The opening pages of Zen priest Zenju Earthlyn Manuel’s The Way of Tenderness (Wisdom Publications, February 2015, $15.95, 144 pp., paper) include a disclaimer that—amid a discussion of race, sexuality, and gender—will be met with some relief: “I intend not to focus on critical theory or analyses,” she promises, “but instead on the personal experience of the heart-mind, body, and spirit.” The gay black daughter of parents born in Louisiana at the turn of the century, Manuel speaks with authority on this subject on the basis of past wounds. What for many are abstractions about identity have been, for her, involuntarily immediate. She never had a choice.
As the book moves between teachings and biography, like an extended dharma talk, Manuel recounts her early sense of inferiority and her later disillusionment with the misogyny and homophobia of the church-centric civil rights and Pan-African movements. It wasn’t until 1988, when Manuel discovered Nichiren Buddhism, that she confronted what had become a deep well of pain. And after beginning a Soto Zen practice 15 years later, she sought reconciliation between her new tradition’s emphasis on nonduality and her own particularities of race, sexuality, and gender. Her objective in writing this book, then, is to present a vision of harmony without homogeneity— what she calls “multiplicity in oneness.”
To get us there, Manuel must violate her initial disclaimer and delve into some thorny analysis. It’s a welcome reversal, however, as she argues persuasively for an embodied dharma that admits the ways that appearance and sexual orientation impact how one sees and is seen. “We cannot experience life without a body,” she affirms, “and we live our lives with the categorical names given to our bodies.” She criticizes the Zen Buddhist rhetoric of transcendence as a form of spiritual bypass, a sidestepping of the difficult questions of identity that when left unasked inevitably fracture a sangha.
Manuel’s personal tone throughout the book wards off the intellectualization that too often prevents honest dialogue on this charged topic. Fittingly, her final prescription comes direct from her own life: Sanghas must attend to internal wounds of identity just as she eventually did—and they had best do so with tenderness.
On Christmas Day 2012, the longtime Buddhist teacher Allan Lokos and his wife, Susanna Weiss, boarded a flight headed south from Mandalay, Burma, to a small fishing village near Inle Lake in the central region of the country. The plane never reached its destination. In Through the Flames (Tarcher/Penguin, February 2015, $25.95, 272 pp., paper), Lokos describes the plane’s horrific crash, the severe burns he sustained escaping the aircraft, and the long recovery that followed. Though perhaps overly detailed in its play-by-play recounting of hospital transfers and skin grafts, the memoir bursts with illuminating in- sights into how an accomplished practitioner holds up when put through the worst of circumstances.
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