe you have to be extra nice to him, or you have to coddle him or make sure he knows he’s okay—if you feel that impulse, that sense of tension in which you locate yourself apart from him, you know that you are living with the legacy.

One day I woke up and much to my chagrin, I loved the very same people who would rather see my body lying in the street.

Pope Nicholas has our freedom still in the palms of his hands. You don’t have to be Christian to fall to white supremacy—you don’t even have to be white. In this country, white supremacy and hindrance from liberation are one and the same thing. In this place and in 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. I say that for myself. I say that for Brown bodies. I say that for Asian bodies, for Indigenous bodies. Look how deep it goes—our liberation, our Buddhist path, is being held hostage by a proclamation from hundreds of years ago. If you’re committed, if you are on fire, if you want to change what’s happening in this country, then rout out the thing that is stuck in you. If you want children to be free women, to not be raped, to be liberated, rout out the thing that is hindering your liberation.

If what I’m saying irritates you, you’re in a really good place. If it doesn’t, and if the lens of your practice is not turned toward liberation, then you’re asleep. We’ve internalized oppression. We’ve internalized patriarchy. 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.

I didn’t study race theory, by the way. I didn’t come to the dharma and bring my little trip. Everything I see, everything I say about liberation comes from this very dharma, the same dharma that you hold dear, these fundamental truths that give us the path to see ourselves. The only way I can sit here and not be absolutely furious, livid with every man, every white body, every straight body, is because of my path. Even when I want to be mad or hating on folks because they represent dominant paradigms, I cannot, because liberation wants nothing else but liberation for all. That’s the only reason I can speak from this place—because one day I woke up and much to my chagrin, I loved the very same people who would rather see my body lying in the street. I loved the very same people who would ignore me in my dharma center. I loved the very same people who would make me invisible. I didn’t say I liked them! But I do love them. This is not the path of “Everything is going to be neat.” This is not the path of “All the answers will make you feel good.” This is a path of complexity. And that love is not an easy burden.

I’m not here to say that you should now go and study race, or study patriarchy, or study oppression to the detriment of your practice. We need the container that our spiritual life provides. We have to find that resonant truth in ourselves that helps us to see more clearly what is happening outside. Those of us who are monastic and solely want to turn inward cannot be free. Those of us who are just activists or just wrestling with how to deal with oppression? We can’t be free either.

It’s an inside-out job—we need both paths. We need self and we desperately need other. We need to understand the parts of ourselves that we don’t want to know. We need to understand the parts that society tells us we should have shame about. 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. And the truth, both universal and ever-unfolding from moment to moment, is not easy for most of us to apprehend. We want 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. And 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. That’s fine—you just don’t get to say you’re walking a path of liberation.

I have no dominion over what anyone does, and maybe my insight is really, really tiny. But I know these things to be true: first, liberation never wants anything other than liberation for all, and second, there is no liberation without collective liberation. There is no other way. I wish there were, because I would like to be 100 percent completely free, and I have to wait for you. We have to wait for each other.

How do we begin? It’s a path of confusion—in order to undo the confusion you don’t know you have, you first have to be completely confused. Everything you think you know about how things are has to be set aside. To do that, you must acknowledge, with absolute certainty, that you have been completely caught up. You don’t say, Oh, I’ll notice when I’m being an oppressor. Or I’ll notice when I’m being a misogynist. (And this is not specific to men, by the way—you do not have to be in a male body to be a misogynist. That is how deep it is.) I’ll notice when I’m being racist. Of course you won’t. You have to just assume—you have to assume that you are careening through space, a ball of willful ignorance, of wrong knowing. That is the beginning of the path—the moment that you are entirely clear that you know absolutely nothing.

That is what the Buddha was about. He said, look at this delusion, look at how it lives in you, how it drives you and motivates you. And yes, grieve. Grieve that you didn’t know any better. You should. It should tear you apart. If you have not laid down on the floor in tears, you have not started your work in the dharma. You should be completely undone. You should come completely apart at least once, asking, Who is this person? You may be doing some really awesome meditation. You might be reading commentaries, reaching different jhanas—I don’t know. But you are not doing the work of liberation if you have not come completely undone. That’s where it begins. I have no idea where it ends.

If you don’t get on your path, I don’t get to finish mine.

I’m not talking only about the Buddhist path; I’m talking about the path of liberation. You can come to that as an activist. You can come to it as a yogi, or as an agnostic, or as a humanist. If you’re on the path to liberation, you have to be motivated by this fierce sense of undoing, this willingness to come completely apart, to know that everything you think you know about yourself, you inherited from someplace else. You need to take account. Be willing to face and acknowledge that much of what has come to you has been unearned and has come at great cost to others. Start balancing the books. And then: relax. Relax. Enjoy your life. Let it unfold. This is the tension of the path: the fierce, fierce undoing and the perfected ability to just be with what is.

It comes down to this: if you don’t get on your path, I don’t get to finish mine. We’re bound. So it is my deepest hope that whatever part of you is holding some idea from wherever you sit, whatever location, if you are caught up, fixated on being a victim, or on the idea that you should just be guilt-ridden and there’s nothing you could possibly do to redeem yourself, wherever you are caught up, wherever you are stuck, wherever you are bound—this is not cause for concern. This is not cause for you to give up. This is exactly where your path begins. There’s no reason to go out and fix yourself up and have it all together. You start exactly where you are, the truth of your existence right here and now. Know that no one has your answers. Just commit—that’s your job. If you have fierce commitment to your own liberation, then you are worthy to walk on this path toward liberation for all.


Adapted from a talk given at Shambhala NYC in May 2018

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.