- The Way of Tenderness: Awakening Through Race, Sexuality, and Gender by Zenju Earthlyn Manuel
In the summer of 2015 I helped to organize an interfaith service sponsored by a coalition of about forty, mostly Christian, religious communities that expressly welcome members of sexual and gender minorities. For several years, this event has been part of the annual LGBTQ pride celebrations of Baltimore. As the only Buddhist member of the planning team, I reached out to nearly two dozen local sanghas, inviting them to participate. I was surprised by the tepid response. Only Soka Gakkai participated actively in the service and sent a contingent with a banner to the Pride Parade. A few representatives from the Shambhala Center and a few from different Zen groups attended the service and/or walked in the parade. I had expected better turnout from the city’s convert-oriented sanghas in a politically liberal state that banned discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation in 2001, legalized gay marriage in 2012, and prohibited discrimination on the basis of gender identity in 2014. I was especially [End Page 237] taken aback by the frosty response I received from one group belonging to a tradition known for “Engaged Buddhism.” I asked the teacher about it. The explanation I received was: “folks of diverse sexual orientation practice and train with [our] sangha. We welcome them as students interested in developing and strengthening their meditation/awareness practice, without identifying them as folks having particular sexual (or political or other) orientations. Such matters are private and personal in our view. All are indeed welcome in our community.”
Zenju Earthlyn Manuel’s The Way of Tenderness: Awakening through Race, Sexuality, and Gender argues that a fundamental misconception underlies the suggestion that members of targeted groups should—or could—check their identities at the meditation-hall door.
Within many Buddhist communities, discussions of difference gravitate toward a superficial sameness or “no self,” without realistically addressing the suffering that has happened—that is happening—among human beings. Such suffering, when explored in Buddhist communities, is treated as a personal issue rather than as a collective injury. Those who shed light on particular mistreatments become the focus, rather than the mistreatment itself. It is quite possible for the majority of a community to stand aloof and watch, as if they are not affected by the mistreatment. This kind of experience can become the source of longstanding divisiveness and isolation.(p. 47)
Silence about issues of race, sexuality, and gender “may create the illusion that all is well,” Manuel observes. But “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.” It creates a need for sanctuary among the targeted group, and keeps groups segregated. Manuel argues, however, that this tension and pain is a gateway to awakening and liberation. In order to realize this, “we must stand at the water together with all of our problems” (pp. 8–9).
Manuel knows intimately the problems we create around differences in embodiment—skin color and hair, biological sex, sexual and gender orientation, physical abilities, and so on. Socially, we categorize people according to these qualities and privilege members of some while systematically oppressing others. Manuel is an African American woman, “aging in a youth-oriented society,” who has dealt with disabling arthritis for her entire adult life. Her parents, whose parents were slaves, struggled to carve out a life amid poverty and violence, so Manuel knows those struggles, as well. Bisexual in orientation, she has chosen to share her life with a woman partner. Thus, she says, “The body I inhabit has experienced nearly every category of hatred that exists within this society” (p. 11). For many years she internalized others’ negative judgments, believing herself to be ugly, inadequate, unacceptable.
The Way of Tenderness is a lyrical and moving personal account of the process by which Manuel, now a fully authorized teacher of Sōtō Zen, moved from...