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.
Lokos splits the book into three sections: an account of the crash, a description of his arduous rehabilitation, and a beginner’s guide to Buddhism after trauma. Though it is all replete with nuggets of Buddhist wisdom, the first two sections sparkle with a cast of re- markably giving and supportive individuals—Lokos’s wife first among them— who brought him to a hospital in the immediate aftermath of the horror and guided him through recovery. The series of events serve as a testament, above all, to the vital importance of sangha. As for dharma teachings inspired by the crash, they will surely help trauma victims develop core Buddhist practices—mindfulness, metta—as part of a holistic effort to regain normalcy. But even for those of us lucky enough to have avoided such travails so far, Sharon Salzberg says it best in her foreword: “I wouldn’t wait.”
Western readers who glance at the Tibetan Buddhist storyteller Tenzin Wangmo’s book The Prince and the Zombie (Shambhala Publications, April 2015, $12.95, 176 pp., cloth), translated by Sherab Chödzin Kohn, and expect hordes of upright corpses scaling palace walls, should note the singular “zombie.” While this realization may disappoint our penchant for quantity over quality, the collection of alternately uproarious and moving parables will allay any misgivings. Set to paper by the Indian writer Somadeva in the 11th century, the stories migrated to Tibet not long after in the hands of the famed Indian teacher and scholar Atisha. They have become such a pervasive part of Tibetan culture that the eminent French monk Matthieu Ricard, in his foreword, cites this collection as a triumph of the resilient Tibetan people.
The overarching refrain of the stories is that the prince, Decho Zangpö, must retrieve a particularly pernicious zombie, Ngödrup Dorje, in order to repent for a bad deed. The only catch is that in the process of bringing Dorje home, Zangpö must never speak to the zombie. If he does, the zombie will escape and Zangpö must start again from the beginning. A clever brute, the zombie tells stories in order to provoke an involuntary utterance from the prince. The ploy succeeds—spoiler alert—13 different times. Hence we get 14 separate tales narrated by the zombie, each of which is preceded by a repeating interlude chapter aptly called “Hunting Down the Zombie Again.” The reader quickly tires of reading that same chapter over and over, but in fact it’s an annoyance mirroring the experience of Zangpö, who must reflect on his comically hardheaded carelessness as he retraces his steps to retrieve Dorje time and time again.
From a beggar suddenly endowed with superpowers to a court jester who vomits pearls whenever he laughs to a pair of brothers who coax a spider out of a king’s head, the unlikely heroes of these parables embody a dharma in which merit is accrued on the basis of right actions—right actions committed more or less exclusively by male characters, as women appear over and over as ungrateful wives or seductive temptresses. The pattern is enough to infuriate contemporary readers, but to dwell on our anachronistic criticism seems unnecessary, as these light yet instructive stories already invite a skeptical eye—they do, after all, come from the mouth of a zombie.
Start your day with a fresh perspective
Thank you for subscribing to Tricycle! As a nonprofit, we depend on readers like you to keep Buddhist teachings and practices widely available.