Zenju Earthlyn Manuel

‘For many, the spiritual paths should tend toward the invisible, the unseen. With this view it is easy to mistake a favorable blindness – not seeing skin color, gender, etc. – for seeing an invisible truth of life. We may even consider this blindness to be a higher state of being. But the wisdom in my bones says that we need this particular body, with its unique color, shape, and sex, for liberation to unfold. There is no experience of emptiness without interrelationship. In meditation the wisdom deep in my bones tells me that I do not have to fight against someone or something to gain my life. I have already been given a fully liberated life. In stillness I glimpse the freedom that is already there.’  (The Way of Tenderness)

And more.


Words of Wisdom

Last weekend I had the opportunity to attend the Wisdom 2.0 conference in San Francisco. I have had mixed feelings about it in the past, but this year I enjoyed myself more overall. There were different elements that went into that: I reconnected with people I have met in past years, which gave me more of a sense of community; I ran into a number of Young Urban Zen alumni, which made me feel glad to have been part of getting that group to where it is now; I spent time with some of the senior Zen Center attendees, which kept me feeling connected to that organisation; I got to see friends connecting with each other, not least the two people who have paid for my tickets for each of the times I have attended, but also one student and an app developer he had introduced me to previously; I made one strong new connection, in conjunction with the same student, which could result in another meditation teaching offering in the city. Most of all though, there was the chance to listen to some wonderful teachers offering their wisdom.

Many of these were dharma teachers, who I have seen before, or at least read: Sharon Salzberg, Joan Halifax, Frank Ostaseski, John Kabat-Zinn, Steven Mitchell, Chade Meng Tan, but there were also some wise voices from other areas. I enjoyed hearing Tristan Harris speak, but most moving were the presentations that formed a crescendo on the main stage on Friday afternoon – after the conversation between Sharon Salzberg and Joan Halifax, first was Nadine Burke Harris, whose TED talk a friend had shared with me a month or so ago, speaking forcefully and clearly on childhood trauma and its impacts on health (I persuaded a couple of people to stay to listen to her because I knew how good she was, and they agreed, having heard her); finally with Tarana Burke, whose years of activism has left her grounded and humble at her new position of prominence.

I had also been offered a ticket to go to see Joan Halifax in conversation with Rebecca Solnit on Tuesday, and was very glad to attend that and take in more sage words from two such articulate women;  in the midst of serious conversation and gloom at the state of the nation, there was also a reminder to keep in mind both hope and the social progress that has already been made in many areas.

One of the main messages I kept hearing from the speakers at the conference was that words alone are not much use. We all have to embody the practices that we know are beneficial and healing, and take those out into the world consistently to affect positive change. I don’t know how other attendees will take that on, or if there is any way to stay accountable to each other once the cheering and sense of community has worn away, but I found it helpful as a support and confirmation for my own practice; these days I feel confident in how I have absorbed the teachings so far, and how I can offer them to others, and I know I need to keep learning how to be more compassionate and effective in the world. What is clear to me is that listening to these wise voices, especially women’s voices, and especially those of women of colour (I don’t think it is a coincidence that the two books I have chosen to read recently are both by remarkable women of colour teachers) is how I will continue to broaden my limited awareness.

Zenju Earthlyn Manuel

‘Yes, my bones know the absolute life, unencumbered by labels, fixed perceptions, and appearances. But the absolute life has never been the problem I have to face in the world. In this twenty-first century, many have agreed that race is a construct or illusion used to create racism. It is also acknowledged in some places that sexuality and gender comprise a continua between opposites, and are not fixed states, as was once assumed. The very words “women,” “men,” “male,” and “female” are being transformed to include the many genders between those polarities. However, simply knowing race to be constructed or an illusion does nothing to change the mind saturated with hatred. To know that there are many ways to live sexually, with or without a prescribed gender, does not affect the extent to which one might be tortured or killed for doing so. Hatred remains potent whether directed at a construct, an illusion, or at the reality of others. Therefore, identity should not be dismissed in our efforts toward spiritual awakening. On the contrary, identity is to be explored on the path of awakening. Identity is not merely of a political nature; it is inclusive of out essential nature when stripped of distortion. In other words, identity is not the problem, but the distortions we bring to it are.’  (The Way of Tenderness)

Along with Being Black, The Way of Tenderness was another book from my friends’ bookcase that I was keen to delve into. Even as I start to feel more assured in my role as a teacher, I am keen to look for ways that I can learn, and Zenju’s deep perspectives on identity and awakening have set off much contemplation and reflection in me.

