Radical Dharma

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Media Review
Radical Dharma

by Rev. angel Kyodo williams Sensei, Lama Rod Owens and Jasmine Syedullah, Ph.D.
North Atlantic Books
Review by Theresa Braine, MRO

Barbecuing, AirBnB-ing, Waiting, Living…While Black. Police interactions ranging from traumatic to deadly. Not to mention: redlining, gentrification and incarceration-for-profit. The outrages abound. Where does Buddhism land in all this? Enter Radical Dharma: Talking Race, Love, and Liberation, which starts the conversation with a road map for cutting through the collective conditioning of the white supremacist mind-set that we all, knowingly or unknowingly, live with.

These dialogues about race, Dharma and “otherness” were generated during a series of meetings held by Dharma teachers Lama Rod Owens and Rev. angel Kyodo williams, and African-American Studies professor Jasmine Syedullah, in Brooklyn, Boston, Atlanta and Berkeley months before the 2016 Presidential election. The premise is that individual enlightenment is inextricably bound up in collective liberation.

“When access to teachings are hindered by bias and discrimination or the dynamics of power, shame and ignorance, who bears witness to the essential nature of such teachings that transcends color, class and caste of all kinds?” posits Williams.

Some of Radical Dharma’s readers will relate to the sense of despair and alienation that drew these Buddhist leaders to their respective Buddhist paths. For others, the audience comments will resonate. What emerges are different aspects of the suffering created by the “othering” of humans who do not look or act a certain way bounded by narrow norms.

Radical Dharma is interspersed with separate essays by each author that weave context around the dialogue. It is “designed to begin the conversations we need to build new communities,” writes Syedullah, a Vassar College professor as well as a practitioner.

“Many of us are really unstudied, unexamined, unquestioned,” says Owens, a teacher in the Kagyu school of Tibetan Buddhism and an M.Div from Harvard Divinity School. “Because that really takes opening the closet and owning what’s in there and being vulnerable around that. I see that as work everyone has to do, not just white folks.”

I found a depth of offerings in this book, as a white person, ranging from clear depictions of how white-held sangha spaces can skew the understanding of the teachings, to a discussion about white uncertainty over how to change this dynamic. Radical Dharma is essential reading for anyone who wants to explore and understand the dynamics of race, gender, sexual orientation and more within and beyond the meditation hall. It emphasizes the importance of turning inward as the starting point, no matter which aspect of racism (as recipient or perpetrator, however unwitting) one has experienced.

“This is something that is challenging for people to understand—the notion of transforming society from the inside out,” Rev. angel says. “We have to commit to our own liberation regardless of what happens outside. And paradoxically, that gives way to change happening outside.”

To commit to healing “means we have to imagine a different way of being in the world beyond our anger, woundedness or despair,” Owens says. This can be impeded by the fear that “to move beyond these hurts means that we can no longer be attuned to the suffering of communities or people struggling for justice, equality or basic visibility.” Such deeply held fear and distrust of change and can signify a powerful barrier to healing. Owens calls this: “The subtle and nuanced workings of internalized oppression that distract us from imagining liberation that is not about struggling against systems and regimes, but about transcending the trauma of struggling and residing in the nature of who we are as people who can be psychically free though physically bound.”

“Ultimately, we’re not our race and we’re not our gender, and we’re not all of our external conditions and projections,” says Williams. “Race is the ultimate delusion in that it both does and does not exist in reality.”

Most helpful for me as a practitioner was the discussion of the Catch-22 facing white people who do not want to perpetuate these dynamics but are unsure of how to stop them. Williams acknowledges the difficulty of bridging the gap between black experience and white awareness. On the one hand, “we want people to learn and to educate,” she says, but acknowledges a conundrum. “We’re wagging our fingers because [white] people don’t already know, and then we’re annoyed because they ask,” Williams says. “Then we’re upset because people didn’t know, but we didn’t want them to ask, and we’re mad that they didn’t already know. I mean, do you understand it’s a circular conversation here?”

Circular or not, identifying these dynamics is a start, and a necessary one. Radical Dharma provides an entry point into this unknown and uncomfortable terrain. And isn’t navigating this part of why I’m practicing my Bodhisattva vows?


Theresa Braine, MRO is a Student in the Mountains and Rivers Order living in New York City.

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