November 08, 2011

Difference and Harmony: An interview with Zenju Earthlyn Manuel

Tell me about the tension between "feeling African and being buddha." How can Buddhist communities best honor multiculturalism and express the universality of the Buddha's teachings? When I was taught Buddha’s Two Truths, I heard the choir sing hallelujah. There are two basic truths in regards to the nature of life—the relative and the absolute. These teachings are vast, but briefly, the relative is that which you can sense about life—what you see, taste, smell, etc. While the absolute nature of life goes beyond those senses, seeing into the true nature that we cannot touch or see. So, the tension between the two is inherent in our existence. We can find ourselves holding to the relative and not the absolute or visa versa. When I can be African or descended from Africans and be awakened to life, be buddha within my darkness, the tension dissolves. With Buddha’s teachings of the Two Truths, I returned to that expansive way of seeing myself before I was told that I could not go to a particular place because I was black. I returned to that original moment when I was born free from the hatred placed on darkness and on dark things and dark people.

As far as Buddhist communities honoring multiculturalism, I wonder how many white Buddhists are asked this question. When white Buddhists are asked this question as much as those of color, then we began to see the wheel of Dharma turning in a forward motion. We often want to look back and see what we haven’t done rather than look forward and change what we are doing. I feel it is crucial to support other kinds of Buddhist communities that will be created by folks from different cultures. Instead of re-shaping what has already been done, allow for something new to be constructed and not worry about whether it is too far from the root or not. We have already gone a long ways from Buddha’s days. If new relations look and sound different, existing western Buddhist communities must be willing to open to that difference rather than saying, “This is how we do it.” If not, what is different will disappear and what is left is the same. And perhaps keeping a particular sameness is the intention. If so, then that must be acknowledged and the quest for diversity set aside. I say this knowing there are many who will not want to or not able to honestly assimilate into the current western Buddhist communities and therefore the practice must take shape again and again for the people, the time, and the place.

Why do you like to think of the Buddha's enlightenment as a "vision quest"? I like to think of Buddha’s enlightenment journey as a vision quest because it connects his teachings to the earth. It brings Buddhism back to its origins as an indigenous earth-based wisdom tradition. In the re-shaping of the path for U.S. culture, I feel there are many who like to distinguish Buddhism from pagan practices, from Shamanism, or spirit work. Yet, all that Buddha did on his journey was done in the forest, not in a Buddhist center. He sat in the dark, upon the roots of various trees, and listened to his heart, seeking answers from nature. This is exactly what one does on a vision quest, which is a practice in many indigenous spiritual practices.

Personally, holding Buddha’s enlightenment journey in this way allows me to integrate a sense of spirit as part of the path. It allows me to include what has been suppressed or taken out of many westernized Buddhist practices in this country. Recently, I watched a film called The Oracle by David Cherniack, where the Dalai Lama consults with other worldly spirits. It is an important “coming out” so to speak for the Tibetan tradition and Buddhism as well. In the title of the film Cherniack refers to the Oracle as a 400-year-old secret; but it is not a secret to those who have always held the sense of spirit pervading all. Buddha taught that everyone and everything is interrelated. We cannot leave out anything or make one kind of spiritual consciousness superior and the other inferior. I am so sensitized to that teaching, again, because of how I am embodied.

Finally, African spiritual traditions have existed 8,000 to 10,000 years and I do feel that because of such longevity other spiritualities, religions, or philosophies have been influenced by ancient traditions. Buddhism is not exempt.

What is the purpose of the Sangha on the Buddhist path? In Sangha, everyone has come together with an expressed willingness to deal with their suffering and its impact on others. There is an expectation that all will be good in the land of meditation. We expect the ground beneath Sangha to be stable and strong when, in truth, we are together in the confusion and challenge of living awake. One day, things are one way, and the next a relationship has changed. You feel you’ve made a mistake, and you begin to blame your discomfort on the forms, the Sangha members, or the teachers. Even though all experiences are valid, they still need investigation. This investigation can be carried out in the midst of the troubled souls, the Sangha, you have chosen to commune with. You could leave and find another community, but what happens for you when the earth begins to shake beneath the new Sangha in the same way as it did underneath the Sangha you left?

Many who take on the practice decide to practice alone. Perhaps their workplace, family, or other communities serve as Sangha. However, the difficulty with such Sangha is that the path of awakening can be unclear, or there may be no conscientious effort on the part of others to walk a path of awakening with you. You may not have the support you need to follow the teachings you have embraced.

In Sangha based on the teachings, you are reminded that you are not alone on the journey. At the same time, I have felt alone in Sangha. I have felt different than the others, and many times this difference stood out in a way that was uncomfortable. Then it was time for me to remember that everyone’s path is different. There is no one with exactly the same path as my own. So how do I respond to the uncomfortable situations?

Our Sangha friends are there to assist us by reflecting back to us the ways in which we respond to the events of life. This reflection doesn’t mean that these friends are to sit in judgment of our actions or inform us of any wrongdoings. The reflection is silent. It is in the way we see ourselves in each other. When a friend falters or experiences discomfort, we, in turn, are there to witness the faltering and the discomfort, sensing the familiarity of their situation in our own life. When a Sangha member is happy, we see the joy in our own lives.

Many have said to me that they do not need Sangha. My response has been, “Then where will you go when you begin to experience liberation? Who will know the journey you have taken and your vow to be awake?”

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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 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....