Review by Patheos by Justin Whitaker
Through the book other voices emerge [from Manuel] as well: the academic, the philosopher, the voice of rage, the seeker of justice. All of these come out in a dance between the absolute: all is one, labels are constructs, and identity is to be transcended, and the relative: we are different, labels are real and shape every aspect of our lives, and identity is who we are. This dance can be described no better than in her own words:
It was clear at the beginning of my exploration that I had been hardened by the physical violence leveled against me as a young child and by the poverty with which my parents had to struggle as Louisiana migrants raising three daughters in the wilds of Los Angeles. I had been hurt as a child when I discovered that others saw my dark body as ugly. And as I aged and moved from romantic relationships with men, I lived in fear of being annihilated for taking a woman as a lover and partner in life. I had grown bound to feelings of injustice, rage, and resentment. I held my life tight in my chest, and my body ached with its pain for many years.
Release date: 02/17/2015
In Buddhism, the concept of emptiness suggests that enlightenment allows the practitioners to transcend the shackles of the body: if one can train the mind, the body will necessarily follow. Manuel, offers an alternative interpretation: “Enlightenment… emerges through bodies.” Manuel argues that the lived experience of the oppressed, disadvantaged body necessarily changes the spiritual experience. To supersede the body is to ignore the contexts in which moods such as rage, anger, or disappointment (which may be tied to race, sexuality, gender, class, etc.) exist. Ultimately, the belief that enlightenment liberates the practitioner from the body is a deluded whitewashing of the experience of the oppressed. Rather than nonidentity (the significance of which is often inferred from Buddhist concepts of emptiness and impermanence), Manuel asserts the relevance of embodied identity in the face of oppression and hatred. It is by recognizing distinct accounts of life and acknowledging the tenderness that comes from not only compassion and love but also from pain and suffering that the body becomes “the location of awakened experience.” Manuel’s teaching is a thought-provoking, much-needed addition to contemporary Buddhist literature. (Feb.)
A Review of The Way of Tenderness by Tricycle Magazine
The opening pages of Zen priest Zenju Earthlyn Manuel’s The Way of Tenderness (Wisdom Publications, February 2015, $15.95, 144 pp., paper) include a disclaimer that—amid a discussion of race, sexuality, and gender—will be met with some relief: “I intend not to focus on critical theory or analyses,” she promises, “but instead on the personal experience of the heart-mind, body, and spirit.” The gay black daughter of parents born in Louisiana at the turn of the century, Manuel speaks with authority on this subject on the basis of past wounds. What for many are abstractions about identity have been, for her, involuntarily immediate. She never had a choice.
As the book moves between teachings and biography, like an extended dharma talk, Manuel recounts her early sense of inferiority and her later disillusionment with the misogyny and homophobia of the church-centric civil rights and Pan-African movements. It wasn’t until 1988, when Manuel discovered Nichiren Buddhism, that she confronted what had become a deep well of pain. And after beginning a Soto Zen practice 15 years later, she sought reconciliation between her new tradition’s emphasis on nonduality and her own particularities of race, sexuality, and gender. Her objective in writing this book, then, is to present a vision of harmony without homogeneity— what she calls “multiplicity in oneness.”
To get us there, Manuel must violate her initial disclaimer and delve into some thorny analysis. It’s a welcome reversal, however, as she argues persuasively for an embodied dharma that admits the ways that appearance and sexual orientation impact how one sees and is seen. “We cannot experience life without a body,” she affirms, “and we live our lives with the categorical names given to our bodies.” She criticizes the Zen Buddhist rhetoric of transcendence as a form of spiritual bypass, a sidestepping of the difficult questions of identity that when left unasked inevitably fracture a sangha.
Manuel’s personal tone throughout the book wards off the intellectualization that too often prevents honest dialogue on this charged topic. Fittingly, her final prescription comes direct from her own life: Sanghas must attend to internal wounds of identity just as she eventually did—and they had best do so with tenderness.
Zenju Earthlyn Manuel is Featured in Buddhadharma Magazine, Spring Issue
Just hit the stands – Zenju Earthlyn Manuel is featured in Buddhadharma Magazine, Spring Issue, The Wisdom in My Bones where her new book The Way of Tenderness is excerpted on pages 32 – 37. Get your copy today.
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