- PhD in Transformative Learning from California Institute of Integral Studies
- Opened a Zen Center in Oakland, CA
- Zen Buddhist priest in the Suzuki Roshi lineage
- Given Dharma talks at San Francisco Zen Center and Deer Park Monastary
Zenju Earthlyn Manuel (b. 1952) is a Buddhist teacher in the Zen tradition. She is of African- American ethnicity and only two generations removed from slavery. Her landmark work The Way of Tenderness: Awakening Through Race, Sexuality, and Gender her take on Buddhism. The book explains how universal suffering and individual suffering are the same and different.
Her story begins with her first Buddhist sit in 1988. A feeling of separation and unacceptability to the mainstream world motivated her quest for deeper meaning. She understood these feelings were connected to the systematic and historical suffering of her people. Initially, the path of activism provided an outlet for her angst. Eventually, she needed more holistic methods.
Entering Buddhism presented some difficulty because she had to leave Christianity. The black church not only serves as a spiritual community but an underpinning of an entire subculture. Often in rural areas such as Louisiana, the black church is the only formal organization a black person could join. Dr. Manuel equated blackness with membership in the church. She had to move past these feelings of betrayal to embrace the path of Buddha.
In The Way of Tenderness she uses the connection with the body to explain how universal suffering and individual suffering are interconnected. The body must be accepted as part of nature as the vehicle in which you experience the world and how the world experiences the individual. This body connects a person with an identity that distinguishes them from others. These identities can cause suffering, yet they also connect a person with their individual history and support from people with the same identity. The connection with identity can be emotional, powerful, and empowering.
The identity which Dr. Manuel frames as race, sexuality, and gender can’t just be ignored or obsessed over to create a false personal narrative. It is through an understanding of race, sexuality, and gender that a person begins to dissolve the illusion of self. The social justice struggle of these various groups connects the Dharma back to the physical world. Once people have these experiences with oneness, they will be motivated to expand them to the people they love and the communities they reside.
In the Buddhist or Enlightened communities issues with race, sexuality, and gender are seen as personal problems out of the scope of the religious community. Also, those still struggling with issues of identity are not enlightened and attached to the concept of self/ego. Instead of actively working toward a more equitable society the person needs to “let go” of ego. The denial of identity takes the Dharma and makes it only a metaphysical concept. True Dharma changes the metaphysical and physical world.
It is essential for enlightened communities to define “letting go of ego.” If self is an illusion then there is nothing to “let go of” and nothing to “attach to”. The release of ego is the understanding of the interconnection to all other living beings. The knowledge that all of our roots and fates are intertwined. Something happening to one person, real or imagined affects all people.
When enlightened communities do not discuss issues of identity, these problems fester and boil over. The unresolved issues of race repel members of minority communities. It also reduces the ability of introspection in members of the majority population. If a member of an enlightened community is not doing serious work in the area of introspection, they can not claim to be different than the population at large. Self-introspection will lead to an understanding of collective suffering and a desire to actively remedy the collective suffering.
In the social justice movement, which Dr. Manuel is connected with through membership in Pan-African associations and study of indigenous African religions, individual suffering is used to explain all life phenomenon. It is essential to understand what is personal narrative and what is systematic racism. In her meditation retreats, she has activities focused on people telling their personal narratives. Her retreatants will either disconnect from their story or see how their story is interconnected with everyone else. Once a person disconnects from their story, their anger moves through them. It is not ignored nor is it dwelled on as a controlling feature of their life. The individual can then determine what needs to be done in a given situation from a rational perspective.
Her understanding of universal and individual suffering leads her to support cultural sanctuaries, spaces for people of color (POC) to heal in spiritual communities. POC Sangha’s allow black people to openly discuss how they use the dharma to heal with past wounds and maneuver in a racially charged world. It is difficult to discuss these issues among groups of mixed race because whites often feel attacked. Since creating strategies to deal with racism is valuable for the progress of a spiritual community, POC spaces are vital. These spaces do not exclude whites to impose superiority, or to keep whites away from knowledge. They are practical workspaces to use the dharma to heal and grow.
Dr. Z. Manuel Analysis
Dr. Manuel has Integral consciousness. She details how suffering is at the same time universal and individual. She also explains how focusing on the individual aspects or the universal aspects could cause pathologies in individuals and communities. The Integral community needs to study the work of Dr. Manuel.
She needs to be commended for having the courage not only to take on the Dharma community but the social justice movement. Integral approaches are normally both/and not either/or. Having perspective at a higher level allows her to criticize both camps. Being at second tier also allows her not to be threatened by criticism of both communities or need to defend the communities at all costs.
For more on Dr. Manuel
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Also, a SoundCloud playlist has been created titled: Zenju Earthlyn Manuel
- The Way of Tenderness: Awakening Through Race, Sexuality, and Gender by Dr. Z. Manuel 2015