Reflections on The Way of Tenderness: Awakening Through Race, Sexuality, and Gender by Zenju Earthlyn Manuel

Zenju Earthlyn Manuel

Zenju Earthlyn Manuel

“In attending [suffering], we start down many paths in order to recover the connectedness we lost upon entering the world.  For many of us the quest to recover what we feel we have lost extends into social activism, pursuit of spiritual awakening, or both.  In my life the quest to recover wholeness and connection has extended into both social activism and spiritual dimensions.  In my case, I have experienced spiritual awakening by walking through the fiery gateway of attending to the suffering related to race, sexuality, and gender.”

-Zenju, p5

 This paragraph welcomed me into Zenju Earthlyn Manuel’s book, The Way of Tenderness: Awakening Through Race, Sexuality, and Gender.    It is difficult to describe the feeling of what it’s like to read something that so eloquently captures your personal experience- something that has often left you feeling alone. I highly recommend this book for anyone who journeys in matters of  spirit and social justice.  While Zenju is an ordained Zen priest, this book is written in a universal sense and is accessible to just about anyone who honors connection to something larger than ourselves- be it God, Goddess, Buddha, the Universe, or the greater good of mankind.  In this entry, I will be touching upon some points that peaked my interest.

As a woman who walks a path of many intersecting identities, I have known the dual reality that identity is both tangible and an illusion.  For example, I am half Mexican- half white (I intentionally write “white” because there are no ties with our ancestral past- there is very little knowledge beyond my great grandparents’ experiences.) and grew up with divorced parents.  Therefore, I resided in one world while staying with my mom and a complete different world when I was with my father.  In some spaces, I am perceived as white and in others I am “exotic” and “ethnic.”  I am of two worlds but belong to neither.  Thus, why I say I understand identity to be both very real and fluid.  This foundation of identity felt complimentary when I first began studying Ayurveda, Yoga, and Vedantic philosophy.  In theory, I understood our true Self is at the soul level and is not defined by our gender, sexuality, race, etc; however, in practice I felt that there was a disconnect.  Our understanding of self is 100% perceived through the lens of our experience walking the earth.  We walk in BODIES with SKIN COLOR and TASTE BUDS and EMOTIONS and we decorate, treat, and value our bodies based on the culture we reside and our access to resources.  To ignore this very crucial fact in the attempt to find “unity across difference” is a well intended but harmful choice.  Frankly put, it perpetrates the societal injustice by which we are all wounded but in different ways.  There is no magical line that distinguishes the spiritual from the non-spiritual- the spiritual resides in our flesh just as it does our energy and soul…it resides in the suffering just as it does in the joy.

forbrowngirlsZenju talked about the need- the URGENCY-  to attend our disconnectedness (p6);  to acknowledge the full spectrum of the human condition as our spiritual practice rather than compartmentalize ourselves into boxes of “spiritual” and “nonspiritual.”  Dimensions of identity such as race, gender, sexuality, class, nationality, and ability are all aspects of human experience that are often discouraged to share in many spiritual spaces; in my own experience, I was told that it is  “divisive,” “encourages anger,” and is a “distraction from spiritual inquiry.”  Zenju, sharing a similar experience, responds: “Identity is not merely of a political nature, it is inclusive of our essential nature when stripped of distortion.  In other words, identity is not the problem, but the distortions we bring to it are.” (p8)  She continues: “How could a path to spiritual liberation possibly unfold if we turn away from the realities that particular embodiments bring?  To confront hatred with spirituality is to confront the way we view race, sexuality, gender, or whatever form of embodiment we are as living beings.” (p25).  To end social injustice such as racism, sexism, and homophobia, we must transform societal systems; we must transform our society’s consciousness through changing the structures in which we educate, heal, seek justice, and govern.  To do such an INSANELY large task will require the depth and width of spirituality.   To advocate spiritual activism requires a personal practice of self inquiry, healing, and evolution.  From this place of wisdom we are able to offer vision and healing to the world around us.  To transform systems that have been around for centuries, we will- in fact- need a great deal of healing and vision to imagine a new way of being.

Multiplicity of Oneness

I greatly appreciated this chapter.  In sharing her own experience within the Zen Buddhist community, Zenju states “…it wasn’t long before I discovered… the unspoken expectation that a spiritual person transcends notions of race, sexuality, and gender, and all other forms of embodiment  To speak of identity was a mark of being unenlightened. (p37)  The idea of unity may lead us to think that differences, as superficial d


istinctions, are counter to the teachings of universality or interrelationship.” (p39)  To explain the concept of multiplicity of oneness, Zenju offers the example of tending a garden; we understand that some plants require more water than others, more sun than others, more pruning than others and we adjust our care accordingly.  There are endless manifestations of sacred existence as all lives are as equally sacred.

Why is it that in spiritual spaces we eagerly seek the “one size fits all approach?”  How does ignoring differences enable us to focus on inter-connectivity when, in fact, we are connected through our differences just as we are connected through our similarities? Acknowledging difference in identity enables us to cultivate awareness on the experiences of others- particularly the ways in which people navigate privilege and disadvantage.  It is crucial to spiritual inquiry to acknowledge the ways in which our society has “rendered some lives dispensable and others not.” (p46)  Spiritual practice is a cultivation of connectivity and a valuing of life.  To ignore the suffering of mass groups of people is an act of violence.  Zenju explains that “when explored in Buddhist communities,  [suffering] is treated as a personal issue rather than as a collective injury.” (p47)  This has been my experience as well in Vedic spaces in response to such issues of racism and sexism.  Ahimsa is a Sanskrit word that means the practice of non-violence. A pillar of major religions, it seems contradictory to focus on the overt acts of violence while ignoring the subtle.

Zenju explains “to be “good” people we tend to bypass the messiness of our lives in order to enter the gate of tranquility.” (p48) In other words, to truly acknowledge the pain and suffering in this world and the ways in which they are enabled to continue would require individuals to face the ways in which they contribute to the oppression.  Most people resist this acknowledgement because it seems contrary to the narrative “I am a good person.”  Rather than deal with the struggle and apparent contradiction, people choose avoidance and dismissal.

It is on this note that I will start to close this entry as this describes the overall state of society.  Zenju offers powerful wisdom as she explains how acknowledging the multiplicity of oneness enables us to “have the capacity to see our subjectivity, to see our embodiment as useful to the spiritual path, to see our embodiment as creating meaningliberation for our lives, and to see it as the location of awakening.  To seriously consider the ways in which our spiritual paths are shaped by our multiple identities and subjectivities is the way to tenderness.  To awaken from within our unique embodiment is to awaken collective awareness: spiritual awakening and social activism are one and the same.” (p81)

Spiritual practice awakens us to the interconnectivity of life.  It is from this foundation of connection that we see recognize the injustice of certain lives being valued over others.   Valuing life empowers us to seek personal and collective action to change the systems of oppression that perpetrate collective suffering.  Honoring difference rather than avoiding it is the way to spiritual and societal liberation.

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