The Way of Tenderness - Foreword
“What does liberation mean when I have incarnated in a particular body, with a particular shape, color, and sex?”
Ordinary life and Buddhahood have no distinction.
Great knowledge is not different from ignorance.
Why should one seek outwardly for a treasure, when the field of the body has its own bright jewel?
—Pao-chih, The Nonduality of Buddhahood and Ordinary Life
Early in this thought-provoking book, Zenju Earthlyn Manuel informs her readers that “The way of tenderness is not Buddhist, not a religion, not behavior modification, not a philosophy of life, or a conceptual view of life. It is not a static path. You will not comprehend this way without laying bare your human conditioning. You will not comprehend it by intellect alone.”
Although she is an ordained Zen priest, and author of the splendid book Tell Me Something About Buddhism: Questions and Answers for the Curious Beginner, Manuel does not identify her meditation on race, sexuality, and gender as Buddhist. Yet the Dharma (teachings) is present throughout her work. Shakyamuni Buddha was not a “Buddhist.” I have read that he simply referred to his disciples as dhammiko (followers of dharma). The Dharma is just wisdom. It can be found anywhere and everywhere. No religion or philosophy, Eastern or Western, has a monopoly on wisdom.
As a dhammiko, Manuel is rightly annoyed by the avoidance of this issue in our sanghas, our spiritual communities:
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.
Buddhism teaches the impermanence of all objects in our ordinary experience. That includes the body. Unlike most writers on spiritual subjects, Manuel phenomenologically grounds her meditation there, for “the dark body in which [she] walks is aging in a youth-oriented society.” That body, our impermanent and aging flesh, is the third term between consciousness and the world, mediating all of our perceptual experience. It is the costume that tabernacles consciousness, the temporary clothing that allows others to sometimes enslave us with their eyes. For this reason Manuel refuses to acquiesce to the polite, often well-meaning tendency in American sanghas and convert-Buddhist communities to pretend that physical differences do not matter and are not worthy of discussion. On spiritual paths, we are told, “We are not our bodies.” This is correct from the standpoint of absolute truth (paramārtha-satya). But it is not true for our daily, lived-experience on the plane of relative or conventional truth (samvṛtti-satya) in a diverse, multi-racial society where so many suffer from the three poisons of desire (or greed), ignorance, and hatred. Therefore, Manuel is compelled to ask, “If the categories of race, sexuality, gender are illusions or social constructs then what is the tension and ultimate hatred that arises? How are these things both present and absent? What relationship does race, sexuality, and gender have with spirit? How can we be both tender and liberated? What chases some away from this topic and draws others towards it?”
The questions she presents, much like koans, are unconventional, resembling a trap door that can plunge us into deeper reflections. We all come to Buddhism because we wish to put an end to our suffering, yes. However, all of us come to the Dharma from different places in the world, from different individual and group histories—we come to Buddhism in different bodies. We may be “a child who is bullied at school because of having a flat nose and thick lips,” or “a teen who is raped for wearing clothes of the ‘wrong’ gender.” We must answer Manuel’s question affirmatively insofar as Samsara is the precondition for experiencing Nirvana. The very suffering caused by racism and discrimination based on embodiment—the predetermined story for dark people—can serve as a powerful catalyst for a person of color taking refuge in the Three Jewels. The worldly fortunes of the flesh can move them to begin questioning, first the falsehoods told about black people (or women or gays) for centuries, then all the lies, assumptions, and presuppositions they have learned and lived in a society that is Eurocentric, materialistic, naively hedonistic, and spiritually broken. We should not pretend to be blind to our different forms and conventional identities, but neither should we be bound by them. To look courageously at one’s historically constituted embodiment and social identity, and to wonder Why am I treated this way? or Who am I? is a deep-plowing inquiry. It can lead, not to despair, depression, alcohol and drug abuse, or seeing oneself as a victim or pariah, but rather to a transformative kind of mindfulness that reveals to us, as it did to Manuel, how “I have already been given a fully liberated life.”
When explaining mindfulness, Bhikkhu Bodhi points out:
The task of Right Mindfulness is to clear up the cognitive field. Mindfulness brings to light experience in its pure immediacy. It reveals the object as it is before it has been plastered over with conceptual paint, overlaid with interpretations. To practice mindfulness is thus a matter not so much of doing but of undoing: not thinking, not judging, not associating, not planning, not imagining, not wishing.
This suspension of judgment, this “letting go” of conceptual paint, informs Manuel’s discussion of “tenderness.” First, she says, we must recognize that “identity arises spontaneously out of our bodies and minds, and spontaneously evolves in name, meaning, structure and appearance. All of these spontaneously arising things are not fixed and isolated. They arise out of and recede back into the emptiness of our form. Our identities develop as expressions of our not truly knowing what these spontaneous appearances are, and so we name them something or someone. ” But such naming need not be divisive or cause suffering, if we understand that everything we think we know is provisional, and if our hearts remain “clear of notions and ideas about others or about anything in life.” I have often called this attitude “epistemological humility.” In a Buddhist or spiritual sense, it enables Manuel “to allow people to be who they are, without any expectations.” Her path of tenderness, then, awakens us to the multiplicity in oneness, to a natural harmony we experience within the body and, most important of all, to seeing that “Our sameness stems from the fact that we share the same life-source as a flower or a bee. But we are nonetheless inherently different in form…The way of tenderness is an experiential, non-intellectual, heartfelt acknowledgement of all embodied difference.”
As a good teacher, Zenju Earthlyn Manuel does not expect her conclusions to bring closure to this complex and multi-faceted subject. In fact, she asks that we join her in a continued consideration of race, sexuality, and gender as much needed paths of awakening. After all, “We are more willing to explore and engage our various embodiments when we understand them to be paths to transformation. If we do not anchor our inquiry into life within the undeniable, physical reality in which we live, spiritual awakening will remain far too abstract.”