by Zenju Earthyln Manuel
[Editor’s note: This is an excerpt from the new book The Way of Tenderness: Awakening Through Race, Sexuality and Gender by Zenju Earthlyn Manuel.]
How could a path to spiritual liberation possibly unfold if we turn away from the realities that particular embodiments bring? To confront hatred with spir- ituality is to confront the way we view race, sexuality, gender, or whatever form of embodiment we are as liv- ing beings. To provide a meaningful path to spiritual liberation, spirituality must acknowledge the body and the denigration of certain types of bodies in the world. We cannot close our eyes to these phenomena if we really want to be awake and aware.
For many, spiritual paths should tend toward the invisible, the unseen. With this view it is easy to mistake a favorable blindness—not seeing skin color, gender, etc.—for seeing an invisible truth of life. We may even consider this blindness to be a higher state of being. But the wisdom in my bones says that we need this particular body, with its unique color, shape, and sex, for liberation to unfold. There is no experience of emp- tiness without interrelationship. In meditation the wis- dom deep in my bones tells me that I do not have to fight against someone or something to gain my life. I have already been given a fully liberated life. In stillness I glimpse the freedom that is already there. With each glimpse I touch the earth, I grow more deeply rooted in the source from which the wisdom of spiritual teach- ings has always emerged.
Of course, many ancient spiritual teachings do not specifically address race, sexuality, and gender in the ways that we do today. Still, differences between ancient tribes, castes, and ethnic groups have been sources of conflict forever. Happiness and pain, loss and gain, want and plenty have been bound up with superficial distinctions between people based on their embodiment all throughout history. In other words, the basic awareness of the human condition and the inspiration to resolve persistent pains that have been shared by spiritual teachers down through the ages comes through seeing the challenge that appearance presents to living beings, and how it shapes their lived worlds.
Today, using such ancient teachings to promote favorable blindness, we end up turning away from the very types of lived experiences that motivated such teachings to begin with. We must look our embodiment in the face in order to attend to the challenge it pres- ents. Only then will we come to engage each other with all of what we are—both the relative and the absolute, the physical and the formless.
The way of tenderness is an experiential, non- intellectual, heartfelt acknowledgment of all embod- ied difference. It is a flexibility of perception, rather than a settling into belief. It brings affirmation of life, rather than of suffering, center stage. It keeps alive the vow not to kill in a way that has nothing to do with being vegetarian or not. It is social action. It is a way to overcome what feels much stronger than us, and what seems to pull us apart so that we are not well. It is an acknowledgment of the unfolding experience of life that is effortlessly ever-present in all living beings, and yet it does not deny the uniqueness or similarities of our embodiment. It simply arises along the path of life, if we allow it.
The tenderness that arose in my life brought with it a liberated and well-hearted engagement with life; it was a transformation of pent-up anger, rage, and dis- appointment. Instead of sinking into pain and separa- tion I did a very scary thing. I allowed tenderness—a gentle opening, a softness of mind and body—to sur- face. I followed that opening until the way of tender- ness unearthed itself as a liberated path. It is a natural, organic, innate medicine, or teaching within the body itself. I used to be afraid of being seen in this softness, afraid of being viewed as “soft.” How could I be tender in the liberated sense, and be strong and safe? How could I meet disrespect or disregard with tenderness? How could I trust it? How can I be tender when there is war?
How can I not be tender when there is war? When I contemplated being tender in this way, I realized that it did not equal quiescence. It did not mean that fiery emotions would disappear. It did not render it accept- able that anyone could hurt or abuse life. Tenderness does not erase the inequities we face in our relative and tangible world. I am not encouraging a spiritual bypass of the palpable feelings that we experience. The way of tenderness is an intangible elixir for the clogged arteries in the heart of our world. I say that complete tenderness is an experience of life that trusts the fluidity of our life energy and its extension into those around us. On the way of tenderness we allow rage and anger to flow in and out again, in and out again, instead of holding on to it as proof of being human. We can let go of stockpiling our rage for fear that our suffering might go unrecognized or that we’ll appear apathetic or naïve. I say that a liberated tenderness is a way of lessening and finally removing the potency of our tragic pasts as sentient beings. I say that this way is what will change what it is within us that leads us to annihilate the unacceptable differences between us.
About Earthlyn Manuel
Rev. Zenju Earthlyn Manuel, PhD, author, visual artist, drummer, and Zen Buddhist priest, is the guiding teacher of Still Breathing Zen Community in East Oakland, CA. She was raised with two sisters in Los Angeles after her parents migrated there from Creole Louisiana. She is the author of Tell Me Something About Buddhism and contributing author to many books, including Dharma, Color and Culture: Voices From Western Buddhist Teachers of Color and The Hidden Lamp: Stories from Twenty-Five Centuries of Awakened Women. She lives in Oakland, CA.
© 2015 Zenju Earthlyn Manuel, The Way of Tenderness. Reprinted by arrangement with Wisdom Publications, Inc., wisdompubs.org.