Collective liberation awaits

  • by Brian Bromberger
  • Wednesday January 3, 2018
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Awakening Together: The Spiritual Practice of Inclusivity and Community by Larry Yang; Wisdom Publications, $17.95

The wisdom of "Awakening Together" is contained in its title, namely that any liberation we experience cannot be fully expressed alone. Our collective liberation is intertwined with our personal liberation, a message we desperately need to hear in a nation led by a president with narcissistic delusions. Although this is a book on Buddhism, the teachings transcend that spiritual tradition, even though Yang sees mindfulness and meditation as practices that connect our spiritual path "with the path of all beings." Whatever awakening happens occurs within the multiple experiences of our communities, however we each choose to define them. Yet community involves issues of who is or is not included, power dynamics, and "how any community defines its collective identity through the individual identities that form it." Yang is convinced that not only does Buddhism assist us in sorting through these complex issues, "but such complexities are embedded in the Dharma [the teaching] itself."

Yang is one of the treasures of the SF Bay Area. He has practiced meditation for almost 30 years, having been ordained as a Buddhist monk in Thailand. He is on the Teacher's Council of Spirit Rock Meditation Center (Woodacre) and one of the core teachers of both the East Bay Meditation Center (Oakland) and Insight Community of the Desert (Palm Springs). He was one of the Community Grand Marshals of the 2016 SF LGBT Pride Parade. As a gay Asian man, he has been an activist for diversity within Buddhism. In fact, his book is half memoir, half call-to-arms. He argues that Western Buddhism has been the province of mostly middle- to upper-middle-class, white, heterosexual and privileged people, but the Dharma must expand for the multiplicity of human diversity to be meaningful for the global cultural dynamics we are all facing.

Everything, especially the particulars of our identity, is integral to any spiritual practice. "Freedom is not just about transcending identity, but embracing it until what is beyond the experience of identity reveals itself, not always a linear process." We don't need to be slaves of our unconsciousness, individually or collectively. "We do not have to follow the ways of the world simply because we have been taught them or because everyone else does. We do not have to be someone we are not, just because the world says that is who we should be." Every LGBT person can relate to this last quote, whether or not one is on a spiritual path.

Yang is at his best relating the difficulty of growing up as Chinese, a person of color, and gay. He describes the pain of being called a "chink" on the playground, noting that he couldn't hide being Chinese, but could deny he was gay. He grew up both closeted and isolated, with no role models. This is why the latter half of the book concerns consciously creating an inclusive community. This is why it's essential that people of color, differently-abled individuals, and LGBTQIA people be trained as spiritual leaders. Yang even provides an appendix of helpful steps to make this a reality, in spite of some resistance from mainstream Buddhist leaders. "I believe that if Dharma practice is meant to be comprehensive - that is, to leave nothing in life outside of its scope - then culture is not to be transcended or left behind. In fact, culture is something to be integrated into the very fabric of our spiritual practice, including the diverse facets of our behavior and identities." Some of these common-sense suggestions include asking POC what they need, refashioning mission statements, events reserved for POC and LGBTQIA as creating safe spaces for the marginalized, and eliminating financial barriers. In short, Yang is calling for systematic change to overthrow communal oppression, dismantling an often-unintended racist and homophobic culture, even at the cost of making white mainstream leaders uncomfortable.

Yang believes the most precious thing we can offer each other in community is compassionate attention, defined as "loving one another without questioning or second-guessing any aspect of that love, anyone's life experience, or anyone's identity." He applies this teaching to himself, describing in poignant, must-read detail the last hours of his father's life (with whom he wasn't that close) at a bedside vigil, coaching him in his final breaths, a key component for Buddhist meditation. He also matter-of-factly makes specific references to his husband Stephen at key moments, including letting him decide to which monastery Yang would commit, as he would be impacted as much as Yang would. The chapters on belonging, transformation of the heart, and moving toward freedom are particularly outstanding.

"Awakening Together" is the best book ever written on Buddhist inclusivity, both racially and sexually, though there is little mention of gender bias, a persistent problem as well. Still, Yang has shown the essentiality of overcoming our biases, using Buddha's teachings. Creating justice is an act of love, a sentiment worth underlining during this holiday season. Yang concludes his book with a prayer of sorts: "We endeavor to dissolve and transform all oppressions, for the justice of all communities, for the freedom of all beings. We can only create justice through just means - that is also the Truth, ancient and inexhaustible, this is the truth of awakening together."