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Insights at the Edge
Tami Simon's in-depth audio podcast interviews with leading spiritual teachers and luminaries.
Listen in as they explore their latest challenges and breakthroughs—the leading edge of their work.
Through the Fire to Liberated Tenderness
Zenju Earthlyn Manuel is an author and an ordained Zen Buddhist priest whose work and teachings focus upon lived experience in the context of race, sexuality, and gender. Her most recent book, The Way of Tenderness: Awakening through Race, Sexuality, and Gender, discusses how spiritual wisdom divorced from everyday reality is insufficient to heal the wounds of those who have been marginalized. In this episode of Insights at the Edge, Tami Simon and Zenju speak about her experience of racism within dharma practice communities. Zenju also details what she calls “the fiery gateways” that she had to walk through as part of her spiritual journey. Finally, Tami and Zenju talk about what Zenju calls “liberated tenderness.” (79 minutes)
Photo Credit: Vaschelle André of Divine Photography
Tami Simon: You’re listening to Insights at the Edge. Today, my guest is Zenju Earthlyn Manuel. Zenju is an author and an ordained Zen Buddhist priest. She combines Zen meditation, intuitive knowing, and indigenous wisdom in a path of liberation. She applies spiritual teachings to our lived experiences in the context of race, sexuality, and gender—and at the same time, holds these experiences as gateways to absolute freedom.
After seven years of following Buddhist teachings, a lucid spiritual dream led to the creation of the Black Angel Cards—36 oracle card and messages, which are being used around the world as a tool to help one access one’s true nature and to ease suffering. In her recent book, The Way of Tenderness: Awakening through Race, Sexuality, and Gender, she reveals that dry wisdom alone is not sufficient to heal the wounds of the marginalized, and effective practice must embrace the tenderness found where conventional reality and emptiness intersect.
In this episode of Insights at the Edge, Zenju and I spoke about her experience of racism within dharma practice communities and what she calls “the fiery gateways” that she had to walk through as part of her spiritual journey. We also talked about how oneness does not mean sameness, and the importance of acknowledging our differences even as we simultaneously recognize our unity. We [also] talked about the different levels of tenderness and what Zenju means by complete or liberated tenderness. Here’s my conversation with Zenju Earthlyn Manuel:
Zenju, I’d love to begin just by welcoming you and thanking you for making the time for this conversation with me and with Sounds True. Thank you.
Zenju Earthlyn Manuel: Thank you.
TS: The subtitle of your book, The Way of Tenderness, is Awakening through Race, Sexuality, and Gender. I wanted to talk about—to begin with—the use of this word “through.” You’re not talking about awakening beyond race, sexuality, and gender, but through race, sexuality, and gender. So, tell me a little bit what you mean by that.
ZEM: So, what I mean is that the race, sexuality, and gender are gateways to those places we long for and seek, such as compassion or enlightenment or peace or harmony. All of these wonderful experiences that we long for as living beings.
So, in my practice and in my training—and just in my life, period—over the years, I’ve realized that to include, explore, and to learn to understand the nature of one’s embodiment is crucial. Also, it’s fire.
So, it’s kind of like I used the word “through” meaning like “awakening through the fire.” You could really just add those words onto it and drop “race, sexuality, and gender” in some ways because basically what I’m talking about is my embodiment is the fire that we need ignited in order to make it through the training on the path or the practices that we take on. A lot of times, we come to them looking for the opposite. We’re coming to look for water—but when we get there, it’s fire.
So, at this fire, it’s for us to walk through. At the gateways—excuse me—there is the fire. So, we have to walk through it to go in and to meet these thresholds that we were given. They’re gifts.
So, it’s like a beautiful fire, a rejuvenating fire, a regenerating fire—not one that’s going to destroy us. But, we are always afraid of that. So, we might want to avoid it.
But, given what I’ve experienced in my spiritual path, these things—race, sexuality, and gender—have been the gateways. For us all as human beings, if we looked at them that way, we all would be able to at least explore it together and not be afraid.
TS: Yes. So, tell me more [about] what you mean about this fiery nature. Maybe we can start with race as a gateway that we can just explore together. I mean, I notice it has a fiery-ness for me. I know—even in preparing for this conversation—I had a sense of, “God, I hope I don’t make a fool of myself or say the wrong thing to Zenju or stick my foot in my mouth.” Or just whatever.
So, I have a sense of fear. There’s a fiery-ness in the potential of the conversation. But, I want to know more what the fiery nature of awakening through race is for you.
ZEM: Yes. So, in this embodiment that I am, which is of African descent and brown—dark black person—the immediate appearance brings on a particular behavior toward my life. I have experienced the results of system discrimination and systemic harm.
So, when one has—without even saying one’s name or becoming known—that individual has to experience it, or a collective of people—a group of people—have to experience anything based on race. Then, the first thing that can come up for us is injury, which is hot, and the woundedness, which is hot. The way you can begin to internalize the avoidance. So, then you have your hatred—you have self-hatred internalized. Sometimes I call it “internalized treason,” where you begin to turn away from it to keep away from the heat of it.
So, you turn away from yourself. You try to turn away from the feeling of being hated or not belonging or being unable to live a full life as others seems to be living.
And I’m speaking directly to mostly people who are black or brown in the context that I know. I’m speaking mostly to people about people of African-American descent in my experience and being part of that collective. So, it is pretty specific for me. I think it can be understood by others.
