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