Awakening Together : The Spiritual Practice of Inclusivity and Community  

Book Review for the Mindfulness Bell

By Juliet Hwang, True Emerald Ocean

This book is a loving invitation for all people in the Western Dharma community to look deeply into issues of diversity and inclusivity, and envision a beloved sangha where everyone feels safe and included.  As a fierce advocate for equity and social justice within the Insight Meditation Community, Larry Yang has worked tirelessly to create a more inclusive space for people of color, those who identify as LGBTIQ*, and those with special needs.  His work, along with others, has manifested in the establishment of the East Bay Meditation Center (EBMC) in Oakland, CA, the exponential increase of people of color who practice, and the increase of people of color dharma teachers.  This book is a blueprint for all to follow, to create a more loving and inclusive sangha, which can ultimately transform society.

This book is written for all those who have felt marginalized in the predominantly white, Western Dharma community, as well as those in the dominant culture.   Part memoir, Yang speaks of his own experiences of alienation, racism and homophobia as the son of Chinese immigrants, and as a gay man.  He explains how he learned to embrace his suffering with kindness and attention.   Yang also challenges those in the dominant culture to see how they have contributed to the current situation where the diversity of the community is not reflected in the leadership or spiritual teachers.  “There is an urgency requiring us to examine and learn how unconscious and unacknowledged power and privilege serve to keep mainstream social patterns of white dominance in place.”  Each chapter ends with insightful questions to spark introspection and challenge our own unconscious biases.  

Yang writes with profound honesty as he recounts his first meditation retreat where he was the only person of color.  This isolation and disconnection he felt from the community and teachers were not conducive to healing and spiritual exploration.  However, at his first LGBTIQ retreat several years later, he felt deep love and acceptance.   He understands the importance of finding safety and home in our spiritual journey. 

This book is a powerful argument for the importance of “culturally specific” retreats and spaces in the Western Dharma Community, to skillfully meet the different needs of diverse communities.  Yang is not afraid to confront those in the dharma community who do not want to dwell on differences or do not want separate retreats.   Yang argues identity is “a door to Dharma practice and spiritual freedom,” and “when we are not mindful and aware of the ways in which our cultural experience influences our perception and can limit our understanding of these, we prevent ourselves from penetrating to a deeper experience of interconnection and relatedness.  Interrelatedness is critically important to the experience of what is beyond ego.”

The book ends with four appendices that outline the main learning points of the EBMC and how to create safe spaces for people of color, LBGTIQ, and special needs.  These documents are jewels for those who are interested in looking deeply in the structures of their own communities and interested in transforming unconsciousness.   At each retreat or event, EMC strives to keep 40-50% people of color.  They do not offer scholarships because it creates another barrier for those in need, but instead operate on dana.  He teaches “movement meditation” instead of walking meditation to make the practice more accessible to those who have challenges with walking.  Despite all the struggles Yang encountered in changing the face of the Insight community, he maintains a bright hope for a collective awakening towards freedom for all, in these difficult political times of racism, violence and oppression all around the world.

This book had a profound impact on me.  Yang created a new vocabulary to articulate things I have felt many times practicing in our own practice centers.  He also instilled hope and inspiration because I know there are others who are working to create more love and understanding in this world.  He describes how to walk through and confront difficult feelings and conversations on this journey.  He talks about “breaking together” instead of “breaking apart.”  Yang outlines new opportunities to awaken and transform suffering together to come to a more beautiful understanding and compassionate acceptance of ourselves and the world, so that we can walk together towards freedom.  I recommend this book to everyone in the maha sangha who believes in love and freedom.

*Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, intersex, queer

Thank you to Juliet Hwang for sharing her book review on

Juliet has been practicing meditation for over 15 years and was ordained in the Order of Interbeing, in the tradition of Zen Master Thich Nhat Hanh and the Plum Village Community of Engaged Buddhism. She has taught meditation to physicians, nurses, hospitals staff, medical students, family practice residents, ALS caregivers, university administrators, and homeless men and women going through addiction recovery. She now facilitates a mindfulness meditation group for families in Long Beach with her husband and two children. You may reach her at