So, this fire idea for me really came in a dream, actually. I’m a very lucid dreamer. Once I was in India, and I had this dream about being burned. I was in the dream, being burned [while] laying on a bed—one of those small, hard Indian beds, you know, old beds. [I was] laying there and the fire kicking off, just being burned and being very afraid—right away like, “Oh my God, I’m going to be destroyed. I won’t ever be here again [and] actualize anything I wanted in my life.”
So, as I’m laying in the bed, of course the fear is high because I’m dying. As the dream went on, I realized I wasn’t dying. The flames changed from a yellow-red to a blue. They became not the fire that was going to destroy me, but the fire that was going to sustain me.
So, I think that it’s important in our path to begin to see that race is troubling. That’s exactly where we want to be. That’s exactly where the work is in ending and easing suffering in the world and in our own lives.
So, it’s easy to go around it. I think that happens a lot on spiritual paths—not to talk about these things because it creates separation and division. Most of all, it creates fear and it creates worry. Sometimes people say, “This is not what I came for,” when they come onto the spiritual path. “This is not what I want to talk about because these things aren’t spiritual.” In my experience, these things are exactly spiritual and we must begin with the fire because fire is the first element on our elemental cosmology in any path.
So, we start there. Most of us want to start with the water part.
So, a lot of people say we’re all one. There’s oneness, and I know—I don’t think, I know—that that’s true. That is an ultimate truth. I think we all know this. We can all feel it, and we can all say those words and know something inside of us that says that’s true.
But, at the same time, that’s not where we suffer. So, we don’t really have to worry about oneness. Oneness is itself. We don’t have to make it happen, because if we’re making it happen by stopping someone from speaking about their race, sexuality, or gender, then you’re not stopping oneness. You’re stopping something else. I think you’re stopping some kind of idea of what should be existing of the moment of the conversation and of the teaching.
So, i feel that many of our yearnings to live a balanced life and to live one that is built like oneness and experience oneness as peaceful, harmony, interconnected, and enlightened—these places really exist.
So, if they already exist, then this fire of race and on is part of the oneness. It’s part of the path and it’s part of what we must go through. So, I think at every door of every path—and I’ve gone through several various spiritual paths. Mostly, I have been rooted in dharma. But, I have gone through many. And every time at the gate, there’s a fire. Every time.
And the fire is something you must go through. [It’s] the troubling place—the place that hurts, the place we’re afraid of, the place that might even blind us it’s so bright.
It could also be we’re drawn to it until we get very close to that fire. Then we decide that this is not what we might want to do with ourselves or with our lives.
So, I’ve been through that experience as well.
TS: Because I’m interested in the spiritual path that you’ve taken and to become a Buddhist priest in your current form, I’d be curious to know what the fire was at each one of the gateways of the different spiritual groups you’ve joined or worked with—and what it was like to cross through those various fires.
ZEM: Well, to start with, the Zen Buddhist path. So, I walk into a collective—a sangha—that is primarily and dominated by white, male, mostly heterosexual—I’m not sure of all.
So, I walk into this place. I’m not going anywhere. I’m staying. So, what’s going on? I have to ask myself what’s going on because I’m uncomfortable. I’m experiencing very overt, sometimes racist acts or unconscious racist acts. Sometimes they’re conscious of it. I’m experiencing things that say, “You don’t belong.” I experience, “Why are you here?” as if I’m not there for the dharma. “Oh, now that you’re here, let’s talk about race.” [Laughs.] “Now that you’re here.”
So, these things became what caused great emotion—which is fire, right? So, very strong emotions like anger, of course rage—I feel like they’re two different things. Anger is kind of responding to an incident. For me, rage is something I might have carried and have carried most of my life because I have lived embodied in this way—that I am and have been discriminated against and have had some harmful things happen to me physically, emotionally, and spiritually. So, these old experiences are reactivated by being in a community that still is learning to be interrelated as I am as well.
So, the fire for me was to stay. I don’t recommend it for everybody. It was for me. I had to ask myself, “Why are you staying?” I was called to the teachings. I’m always called to the teachings. Who is holding those teachings sometimes is not as important as, “Can I learn something and be taught something about life while I’m here?”
So, I decided what I was experiencing—the oppression that is systemic in the world [that] definitely was showing up on my spiritual path—was exactly what I was needing outside in the world. So, I decided to leanr something about myself in it within a container called dharma.
In that process, that’s how the book came about for me. I think I have been holding onto some of these teachings that I was learning myself. I actually was interpreting the dharma through my lived experience rather than only listening to what the teacher was saying through their lived experience.
So, now what does that mean to me? Why do I need to know about the Four Noble Truths, and how does that affect the person who was just killed in my neighborhood last week? So, I had to make a connection to my life.
So, I felt that the path of the dharma was probably the most fiery existence that I had. I didn’t burn up. I did come out of that fire with a more awakened understanding of my own embodiment and how to respond to the chaos and the racism.
One thing that I want for myself and I have always wanted for myself is to live fully. I want to live a full and liberated life. So, it was important for me because that’s what I heard in the teachings. Once I heard that in the teachings, I knew that I was in the right place.
Now, whether or not I would experience that depended on me and how I was going to apply the teachings to my life. It required a lot of stripping down of my values and beliefs, and also it required that I expand in a way that maybe I wasn’t willing at first. But, then I began to do that expansion and became exposed—not to others, but exposed to myself. That’s the exposure that’s needed. I might have been exposed to others, but that wasn’t where my learning was going to occur. It was going to occur in exposure to myself.
