Now available, with my recent story “Eudora Loved Her Life.”
The novel, NIGHTBIRDS IN AN AGE OF LIGHT, remains unpublished and available for consideration by editors and agents.
Got the garden in …
Got some house plants …
… and some painting done …
Got the cat …
Went to Brooklyn to sew …
… and to sit with Reb …
9:00 – 5:00 on Saturday June 17, 2017, Stillpoint Zen Community, Lawrenceville
Combining meditation in the Zen tradition with the practice of imaginative writing, this workshop invites intimate and creative study of the mind. Read the rest of this entry »
I led the New Year’s retreat, offering Writing As A Wisdom Project and related dharma teaching, then became the Green Gulch tenzo. So much to say about this and nothing to say. So much to learn, constantly being learned. Not a lot of sleep. Not a time or place for writing. Family far away. Little time online. Little daily news. And beautiful Green Gulch … beautiful place of practice. A perpetual dilemma …
Meanwhile I gave a Sunday dharma talk … accessible via Dropbox with this link: Finding Stillness in the Midst of the Hurly Burly.
I hope something in this strange assortment of offerings strikes a chord. And may this quick and summary post find everyone well and happy and enjoying friends and peace.
The Way of Tenderness: Awakening through Race, Sexuality, and Gender
by Zenju Earthlyn Manuel
Zenju Earthlyn Manuel’s The Way of Tenderness is a deeply personal meditation on the lib- erative potential of embracing individual experience and embodied human life. It offers insight into coming unstuck—unstuck from within an activist paradigm that can often further separation, unstuck from within a spiritual bypassing that ignores realities of conflict and oppression. Traditional Zen and Buddhist teachings—of liberation and com- passion, unity and multiplicity, emptiness and form, interdependence and identity, and the interrelationship of all beings—come to new and urgent life in the crucible of Zenju’s fire.
“The path of spirit is grounded in embodied experience,” Manuel writes. In the Zen context, this idea that embodied individual life is the ground for liberation may not seem unfamiliar or radical, but as Zenju explores the reality of this teaching on the ground of her own life, and in the light of the ways habitual social and psychological oppressions and evasions can condition spiritual practice, the radical nature of the teaching is freshly revealed.
The book’s subtitle, Awakening through Race, Sexuality, and Gender, may suggest that The Way of Tenderness is offered primarily for those who live within one or more of the variously defined realms of societal “other”-ness (the vast majority of human beings), that is to say, for those who are not of the socially dominant race, the socially dominant sexuality, and/or the socially dominant gender. So it seems important to say from the start that this book, arising as it does from the experience of a life, a body, on which such meanings of social otherness have been constructed, is a teaching for the whole sangha, all practitioners, all people—for each of us, whatever combinations or permutations within these and other categories we may live and live within, including “white,” heterosexual, and/or male. This book is not about somebody else.
When we speak of race, sexuality, and gender—when we speak of our embodiment—we speak of all of us, not just “those people” over there… We are all raced, sexualized, classed, and so on. This can be difficult to see.
Manuel asks us, individually and in our communities, to recognize that the categories of oppressor and oppressed, superior and inferior—and the isolation and separation that these categories foster—confine and condition those who find themselves on the dominant side of these dichotomies of signification, the oppressor side, not only those objectified on the side of the oppressed—and to find this recognition not theoretically, but in our own experience, in the body, to open as the body to our complete interrelationship with one another.
That a need to study these constructed meanings and their power in our lives applies to those of us born to the oppressor side of the dichotomies may be hard for many to recognize, especially those of us who are “white,” heterosexual, and/or male. For many of us the invisibility of our own privilege (as well as our personal experiences of wounding and disempowerment and our own sense of acting with good intention) can blind us to this truth. The Way of Tenderness brings this truth back into visibility, and offers it as a gift, to each of us personally, to our sanghas, and to the larger society.
The very visibility of embodied experience and the social meanings given and lived as our visible bodies are what each of us has to embrace when we embrace the study of our karma and our suffering, as well as when we welcome our joys. We cannot do this thoroughly without engaging thoroughly with the body, in its immediacy as well as in its mediated meanings.
Sociopolitical and emotional identities provide us fragmented ways of looking at our lives. They are pieced together from places of pos- session and dispossession. It is this fragmentation, I feel, that leads some to interpret Buddhist teachings as saying that we must drop all identity for the sake of wholeness.
