The Way of Tenderness

This past Sunday, Mike Blouin led our reflections, continuing to explore other dimensions of the relationship between engaged buddhism and personal practice. Sharing his own perspectives as well as drawing from “The Way of Tenderness” by Zen priest Zenju Earthly Manuel, who brings her own experiences as a lesbian black woman into conversation with Buddhism to square our ultimately empty nature with superficial perspectives of everyday life, Mike extended the range of our reflections over the past several weeks.

The book is available through here:

Below are some excerpts from the book.

Excerpts from: The Way of Tenderness: Awakening through Race, Sexuality, and Gender, by Zenju Earthlyn Manuel

On Oneness:

Inclusiveness underlies oneness. Being aware of the multiplicity in oneness requires that we recognize the collective nature of our lives. It is crucial that we see the variety of lived experiences within oneness in order to see who we really are as living beings. We have mistaken our sameness for being human. 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. 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 (pp. 39 -40).

When we see multiplicity as the varied expressions of nature we are better able to understand that all living beings on the planet exist within oneness. To say that all living beings exist within inherent oneness is to say more than ‘we are all one’ or that ‘we are all in this troubled world together.’ It isn’t as if we are all different but contained in some larger encompassing vessel. We are not like passengers inside a leaky boat. Oneness existed before us and before the troubled world. Nothing can leak into or submerge oneness. It can’t be possessed – it is not ‘our’ oneness. See the multiplicity of oneness means to acknowledge that there is an innate nonhistorical experience of oneness that we have no control over. It is ungraspable. We are not one. Oneness is itself and we are within it.

When we try to manipulate the nature of our oneness into a flat, one-dimensional sameness, we choose to ignore the concurrent multiplicity of nature. The sameness of being one does not erase difference. We need not make a union of sameness and difference, for they are already perfect – two aspects of the single dynamic relationship that is the nature of life. When we look out onto the garden and see curly willow trees, roses, succulents, collard greens, and plum blossoms, we are witnessing oneness. We don’t have the power to create it (p. 54 – 55)

On the Body as Nature:

Everything we experience is because of the body. The body mediates our lives. We work to preserve the body even though we know we will eventually lose it. Our identities slip from one birth to the next. From birth to birth we end up embodying humanity. Yet we are often advised to let go of identifying with our personal embodiments for the sake of enlightenment.

In the face of such guidance, some find more reasons to hold on to identity and others try to detach from the body. Our personal experiences as straight people, as brown people, as men, as women, as non-men, non-women, may grow more intense. Or, on the detachment end of the spectrum, we may become too aloof and lose sight of everything and everyone around us. There is still attachment to experience even in the act of being aloof. When we detach we suppose there is something to detach from. Who or what is it that is attached to or detaches from embodiment. Identity is what we are struggling with (p. 94).

Granted choosing not to drop identity is a departure from the view that identity is an obstacle to awakening. We are departing from requiring others to drop the labels and categories of race, sexuality, and gender, as this would end discussion of such identities. Identity is not taboo. I am not speaking of identity as a source of suffering, of illness, or that which proves the existence of pain; rather I am speaking of identity as a source of both personal and social awakening. I am not speaking of identity in the way it has been used to divide; rather I am speaking of a clear and undistorted identity that exists as a part of nature. I am speaking of identity that has its source in nature and not the mind.

This type of identity resides naturally within us, just as the identity of a tree resides with it. The tree doesn’t need to detach itself from being a tree to end its suffering. It is a tree in the midst of all things. If we add to the tree’s identity, superimposing inferiority or superiority on it with our minds, then we would be distorting its identity and our actions would be based on a distorted appreciation of the tree (p. 102).

To simply say ‘We are not our bodies’ is to flatten and eliminate all of the nuance that appears in teachings like the Satipatthana Sutta, which teaches mindfulness of the body. The body, it says, is comprised of the five skhandas, or aggregates: the physical body, feelings, perceptions, mental formations, consciousness (the five senses and thought). We are our bodies from the perspective of these conditions.

However, each of these aggregate conditions depends on the others and is interrelated to all things. So the meaning of the saying ‘We are not our bodies’ is that we are not a singular entity but an aggregate that exists in interrelationship. ‘Not our bodies’ means that our bodies are not ours alone, free from being conditioned by the existence of others. In fact we are in dynamic relationship with all that lives with all bodies (p. 107).