I’ve been on other paths as well. Usually—I mean, I could actually be in a group of people of color and still experience racial stratification that has been created and imposed by our society. So, still in those racial stratifications, a woman who is of African descent who is queer, who has all the pages of marginalization, will probably be still seen not necessarily in the same reflection as, say, someone who is an Asian male who is straight.
So, still there’s a variation and there’s still fire there that must be attended to even if I’m in a people of color group. Or, if I’m in a queer group, there’s still a fire there around race.
So, for this country, I think especially what comes up for me is [that] the people of African descent were the people who are descendants of the slaves in this country and on this land. So, that makes for a very potent path and a very potent existence. So, it still permeates through our culture. The more we ignore it—and I mean everybody, not just the white people or those who are descendants of the slave master, but everyone. As long as we ignore that and we’re not interested in healing—using it as a fire in which we transform our lives—then it’ll continue to be that thing we fear all of the time—that fire that’s at the door. We’ll just stand there and watch it.
So, I’m the kind of person [who] will go through. I will definitely get a few burns in the process. But, I’ve discovered I still can live through them. It takes a particular nature, I guess, to do that. I think it takes a particular desire or yearning to be liberated and whole—like truly liberated and whole. Yes.
TS: Now, Zenju, you said many interesting things. But, one of the things I picked up on was you were talking about being part of a primarily white male heterosexual Zen Buddhist community. I’ve been in plenty of retreats and Buddhist communities like that. One of the responses was, “Oh, I’m so glad you’re here. Now we can talk about race.” That was something that was wounding and hurtful—to have that response. And yet, I can completely imagine people saying, “We’ve been wanting to have someone—a black person, someone of African-American descent—as part of our sangha for a decade. You’re finally here. Let’s talk about race.”
So, how would you have wanted that community like that to welcome you and include you and invite you that would have been different?
ZEM: Well, for me, I wasn’t—as some people are—necessarily looking to be welcomed. I think I was shocked when there was situations that didn’t feel that. I felt that it would be difficult and I felt that it would be—when I got in the door, I knew where I was. The door was unlocked, so I knew what I was putting myself into. But, I wasn’t looking and needing that sangha to do something for me.
For one, for me, I was there for the dharma teachings as everyone else. So, what I did in all my path, there’s many, many people who were before me. In many of the sanghas in the Bay Area, [they] had done a lot of work around learning [about] racism and helping the Buddhist centers here in the Bay Area become more diverse. I had seen it and watched it.
So, I chose for myself to—even though they might ask that question—I already decided that I wasn’t there for that question. I wasn’t there to answer that. I wasn’t there for the conversation. I was there for the healing and for the teaching.
So, it happened many times. They would ask me different things or they would assume because of my silence that I was either just fine and nothing was happening, or maybe sometimes people of color thought I was just assimilating [and] just pretending it wasn’t happening. So, neither one of those extremes was happening with me.
So, yes, one of the teachers said, “Are you experiencing any racism?” I said, “Yes.” They were very surprised, because I hadn’t really talked about it.
So, there were many incidents. What I would do with those incidents [was] sometimes I would bring them to a teacher. But most times, I would go sit with the teachings and see, “What in these teachings speak to how I’m feeling now? What can I say on a collective level?” I wasn’t ready to talk about what to say to the collective because I was still doing my own work and I didn’t want to allow that tangent to take me away from my own work—to do my own healing and to do my own liberation work.
So, I was on a committee. I got off the diversity committee and I really stopped being distracted. It was a distraction for me from what I felt I was there to learn.
In the end, I was able to say something collectively, which is what we have—the book, The Way of Tenderness. So, when things like that would happen around race—when I got ordained, someone said, “Oh God, I wish you were here earlier because there was an African-American man here and it would have been great if he saw you here,” because I’m black and I’m robed. I think, in essence, that probably might have been a true statement. But then again, maybe that black person’s not interested in finding a robed black person. That might not be that person’s interest.
But, when it was said to me, I had to see it as that person’s perspective. I also see it as an overall, institutional perspective as well. I have to be careful to enter into places that I want to be rather than places that they want me to be because I’m black.
So, it makes it very, very—a lot of balance, like a dance. I feel like I’ve been successful in being in places that I want to be. I pretty much have waited. Almost like, “In four weeks, I’ll be fully transmitted.” Pretty much it feels like I’m at the end of a road here, but maybe it’s a beginning. I don’t know.
I feel that I made the choices where I feel like I’ve gotten a lot of the teachings and now I feel like I can speak to some of the things they’re asking me—and also to some of the things many people of color (especially people of African descent) that ask me about Zen and Zen practice. I think I have answered that rather than answering from some place of, “Oh, it’s a horrible place.”
My teacher—Zenkei Blanche Hartman—I always tell people I chose her because she was the one person at Zen Center that loved Zen Center. I mean, she loved it no matter what. I needed someone like that to be with so when that place came for me where the fires were so tough I didn’t think I was going to make it, I’d have to sit with her.
So, it was good to have a teacher like that. But on the other hand, sometimes when I would talk about things, it was hard to talk about because she loved Zen Center sometimes too much. [Laughs.] So, it was difficult. But, I chose her because of that.
So, I could not be there and then—I call it kind of [like] being in bed with somebody you really hate. You know? It’s not my style. I would rather leave and do something else. It’s not my work to turn that type of Titanic of a ship of institutionalized racism around by myself. At the Center, I just did not take that on.
I knew I was going to have something to offer. I knew that. I didn’t know what and how, but I knew I would have something to offer not only Zen Center, but all of us who are interested in spiritual path and yet were embodied in these ways. There’s something going on that makes us all suffer and it makes us all afraid of each other.
