Renouncing the “Colonial Self:” An Interview with Dharma Teacher Larry Yang
Today, Turning Wheel interviews Larry Yang on the relationship between the dharma and American indigenous cultures, safety in our sanghas, and some of the challenges in making Buddhist communities more diverse.
Larry Yang has been practicing meditation for more than 20 years and has worked extensively to bring meditation and Buddhist practice to multicultural communities in the West including communities of color; lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender communities; and communities in recovery.
He helped to create the East Bay Meditation Center, which has been called “the most diverse sangha in the world” by senior teacher Jack Kornfield, and whose mission is to serve the diverse communities of downtown Oakland, California. He is part of the coordinating teaching team training future community dharma teachers in Spirit Rock‘s Community Dharma Leadership Program. In 2011, he founded a new insight meditation community in Palm Springs called Insight Community of the Desert, serving the Coachella Valley of southern California.
In addition, Yang is trained as a psychotherapist and a consultant in cultural competency and awareness—giving workshops and presentations on diversity and multicultural issues and skill-building.
Turning Wheel Media: Thank you so much for joining us, Larry. You have written extensively on the role of culture in the sangha, seeing how history, race, gender, sexuality, and other dimensions of culture are part of the very fabric of spiritual community. You’ve also explored cultural differences between “Euro-American mainstream-culture” sanghas and influences, and Chinese, Japanese, Tibetan, Thai, Burmese, Cambodian, Vietnamese, and other Asian sanghas and influences.
We would love to hear your thoughts on how you see the culture of sanghas, whether predominantly Asian-American, Euro-American, or otherwise, relating to Native American histories, cultures, and ongoing political struggles and reverberations around settler colonialism, here on the land where we now try to practice the teachings of Buddha. As the dharma travels from certain parts of Asia to the United States, through its many vectors, what relationship do you see it having, if any, to various peoples and cultures indigenous to this land? And what relationships would you LIKE to see?
Larry Yang: My own interpretation of the Dharma is that it is very earth-based, and land and life-affirming, in that the Dharma is always reminding us to return to our rightful place in the scheme of an interconnected Universe. That rightful place is a kind of Right Location or Positioning (using the Buddhist lexicology), which inherently means we are NOT at the center of the Universe. It is about renouncing what might be called the “colonial self” (both on an individual and collective level), the self that thinks it is the center of Life, that feels it is an independent entity, that does not sense an interdependence with or responsibility to others. Once we are able to attune into where all cultures at some point have been indigenous, if we are able to return to those values and norms, we can see what needs to be re-aligned to eliminate the dynamics of oppression and unconscious privilege that arises with the colonial mentality.
Turning Wheel Media: You’ve talked about the “need for safety and feeling at ease in order to deeply explore our places of healing,” in relation to cultivating cultural competency in sanghas. The theme of Decolonizing Our Sanghas has raised questions of “safety for whom” and the relationship between comfort and safety. As a teacher, how do you balance the need to create a container of safety along with the responsibility to perhaps challenge students (and fellow teachers, and even yourself) politically, or gently disrupt a false sense of safety or complacency?
Larry Yang: Whether we like it or not, whether we think it is “right” or not, there is no such thing as an experience that is 100% safe. Life is not safe. In order to live on this life-plane there are risks to be taken and dangers to be faced. This is a component of deepening our personal and collective mindfulness practice as to what challenges and risks in that moment can be taken, and which are premature to endeavor. Creating the artificial conditions of as much safety as possible at any cost, can involve the use of privilege, power, complacency, and attachment — this is the cause of a lot of suffering. Creating change at any cost, without any concern to safety or refuge, can create trauma — this is also not beneficial, because it is a different form of suffering. There is a middle way that balances what is safe-enough with always stretching beyond that which is comfortable. I can feel extremely uncomfortable, even in pain, but also feel safe-enough to keep engaging in a process. These experiences are not mutually exclusive, as people might think or conceive. We have to be willing to experiment and immerse ourselves in the complexity of things. And the added complexity is that everyone has a different set of conditions that they are living with–different background, different history of injury and healing, different development. It takes all the mindfulness that we can muster to discern how to skillfully navigate each person’s balance and each community’s balance of need for healing and need for growth and transformation.
Turning Wheel Media: You have been part of the leadership of two sanghas engaged in making their spaces welcoming to diverse communities: East Bay Meditation Center was founded as an intentionally diverse space, and Spirit Rock Meditation Center maintains a diversity program that includes retreats specific to people of color and LGBTQ communities. What challenges must we face in the next 10 or 20 years for our sanghas to deepen our capacity to be a refuge for people who have been pushed to the margins because of race, class, disability, gender, sexuality, age, ethnicity, and other markers of difference?
Larry Yang: Each community is different, like each individual is unique — and yet some of the challenges are similar and bridge across the differences in their storylines.
For Spirit Rock, the challenges continue to be retrofitting diversity and multiculturalism into the infrastructure of a community already formed around norms, values, and behaviors which were mainly designed to meet the needs of the dominant culture. It is not impossible, but it will take more time than anyone would like, it will take more resources more than people are estimating for, and more patience from every single person who feels a connection to the sangha. While there have been some inroads made for practitioners of diverse lives to engage with Spirit Rock, the work has to both expand and deepen into the very heart of community’s expression of the teachings. It is my own opinion that Spirit Rock is being called to transform the ways that it holds leadership, both spiritually and organizationally. Developing future diverse and multicultural leadership (hopefully in the near future and not the distant future), is one of the highest priorities that I feel is needed. The numbers of formally trained teachers of color in the Western Vipassana tradition (7) continues to be negligible in comparison to the total numbers of Western Vipassana teachers (estimated at 160).
For EBMC, I see the challenges to be around the building of truly diverse communities. There is a way that attachment can arise even in our success. We have been able to create a spiritual container which supports many diverse communities whom have been marginalized by the mainstream. What happens is that this does not go unnoticed. Other different communities who have also been repressed and oppressed see EBMC’s ability to hold the space for marginalized communities. Understandably, they seek EBMC out and ask: Will EBMC be able to serve their needs as well? Diversity expands and attracts even more. Will a single organization or community like EBMC be able to fulfill all the needs of a growing number of diverse groups, each with their story of struggle and oppression from the mainstream? What if the needs of one community contradicts, even harms the needs of another community? Not only is the diversity expanding but the complexity of EBMC’s communities is expanding as well. Like the challenges at Spirit Rock, it will likely take more time than anyone would like, it will take more resources more than people are estimating for, and more patience from every single person who feels a connection to the sangha.