On Awakening Through Race, Sexuality, and Gender

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

I was hungry when I attended my first Nichiren Buddhist meeting in 1988. I mean that literally. I wanted to go out to eat at a restaurant with two friends of mine, but they insisted that I first attend a Buddhist meeting with them that evening before we ate. With some irritation and a good deal of resistance I sat through the meeting with the group as they chanted Nam-myoho-renge-kyo. A month later I was chanting in front of my own Buddhist altar, on which hung a scroll covered with Japanese writing. My Buddhist teachers would ask me “Why do you chant?” I would tell them that I didn’t know why. The truth is I was too ashamed to tell them that I chanted because of a deep pain that I could not name.

After about two years of chanting with this pain, I realized that the suffering I felt was part of a much broader suffering in the world. It was not mine but a suffering that existed before my birth. I recognized that I felt separate from the rest of the world, that I did not belong, and that I was not an acceptable part of the dominant culture because I was so different from the majority in terms of my appearance. The world had structured itself around appearance. The way in which I was perceived and treated depended on a structure of race, sexuality, gender, and class. The perverse power of these structures made my embodiment unacceptable to others and myself. As a result, I was paralyzed by feelings of isolation in my younger days.

I had come not to trust my own innate wisdom. By internalizing the judgments of those who felt that certain types of folks are lesser, I had betrayed myself—I had yielded to oppression. Oppression is a distortion of our true nature. It disconnects us from the earth and from each other. Awakening from the distortion of oppression begins with tenderness: we recognize our own wounded tenderness, which develops into the tenderness of vulnerability and culminates in the tenderness that comes with heartfelt and authentic liberation. That first experience of tenderness is a cry from deep within our own nature. It compels us to seek out reconnection to the earth and each other. As soon as we are born we begin to drift away from our true nature. We align with established structures that immediately begin to fix our perceptions of others and ourselves. Our lives are shaped by this alignment. Falling into line is a survival mechanism, driven by the suffering that already surrounds us at birth.

As we grow older and more accustomed to the structures that shape us, our own true nature calls to us. This calling can be experienced as a place of separation and suffering. In attending to such suffering, we start down many paths in order to recover the connectedness we lost upon entering the world. For many of us the quest to recover what we feel we have lost extends into social activism, pursuit of spiritual awakening, or both. In my life the quest to recover wholeness and connection has extended into both social activism and spiritual dimensions. In my case, I have experienced spiritual awakening by walking through the fiery gateway of attending to the suffering related to race, sexuality, and gender.

The words “spiritual awakening” conjure images of an experience beyond ordinary life. We may think of spiritual awakening as an experience that transcends this world or that erases all suffering. We may even wish to have an out-of-body or other extreme experience that we might point to as awakening. The wish to spiritually awaken is one of the great natural human desires, ranking right up there alongside the wish to experience love. Yet, most of us don’t truly know what spiritual awakening is.

Though we are unclear about what awakening really is, we are likely to feel certain about what it is not. We may feel that it cannot exist within conflict, strife, or pain. We may not feel spiritual awakening is accessible where there is difficulty, suffering, or hardship. Many feel it almost certainly cannot be found amid social struggles related to race, sexuality, and gender. Some may believe that the indignation, ire, and anger that motivate movements of protest only move us “backward” or away from what is more profound about our lives.

But if we were to simply walk past the fires of racism, sexism, and so on because illusions of separation exist within them, we may well be walking past one of the widest gateways to enlightenment. It is a misinterpretation to suppose that attending to the fires of our existence cannot lead us to experience the waters of peace. Profundity in fact resides in what we see in the world. Spiritual awakening arrives from our ordinary lives, our everyday struggles with each other. It may even erupt from the fear and rage that we tiptoe around. The challenges of race, sexuality, and gender are the very things that the spiritual path to awakening requires us to tend to as aspirants to peace.