So, I prayed that I’d have something to offer. I think I’ve been wanting to do this since I was a kid—since the first time I realized black was the “wrong” color when I was young. So, I think I’ve been working on it for a long time. It’s been a lifetime path, and it didn’t just only come out of Zen. It came out of my Christian upbringing. I practiced Yoruba for a while. I practiced in Eastern traditions. I practiced in Sun Dance Lakota ceremonies.
So, it’s all been about being connected to the Earth so that, when these things that happen because of our inabilities right now as a people [and] as a living beings to see each other as that, then I have the Earth beneath my feet to stand upon. Even if it gets groundless, I can at least fall on my knees still upon the Earth.
TS: Your book you’re offering, if you will, to this conversation that you’ve been having and are now helping other people to have inside of themselves—it’s called The Way of Tenderness. You talk about tenderness in a really interesting way. I wonder, first of all, if you can share with our listeners just what you mean by “tenderness?”
ZEM: Yes. The whole use of the word comes from my name, “Zenju,” which means “complete tenderness.” That is the name to speak of an essence that you must work at. So, when I got the name, I felt like, “Well, why would get a name called ‘complete tenderness?’ I already feel very tender and raw.”
So, I decided to walk with this name and to walk with this sense of what tenderness might be. And so, for many years—like four or five years—I walked with it. So, I feel like tenderness can come in various levels and forms.
So, tenderness in the beginning for me was a very raw and very wounded space that would paralyze me at times—keep me from feeling I could live a full life. It even caused depression or even caused some idea that maybe I’ll just leave this Earth—not wanting to be here. So, that’s the first kind of level of tenderness—very raw, very painful, and very wounded.
Then, as I began to sit more—sitting meditation and sitting alone over many years and months and weeks—long—I found myself kind of going through this cooking process, as they say. In that cooking process, I began to feel I still had this raw woundedness, but there was also a softness and gentleness. Some of that was because a lot of the sitting was wearing me down. There was a wearing down going on.
It was very discombobulating to be that vulnerable—to be worn. I even wrote a poem about it called “See the Butterfly,” because that’s the image that came up. That’s a vulnerable animal to be—so soft, and you’re fluttering about. It can easily be hurt.
So, that’s kind of the middle. So, we’ve got the first level—sort of this raw kind of woundedness. And then the second level—still the raw woundedness is in there, but there’s more of a soft gentleness. [You’re] not able to do anything about anything. You’re just kind of there in this soft, gentle place. Maybe it’s even silent—a silent place. But, it’s not a paralyzed place. It’s not paralyzed like that first phase.
So, the third phase for me—as I began to continue this very soft, vulnerable, gentle place that to me was wordless and without action—I moved [more] into what I call “liberated tenderness,” in which I could hold all that had hurt me in my life. I could also be soft and gentle, but I could also act in my life in a very liberated place. That was what I decided complete tenderness was—it was that you are able to know these things and talk about these things that happened in one’s life, still maybe even feel the impact of it, but you still have a freedom as to how you live and how you speak about your life.
At one point, I was talking in a workshop about this liberated tenderness. Someone raised their hand and said, “You know, you must have had a really happy childhood. Everything must have been really great for you because of the way you’re talking about your life.” Then I began to tell the person about my life and that, no—I told them about constant experiences I had with my mother and how I can talk about experiences, but from a liberated place and not from that wound and harm and [paralysis] or [speechlessness]—that second phase.
So, I learned to be able to talk about these things or to use them for my life as an expansion, as gateways to the next step and [what the next step is] in my life. So, complete tenderness is being able to take that next step.
For me, that was important because I thought we needed to go from tenderness to armor. You know—like “get tough.” Get hard. As someone said, “Oh, you have a weak spine. Get a stiff spine.” I wanted that, but I realized that wasn’t who I was. It wasn’t going to happen for me in that way.
So, I had to be with Zenju. The ju part means “tenderness.” So, actually like the judo—do is “the way” and “ju” is tenderness. So, judo is a way of tenderness. It’s a martial art, but it teaches you—as you get pushed to the mat, pushed to the mat, pushed to the mat—to still stand up and do the martial art—but in a different way. You still may even be pushed to the mat. But, I bet the feeling is different after a number of years because you understand what is happening when you are on the mat. When you stand up, you know you stand up differently over the years. That, over the years, is the liberated tenderness—is the liberated judo.
So, that’s the best way I can explain it. It’s almost wordless to me still in some ways to explain complete tenderness. And I think for everyone it’s a different process. Maybe it’s a different word for another person.
But, for me, it was important to [be] like, “Oh, this is the way of tenderness—not just that raw, paralyzed, wounded place.” And not just that soft, gentle, “I can’t say anything. I can’t move. I’m just quietly going to be here in my vulnerable place.”
So, it’s a little bit more than that and it takes a lot of going through all those phases. They’re not linear. It’s definitely like everything else that’s spiritual. It’s circular.
TS: When we started our conversation, Zenju, you talked a little bit about fire and sometimes [when] people come to spirituality, they’re looking [more] for the watery, peaceful quality, and how you have to go through a fire. I’m curious: complete tenderness. What elemental association do you have with that—with complete tenderness?
ZEM: I think at that point you’re coming—you do have the water. The fire and the water come together. But, what happens when that happens? Then you have the earth.
So, I feel very much a part of the earth when there’s a liberated tenderness. I feel that I’m grounded and very much walking with what is ancestral in me—and therefore with ancestors. I feel like you’re at the earth.
