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Zen priest taps into Buddhist ideas on positionality, justice

Zen priest taps into Buddhist ideas on positionality, justice

On Tuesday, close to 100 students, professors and members of the Kenyon community gathered in Brandi Recital Hall to hear Soto Zen Priest Reverend angel Kyodo williams Sensei deliver her keynote address on the convergence of Buddhism, race and the pursuit of justice.

One of only four black women to have been recognized as an ordained teacher by the Japanese Zen Lineage, Rev. williams was sponsored on campus by the Kenyon Interfaith Partnership as well as the Black Student Union, the Office of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion and the Rogan Fund.

Following an earlier discussion of her co-authored book Radical Dharma: Talking Race, Love and Liberation, Rev. williams began her address with a brief history lesson on the institutionalization of slavery in the United States.

She referenced the actions of Anthony Johnson, an African man brought to the U.S. as a slave, who bought into the abusive system of slavery to build his own wealth and enslave others. Rev. williams discussed the fluid and personally specific definitions of success, which are dictated through engagement with what she calls “the system.”

To assess how “the system” is present in our own lives, Rev. williams encouraged audience members to look within and reflect on how they weaponize their own power at the expense of others.

“By… not interrogating a system and what it is that you have learned — [what] you have inherited from the system — you end up with no other choice than to enact the practices and the protocols of this system,” she said.

Virginia Kane ’22, who attended the event, said that Rev. williams’s introspective approach to addressing problems was a message of the lecture that particularly resonated with her. “We tend to think of [religion] as this clean or sanitary or closed-off thing,” Kane said, “and the way that [Rev. williams] was using it to address white supremacy or unjust systems and structures … was groundbreaking and definitely transformative to hear.”

The diversity of racial, ethnic and cultural groups within the United States contributes to Rev. williams’ image of  “a new species of humans,” an idea which prompted laughter from the audience. Driven by a common pursuit for truth and justice “we are becoming more true to ourselves by coming into contact and relationship with people that are precisely different from us,” she said.   

She discussed how core precepts of Buddhist philosophy could help individuals open their eyes to the reality of their position within the system. “If we are going to really undermine the systems of oppression, of violence, of aggression, of domination, from whence we came, we have to disarm and then deconstruct our own sense of what it means to be successful,” Rev. williams said.

Assistant Professor of Religious Studies Joy Brennan reflected on the importance of the Reverend’s visit.

“[Rev. williams] brought into the room all of her profound teachings about how to be these imperfect beings together, and work towards that justice together,” she said.

In a previous version of this article, it stated that Rev. williams is one of only two black women to have been recognized as an ordained teacher by the Japanese Zen Lineage. This is factually incorrect, as Rev. Williams is actually one of four black women to have been recognized as an ordained teacher by the Japanese Zen Lineage. The Collegian regrets this error.


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