The Wisdom Blog: Classic & Contemporary Buddhism

Buddhism and race, sexuality, and gender

by Zenju Earthlyn Manuel
January 28, 2015
Wed, 01/28/2015 - 12:22 -- Zenju Earthlyn ...

Chapter 1

Not What You Think

I was hungry when I attended my first Nichiren Buddhist meeting in 1988. I mean that literally. I wanted to go out to eat at a restaurant with two friends of mine, but they insisted that I first attend a Buddhist meeting with them that evening before we ate. With some irritation and a good deal of resistance I sat through the meeting with the group as they chanted Nam-myoho-renge-kyoA month later I was chanting in front of my own Buddhist altar, on which hung a scroll covered with Japanese writing. My Buddhist teachers would ask me “Why do you chant?” I would tell them that I didn’t know why. The truth is I was too ashamed to tell them that I chanted because of a deep pain that I could not name.

After about two years of chanting with this pain, I realized that the suffering I felt was part of a much broader suffering in the world. It was not mine but a suffering that existed before my birth. I recognized that I felt separate from the rest of the world, that I did not belong, and that I was not an acceptable part of the dominant culture because I was so different from the majority in terms of my appearance. The world had structured itself around appearance. The way in which I was perceived and treated depended on a structure of race, sexuality, gender, and class. The perverse power of these structures made my embodiment unacceptable to others and myself. As a result, I was paralyzed by feelings of isolation in my younger days.

I had come not to trust my own innate wisdom. By internalizing the judgments of those who felt that certain types of folks are lesser, I had betrayed myself—I had yielded to oppression. Oppression is a distortion of our true nature. It disconnects us from the earth and from each other. Awakening from the distortion of oppression begins with tenderness: we recognize our own wounded tenderness, which develops into the tenderness of vulnerability and culminates in the tenderness that comes with heartfelt and authentic liberation. That first experience of tenderness is a cry from deep within our own nature. It compels us to seek out reconnection to the earth and each other. As soon as we are born we begin to drift away from our true nature. We align with established structures that immediately begin to fix our perceptions of others and ourselves. Our lives are shaped by this alignment. Falling into line is a survival mechanism, driven by the suffering that already surrounds us at birth.

As we grow older and more accustomed to the structures that shape us, our own true nature calls to us. This calling can be experienced as a place of separation and suffering. In attending to such 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.

The words “spiritual awakening” conjure images of an experience beyond ordinary life. We may think of spiritual awakening as an experience that transcends this world or that erases all suffering. We may even wish to have an out-of-body or other extreme experience that we might point to as awakening. The wish to spiritually awaken is one of the great natural human desires, ranking right up there alongside the wish to experience love. Yet, most of us don’t truly know what spiritual awakening is.

Though we are unclear about what awakening really is, we are likely to feel certain about what it is not. We may feel that it cannot exist within conflict, strife, or pain. We may not feel spiritual awakening is accessible where there is difficulty, suffering, or hardship. Many feel it almost certainly cannot be found amid social struggles related to race, sexuality, and gender. Some may believe that the indignation, ire, and anger that motivate movements of protest only move us “backward” or away from what is more profound about our lives.

But if we were to simply walk past the fires of racism, sexism, and so on because illusions of separation exist within them, we may well be walking past one of the widest gateways to enlightenment. It is a misinterpretation to suppose that attending to the fires of our existence cannot lead us to experience the waters of peace. Profundity in fact resides in what we see in the world. Spiritual awakening arrives from our ordinary lives, our everyday struggles with each other. It may even erupt from the fear and rage that we tiptoe around. The challenges of race, sexuality, and gender are the very things that the spiritual path to awakening requires us to tend to as aspirants to peace.


I write this book for an audience spread across many worlds. I tried to keep in mind the academic world, the worlds of social and political activism, the world of spiritual seekers, and people in all worlds who are coming to terms with the color of their skin, their gender, and sexual identities. I hope to arouse in my readers’ hearts an urgency to attend to our disconnectedness. I am asking us to look right where we are for timeless wisdom within our struggles of race, sexuality, and gender. I have experienced awakening in many worlds, and across those worlds my awakening came within racist, sexist, and homophobic environments. This is important to note. Awakening does not come in a blind, euphoric, or empty world.

Relatively speaking, I have experienced being “colored,” “Negro,” “black,” “African American,” “descendant of Africans,” “straight,” “bi-sexual,” “two-spirited (masculine and feminine),” “tomboy,” “lesbian,” “dyke,” and “poor.” I am bi-sexual at heart but have lived in a same-sex or lesbian relationship most of my adult life. I have subscribed to these labels over time, to acknowledge my particular lived experience shaped by its particular suffering. Yes, my bones know the absolute life, unencumbered by labels, fixed perceptions, and appearances. But the absolute life has never been the problem I have to face in the world. In this twenty-first century, many have agreed that race is a construct or illusion used to create racism. It is also acknowledged in some places that sexuality and gender comprise a continua between opposites, and are not fixed states, as was once assumed. The very words “women,” “men,” “male,” and “female” are being transformed to include the many genders between those polarities.

However, simply knowing race to be constructed or an illusion does nothing to change the mind saturated with hatred. To know that there are many ways to live sexually, with or without a prescribed gender, does not affect the extent to which one might be tortured or killed for doing so. Hatred remains potent whether directed at a construct, an illusion, or at the reality of others. Therefore, identity should not be dismissed in our efforts toward spiritual awakening. On the contrary, identity is to be explored on the path of awakening. 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.

There are many essays, songs, poems, and films that singularly approach race, sexuality, or gender as spiritual subjects. And still there is not enough literature, if any, that addresses embodied race, sexuality, and gender in concert as locations for the experience of spiritual awakening. Even though it has been said that we can awaken right where we are, in the very bodies we inhabit, on this planet upon which we walk, we still speak of awakening as if it happens somewhere outside of our particular embodiment in time and space. The silence regarding race, sexuality, and gender in spiritual literature may create the illusion that all is well in our spiritual communities, or that speaking of our unique embodiment in terms of race, sexuality, and gender is not necessary. When the subject is tabled for discussion in spiritual communities, the tension is palpable, and our inability to approach it honestly gives rise to frustration, grief, humiliation, guilt, numbness, blindness, fear, and rage. We may even gather to commune in our rage, and perhaps to love one another fiercely and tenderly through it.

This tension is our most sacred time. To access this sacred time we must have common ground, we must stand at the water together with all of our problems. Many of us consider being human to be our common ground. This perspective can negate our unique differences and end up causing more tension. Being human is not enough common ground to navigate our challenges. If we could consider our common ground as trust we would be more able to remain open to the struggles. What are we trusting? We are trusting that what happens between us is the path by which we must come to awaken as human beings. We must stick to this path with great integrity no matter how difficult.

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