The beginning—the first phase—is more like the fire. Then in the middle it’s more like the water—like when you’re at the water, you tend to kind of be motionless a lot. You’re just looking at the waves. You’re vulnerable. The water makes you feel in your heart and your emotions.
Then the complete tenderness to me is like that water and fire come together and make the earth by which you plant your feet in for the rest of your life. So, that’s the way it feels inside me. Yes.
TS: There’s a quote from The Way of Tenderness that I really liked that I’d like to share and have you comment on. You were writing about spiritual liberation—about liberated tenderness—and you said, “Spiritual liberation is being free from projections of superiority and inferiority among sentient beings.”
ZEM: Yes. Yes. To me, that is really one of the most crucial teachings that I received that I wanted to convey in that book. In anything that we do—even if it’s not around race, sexuality, and gender—that if there’s the notion of what it superior and what is inferior, then we are moving away from the spiritual liberation, the enlightenment, the balanced-ness in all of those things that we long for.
In our society—talking about the United States; it’s where I’ve lived my life—there is always this sense of what a superior being and an inferior being [is]. This notion can cross many lines—race, sexuality, gender, class, ability. It’s going to go on and on and on. Even like I said in the book, it even crosses into nature. So, here we’re willing to chop down the oak trees—in California—but we’re very hesitant to chop down the redwoods.
So it’s just very ingrained in us. I wanted to bring that forth—of how that ingrained perspective is what—I mean, we probably wouldn’t say it, but it does cause the fear of each other and what we think might happen because there is that perspective that someone is inferior and someone else is superior. That’s what’s put into our minds early as children through various avenues and means.
And it happens early. Very, very early. I remember my nephew—he has an African name. When he was very little, he was looking at a magazine in the doctor’s office. He said, “Yes, I want her to be my girlfriend.” It was in the magazine and it was very surprising, because we thought we were giving him one of these kind of African principles. He had chosen a blonde-haired, blue-eyed little girl playing on some kind of toy in the magazine.
So, it’s there. OK, so we’re not going to change the magazine. The magazine may never change. We still ask for these things. That doesn’t say you stop doing that. But, what happens for me is to talk with the child, but also to begin to get underneath how we feel and think of each other.
Like: legislation is wonderful. But, no one ever understood Affirmative Action. [Laughs.] We never changed anything. We never transformed our consciousness—never—into anything. We just had something and then we dropped it.
So, we could put a lot of black children in the magazine. But, that won’t change necessarily the consciousness.
So, I’m interested in how we change the energy and the consciousness between us so that we do experience oneness without tryng to make it happen by keeping someone quiet about their race, sexuality, and gender—or trying to keep everything in harmony or not separate by keeping this quiet. We don’t talk about this.
I have gotten letters from people who are teachers who have tried to talk about it—white teachers who have tried to talk about race, sexuality, and gender in their sanghas, and sangha-members being upset about it. [They want] them to keep it at the door. “This is not what where we come from.” [In] actual letters I’ve heard this.
I have had people walk out in Buddhist—well, just once I’ll say. [Laughs.] One time it happened. They just weren’t ready for it. They didn’t know who I was and what I was coming to talk about, so there was a little bit that could have been problematic for the Buddhist center. So, it was kind of like a setup for both me and the people. So, I think people need to know what we’re getting ready to talk about.
And they might not know how. So, many people see me coming and I’ve heard some people say, “I wasn’t going to come because I didn’t want to hear it. I thought it was going to be the same thing.” Some people are not reading the book because they think it’s going to be the same thing. I was hoping not to write the same thing because we’ve already written it. So, there was no need for me to write another book about it.
We already are aware of what’s going on between us in our sanghas, in our communities, in the world. We’re aware, and I think we’ve had some great teachers who have laid it out so plainly over and over and over again. We’ve had Angela Davis. We’ve had Bell Hooks. We’ve had Alice Walker. We’ve had some wonderful teachers—Toni Morrison—showing us and telling us. Tim Wise. We’ve had some great teachers.
So now, to me, I don’t need to do that part. I didn’t feel like I needed to do that part. That’s not what came up in my life from my bones. So, I wanted to see: [can] the dharma be applied to this life I’m living and seeing before me? So, that’s the reason why that the book came to me.
Oftentimes, when we’re dealing with race, sexuality, and gender, or diversity issues, spiritual communities go outside the path to get the answer. Or, if they’re inside the path, the word is “we’re all one” and it’s emptiness.
So, either way, [to me] too much is missing. You know—this place that is right with us. We have the most magnificent gift ever, and that is to be born with a body and to be born as nature. Why not use this? Because if we don’t, I think we’re going to miss the whole journey. Some people don’t even call it a journey—just the whole moment. The whole existence right now in this moment—we’ll miss it.
That’s the way I felt. I wanted to be present there with this embodiment. Regardless, if someone does think I’m there to present because of my race or my color, that’s where they will learn that I am not there for that. At my center, they learned I wasn’t there for that. They watched me. They watched, and I watched them. I went on and I learned as much as I could learn to help and heal my life. It was a healing path and I took it.
So, maybe I’ll be taking another one. Who knows? I’m sure I will. I can see it arising.
So, as we’re here every moment, it doesn’t end. I always tell my students, “There is no diploma,” and they get so sad. I mean, I’m going to stop calling them “students.” Really, what we’re doing is [that] we’re all apprenticing in this life. We’re kind of doing it together. They’re an apprentice of the circle I hold, and I’m an apprentice of the circle of what other people hold.
