"How was your weekend with Pema Chodron?" many people asked me coming home from Awaken Chicago last weekend. It is true, I was very excited to be in the same room (mind you, large chapel) as Pema Chodron for the first, and likely only, time in my life. I have long loved her books, her talks, her retreats. Like many people (women, especially) she has saved my life and heart many times. And because she is the name most people know, I told people about seeing her ahead of time.
But the fact is I also knew that Angel Kyodo Williams would be there, and I was excited to see her. I had no idea how much she was going to be involved - it turned out, a lot, giving the very first keynote talk - and how powerful she was going to be. She was uber in her element - completely riveting and engaging, encouraging us to disrupt via our meditation practice and life, as much as finding peace and spreading equality in more calm and traditionally meditative manners.
In Pema's main talk, on Sunday afternoon, at the near end of the program, she invited people to ask questions all throughout, not just at the end. She was speaking to anger, which came up a lot in a weekend oriented around trying to make social equity a part of our meditation communities as well as making activists out of meditators. Most of the people who asked questions and were white asked questions about their own personal anger, or how to deal with other individuals' anger and self-hatred. Most of the people who were people of color asked about how to deal with underlying trauma, rage and self-hatred after centuries of oppression. Pema kept coming back to her key point - working with anger at our own personal level is the main thing we can do. Even if we are being oppressed, we can't necessarily stop that by confronting one individual person.
Pema didn't offer answers for how to work with oppression in fact; that's not her milieu, actually. This is what I realized in a deep, felt sense way in Chicago. In fact, this has been true about Buddhism in America for decades - oriented around personal relationships and less around societal level relationships. At this point, us white Buddhists need the mercy of people of color and queer folks to come in and remind us that we need to make this happen on a much larger level. It feels awful to ask for it, horrible to need it, but the fact is so far Buddhism, even feminist, inclusive but primarily white Buddhism so far doesn't have the same impetus to rebuild - or as Angel Williams said it, disrupt - the status quo.
White Buddhists are too busy being ok with where we are so far, and we aren't really realizing the interdependence here. It is 100% the case that our liberation is all tied up together - all of us. And it is easy to know this intellectually, but not realize in a vulnerable, heartfelt way. That takes work. That takes facing our own racism, and being willing to take chances and be wrong. Really wrong. Often. Frequently. And then try again. Again and again. And that means a lot of discomfort.
Discomfort is something Buddhists intellectually say we need to go towards, but often don't. We stay in what Chogyam Trungpa called a "meditation sauna"- our happy little place in meditation where we can hide from the complications of the world and our mind. We cannot do this anymore.
Angel Kyodo Williams, when she stood up and asked Pema Chodron her own question, regarding anger and societal inequity, made it clear in her own respectful and dedicated way that Pema has a limit to how much she can help where things need to go from here. I had the distinct sensation, so hard to explain how or why, that Pema was passing the feminist Buddhist baton to Angel Kyodo Williams (not that she doesn't hold her own, just that we need a new leader - for more than the limited audience who's been watching Williams so far).
Pema, with incredible respect and love for all she's done, is on her way out. And we need leaders in our Buddhist communities like Angel Kyodo Williams to move all of us - people of color and white, queer and straight, forward from here, to a deeper vision of interdependent liberation.