Positionality is a term from critical theory now being applied beautifully in social justice discourse. It points out that the identities we carry (genetic, familial, cultural, social, inherited, learned, chosen, or projected onto us by others) not only determine what information and resources we have access to, but how (and even if) we receive and understand that information.
Basically, who we are determines what we know.
In practice this means that it’s important to be clear about what influences are at play whenever anything is being communicated. This writing is a “positionality statement” around my work as a teacher of Buddhism and Yoga speaking to the difference between how those traditions are understood and taught by people who grew up in their South and Southeast Asian source cultures and how they can be understood and taught by me as a North American convert and academic. My writing this statement, in concert with many of my peers, is part of my community’s ongoing practice bringing to light the complex dynamics of post-colonial religious transmission. My aim is to contribute as best I can to a growing equity and decolonization of these practice lineages I have been so blessed to participate in.
Study of the root traditions of Buddhism, Hinduism, and Yoga can be deeply fulfilling and inspiring for Western practitioners. It has been one of the most profound ways I have taken refuge, and consider study to be one of the most respectful and transformative ways to engage with a foreign tradition. So often in Western Buddhism and Yoga practice, students focus only on the meditation or yogic cultivation practices, leaving behind the devotion, ritual, and study that often is so central to practice in the Asian source cultures.
My focus on sutta/sūtra study comes from my love for these traditions and texts, and the strong belief that respectful engagement with another culture’s heritage is a condition for deepening wisdom and understanding, not just internally or “spiritually”, but as citizens of the world devoted to peace and care for our fellow travelers. I also understand that engagement with these texts and traditions has for centuries been fascinating for privileged Western liberal humanists such as myself, and that along with material and intellectual colonialism, India and much of Asia have seen their sacred traditions appropriated, mis- or re-interpreted, and used in ways the sages and devotees who developed the traditions could never have envisioned.
The harmful effects of this appropriation are real, and I acknowledge that my postmodern, discipline-blending, convert work with Buddhism and Yoga, even with a conservative approach and my most sincere devotion and intentions, can be an expression of appropriation and colonialism. I try to teach and practice in a way that amplifies active resistance to appropriation and colonialism, and to support privileged practitioners to more deeply educate themselves about the traditions and cultures they are inspired by.
I offer classes, workshops, and retreats engaging with many aspects of the Buddhist and Hindu Yoga traditions. My primary practice and teaching authorization is in Theravāda Buddhism through my mentor Jack Kornfield of Spirit Rock Meditation Center. Following training with David Moreno, Anne Cushman, and others, I also hold E-RYT500 certification as a yoga teacher. I teach Hindu and Yoga texts primarily in Yoga Teacher Training programs, as well as online in the context of my History of Yoga course, and other places. My primary public teaching is in classes and retreats structured around Insight Meditation, a Western descendent of Thai and Burmese Theravāda Buddhism.
Even with “teaching authorization” in Insight Meditation I do not view myself as an expert in Buddhist or Hindu traditions or texts, and study of them with me does not constitute transmission or initiation into their lineages. The Western lineage of Insight Meditation has a close relationship with its Theravādin ancestry, but is separate in many ways from the traditional teaching hierarchy which is much more fully based in the monastic saṅgha. I was blessed to be ordained into that community briefly, and consider my time in robes to be among the most precious times of my life.
In many settings I read Buddhist and Hindu texts with students, bringing in interpretive perspectives from commentaries, oral tradition I’ve been blessed to receive, modern psychology, trauma work, and critical theory as feels necessary. Reading together we wrestle with the ideas and implications of these teachings, and always bring it back to our own lives and actions in a complex world. Study of these texts with me (outside of a university setting) has elements of both Religious Studies, where faith in the doctrines being studied is not assumed, and religious study, in which faith is the cornerstone. The tension between these two modes of study is potent and unresolved.
Though I express a couple currently oppressed identities — mixed-race (English & Puerto Rican) and queer (bisexual) most prominently — my appearance (white-passing), gender (cis-male), education (high), social class (middle), physical ability (high), and visible sexual preference (heterosexually married), among other markers give me significant privilege in our culture. I understand one of the responsibilities of privilege as the imperative to be transparent about it, and vocal about how it plays out in relationships, communities, and institutions.
It is my hope in naming some of the forces at play in my own being to contribute to an ever-increasing precision in our culture around the gravitational forces of power, which create supportive and delusional structures around themselves.