So, the student idea—you can drop trying to be [what] I call “holy.” [Laughs.] There’s no holy. There’s no perfection in none of it. There is perfection in all of the imperfection.
TS: Now, I just want to go a little further—if it’s OK—with this idea of being free from projections of superiority and inferiority. I notice that that’s something people do all the time, subtly. I do it. It could be even about, “This person has more money or less money,” or, “This person’s better looking or thinner.” It doesn’t have to be about race, sexuality, and gender. It could be about all kinds of ways we’re comparing and evaluating. “Oh, I’m a little up in this situation. Oh, I feel a little down in this situation.”
So, how do you suggest people address that when they see, “Oh, look what’s coming up for me. I’m measuring myself,”?
ZEM: Right. There’s not an understanding there about—you have to, first of all, take that in, before you go to understanding. That’s the strong emotional indicator that you’re in this place of one of the phases of tenderness—not necessarily the one where you’re feeling liberated, because it’s an emotion and it’s stopping you. You’re kind of in the paralyzed place. Or, you could be just plain vulnerable and quiet and silent.
But, what I understood when I would feel these things—I used to want to correct people, let them know who I was, that kind of thing. That was very exhausting work, so I’m not interested in that kind of work.
So, the work that I’m interested in is going back and remembering what I learned about Buddha nature. What I learned about this Buddha nature—of course, there’s many definitions for that. This Buddha nature or true nature or magnificence of life is still present even in the midst of someone’s inability to have a direct experience with me and me to have a direct experience with them because I know right now, in the middle of all of this, is this pure emotion.
So, I can hold it. I can hold that emotion. Not dwell on it, make it me, or make it center to my life. I learned that—to not make it center stage for me. But, it doesn’t go offstage either. It’s still there, because there’s an indication I need that. I need that fire. We need to be ignited.
We don’t want that. We don’t want to be ignited with each other. We don’t want that fire with each other. We want just the water. But, we need to be ignited to get to the water together. To come to the water—you’ve heard that. “Come to the water and heal together.” We have to come there together. So, the fire—if we keep running away from it every time it gets ignited even within ourselves, then we’re never going to get there.
For me, I do have to come back to that sense of what I learned about Buddha nature. Our true nature—or essential nature or being as expansive as the ocean or being as high as a tree—I was telling one student, “You know that apple tree you have in your yard? That’s you.” I said, “The only thing is that the apple tree doesn’t have emotion and [won’t say], ‘I won’t give you any apples anymore because I don’t like what you did yesterday.’“ I just wanted her to know that so you can just remember. But, it doesn’t mean that you don’t have any apples ever to give.
So, we have to remember that for ourselves in that moment—that there is Buddha nature. It doesn’t mean I get rid of how I feel necessarily. I hold it and I also explore this other, pure self that sometimes some teachers talk about a lot. [It’s] untouched in some way by suffering. Or, some people call it “this witness,” which sometimes can be hard for people because that means you’re stepping outside of something to see yourself.
But, I really just feel it right here with me in this embodiment, seeing this interrelationship every time as a chance to catch—ignite—like an energy. [Makes sound of match striking.] Like when you turn the car on—like ignition. [Makes sound of ignition.] OK! The car is on. Where am I going on this ride?
Sometimes, the car gets turned on and it gets turned off because I know I’m not going on that journey. I don’t need to go on that one. But, it reminded me, “Oh, yes.” I had that fire ignited before. Eventually, it just doesn’t get ignited. It just stops.
Then it may come back. We could call it “remission,” and it can come back. That’s life. These things come.
I’m a real fan of Mark Nepo. In one of my books, Tell Me Something About Buddhism, I included in there this piece he wrote about fire and the transformation of fire. I really like the way in which he talks about [how] there’s the rejuvenating fire and then there’s the fire that destroys. Then there’s this hand that reaches out sometimes to help us through the fire. Sometimes we burn that hand or we don’t reach out for it at all—because we don’t trust it.
That hand is ourself. That’s Buddha nature or essential self that reaches out and says, “You know this. You know this me. Here. Here’s that hand so you remember.”
So, I don’t know if that’s his interpretation of his own work, but that’s the way I have taken that teaching in. I think it’s called “The Fire Transformation,” by Mark Nepo.
TS: OK, Zenju. There’s a couple other things I really want to make sure we talk about. One is a paradox that you address in The Way of Tenderness, which is: in so many spiritual teachings, there’s a pointing-to of how everything is totally perfect as it is right now. There’s nothing that needs to be done. Things are perfect.
And yet, here we are talking about awakening through race, sexuality, and gender—and in situations and in communities where there’s clearly a lot of ignorance, oppression, injustice. So, how do you make sense of that spiritual paradox. Everything’s perfect—but God, this situation needs to be changed.
ZEM: Yes. So, the way I talk about it—when you say, “Everything is perfect and there’s nothing we need to do about it,” that part I would not accept that there’s nothing to do. Everything is perfect—dot, period, right there. Everything is perfect.
The “nothing to do about it” part is our Western sensibility—our civilization’s sensibility—that we are here to fix things and correct things. So, when you add that little piece on, that’s not the teaching. The teaching is, “Everything is perfect, period.” Period.
Now, the other part is that, “And then there is imperfection.” That’s why everything is perfect.
It’s really hard to understand. When that came to me as a teaching just through my own bones, really—that even in the exhaustion of dealing with racism and homophobia and all that—in that sense, that exhaustion itself was a perfect path because it was so imperfect around it being something that cannot change. I cannot change my skin color. I mean, some people try—but it still doesn’t work right all the way.