angel Kyodo williams

‘You, just as you are, and your life right here and right now, are all there is and all you need to know. You don’t have to do anything special. Mostly, you have to be open to meeting face-to-face, and even dancing with, the truth that pertains to your life right now. You have to find a way to collect your fractured pieces, examine them and accept them as part of who you are. Spiritual practice is about transformation, but it’s also, and more important, about working with what is. All of us must learn to honor our whole selves just as we come, just as we are.’ (Being Black)

Among the other pleasures of my recent house-sit has been the chance to delve into a quite extensive Buddhist library. There were many books that I haven’t read before, and Rev angel Kyodo’s was the one I went for first. While the book – not least in the paragraph above – is largely addressed to people of colour as a way to bring zen practice to them, the directness of the writing makes it a joy to read. If you have been finding some of the recent historical posts a bit severe for your tastes, look out for more selections from Being Black coming along.

Taking Refuge in Sangha

In contrast to the previous flight on my trip, when I landed back at Gatwick after the stay in Belfast clouds were piling up as a new weather system moved in. That evening, as my friends and I set out for an Indian dinner, we needed umbrellas in a sudden downpour, and rain re-appeared throughout the weekend, especially overnight, though much of the remaining time was sunny.

It was a fairly packed few days, with many miles of walking, artist open houses, a film, a concert, a joyful parade for the local football team who have been promoted to the Premier League; we also watched a fair amount of football and the Eurovision Song Contest (not an event I have much cared for over the years, though my friends do; it is largely an excuse for drinking and exercising critical faculties over some of the entrants). There was also a day spent sitting with the local group – eight of us were there, of whom I knew all but one, some from Tassajara, some from previous sits in England, and I felt warmly welcomed; I noticed that seven of us had rakusus, and that mine was the only one that had not been bestowed by Reb.

I did manage to repeat my run to Devil’s Dyke; with the memories of the route still in my body, it seemed less intimidating than before. Perhaps I was just a little fitter as well, but I had the measure of it. On the Sunday, since I was awake earlier than the others, I also went out for a run in the sun, back up the lovely Three Cornered Copse, awash with the subtle fragrance of cow parsley, a sentimental smell for me, past the windmill, and then back down to the sea and a few miles along the front from Brighton to Hove – which we also walked at midnight after the concert, as the moon came up, to end my last night away. Monday morning was also grey and drizzly, and I felt glad to leave that behind, though the California weather was not so great for the first day or so.

Now that I am back in San Francisco, I have a chance to reflect on the trip as a whole. One theme that came up for me was renewing acquaintances: all of the zen events I took part in were with groups I have met once before, mostly on my last trip, with Belfast, which I visited a few years ago, being the exception. It has felt great to reconnect with people, to hear more about where the groups are, and what they are hoping will happen in the future. Sitting and sharing the practice was rewarding each time; meeting people in England with whom I had done practice periods at Tassajara almost fifteen years ago gives a wonderful sense of the mahasangha, which as I often say to people, never dissipates, even if we are different places.

When people talk about taking refuge, it can often seem like a sense of retreat, of hiding away, but I got to see how taking refuge in sangha can feel like uplift and support – perhaps most especially with the joint talk we did in Belfast, and the effect it seemed to have on the participants.
I also got to see how communities of people can retreat and isolate: I remember when I first traveled to Spain, in the early eighties, I would look at the old people with wizened faces, invariably dressed in black, and wonder what they had seen and known of the civil war, which they had lived through fifty years previously. In Belfast, I looked at people my age and older and wondered what they had seen and known of the Troubles, a generation or more ago. It was poignant to watch The Journey while I was there, even more so to be taken around the city on my last day by a sangha member who had first-hand experience of life during those years, and vivid memories of events that took place in areas whose names I had heard on the news over many years as the epicentres of violence and death – the Falls Road, the Ardoyne, the Shankill Road. When I met people in Ireland I could not tell Protestant from Catholic, but locals knew many clues and cues, and the divide is still strong: I heard of painful fights over attempts to integrate schools just a few years ago, when the violence was supposedly in the past. This sense of segregation was reinforced by watching the deeply moving I Am Not Your Negro on the plane home, with its perhaps better-known scenes of violence around school integration, and an equal sense of the deep schisms that retrenchment has caused, with roots, like the Irish conflict, that go back several centuries as one group asserted power over another. From my position of safety and privilege, it is hard to know how to speak of healing and the wish for all people to be able to join together and feel safe. I do know that I can offer some help as a teacher, wherever I am, and whoever I am with, and this trip has reminded me of the value of that.

