“I just want people to be liberated.” John DeMont on the radical Buddhism of Rev. angel Kyodo Williams.
She is a well-known author, activist, and one of American Buddhism’s most dynamic and provocative teachers. But once, Rev. angel Kyodo Williams was a lonely, bruised little girl living in New York City who would hide her face in a comic book as she walked home from school, avoiding eye contact with those who constantly bullied her.
Comic books allowed Williams (who doesn’t capitalize her given or surnames) to escape from reality. Her favorite was the super-powered X-Men, and among this gang of mutants, she felt a particular affinity for the fierce misanthrope Wolverine.
“He was the most suspicious of power in humans and mutants,” says Williams. “He was the most immersed in Eastern philosophy. He didn’t like people.”
That she sees this quality in herself may surprise anyone who encounters the engaging and confident forty-seven-year-old. But so much is unexpected about this maverick Zen teacher, a social visionary who has been described as “the most vocal and intriguing African American Buddhist in America.”
That, for example, she once did the books for Queen Latifah’s record label. That at one-time Williams owned a Brooklyn cybercafé bankrolled by filmmaker Spike Lee and singer Tracy Chapman. That the second Black woman to be ordained as a teacher in the Zen Peacemakers lineage owns a parrot named Mitra (“friend” in Sanskrit), whom she thinks of as a spiritual friend even though his most dharmic statement is “Do you want to go poo-poo?”
There is also the fact that this queer feminist, who writes in her 2016 book Radical Dharma about using love and Buddhist practice as a solution to injustice, also listens to classic hip-hop music, in spite of its often misogynistic lyrics. And that this Zen priest believes she may have an advantage over the real-life Buddha because he had to leave his palace and go out into the world to learn that life is suffering. “He was shocked by it,” says Williams. “But for me, suffering was a given. Suffering was my practice.”