So, I think what we fear most on the spiritual path and don’t trust about Spirit that it can’t help us in our relative life, and that it can’t correct anything because, “I have more power to do that than Spirit. I have more power to make things perfect than Spirit or than a spiritual path. I have more power.” So, therefore, I must do something that is not perfect. If something is not perfect, I must do something about it.
So, there’s nothing more important—like in Zen, there’s a lot of activities. One is sewing a robe. You have to sew stitch by stitch by stitch by stitch. So, of course, there’s perfect stitches and there’s horrible ones as you go. Plus friends help stitch and they don’t know how. So, you get all these crazy stitches sometimes all over your robe.
In the end, you can get focused on that. You can say, “I’m going to take all these stitches out that I don’t like [and] start all over again.” Or, “I’m going to let the imperfection exist because it’s perfect that I can see Jane Doe’s stitch here and know that that was her, and that’s her part and her contribution to this collective representation of liberation.”
So, the perfect—I would say we’re afraid of that teaching—that everything is perfect. But, it’s perfect because it’s imperfect. It’s both.
So, the correction—if we go as perfect and we have to correct everything, it’s very difficult. It’s very difficult to say, “OK, I’m going to be an activist and I’m going to fall the path of the dharma.”
So, what we do is we continue to speak about fixing things and working in opposition. Then we go meditate about it. Well, that’s not integral. That’s not integral because you haven’t brought the teaching to the opposition. What’s the teaching in the opposition? What’s the perfection and the imperfection in the opposition? And then, can we trust that what we’re doing in our lives—with meditation and whatever our spiritual practice is—that what we’re doing really impacts how we are?
In the end, I’ve always been taught [that] in the crucial moment, what are you going to do? We’re all going to have one. We’ve had several, and then we’ll have the death one. Right? The one where we die. So, what are you going to do in that crucial moment that you can’t fix, that’s perfect and imperfect all in one moment?
So, that’s why I do trust that what my response to the human condition—my commitment and dedication to a spiritual life as a response to the human condition—I trust, because I have seen it work in my life. Because it works in my life, I have seen it impact other people. So, I trust that energy.
Many of us do not. We trust our agenda—our method. Not to say we don’t do those things. I really believe that we must speak out and do things that bring these many issues in our society that cause us ill—we have to speak and be out there to make awareness.
But, when we come to the place where we get enraged because someone hasn’t done what we wanted to do, we’re enraged [and] we’re just about to lose it, then we’ve gone too far. I think we’ve gone to that place [that] we don’t like in people—a godlike position and influence.
What we do is we go out there and do it. Then we come back. We rejuvenate. Then we go out there and do it. Then we come back and we rejuvenate. Then we go out there and do it. That’s the process.
If we [each] become dogmatic by each one’s position, then we all know where that leads to. It’s very tiring and exhausting.
We have such power as living beings. We have as much power as that butterfly that transforms from the caterpillar to the wings. We can do that.
I was telling somebody about our breath just yesterday. I said, “Inside of us, it’s like 98.6 degrees in there. That’s a lot of fire!” So, when we’re sitting and we’re breathing, we’re dealing with all that heat.
So, why not use that to awaken us—to ignite? We are all of it. We also have a lot of water. We also have a lot of earth. So, it’s all right there. If we can trust that when we find a way to acknowledge all of that—recognize all of that even in our protesting—then I think we will have a whole protest and we will have a whole spiritual path if we can acknowledge it all in there.
So, that’s perfect to me and it’s imperfect. It’s together. It comes together. We don’t not do anything—or necessarily do anything—all the time.
I did not take up action in the Zen Center. I did not. It was a choice. That doesn’t say I didn’t speak, because I did. And I spoke in places and at times and in the way that I wanted to—not in the way that people would have liked me to do it. That’s how they would have liked me to do it, maybe. But, I didn’t do it that way. They might have wanted me to do it the way they were doing it, but I didn’t.
People—especially when they don’t feel well—where they are, they want people to join because you must not be feeling well either, come on. And I didn’t feel well. But, that wasn’t how I was going to get well. I chose a different path.
TS: Zenju, there’s one other quote I want to read you from the book, because this really struck me. “By not acknowledging difference, we unwittingly exaggerate the difference until it screams to be acknowledged.”
ZEM: Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. So, when I speak about—and I really could add in there [that] when we don’t acknowledge the unacceptable differences. A lot of people like to talk about difference like, “Yes, everything’s different.” And I say, “Let’s talk about the unacceptable ones.” Because that’s where we suffer.
So, I remember when rap came about. Before that, I’m old enough to know, there was a lot of loud poetry in my day when I was young and in my 20s by the last poets and different groups who did a lot of loud speaking out. So, when the rap music came, I said, “Of course.” [Laughs.] Of course! It’s the scream to be acknowledged—the scream to be recognized. It just gets louder and louder.
So, now we’re used to the rap music. We’re dancing to it. It’s assimilated into the society. So, other things are happening that are screaming out at us—like killings and murders.
So, if we’re not going to recognize that there are unacceptable differences [and] there are people in our society that we have deemed will not be educated, will not have a job, and they know it at age 10—it’s not going to happen—and we don’t acknowledge that and recognize that, then this is going to get louder and louder and louder.
It’s very loud in Oakland. There’s a lot of guns shooting. It doesn’t matter what part of Oakland you live in. You’re going to hear it. They’re not little pop guns. They’re semiautomatic, some of them.
