Finding the Comfort in Discomfort

Angel Kyodo Williams's Profile Photo

There were several times while working on Radical Dharma: Talking Race, Love, and Liberation that I had to get up from my chair and walk away from the book. The content was intense and provocative: a fierce call to question and change the systems of oppression permeating our society at large and our spiritual communities in particular. Written by three queer African American Buddhists, the book challenges the notion that we can continue to do “business as usual” and survive, whether the “we” is a country, a planet, an organization, a neighborhood, a sangha, or an individual.

But on a deeper level, the book pushed me because of the very force it became as a tangible being. The book’s content invited me to, as Rumi famously put it, “not go back to sleep,” but the collaboration with Reverend angel Kyodo williams, Lama Rod Owens, and Jasmine Syedullah forced me to stay awake, to question the very norms I perpetuate, consciously or not, in my own life. In other words, working on the book itself became a crucible mirroring the radical inquiry detailed in its pages.

When Reverend angel and I first talked about the project, I proposed a timeline in keeping with publishing-industry standards: a year, maybe a little more. “Um, no, we need to get it out in seven or eight months,” Reverend angel replied firmly. “The world is asking for it now. But what about all the marketing meetings, and the sales-rep discussions, and all the time and labor and road-building it takes within the institutions to get a book out in the world? I thought. There is no way!

But there was. Through sheer hard work, unconventional meet-ups, gritty faith, grassroots word-of-mouth, and late-night phone calls, the book came together in record time and emerged into the world just as the realities of racial profiling, homophobia, deep sorrow, and spiritual emptiness roiled through the country in the aftermath of the Orlando massacre. We could not abide business as usual. As Reverend angel says, “This is the ‘back of the bus’ moment of our time.”

Nor could I abide by my usual approach to editorial collaboration. I dipped my red pen into the manuscript with vigor, using the tools I’d learned to, in my mind, clear the trail for the reader. The authors appreciated many of the edits, but they also raised questions in places where my own learned behaviors as a cis, straight, white male caused my pen to overstep its bounds in the name of “clarity” and rob some sentences of their hard-earned identities as bold, black, queer roars.

This was uncomfortable, but it was what I needed to do. For the book’s sake, yes, but also for my sake, for, as the book shows so clearly, it is only when we engage compassionately in a bold interrogation of our usual practices that we are able to grow and evolve. The “safe space” that so many people of privilege want to maintain is so not safe for the majority of the world’s people. To not get uncomfortable would be to play my part in maintaining a hegemony that I purportedly work against.

Fortunately, for inspiration and hope I only had to look to Reverend angel, Lama Rod, and Jasmine. As they chronicle so beautifully, their own paths toward freedom involved countless moments of deep discomfort, and yet there they stand, leading conversations about race, love, and liberation to packed rooms of multi-hued seekers, united in their willingness to get messy, to get radical, and to get liberated.

Radical Dharma is fiercely demanding, but it is also fiercely compassionate. Yes, the book exposes the ways people are othered and humiliated, and how all of us, unwittingly or wittingly, play a part in that. But the book also extends open arms to our ghosts and invites us to find new ways of intersecting and being. It’s a book for the soul. As Reverend angel puts it, “Every time I tried to stay within the lines, they ran over me, so I chose the borderlands and left divisions behind.” Radical Dharma offers a borderland that must become our new commons.

Touching Radical Dharma is a life-changing experience, not because of what it says, but because of what it invites, galvanizes, and metabolizes in those who are willing to sit with its complex truths. I’m forever grateful for its fire.

The Kids Are All Right

Photo by Anna Blackshaw

The boys from next door always show up at the back door unannounced. Jack and Liam wander over like pieces of driftwood through the patch of bamboo separating their house and ours.

“Is Rio home?” they ask.

If he is and he hears their voices he comes running, abandoning whatever he was doing. In seconds they are outside, riding down the hill all three of them piled onto a tricycle or making a fort over by the weeping cherry tree or, if it’s hot, stripping down and jumping into the tiny inflated pool I have almost hyperventilated blowing up. Once I overheard Jack exclaim, “Let’s destroy something!” And they all whooped and hollered.

The point is, they play — mostly without rules, uniforms, toys, or structure. I watch them from inside and wonder where and how I lost this facility. I’ve sought that sense of play in everything from drugs to the Internet to sex to work. Cheap-ass substitutes.

And then they ask me to play. Their request is the nudge I need to leave the cell I sometimes sit in and surrender to their worlds, my own suddenly larger. I’ll never forget the feeling last winter when Rio and I jumped on a sled and raced with some other kids down the icy hill our street had become. As the cold air whipped across my face, a sudden, loud, and primordial yawp arose from deep inside me that indicated a true return to that particular childhood freedom. The moment was so large, adult anxieties had to no room to snicker and niggle. Children can sense this; I remember once a few years ago some kids I was playing with asked me, “So, where are your parents?”

Outside our house in Bynum, we built a big tire swing under the oak tree; at its apex a rider can rise to thirty feet above the ground. Sometimes, after pushing the kids till they finally say enough, I’ll ask a strong friend to push me way up there. I close my eyes, and there’s something about riding the slow but steady arc that flicks the worries out. It’s as if play rearranges my existential furniture.

I’ve fantasized about putting a sign out front that reads “Adults are free to take a ride.” But then I start to worry about insurance.