It is this tendency to ignore or suppress identity that The Way of Tenderness counters, asking us instead to start there, in identity and its fluidity, to start with the body and its meanings, and to exclude nothing.
This book is not about somebody else.
And not paradoxically, the way The Way of Tenderness is not about somebody else arises precisely from the way it is specifically about Zenju Earthlyn Manuel, from the very particularities of her own life that she brings to bear upon and illuminates through the dharma—the dharma of teaching and the dharma of her practice both.
What Manuel demonstrates in clear and moving language, in theoretical discussion and in personal narrative, is that although race, sexuality, and gender (as well as class, age, physical ability, and other such categories of identity arising with and as the body) may be socially constructed in their meanings, and although identity itself is fluid and its constructed meanings are not fixed, the constructed meanings function as realities that shape and reflect and express and shape again the bodies and lives we live, whatever our location on these continua may be. These constructs condition our lived reality, and we live as bodies. “Everything we know is because of the body. The body mediates our lives,” Manuel writes.
We live as bodies. And where we fall down is where we stand up.
Because we live as bodies, it is only in and through the body that we can awaken to the truth of our freedom from the socially constructed categories that confine us—only if we open to and embrace this embodiment, exactly as we find it, in its fluidity of identity. This embrace is the way of tenderness.
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… The way of tenderness is a response from below the surface of what appears to us when we are seeing, hearing, touching, smelling, tasting, or thinking. It is a response beyond the mind, but of the body.
Although Manuel tells us that the way of tenderness “cannot be practiced” she offers throughout the book insights, teachings, and stories from her own life that invite and encourage us to open to this embrace, to remember that we have already opened to it, and to activate our awareness, to give attention to the shadowed places she illuminates.
Early in The Way of Tenderness, through examining her own trajectory of training and practice, Manuel looks at efforts of contemporary Buddhist sanghas to meet and counter the racism, sexism, and homophobia of U.S. culture. She looks at the role sanghas for people of color play in offering sanctuary within and apart from the larger, mostly white sangha, and the incomprehension such groups are sometimes met with. She considers the pitfalls in the practice of being an “ally”—as a white person to people of color, as a heterosexual person to LGBQTI people, as a man to women—when not founded on the intimacy of embodied friendship. She makes clear that although accomplishing institutional “diversity” may be an outcome of making space for working with embodied identity within sanghas, that benefit to how an institution is perceived is not and should not be the motivation for doing this work.
Manuel brings to this discussion an understanding of spiritual bypass, the tendency in the name of harmony not to meet what is conflicted and difficult directly, in the present moment, in the body—the one and only place where such a meeting can take place.
When I contemplated being tender in this way, I realized that it did not equal quiescence. It did not mean that fiery emotions would disappear. It did not render it acceptable that anyone could hurt or abuse life. Tenderness does not erase the inequities we face in our relative and tangible world. I am not encouraging a spiritual bypass of the palpable things that we experience.
Zen communities, like many spiritual communities, can foster a tendency to ignore awareness of identity and difference, oppression and conflict. The Way of Tenderness, part cry of the heart, part call to arms, offers all of us the possibility to wake up to the error of this bypass, to see and embrace embodiment and the changing faces of our identities, to embrace the opportunities difference and conflict bring—and rather than fearing them as separating, to recognize that what separates is an imposed and false harmony that blocks realization of our true interrelationship.
This embrace is to study suffering and to study karma: right here, right now, in this body, and this mind. The study of self that is the study of the Buddha way requires this attention to the ways the distorted and illusory “givens” of our lives condition our reality, our thinking, our feeling, our bodies, our experience, our practice—not intellectually to deny and refute these conditions as delusions, but to find our freedom from them, through them, right where they are, in presence, in the body, with nothing excluded.
In the face of true interrelationship race, sexuality, and gender are emptied of our distortions. We can use these as places of awakening by seeing or witnessing them as they are.
If we step aside in fear or evasion, we miss the opportunity. Where we fall down is where we stand up.
If we continue on unaware of the learned tendencies regarding race, sexuality, and gender that are stored within our collective mental lives, then our ancestral and karmic tendencies will simply ripen again to confront us with new forms of racism, heterosexism, and oppressive binary gender roles. We will continually become subject to new forms of oppression and to new notions of supremacy among living beings. Day by day the list of peoples who are pariahs will grow, and rarely will it shrink.