So, you’re beginning to hear more and more because we still haven’t gotten to that place where something’s gone wrong [and] we better turn it around fast—or it’s going to get louder. It may get louder and louder. I don’t know if I’ll be alive to see it all—where it’s going to go. But, it has increased a lot in the time I’ve been alive.
So, I think that if the differences are not acknowledged, they will scream out. They will scream out at us. Even in our own sanghas and spiritual circles, the screaming is happening. But because we’ve felt we’re not supposed to hear it or do it, we can’t acknowledge it and we can’t recognize it because it’s all being repressed. Then it comes out some other way. Certainly the whole sangha’s dispersed or something. Things happen.
Or, it’s suddenly in the news. Some of the different reports about sexual assault in spiritual communities—not just in Buddhism, but also in Christianity. Everywhere.
We’re not hearing the cry of the Earth. We’re not hearing the scream. It’s all repressed.
So, that’s what that statement is about—not acknowledging something’s that’s happening that’s so different and so scary and so unacceptable that we’re quiet. That’s the paralyzed. So, as a society, we’re in that paralyzed, raw, tender place. So, the book is acknowledging that. It’s my acknowledgement of these things in this place, and also trying to recognize it and help us all do it together, recognize this together, and see where we go with that—to see, “Can we call it out?”
I’m not the first one to say, “Call it out.” But, I think I’m trying to call it out in a way that it can be heard—that it can go through directly to the heart, directly to the soul, and not to a mind game—or a word game, a syntax game. Not there.
TS: Zenju, just one final question for you, which is: This program is called Insights at the Edge. I often like to end the conversation by asking people what the current edge is for them personally in their work and in their growth process, if you will—if you feel comfortable sharing that.
ZEM: Sure. I think right now my edge is I deal a lot with my own personal, physical, and chronic pain in my own body a lot right now. In my lifetime, I have paid a lot of attention to cultivating the mind and spending a lot of time with that—and then cultivating my heart as well in that process.
But, at the same time, there’s a way that I have pushed through to do the work. I speak on this because I think a lot of us do that and then we’re certainly surprised when we come up with some kind of an illness that will end our lives.
Even just recently, I got some information about something that could possibly—not immediately—end my life. But, it could. I got a lot of tests and I came out OK.
But, the process of coming now to the end of my training as a Zen priest and being fully transmitted and presented into the world as a teacher—now, to teach through my body rather than just through my mind and experiences. What that would look like and what that means is very interesting. The times when I can’t do things and sometimes I can—and when I can’t, how that’s disappointing to some of my students.
These kinds of things. When I struggle financially. So, when you’re struggling, you’re usually struggling all around. It’s an awful spiritual struggle if it’s financial or if it’s physical illness.
So, I’m generally well and I’m glad of that. But, I’ve come to understand that what some of this is for me on a spiritual level is the fear to fully take on some of the gifts that I have come into this world with. Being in Zen, I’ve done a lot of this letting go of some of these stories I’ve had in my mind and these things that have been imposed upon me so that I can come to a full life and come fully with the medicine and gifts that I had when I came into this world.
So, I feel that there’s this level right now [and] that’s why the body is speaking to me—screaming. We were talking about screaming. It’s an unacceptable body sometimes in my mind. “Oh, it’s not perfect.” It used to be the color, but that’s not the problem anymore. How I look—I don’t feel that kind of hatred anymore. But, there’s still something in my body which I reject, in which there’s a rejection.
So, this journey I’m going to have as I age—and I think that a lot of us are aging right now—that this spiritual path of embodiment is going to be quite powerful as I walk through it and pray and remember and connect what my calling is. I do know what that is—even in a shamanic way, what my calling is. I have one and I have known it all my life. I’ve never walked it in name necessarily. I’ve been a lot of things in name.
So, now those things I’ve been in name are not needed anymore. Even “Zen priestess.” Not needed necessarily anymore for this leg the journey. For this leg of the journey, I’m purely that embodied self that is holding that spiritual gift and that medicine that I had when I came into the world. I’m ready to walk that walk.
It is the edge. It’s a little bit frightening because I don’t know really what it is. There’s no name for it—what I’m becoming. What I’m becoming is not becoming anything, really. It’s a dying away.
So, I think a lot of us are going through that. It’s very frightening. It’s very frightening to look and see a very short horizon in one’s life. So, that’s my edge now. [I] wake up and go, “Oh my God! What happened to the last 40 years?”
So, I have felt a lot of grief. I also have felt a lot of joy, because I do feel that I understand the nature of this embodiment even more in this boundless life with the illnesses—or the chronic pain, I should say. I do feel I will come through that. I will come through that.
I want to be able to say less and model more by how I am—how I am being. I don’t know how to do that, because I’m already on my next book. So, that’s kind of funny. But, it is still a path. And that’s my edge right now—dealing with these things.
TS: I want to thank you, Zenju, for your honesty and integrity and outspokenness and vulnerability. Also, I want to congratulate you on your Zen—I guess we won’t call it a diploma, as you tell the people you work with. There’s no diploma. But, becoming a full Zen priest. So, congratulations on that.
ZEM: Thank you. Thank you very much.
TS: I have been speaking with Zenju Earthlyn Manuel, and she’s written a book called The Way of Tenderness: Awakening through Race, Sexuality, and Gender. Thank you, Zenju, for this conversation. You gave me quite a lot to reflect on and work with, and I feel really grateful. Thank you.
ZEM: OK. Thank you for asking.
TS: SoundsTrue.com. Many voices, one journey. Thanks for listening.