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Multiplicity in Oneness

Excerpted from The Way of Tenderness by Zenju Earthlyn Manuel.

One of the things I loved most as a child was to swing in our backyard for hours. I pushed back and forth until the height of the swing almost reached the top of the tallest palm tree. This was how I spent my time contemplating life. The more I thought about the things that happened at school, home, or church, the higher the swing climbed into the air. Swinging helped to move the pain that had no words. I rocked back and forth through the confusion between love and hate. The wind passed over me, a small, innocent, black girl-child in a society that created myths about differences.

Unworthiness, invisibility, loss of intimacy, isolation, neglected intuition, lack of love, intense fear, overwhelming distrust, and a loss of voice—all life-threatening symptoms of the disease of systemic oppression. When my heart was full, I held my breath and jumped out of the swing at its highest arc. I loved flying through the air and the feeling of the wind rushing up underneath my dress. I was familiar with the landing strip because I had flown often. Most times I landed right on my feet.

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Wide-eyed and curious I questioned the horrors of life. I thought deeply about the pain in the world. In 1988, when I first entered the Dharma path laid out in the Buddha’s teachings, I didn’t trust that the teachings could ever touch the pain in my heart. Yet I, with my Christian upbringing, walked through the door of the Buddhist temple. I immediately grieved the missing sense of community found in African-American influenced Christianity of the ‘60s and ‘70s, based on a shared history of dehumanization—specifically slavery. The black churches of my youth built a Christianity founded on an African spirituality that was not an individual experience but a communal quest to discover a kind of wholeness that is realized only in community.

The black church was the collective soul of the people—an animating and integrative power that constituted both the individual and collective experience. It was a spirituality dedicated to equality and preservation of community, embedded within a collective historical existence.

To me, being Christian by sensibility was being black. So entering the path of Buddha felt like leaving the African American community. However, my physical departure was at least made easier by the fundamentalist approach to Christ’s teachings taken at my church, its inability to embrace women as ministers, and their fear of sexual differences clearly embodied in some of its members. Yet I continued to yearn for that collective, communal experience on the spiritual path.

I had no real desire to be Buddhist, to chant, or to meditate. I was clueless when Buddhism presented itself through friends in the Japanese Nichiren tradition. The teachings softened my heart, and the promise of inner peace kept me in front of the Gohonzon scroll given out by Soka Gakkai. After fifteen years with Soka Gakkai, in the blink of an eye, I found myself sitting in silence in a zendo. When I heard Dharma teachers of African descent speaking at an auspicious retreat for African Americans at Spirit Rock Meditation Center, it felt natural to move from Soka Gakkai to Soto Zen. When I entered the temple, a Zen chant expressing the determination to save all beings inspired me to deepen my quest to end suffering, especially the suffering of dehumanization. The words liberation, compassion, love, and wisdom fell like drops of medicine on my heart.

However, it wasn’t long before I discovered within the Zen Buddhist community the unspoken expectation that a spiritual person transcends notions of race, sexuality, and gender, and all other forms of embodiment. To speak of identity was a mark of being unenlightened. I was left on my own to make sense of ancient teachings in my life in this modern world. In the modern world we are left to contend with hatred based on embodied differences and the histories that come with them. Am I to let go of the shared historical past of slavery but continue to hold on to the uplifting shared histories or cherished lineages of the ancient spiritual communities of another? There is multiplicity in the spirit of oneness. This I knew in my bones.

Rev. Zenju Earthlyn Manuel, PhD, author, visual artist, drummer, and Zen Buddhist priest, is the guiding teacher of Still Breathing Zen Community in East Oakland, CA. She was raised with two sisters in Los Angeles after her parents migrated there from Creole Louisiana. She is the author of Tell Me Something About Buddhism and contributing author to many books, including Dharma, Color and Culture: Voices From Western Buddhist Teachers of Color and The Hidden Lamp: Stories from Twenty-Five Centuries of Awakened Women. She lives in Oakland, CA.

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