The Wisdom Blog: Classic & Contemporary Buddhism

Tracking the Footprints of Invisible Monsters

by Zenju Earthlyn Manuel
February 4, 2015
Wed, 02/04/2015 - 16:05 -- Zenju Earthlyn ...

From The Way of Tenderness by Zenju Earthlyn Manuel.


Tracking the Footprints of Invisible Monsters

I was south of Tamil Nadu, India, dreaming. My bed was on fire and I was lying in it. Blue flames shot up around me and I became frightened that I would burn to death. I anticipated the pain and suffering. But I did not burn away. I did not feel any pain or suffering. The flame continued and I just lay there in the blue flames. The body had transformed from its material self into an existence beyond. Going beyond into another existence was not the spiritual awakening. The body coming through the fire and not around it was the awakening for me.

We must come through the fire of our lives to experience awakening. We are all tender no matter where we fall on the continua within race, sexuality, and gender. We are tender in a raw sense, and not necessarily in a soft and gentle way. This tenderness is of a wounded nature. We are all sore from the hatred. Our tenderness is our aching, sensitivity, and ultimately our vulnerability. This raw feeling is not only experienced by those who have been oppressed, abused, and discriminated against. Experiences of hatred, whether giving or receiving it, have no boundaries. The abuser or oppressor also experiences a wounded tenderness. One cannot hate without knowing the experience of it. After all, aren’t those who are perceived to be dominant in our society hated too? Can we be tender in the raw sense and still actively walk the path of liberation?

When I was ordained as a Zen priest I was given the dharma name Ekai Zenju, which means Wisdom Ocean (Ekai), Complete Tenderness (Zenju). I could not swim in the ocean, nor did I see myself as tender in the sense of being soft or gentle. I felt the raw and wounded kind of tenderness. For that reason, at first, I embraced the name Ekai because I loved the ocean and visions of it were conjured in the name Ekai. But my teacher told me that the second name is given as the path one is to explore, so I began to call myself Zenju in a quest to discover a lived experience of the name’s essence. What is complete tenderness?

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. Depression, unhealthy relationships, dependency on substances to numb the pain, and thoughts of suicide were my responses to the tension. I felt tension between what was imposed upon me and the true nature of life in all of its beauty and perfection. So how does someone who has experienced deep hatred, from within as well as without, become Zenju, Complete Tenderness— a liberated tenderness that is not a wound but complete liberation from the rage that hatred breeds?

I listened to Zen teachers address suffering with Buddha’s teachings. I listened for what might help me to face rage and to develop a liberated tenderness. Some suggested that if I “just dropped the labels” I would “be liberated.” Some said, “We are delusional; there is no self.” Others said, “We are attached to some idea of ourselves.” If I could “just let go of being this and that, my life would be freed from pain.” I thought for a time that perhaps I was holding on to my identity too tightly. Perhaps, I thought, if I “empty” my mind the pain in my heart will dissolve. What I found is that flat, simplified, and diluted ideas could not shake me from my pain. I needed to bring the validity of my unique, individual, and collective background to the practice of Dharma. “I am not invisible!” I wanted to shout.

Although my teachers taught us the absolute truths of Zen practice, they seemed to negate identity without considering the implications that identity can have for oppressed groups of people. The critique of identity overlooks the emotional, empowering, and positive effects of identity on those who are socially and politically objectified. My own powerful sense of identity, of connection with my ancestors, developed in the Civil Rights and Pan-African movements of the ‘70s, came through identifying with black people. Leah Kalmanson, a Drake University professor, philosopher, and author, has written, “If this emotional dimension is not brought to the foreground, it threatens to sabotage the practice of identity critique by preventing a person from taking a hard and honest look at herself.” Dogen Zenji, founder of the Soto Zen tradition, said, “To study the Buddha way is to study the self.” In order to forget the self, we must study it. We must look at the identities that the self is emotionally attached to. This is a life-long practice because identity is ever evolving.

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