The black queer Buddhist teacher who is smashing stereotypes and leading an awakening on the left

“It's insufficient to hide in centers and make money off of mindfulness while the world is burning down.”

CREDIT: ADAM PECK AND JACK JENKINS/THINKPROGRESS
CREDIT: ADAM PECK AND JACK JENKINS/THINKPROGRESS

This is the second in a series of profiles examining leaders of what is often called the Religious Left, detailing their origins, beliefs, and tactics. Find the first here.

Rev. angel Kyodo williams doesn’t like stereotypes.

That’s not entirely surprising, since she also seems to enjoy shattering them. She’s a black queer woman in an American Buddhist tradition often steered by white men; a Buddhist operating in activist circles of mostly Christians and Jews; a leader of the Religious Left who doesn’t use the word “God.”

And while williams — whose first and last name aren’t capitalized — is known as a hard-charging activist for racial justice, she also has a knack for mixing difficult conversation with easy laughter.

When the author and Buddhist teacher agreed to be interviewed for this story, for instance, she invited me not to a meditation center or sacred locale, but to her upscale apartment along the river in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. The decor was something akin to minimalist Buddhist chic, but also included trace elements of whimsy, such as the shiny, skull-shaped candle holder that sat atop her coffee table. Reclining on her couch for our interview, williams spoke slowly and deliberately, choosing her words carefully as the sun reflected off the river and onto the nearby wall.

“The first time I got arrested many years ago was here in New York—it was over by the Hudson River,” she told me. “I frankly can’t even remember what it was about.”

Her most recent arrest was a little more memorable: it happened just two weeks prior, when police escorted her out of the U.S. Capitol while cameras rolled.

To some, the stark contrast between williams’ private and public life — much less her Buddhist identity and her activism — may seem like a contradiction. But where others see contradictions, she sees opportunities. In fact, taking advantage of opportunities is precisely what makes her such a powerful change agent — and what may make her a crucial part of the “spiritual left’s” future.

A youth of political and spiritual awakenings

Williams’ current New York abode offers visitors a front-row seat to increasingly gentrified Williamsburg, but her early life was situated in very different parts of the city. She grew up in a family that “didn’t come from money” and often moved to follow jobs, bouncing from Queens’ LeFrak City to Brooklyn’s Flatbush to Manhattan’s Tribeca. Each neighborhood was populated by a different slice of New York’s celebrated diversity, exposing her to a myriad of cultures, classes, and social systems.

“I grew up in difference,” she said.

Difference was not always celebrated by residents, or by local authorities. While living in Flatbush, she bore witness to drug use and “cycles of violence” between different neighborhood groups, often perpetuated by her fellow youth. But what troubled her the most was the resulting police crackdown.

“At the time it drew this governmental response of, ‘how do we deal with these violent black people?’” she said. “But there were things the government just didn’t see and get about them … I was developing an early sense of seeing the way governments respond, particularly to black and brown people, without taking any responsibility for what was happening in their environment.”

Her upbringing fostered a worldview deeply critical of easy narratives about races or cultures, a sentiment that eventually pushed her toward a life of social activism.

“My Buddhism and my activism grew up together. They totally relied on each other.”

“It gave me a lens—in terms of my activism—that there was always a story behind the ways we would stereotype people,” she said. “I knew something more about those people, so I couldn’t buy the stereotypes as easily.”

Even as williams shared the experience of many African Americans in New York, however, she didn’t share a the community’s widespread passion for the Black church.

“I just didn’t get the church thing,” she said. “I grew up mostly agnostic. I was more of a science person.”

Instead, williams discovered a tinge of the spiritual in high school, when she first encountered Zen Buddhist art. She found herself enamored with the minimalist black brush strokes, and clamored to learn all she could about the ideology that birthed it. She scoured for “a book—any book—with the word Zen in it” before eventually stumbling upon Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind by Shunryū Suzuki.

“It was as if someone got me, and got my outsiderness and the way I saw the world,” she said.

Others didn’t understand her fascination (“No one else got it,” she joked), but their befuddlement only confirmed her suspicion that she was on to something special. And by her early 20s, her political sensibility was already melding with her spirituality. A cross-country voter registration drive took her to San Francisco, where she pilgrimaged to Suzuki’s temple in the city. She “hasn’t turned back since.”

“My Buddhism and my activism grew up together,” she said. “They totally relied on each other.”

Challenging her fellow Buddhists on race

Williams found a spiritual home in Buddhism, but that doesn’t mean she felt at home in other ways. She described her initial impression of American-style Buddhism in the 1990s as “very white, mostly middle aged, mostly educated, and mostly upper-middle class.”

Not much has changed. A 2014 Pew Research study reported that the median age of an American Buddhist is 39, nearly half have a college or master’s degree, and the largest single racial group is white (44 percent).

As a black queer woman running an internet cafe in Brooklyn at the time, williams simply couldn’t bring herself to assimilate to that norm.

“It made me a weird—pun intend—black sheep in the Buddhist community. They didn’t quite know what to do with me.”

“I had this strong sense that I couldn’t leave my homeworlds behind,” she said. “At the core I’m part of the communities I grew up in. They were witness to the way in which—myself included—a racist, and patriarchal, and anti-poverty government and system continued to do harm to people as opposed to help them.”

