Tikkun Magazine, July/August 2010
Coming Home to Who We Are: Buddhist Spiritual Practice and Transformation
by Larry Yang
The ache for Home lies in all of us, the safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned. – Maya Angelou
As a young Asian American boy living in a mainstream Philadelphia suburb, I experienced many events of discrimination and racism that I did not know how to handle in my little life. I distinctly recall having the thought that if it is this difficult to be a person of color in the world, I am never going to be gay. And the closet door to my identity slammed shut and was padlocked for decades afterwards.
For people who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, or same-gender-loving, the feeling that we belong in this life is not so simple for us. When external conditions of our society create conditions of exclusion or even enmity and violence, life is painful. There can be a deep internalization of the harmful aspects of our larger unconscious culture. External oppression can lead to our own self-hatred, self-judgment, self-harm, self-denial—this is more suffering. This is the truth of the Buddha's First Noble Truth.
In mainstream society, with all of its unconsciousness, even the "most liberating" teachings sometimes cannot be absorbed without the right conditions. Creating the external and internal conditions that allow the teachings to land deeply into our experience is critical for spiritual growth. This is the beauty of the refuge of Sangha (community), which the Buddha said was an indispensable part of our path.
Here's how one participant from an LGBTQ Buddhist retreat described the power of an affirming spiritual community:
I am old enough that when I came of age being queer was still listed as a mental disorder. Boys in my Los Angeles high school used to boast of going to Hollywood and "rolling queers." With a very few precious exceptions, sex was something desperate and dangerous, done with someone you didn't know. Nowhere I looked—nowhere—were there any positive messages or role models. In the retreat last weekend, I experienced a momentary thawing of my frozen heart that I am quite sure would not have happened anywhere else. It was so beautiful to me to be in the company of other gay men, each having humbly come to practice. This huge lump of unprocessed pain began to move.
For many LGBTQ people, it is rare to find a safe community. Finding a community to belong to—finding refuge and safety in a supportive environment—is so critical to the deepening of a spiritual practice. If we are only dealing with survival issues, we are defended and cannot let all of our life into our awareness.
In accessing a true experience of belonging, we can begin to relax and allow life to unfold however it may. We begin to relax into the awareness of how our life is, just as it is, and begin to experience more fully that the life we are living is so much more—so much grander—than how others define us to be. And eventually, through our progressive exploration with loving-kindness, compassion, and attention, we begin to realize that we are also so much more than who we think ourselves to be. Spiritual practice and spiritual faith, regardless of lineage or tradition, fill a deep human need to reach for and experience something greater than one's own limited experience of the world.
Our mindfulness practice invites us into living this fullest potential—to observe, experience, and feel who we really are in this lifetime. Philosophical debates over whether sexual orientation is included in the Pali Canon (Theravadan Buddhist scriptures), or whether being LGBTQ is a skillful or unskillful way of living in the world are all ancillary and ultimately irrelevant distractions from the core experience of "Who are we?" They are similar to the gender oppression and diminishment of women in how the Buddha's teachings have historically been passed down to us by a patriarchal order.
When we live our lives with as much awareness and authenticity as we can, regardless of the external circumstances of our lives, we begin to have the confidence that we totally belong wherever we are. We experience a spiritual home that cannot be taken away from us, and it is a sense of home that we can bring with us wherever we go, no matter what shows up in our lives.
It is from that expansive experience of being an integral and indispensable piece of humanity that each of us can be most effective in our goals to transform the worldly conditions that create suffering, abuse, injustice, violence, and oppression. Our personal and our collective freedom is not dependent upon external conditions of the world. Freedom in our minds and hearts is not dependent upon whether life is fair or not. Freedom is the ability to move through difficulty, pain, and trauma with kindness in our hearts and wisdom in our minds.
As Gandhi, Audre Lorde, and Thich Nhat Hanh have all said, we need to be the change that we see for the world. One of the great living Burmese meditation masters, Sayadaw U Pandita, puts it this way:
Practicing Mindfulness means building peaceful little worlds within each of those who practice. Without peace in our little worlds, crying out for peace in the Big world with clenched fists and raised arms is something to think about.
This invitation into spiritual practice is a profound experience. It is being rooted in the sense of being here, belonging here—with here changing all the time, changing as the present moment changes. It is the invitation to be with and rest in the present moment. It is this sense of belonging that invites us into the experience of being part of the universal family—the family that excludes none, the family of all of life. There is a grand and spacious sense that no one can oppress, that no one can take away—our dharma practice is cultivating this sense of belonging to and transforming the world ... for the collective freedom of us all.
Larry Yang teaches meditation nationally. He has practiced in the United States and Asia and was ordained as a Buddhist monk. He teaches at both Spirit Rock and East Bay Meditation Centers and trains future dharma leaders.
Yang, Larry. 2010. Coming Home to Who We Are: Buddhist Spiritual Practice and Transformation. Tikkun 25(4): 47