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Divided roads in the heart of Belfast.

The joyful parade for Brighton and Hove Albion’s promotion reminded me of the Giants World Series celebrations.

The sea front at a quieter moment.

It is always a joy to see Greenland from the air, even if the ice is vanishing.

Lama Rod Owens

‘The Heart Sutra tells us that form is emptiness and emptiness is form; if that’s true, then our practice is to try to recognize the integration of form and emptiness, and to let ourselves sit in the utter discomfort of that. From this discomfort emerges a greater capacity to hold space for contradictions. Ultimately, we are not these identities, which is awesome. But relatively, we are, and that’s awesome too! Privileging one over the other is not the practice here. The practice is to bridge the relative truth of I am with the ultimate truth of I am not, to hold them together while exploring the tendency to want to bury ourselves in one extreme. This practice can be deeply unsettling, but if we can hold the ultimate truth together with our relative truth, then space opens up within our identity locations, and we can recognize them without being firmly planted. For example, for me to identify as Black is to first recognize what it has meant to be conditioned as a Black body; at the same time, I see that ultimately I am not Black but still conditioned to perform and to relate to the Black cultural conditioning.’ (Taken from Lion’s Roar website)

In my teaching and studying, I spend a lot of time grappling with the co-existence of form and emptiness, or the harmony of difference and equality. With so much current talk about identity politics, it is great to read a cogent teaching piece on how this looks from a dharma perspective.

I have also been wanting to post a link to this since I read it; I go to the Establishment regularly to learn views that are different to my own, and found this a helpful exercise. I said yes to several questions.

I am an Immigrant

My protesting days were mostly several decades ago; the early eighties was a rich time to become more politically aware, as Reagan and Thatcher stepped in to dismantle the post-war consensus. It feels to me these days that we are living through the last part of that swing of the pendulum, and I am optimistic in some ways that we will start the swing back to equality and progress after these turbulent times.
My college girlfriend was well-versed in the feminist politics of the time, and I am still deeply grateful to her for her consciousness-raising work on me (as we called it in those days). We found plenty of things to protest, and plenty of events, many of them musical, to attend: the protracted miners’ strike and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament were my two starting points. Ken Livingstone was in his first stint at the Greater London Council and organising enough opposition to the government that the latter simply abolished the council, along with the other predominantly left-wing city councils. The year I lived in Paris was full of anti-racism efforts, and the burgeoning anti-Apartheid movement, which also was going strong in London.
Having missed the marches around the inauguration and the airport demonstrations a week ago, and having only joined the post-election march because it was passing directly in front of my house, this past weekend I made an effort to attend the protest in Civic Center plaza. I remembered the last time I had been there in a big crowd was watching the World Cup on a giant screen, and the mood was equally as buoyant and inclusive. The rain moved through just in time (on a lunch-time run, I had come back over Liberty Hill to see a rainbow fittingly stretched low across the Castro), and the sun shone across the plaza until it dipped behind City Hall.
Having been energised by seeing pictures of banners that people were preparing for the event,  I wondered what I could bring. Then I remembered one of the diversity trainings we had done at Zen Center in my early years there, where people talked about how long their families had been in the States; it was a surprise to me in those days that most people were only a generation or two removed from immigration, and that I was just a little more freshly through the process. So I wrote a sign that said ‘I am an immigrant’ and hung it round my neck. It was heartening that when I arrived at the plaza, the first person I saw also had a sign that started ‘I am an immigrant’ – she was also English as it turned out (she appears briefly a little earlier in the video linked to below).
There were many inspiring speakers – refugees and immigrants, children of refugees and immigrants, from Vietnam, the Middle East, and South America (places where the US has been busy interfering in the political process…); a speaker from the ACLU, and former representative Mike Honda who talked about the internment of the Japanese community. Perhaps most moving for me was the call to prayer that was offered. In my years working at the BBC World Service, where I met and worked with people from all over the globe, I spend many overnight shifts with the Arabic service, and the first piece of programming each day, around 4am local time, was a section of the Koran, on very old tape, beautifully intoned.
I have no doubt that there will be more occasions to protest before all this is over; as I left the area and its wonderfully diverse crowd, I was thinking to myself, this is what humanity looks like:

The gentleman at the mic is doing the call to prayer; the organisers are at the back of the stage; the woman with the blonde hair was in charge of security for the afternoon.