Still, williams wasn’t ready to give up on Buddhism. Instead, she got ordained as a Zen priest, and then dug deeper into her tradition.

“I studied texts so I could understand what’s at the essence of this — and not interpret Buddhism according to what white folks had said, but instead according to what the need is,” she said. “Which has always been the way that Buddhism has worked.”

The result was Being Black: Zen and the Art of Living with Fearlessness and Grace, a book that quickly caught fire among Buddhists and non-Buddhists alike. But williams still found herself being labeled as an outsider: Despite the acclaim, she said, some Buddhist book stores rejected her work as “a black book, not a Buddhist book.” What’s more, she published it despite not being a Buddhist teacher—a cut above ordination in the tradition’s “pecking order”—something she says didn’t sit well with some.

“It made me a weird—pun intend—black sheep in the Buddhist community,” she said. “They didn’t quite know what to do with me.”

Zen and Black Lives Matter

Williams did, in fact, end up becoming a Zen Buddhist teacher, all while remaining active in movements for social justice. She founded the Center for Transformative Change in Berkeley, California, which—along with her “activist sensitive” spiritual community New Dharma—worked to offer spiritual aid to activists and help prevent burnout.

But she also never stopped pushing her fellow Buddhists on race. When the Black Lives Matter movement emerged in the early 2010s, she noted that other members of her tradition were nowhere to be found.

“We were having Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, all of these things happening, and I’m like, ‘Where the hell are the Buddhists?!’” she said. “They don’t have anything to say? This is ridiculous.”

Their absence struck her as a betrayal of Buddhist values.

“This is what we deal with—we deal with suffering,” she said, referencing the Buddhist dedication to alleviating suffering. “But you have nothing to say when the suffering is brown or black—or when the blood rolling down the street is black. What is that?”

“We were having Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, all of these things happening, and I’m like, ‘Where the hell are the Buddhists?! They don’t have anything to say? This is ridiculous.”

Once again, williams picked up her pen to help marry the chants of those marching in the streets with the mantras of those meditating in innumerable “mindfulness centers.” She and two other Buddhist leaders published Radical Dharma in 2016, a book about “racial injustice and white supremacy plays out in society at large and Buddhist communities in particular.”

“For me, that’s the charge with Buddhists. It’s to say: You can’t claim this identity without standing in a place that actually articulates who you say you are,” williams told me. “It’s insufficient to hide in centers and make money off of mindfulness while the world in burning down.”

A translator for the Religious Left?

Williams’ rise to prominence eventually caught the attention of Auburn Seminary, a key organizing force for leaders of the Religious Left. But it was something else—something few could have predicted—that ended up thrusting her onto the national stage.

“[I was] kind of piercing and poking at the veil of white privilege, and then, you know, 45 happened,” she said, relying on a euphemism sometimes used by progressives to describe Donald Trump, the 45th president of the United States.

“For all intents and purposes, I am a secular priest.”

Trump’s election triggered a surge in left-wing religious activism not seen in decades, and williams quickly joined waves of faith leaders marching against the president’s agenda. It wasn’t long before she found herself joining with other black Christian clergy as they descended on Washington, D.C. to protest the proposed repeal of the Affordable Care Act. Photos of the demonstrations showed williams walking up front alongside her religious colleagues, giving American Buddhism one of its most visible activist moments in years.

This progress is not without its challenges, however. Williams recalled a particularly awkward moment during the health care protest as she stood holding hands with other black clergy members shortly before their march on the Capitol.

“They were going around talking about what church they’re from, and I was like, ‘Yeah, I’m the not-Christian of the group,’” she said. “And there was this moment where everyone was like [mimics whoosh of heads turning]. There was all sorts of facial concern—wonder, suspicion. These are hardcore black Christians, and they are raising the roof with God in every other sentence. And they don’t know what to do with me.”

And if williams’ Buddhism isn’t bewildering enough, her friends in the Religious Left sometimes have an even harder time grappling with the type of Buddism she espouses. Williams, like many other Buddhists, describes herself as a “non-theistic Buddhist,” meaning her approach to the tradition doesn’t attach itself to a concept of the divine.

“We’re not in a MLK world. We’re not an overwhelmingly Christian nation anymore. We need the spiritual but not religious. We need the not religious. We need them all to be all in this conversation, and I don’t think the Christians and Jews can do that.”

“For all intents and purposes, I am a secular priest,” she said. “I live more closely to [secular activists] than I do to Christian clergy, to the rabbis, to the pastors…It does not inhibit my capacity to be clear about a moral voice. And simultaneously, I don’t have to deny something greater that binds us. I just don’t have to name it God.”

Williams sees this as a feature, not a bug. She says she usually receives warm receptions among activists, and that her ability to split the difference between the sacred and the secular—along with many other Buddhist leaders—can form a glue to bind the progressive faith world to the rest of the liberal coalition.

For the resurgent Religious Left, that could prove pivotal.

“We’re not in a MLK world,” she said. “We’re not an overwhelmingly Christian nation anymore. We need the spiritual but not religious. We need the not religious. We need them all to be in this conversation, and I don’t think the Christians and Jews can do that.”