In The Way of Tenderness Zenju Earthlyn Manuel offers us all courage—the great bodhisattva gift of fearlessness—as in stillness and silence we step into the fire of liberating presence, awake to “tension and tenderness,” and our true interrelationship with one another and all beings.
Ultimately Zenju takes this teaching beyond our individual lives, beyond the life of the sangha, to the life of all human and sentient beings, beyond even the present into a future, with a hope and perhaps a faith that this tender, liberated way may yet be fully realized. Set against the planetary crises now arising from so many forms of human delusion, it can seem a fragile hope, a fragile faith—this very fragility the tenderness and tension we habitually retreat from, even in a life of spiritual practice.
The confrontation with the impermanence of all things is perhaps the widest gate to the liberation from suffering… Given the sheer quantity of death around us, why not use this merciless light to see who we are?
May we find the courage that The Way of Tenderness invites us to, and may it be so.
North Truro, Massachusetts
The following review was written for the San Francisco Zen Center Sangha News and first appeared there on September 23, 2014
Once upon a time, not so long ago, a young Zen student practicing at Tassajara read Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick on the suggestion of a friend at the monastery. Maybe Daniel Herman would have gone on from there to study literature and complete his PhD, even to write his dissertation on the very novel and the very subject, without the happy circumstance of having met Melville’s whale for the first time in the mountains of the Ventana Wilderness, in the deep heart-opening canyon that is Tassajara. Maybe that dissertation would even have become a book. And maybe not. Certainly not this book.
Like Melville’s narrator Ishmael, Daniel Herman introduces himself before he guides us carefully into the world of Moby-Dick, introducing at the same time the lens through which he will read the novel: the lens of a Zen student. This is an almost magical and apparently inevitable pairing, as if Moby-Dick had been waiting for just this person to come along and write about it in just this way.
Herman brings to his reading of Moby-Dick an intimacy inextricable from his practice experience and from his deep sympathy for Melville and his works. Together these origins make Zen and the White Whale unusually moving for a scholarly study, quite independently, I would guess, of one’s previous knowledge of Moby-Dick or the dharma. And Herman’s whole project and execution reaffirm the possibility and understanding of literary reading and writing as a dharma practice.
Although this is a work of literary criticism, well documented with sources and citations, Zen and the White Whale is delightfully free of theoretical jargon, and as a dharma reading, it is free of jargon as well. Herman intends his discussion to be accessible to anyone familiar with Moby-Dick, not dependent on prior practice of Zen or knowledge of buddhadharma, and I would take this intention a little farther to suggest that the reader need not already know Moby-Dick either, so skillfully does Herman guide us through the novel’s difficult waters. And those of us who do know the novel and are Zen practitioners also may find here the pleasure and danger, both, of being inspired to venture into the novel once again, with our Zen eyes and our Zen hearts open.
Zen and the White Whale begins with the observation that “Moby-Dick and the teachings of Zen Buddhism share a central premise: that the ultimate truths of the universe cannot be distilled by conventional understanding, and that our ‘intellectual and spiritual exasperations’ arise from a desperate need for concrete answers to these ungraspable truths.”
From this assertion, all else follows. The book’s architecture is straightforward. First establishing the Buddhist texts Melville would have been familiar with, both those he is known to have read and those he is likely to have read, Herman goes on to read the novel alongside those teachings, using both the terms the 19th-century texts made available and the language of contemporary Zen teaching and teachers to illuminate Melville’s explorations—and he accom-plishes this journey with the lightest possible touch.
From the start Herman expresses the intention to offer a reading without attaching to it, and it is the congruity of this intention with the method and spirit of Moby-Dick itself that makes the book such a satisfying literary reflection. He writes:
Just as every whaleman in the novel has his own unique notion regarding Moby Dick the whale, every reader has his or her own unique understanding of Moby-Dick the book. As Ishmael might say, it “begins to assume different aspects, according to your point of view.” To insist that any particular reading of the novel is somehow truer, or more worthwhile, than all others is to fall into the same trap as Captain Ahab.
In true Zen spirit, Herman saves this insight from its potential for nihilism by the care he takes over details, individual and concrete. His discussion progresses by loosely following the trajectory of the novel—focusing first on Ishmael and his “way-seeking mind,” then on the white whale as the figure for the absolute or ultimate unknowable, and finally on Ahab and his obsession as a self-consciousness that even in its suffering must cling to its sense of separation.
