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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.

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Comments (5)

  • Bryan Wagner

    Interesting Mr. Yang. You have your “own” interpretation of the Dharma which it would seem to have needed an universe centered foundation, the “I” has taken something as inclusive as the Dharma ( whatever that means ) decided what Dharma means to it and yet in the next thought structure this very teaching appears to let us know that we are NOT the center of the universe and need to have a shared sense of connection if we can only find out where our indigenous connections meet.
    I would appreciate some clarification.
    In Loving Kindness.

  • Harry Hill

    When I read this interview, I couldn’t imagine a more apolitical, uncontroversial, vanilla creme response to the issues of colonialism, race, and gender — that’s to be expected of a public figure, whether elected or religious. But somebody got offended anyway! I guess Yang is doctrinally challenging after all.

  • Katie Loncke

    Thank you for sharing these thoughts, Larry. I’m particularly excited by your dhammic take on renouncing the colonial self. It reminds me of when Andrea Smith talks about the work of Denise DaSilva, in questioning a “western” idea of humanity that is premised on self-determination in opposition to an “other.”

    Smith writes:

    “The western subject knows that it is self-determining because it compares itself to ‘others” who are not. In other words, I know who I am because I am not you. These “others” of course are racialized. The western subject is a universal subject who determines itself without being determined by others; the racialized subject is particular, but is supposed to aspire to be universal and self-determining.

    “Silva’s analysis thus critiques the presumption that the problem facing racialized and colonized peoples is that they have been “dehumanized.” Anti-racist intellectual and political projects are often premised on the notion that if people knew us better, we too would be granted humanity. But, according to Silva, the fundamental issue that does not get addressed, is that “the human” is already a racial project. It is a project that aspires to universality, a project that can only exist over and against the particularity of “the other.”

    “Consequently, two problems result. First, those who are put in the position of racialized and colonized others presume that liberation will ensue if they can become self-determining subjects – in other words, if they can become fully “human.” However, the humanity to which we aspire still depends on the continued oppression of other racialized/colonized others. Thus, a liberation struggle that does not question the terms by which humanity is understood becomes a liberation struggle that depends on the oppression of others.

    “Silva’s analysis implies that “liberation” would require different selves that understand themselves in radical relationality with all other peoples and things. The goal then becomes not the mastery of anti-racist/anti-colonialist lingo but a different self-understanding that sees one’s being as fundamentally constituted through other beings.”

    Ubuntu — “I am because we are” — and Thich Nhat Hanh’s articulations of interbeing… all pointing toward a way of being that is not predicated on domination. And then, how do we enact this: both in pushing to dismantle structures of domination and oppression, and in reconfiguring the relations within our own organizations, our political groups, our sanghas, our families… not easy! But thank you for this reminder that Buddhism can help us de-center the “self,” while still raising up the value and significance of oppressed, marginalized, invisibilized communities.

  • Jeff

    I’m not sure I understand what Larry Yang means when he says that renouncing the “colonial self” involves attuning “into where all cultures at some point have been indigenous [so that] we can see what needs to be re-aligned to eliminate the dynamics of oppression and unconscious privilege that arises with the colonial mentality.” Sounds a little vague, but perhaps not deserving of Harry Hill’s harsh characterization (give peace a chance, bro). Yang’s work leading EBMC does seem very nurturing of diversity.

    On the other hand, a little further along in the article Katie cited, Andrea Smith makes the insightful suggestion that understanding colonial privilege is best done outside “self-reflexive” unburdening at group sessions or websites. “For this process to work, individual transformation must occur concurrently with social and political transformation. That is, the undoing of privilege occurs not by individuals confessing their privileges or trying to think themselves into a new subject position, but through the creation of collective structures that dismantle the systems that enable these privileges.”

    She goes on to describe how this happened in a political action group she helped found, Incite! Women of Color Against Violence. “While we did not ignore our individual complicity in oppression, we developed action plans for how we would collectively try to transform our politics and praxis…. This kind of space facilitated our ability to integrate personal and social transformation because no one had to anxiously worry about whether they were going to be targeted as a bad person with undue privilege who would need to publicly confess. The space became one that was based on principles of loving rather than punitive accountability.”

    Quite sensibly, she acknowledges that there is no proven anti-oppression model for every situation and proposes that we will learn what works by active engagement. In practical terms, she highlights the process of “taking power by making power,” along the lines of Latin American movements which are developing proliferating zones of autonomous governance and cooperative interdependence, which she sees as replacing multinational corporations while the state “skirmishes” ineffectually. Of course, whether creating alternative participatory economies or directly challenging the class hijacking of our work (or both) is more likely to succeed, well, that’s a question that, as Smith says, will only be answered by getting busy with it.

    How about BPF interviews Andrea Smith for the next episode?

  • Mushim

    Thanks for hosting this discussion, BPF. I enjoyed the interview with Larry, and want to mention that one of my most enjoyable and illuminating experiences at East Bay Meditation Center was a one-day retreat I took there, titled “Indigenous Presence: Decolonizing Our Minds.” The was taught by Prof. Bonnie Duran, vipassana teacher, and Jeff Houser, who is Chairman of the Fort Sill Chiricahua Warm Springs Apache Tribe, and who is also a vipassana meditation practitioner. A number of indigenous elders from various tribes around the Bay Area came to bless the retreat, and it was, in my book, a beautiful and warm container in which to meditate, to learn, and to build community.
    I highly recommend this brief 13 min. video, “Return to Wellness,” which presents indigenous presence, earth-based spirituality, and the movement toward healthier native communities. In it you’ll see Bonnie Duran and her colleagues. Seen through the lens of Dharma … or not, since it doesn’t need that lens… this film brings forward a perspective and history that is much needed in mainstream dialogue.

© 2017 Buddhist Peace Fellowship

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