Social Justice / Buddhism / Queerness

An introduction and reflection on: Radical Dharma


  • Rev. angel Kyodo williams, Lama Rod Ownes with Jasmine Syedullah, PhD


Buddhism in relation to liberation and queerness.

“It is our duty to fight for our freedom.

It is our duty to win.

We must love each other and support each other.

We have nothing to lose but our chains.”

Assata Shakur, Assata: An Autobiography and refrain of the Black Lives Matter movement.

‘Igniting a long-overdue dialogue about how the legacy of racial injustice and white supremacy plays out in society at large and Buddhist communities in particular, this urgent call to action outlines a new dharma that takes into account the ways that racism and privilege prevent our collective awakening. The authors traveled around the country to spark an open conversation that brings together the Black prophetic tradition and the wisdom of the Dharma. Bridging the world of spirit and activism, they urge a compassionate response to the systemic, state-sanctioned violence and oppression that has persisted against black people since the slave era. With national attention focused on the recent killings of unarmed black citizens and the response of the Black-centered liberation groups such as Black Lives Matter, Radical Dharma demonstrates how social transformation and personal, spiritual liberation must be articulated and inextricably linked.

Rev. angel Kyodo williams, Lama Rod Owens, and Jasmine Syedullah represent a new voice in American Buddhism. Offering their own histories and experiences as illustrations of the types of challenges facing dharma practitioners and teachers who are different from those of the past five decades, they ask how teachings that transcend color, class, and caste are hindered by discrimination and the dynamics of power, shame, and ignorance. Their illuminating argument goes beyond a demand for the equality and inclusion of diverse populations to advancing a new dharma that deconstructs rather than amplifies systems of suffering and prepares us to weigh the shortcomings not only of our own minds but also of our communities. They forge a path toward reconciliation and self-liberation that rests on radical honesty, a common ground where we can drop our need for perfection and propriety and speak as souls. In a society where profit rules, people’s value is determined by the color of their skin, and many voices—including queer voices—are silenced, Radical Dharma recasts the concepts of engaged spirituality, social transformation, inclusiveness, and healing.’

“I’m thinking about my own liberation. I mean, I’m not liberated. Liberation is a process, and I think one of the first important things I had to do is stop believing in my inferiority.”

― Rev. Angel Kyodo Williams, Radical Dharma: Talking Race, Love, and Liberation

Radical dharma explores the intersections of race, racism, gender identity, and sexual preference those that relate to Buddhism and to those that necessarily don’t. There are both articles and moderated discussion groups with the three authors, all of whom are black, queer and/or transgender intellectuals.

I particularly enjoyed the chapters where the authors provided their own testimonies of transforming their own racial/sexual/gender wounds.

“The tiptoeing around race and other forms of difference as if in fear of waking a sleeping lion is one of the most subtly toxic attributes of whiteness in our culture right now.” -Jasmine Syedullah

I think that Rev. angel Kyodo Williams sensei identifies the problem and highlights the conflicting viewpoints that run throughout the book when she states: “Race is the ultimate delusion in that it both does and does not exist in reality.”With respect to sanghas the conversants note that problems arise when the sangha is not willing to turn into itself and explore what it means to be in a racialized society.

Another one of the author’s, Lama Rod, describes radical Dharma, within this context as having the bravery to have dharma talks and meditation practices that will focus on topics that make participants feel uncomfortable and learn how to deal with their suffering.

One of the criticism’s of Lama Rod’s, with which I agree, is that many sangha’s have become severely compromised by capitalism and need to provide a consumer-oriented Buddhism. The result is too heavy a focus on selling classes and not offending sangha members which dilutes the authenticity of Buddhist practice. On the other hand, you need money to run a sangha, so where is the balance? Reminding me of the Christian megachurches that require and/or ask for donations but are also a business in itself.

The authors turn to greater complexity at times when they talk about racism and economics as co-repressive self-feeding factors. However, the essays and discussions veer between the “race as a monolith” and “race as factorial” viewpoints.

“Love is the wish for myself and others to be happy. Love transcends our need to control the recipient of love. I love not because I need something in return. I love not because I want to be loved back, but because I see and understand love as being an expression of the spaciousness I experience when I am challenging my egoic fixation by thinking about the welfare of others. I go where I am loved. I go where I am allowed to express love. In loving, I have no expectations.”

-Lama Rod Owens