(Sangha by Zenju Earthlyn Manuel from her new book Tell Me Something About Buddhism)
As I wrote in the book, disturbances, harmful situations, and challenging people can all be assistants in deepening the walk of life. Many expect all Buddhists to be nice or something along those lines. Some enter Buddhist centers hoping to become as nice as they think all Buddhists are. They may think, “If only I could get rid of my rage, life would be good, and everyone would love me because I am so nice.”
Of course, this thought is as ungrounded as it sounds. We enter Buddha’s path as human beings, and we walk on it as human beings. We are guaranteed to feel, fully, all of the emotions of a human being. What the path assists us in doing is seeing the root of the emotion in the midst of its occurrence, so that the response is not more pain and suffering. We learn to question, “What is going on here?”
During one of my stays in a monastery, I experienced great pain when fellow practitioners could not accept my invisible physical disability as the reason I could not kneel to serve the meals or stand in the kitchen for very long. The frustration others received and the isolation I felt as results of my physical challenges fueled my sense of rejection and not belonging. I would sit in the zendo (meditation hall) and receive spontaneous visions of myself in a bright yellow robe amidst the black robes of Soto Zen that we were required to wear.
After weeks of sensing the angst from others and holding a desire for the agitated few to change their focus, I began to suffer. During the oryoki meals (a ceremonial way of eating in the zendo), I could hardly swallow my food because of the need to burst into tears. Soon, the wailing inside me broke down to small weepings every time we had a forty-minute sitting session.
Finally, I requested guidance from the lead teacher. I explained to him what was happening. He listened without ever taking his eyes off of me. After I was done speaking, he said, “All emotions are from the past.” I blinked once, then twice. How could that be? I thought to myself. He asked me to return to the zendo and to let those feeling come forward until I could see with my heart what was going on with me and not the others.
I returned and continued to weep in my seat until one day during lunch, I could not take another bite. I put down my utensils and allowed the tears to gush forward. While they were coming, a vision of myself emerged in one of my dresses I wore at the age of eight. It was plaid with puffed sleeves, starched stiff, the way my mother ironed our dresses. I had white anklet socks and black patent leather, buckled shoes. My hair was pressed straight and pulled tight in two ponytails, one on each side of my head, with bangs that rolled under. Suddenly, in the zendo, I was the little Earthlyn who had been forced to attend a predominantly white Jewish elementary school in Los Angeles in the early 1960s. I was there, right at the desk of my elementary school instead of in my seat in the zendo. I felt the old anger of being called names, being pushed, being different. I felt the jealousy I had for my best friend, Roslyn, who belonged at the school because she was Jewish. I felt all the emotions possible while sitting in meditation.
Although the incidents that occurred at the monastery were new events of my life, the emotions were clearly from events long gone. I understood those events of the past to be what shaped the suffering for me in the zendo. I allowed the tears to continue for days. For three months, we sat anywhere from five to six hours a day, every day. I had plenty of time to look into the infinite mirror of zazen and see the life renamed Zenju.
Once the emotions rode themselves out, I was able to deal with the situation at hand. I could address the present-day problem in the zendo without getting back at the boy at my elementary school who stole my berets, or the boy who spit in my face in junior high school. I was more effective in practicing complete and loving speech—not because I had any technique for right speech, but because I had completely surrendered to my heart.
The pain of the present-day events at the monastery did not go away because healing is a work in progress. I continued such healing, weeping day by day. If I had turned my attention away from the purification occurring and turned toward those who were focusing on me, I would have missed a powerful chance for transforming suffering in my life. I did not become a stoic practitioner so that I would be seen as a powerful mountain sitting atop my meditation cushion. I was a tearful Zen student who saw clearly that my journey on the path required feeling and seeing every step of the way, without the stories. We are to be full human beings on the path of Buddha, with all of the emotions of a human being. We cannot fully practice such a call for liberation without our lives being fully exposed. There is no hiding.
Thank you Zenju. These are just the words my heart needed to hear today.
Great post Zenju. I love personal stories as examples for all of our growth and evolution.