Radical Dharma: Talking Race, Love, and Liberation is a conversation about, a call to, and a roadmap toward liberation. This is personal and societal liberation — from trauma, from the desire to control each other, from toxic societal standards. Liberation toward authenticity and love. Personal and societal liberation must go together. “If the fruit of practice is not a desire to respond to the world, if it just reminds in response to your own needs,” williams writes, “then you haven’t yet woken up.”
The book makes the case that Eastern dharma teachings have the power to disrupt Western “systems that bestow unearned privilege, position, and profit.” In other words, the same methods and ideas that move an individual toward personal liberation can help us move our societies forward.
For instance, Radical Dharma introduces “The Mind of Whiteness” — a construct of whiteness that reinforces itself. This is just like ego, our own self-concept that we reinforce. Comparing whiteness to ego moves dharma teaching from the personal to the political. This concept of whiteness can extend to heteronormativity and toxic masculinity:
Even when the words point to particular groups of people or communities—whether Black, brown, white, Buddhist, queer, margin, or mainstream—Radical Dharma is not about subject and object, practitioner and observer. It’s about liberation. It speaks through these individual identities into the whole . . . The book situates every person who claims the lineage of liberation of radical social transformation, both as bodies moving against the stream and as bodies that bear the wisdom, witness, and wounds of intersecting and overlapping structures of violence, policing, and erasure.
The meat of this “radical social transformation” is through acknowledging trauma, finding ways to heal from it — both on an individual level and within communities.
I asked Lama Rod Owens, one of the authors of Radical Dharma, some questions about the book.
JB: “When I say queer, I am . . . remembering when I surrendered to my own love of radical thought and action, knowing that queerness, radicalism, and Dharma were all acts of remembering myself as the beloved wanting to be free in the world and that it would be by my own will and hands that the world would become home. It is remembering me, saying my own name, wanting me at the end of the day. This is what I mean by queer.”
The queer community is putting up walls built on concepts of what queerness is. These are walls to keep its members safe. Queer people need safe places, but how do we create safe places that allow people and concepts to evolve?
RO: Often, queer spaces can be heavily policed. Sometimes there is a kind of fundamentalism in queer spaces where folks solidify this idea of what queerness is and demand that others adhere to that. That is not safe space for many of us. There is not necessarily one set definition of queerness. I think that the idea is about interrogating itself and speaking to the realities of how hegemony (which I also call permanence) is easily rooted and has to be constantly uprooted. I think a concrete definition of queerness goes against the nature of queerness itself. I understand queerness in so many different ways but all these understandings are about how I am practicing being free in the world. Safe spaces do not mean comfortable spaces. There is no growth in comfort. Change and growth happens with risk taking. Any queer space that I belong to and dwell in is a space where I am allowed to be myself and to be held accountable by the community. This accountability is an act of love and this accountability should be about making sure others are practicing being free. I don’t care what your understanding of queer is as long as the bottom line is the pursuit of freedom to be oneself and the space that allows others to do the same as along as these expressions do not reproduce violence for oneself our others. When we embrace this ethic of nonviolent personal authentic expression while being mindful of the ways we attempt to fit this expression of queerness into a box, then I think that creates the space for people to evolve.
JB: “Healing can be started now. I get pushback from people who say, ‘No! We need to end oppression. Or we need to end all these systems.’ I think that’s how we get lost and distracted from the work of healing . . . How can we bring that ethic of healing back into our communities, into our sanghas, into our households, into our relationships, into our organizations?” Do you have an answer to your own question?
RO: I think we need to stop identifying so heavily with our suffering and think more about our lives and communities beyond the distraction of suffering. Marginalized communities have built so much of our identities on suffering and struggle and it is very unsettling to think about something different. It is similar to white folks and whiteness. As soon as white identity sustained by the disprivileging of other groups is called into question, this is an intense panic. Very similar to marginalized groups when our identity formation is built on struggling against oppression. There would not be the rich culture of the Black community and American art if not for African enslaved people transforming the brutality of their experience into artistic expressions of music, dance, literature, visual arts, and food. I feel we get a little panicky when we think out who we are beyond just responding and making do with oppression. Healing is a complete transformation of our realities and I think that it is the missing key to our liberatory struggle.
JB: “In truth, we have to integrate our wounds into our understanding of who we are and what we are really capable of so that we can be whole human beings. Only from there can we begin the process of healing the brokenness, the broken-heartedness within ourselves that is then the foundation for beginning to heal that in our larger society.” Do we need enlightened people to have an enlightened society? Everyone? Most people?
RO: I have been having problems with this idea of enlightened as a term that has been co-opted by white western middle class practice communities to mean something that is inherently about having to be a certain way to be enlightened. All this is complex. I’m not sure what an enlightened society is. I am fairly certain that there are many enlightened folks among us. I may be wrong, but enlightened societies can’t seem to exist in reality or samsara. It doesn’t seem like samsara can support mass expressions of wisdom. I don’t expect most people to want to heal. Ignorance is a strong deterrent. It seems like we just need people doing the work of healing to inspire others. I would be satisfied with a society where most people are attempting to be better people.
JB: “When we attempt to love out of our woundedness, then our loving is only violence.” This hit home. How do we love when we’re not completely healed?
RO: One of the ways is actually being aware of our woundedness as we attempt to love. Being aware helps us to be honest and vulnerable and thus less likely to manipulate our relationships to get what we want or need. If I am aware my woundedness then I know what my boundaries are and the ways in which I can and cannot love in the moment. I love within my capabilities which is an act of loving itself as well as an act of wisdom. When I love outside of my boundaries then I am loving in a way that is informed by my woundedness and thus it becomes violence.
Conditional loving is a loving that is informed by our woundedness because the act of loving is done as a reaction to our hurt and thus is imbued with a kind of crazing to lessen suffering. The object of our loving because an object where expectations are placed on as being responsible for making the lover happy and to suffer less.
JB: Do you have advice for people of color looking for a sangha?
RO: Go where you are loved and being loved means seen, heard, and welcomed into space. Stay in spaces where white folks are actively doing the work of interrogating white supremacy. If you cant find a Sangha, reach out to other folks, have a sitting at someone’s house, listen to audio teachings from teachers that teach true liberatory dharma. Study texts together. Having to endure the psychic violence in Sanghas is not self-care. Frankly, its better to struggle alone in practice than to be part of a Sangha where you are perpetually hurt each time you walk into the door.