From the first words of the novel—the famous “Call me Ishmael”—Herman brings his literary reflections and his dharma reflections into conversation with one another, and his approach here at the beginning can stand as example for the whole. Playing off those first words of the narrator, Herman writes: “Call me, he says, as I begin this new life, with this new name. It is at once an embrace of his own existence and a plea for us to join him. Call me—establishing the reader’s essential role in his narrative. Call me—I cannot exist without your call. Call me.” He continues:
[T]hat Ishmael requires us to join him on his cetological meditation suggests that he would be unable to attain knowledge of the whale without his reader participating in his effort. This recalls Dogen Zenji’s teaching (originally from the second chapter of the Lotus Sutra, “Preaching”) that “buddhas alone, together with other buddhas, are directly able to realize [truth].” It is only through appealing to an outside source that one can “affirm that he understands clearly and fully.”
In a further reflection on the opening words, Herman tells us that the name Ishmael “is often translated as ‘God hears.’ So we might read this sentence as ‘Call me “God hears.”’ Or perhaps it should be ‘Call me the one who God hears’ or ‘Call me the one who God has heard.’”
Herman relates this “Call me” to the standard sutra opening “Thus have I heard” (and could as easily, I think, have taken us in another direction as well, to some similar imaginative riffing on the Bodhisattva Regarder of the Cries of the World, for surely this Ishmael whose name means “God hears” can be read as the novel’s cry regarder, its Kanzeon).
As Herman’s reading continues, giving in this way his close attention to the imagery, language, and idea within the world made by the novel, he brings to bear mutually illuminating images, language, and ideas from the teaching and practice of Zen. If Melville’s language likens the whaling ship to a monastery and its men to monastics, Herman’s own experience of monastic life enlivens his reading of the metaphor. If men at the watch go drifty, there are parallels to be found in meditation. Herman writes:
When Ishmael succumbs to a “dreamy mood losing all consciousness,” he describes the progression of his mental states in precise and astute detail… He strikes a stable balance between seeking the whale but not grasping the whale—between whaling and not-whaling (we might call it “non-whaling”)—leading to his realization that there is ultimately no sperm whale to be found.
And if Ishmael’s transformation and ultimate survival may to a technically minded reader seem mere narrative necessity, to the Zen practitioner they embody and enact the movements on a path of practice.
Throughout Zen and the White Whale, Ishmael, the whale, and Captain Ahab receive equally close attention, with engaging and thoughtful side visits to the other whalemen, and Zen is spoken here in the voices not only of Dogen but also of Dongshan, Linji, Suzuki Roshi, and Tenshin Reb Anderson, among many others.
When in his conclusion Herman describes the blank unfurling scroll that adorns Melville’s gravestone, its “blankness” has been established as an image carrying the weightless weight of Moby-Dick and dharma with it. At the end of his acknowledgments, Herman expresses gratitude directly to Melville “for writing this strange book about a whale. It breaks my heart to think you died without knowing what your work would one day mean to the world.”
Thus, all along its way, Daniel Herman’s Zen-based reading serves to bring the great American novel of whalers, whale, and whaling ship out of its classic, 19th-century, masculine-oriented, academic—dare we say even stuffy?—confines into timeless life with all of us here and now, where in truth it has always belonged.
I have to confess that I enjoyed reading Zen and the White Whale so much that at first I found it difficult to write about. More than anything Daniel Herman’s book moves me to go out and get my hands on a copy of Moby-Dick and to read it again. May it have that effect on others, whether students of Zen or students of literature, or most happily both.
Just a little catching up here, after six months at Green Gulch, a few days in Brooklyn, and now a room and time for writing at Wellspring House in Ashfield, Massachusetts, where the trees still look like winter, but the air knows it’s spring…
Meanwhile, in California, Sorrow is a finalist in fiction for the Northern California Book Awards—the ceremony (“and the winner is…”) coming up this Sunday in San Francisco, details here.
Just to be nominated in such excellent company is a win, and I’m sorry to miss the event, but happy for this precious unstructured time.
Good luck to all the nominees, and gratitude to the Northern California reviewers. And, as always, to Jeff Condran and Robert Peluso of Braddock Avenue Books.