November 08, 2011

Difference and Harmony: An interview with Zenju Earthlyn Manuel

Rev. Zenju Earthlyn Manuel's new book, Tell Me Something about Buddhism: Questions and Answers for the Curious Beginner, is a simple yet uncommon introduction to the Buddha's teachings. Manuel, an African-American Zen priest, takes a direct and personal approach to the dharma. "What does Buddhism have to do with black people?" she recalls her younger sister once asking her. In Tell Me Something about Buddhism, Manuel reflects on the ways in which being black has informed and enriched her understanding of Buddhism. "The practice is to make companions of difference and harmony, see them both as oneness itself," she writes. "We cannot take the teaching of harmony to serve the desire for sameness and comfort."

After reading Tell Me Something about Buddhism, I wanted Manuel to tell me a little more about her life and practice. Read on for excerpts from our recent email exchange.

How did you come to Buddhism? I was introduced to Nichiren (Soka Gakkai International) when I was eleven years old at a shopping strip in Los Angeles. I remember being fascinated as I was dragged away by my Christian mother. Later the Soka Gakkai practice was introduced to me several times by friends throughout my young adulthood. However, at the time there was an inner pull from Christianity toward the African Yoruba spiritual tradition with a transplanted tribe from Dahomey (in modern Benin.) The tribe returned to Africa, begging me to join them, but I stayed knowing the call to that tradition was bound to resurface—but that is another story. Soon after moving to San Francisco, I was invited to dinner with two friends who had been practicing Buddhism but we first had to go to their Soka Gakkai meeting. After that meeting I began reading Buddha’s teachings and realized just how hungry I was. Finally, I heard what I had felt in my bones all my life—that everyone and everything is interrelated. I knew this but couldn’t understand why others didn’t, given my experience with discrimination and hatred in the U.S. I remained with Soka Gakkai for 15 years, learning how to face the wounds that had piled up at my feet throughout my life.

Why the move from Nichiren to Soto Zen? First I would like to say that the many teachings that have come to me, I carry to the next teaching. So, inside myself Nichiren still is in my cells. I did not move away from it. I still find myself chanting the the title of the Lotus Sutra (as a mantra) when I am in a tight negative situation. Which leads me to the reason I might have taken another path of Dharma. I found the Nichiren tradition as an excellent practice of concentration and learning how to participate wholeheartedly in Sangha. I also learned how to be a teacher in Nichiren as it is important in that tradition to raise leaders starting from the young ones to the old ones. However, I needed a different understanding about suffering so that I would not have to constantly chant but that I would begin to transform the suffering. I believe that can happen in Nichiren but I could not find my way to such change.

One day while doing silent walking meditation in a Zen Center, I realized that I had changed paths. It was seamless. It was time for me to be silent. I had learned how to deal with those tight negative external situations in Nichiren and needed to learn more about my own mind and heart. Even though I was a teacher in Soka Gakkai, I felt called to priesthood and that path was not available to me there. I also felt called to be a minister but the Church of Christ did not allow women to preach. With deeper and deeper spiritual aspiration, I went back to my Nichiren community and announced that I would be following another path. I would have liked to stay with my Dharma family there, but I felt there wasn’t any room for me to combine the two.

Leaving my first Buddhist home was difficult. I had no idea about Zen and knew no one who had practiced it. That was probably a good thing because I began as a baby in a new world, discovering new ways of walking Buddha’s path. I tend to do best in new situations when I have not figured it all out. Eventually, I was able to take the interpretations of Buddha’s teachings by Nichiren and combine them with that of Eihei Dogen’s (Zen) interpretations of the teachings. Therefore, I have a unique way of seeing how the Buddha’s path of liberation affects life from both a chanting and devotional place and from a meditative absorption of life.

How has being a black woman informed your understanding of Buddhist teachings? Buddhist practice is a lived experience for everyone. However, living in a dark female body in this country means the life material for understanding the teachings is constantly in my face. The insurmountable oppression, discrimination, and hatred directed at dark people comprise a thick workbook for Buddha’s teachings. When I walk out my door, it is guaranteed that someone or something will let me know that my dark skin is not good enough or let me know that I am not welcome. All I have to do is look at a billboard, be followed around in the store, or have the clerk smile to everyone but me. So, every moment the depth of my practice as a black woman in the Dharma is one that requires deep-sea diving and unbroken awareness. My understanding of the Dharma comes in living color, so to speak. As a black woman I can see and experience things others may not, which in turn gives me a 24/7 practice of compassion. I have no time to waste, protest, yell back, or play games. And it is exhausting to act out when I feel wronged. So, with Buddha’s teachings I understood that I could change my response to the human condition. I ask each day, how do I walk as vulnerable and as soft as I feel without looking over my shoulder? I walk with what I know to be true if I am awakened to the true nature of my own life. This is my face. I walk with it. That is how I understand the teachings from the body in which I was born.

You've said that practicing Buddhism has felt like separating yourself from your Christian upbringing and from other black people. Why was it worth it? How do your friends and family feel about it now? First let me clarify that no one from my family, friends, or those from the church I was raised in blatantly turned away from me because of my taking on a different religious practice. Most of what I felt was an internal process of transformation. I had a grip on what I knew religious life to be in the Church of Christ and I was moving away from it. Church was the place folks who migrated from the Southern region of the U.S. came to find their relatives, their home, their tribe. I was part of that tribe. It was a place I was born, grew up being loved by this one and that. So, leaving the people, the collective prayer, the songs, the communion, the knowing of Christ’s teachings as the way we survived as black people, was difficult. I was leaving home, following a call for something that spoke of freedom in the truest sense—not just freedom from poverty and injustice, but freedom within my heart.

In the end, I did not leave black people. I found us along many different paths once I came down those church steps into the world. We were everywhere. And yes, even when I stepped onto Buddha’s path there were many black people. However, in Zen the numbers were small or non-existent. And this is where I questioned my being a part of a mostly white Sangha. Why was it worth it? I can say that I have walked the hot coals of oppression in the white Sangha and survived. I can teach others how to survive by my being in the pit of our ignorance of each other. At the same time, I was astonished by the love I received in this Sangha that was entirely different than my black church. Even the people of color had different values than the ones I was raised with. So, culture clash was happening all around me. And in this clash I learned. I was no longer ignorant of my interrelationship with everyone, even if there was pain in our being together. I learned that I did not know how to love because my energy was taken up with who and what I hated. Yes, it was worth it to gain a few giant steps toward complete liberation. And I hope to wear my robes one day into my home church and do what I had dreamed of as a child—preach in the pulpit.

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deepurple's picture

As a black woman trying to find her way to a deeper understanding of Buddhism, I look forward to reading your book. Thank you for your insightful interview.

Dominic Gomez's picture

I wonder if Rev. Zenju Earthlyn Manuel knows Myokei Caine-Barrett, Shonin http://www.tricycle.com/feature/right-dharma. It's interesting that both sistas have SGI-USA connections.

Zenju's picture

Hi, No I don't know her but hope to meet her someday....