Awakening Fueled by Rage

As a dharma teacher, says Zenju Earthlyn Manuel, she’s told she shouldn’t feel or express rage, but she disagrees.

Zenju Earthlyn Manuel
3 April 2022
Homage to Mahakala, 2007 by Tashi Mannox

This summer, while visiting my friend and close dharma sister, Rev. Dana Takagi, I encountered the teaching of Daikoku. A fellow Soto Zen teacher and emeritus professor of sociology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, Takagi had recently returned from traveling in Japan. I was seeking her assistance with writing a name in Chinese characters on a student’s rakusu, the short blue robe received when taking lay vows in a precepts ceremony; the name the student would receive was Kokuji, meaning “healing black medicine.” My friend smiled and said, “I want to tell you something about what I found in Japan.” Everywhere she went, she said, she had encountered Daikokuten (Mahakala), a deity of the great blackness. One of the seven gods worshipped all over Japan, Daikokuten is the deity of protection and prosperity. Daikokutennyo, or Mahakali, represents the feminine aspect of the same qualities. A large carved wooden statue of Daikokuten even greets all who enter Sojiji, one of two head temples of our Soto Zen sect, in Tsurumi, Japan.

My black skin has been a desired commodity in some corners as an obvious marker of diversity, as if diversity is not a complete cosmology of the entire universe.

On the path of Daikoku, the great blackness, black is not only one particular color: it’s also the absence of color—and the expression of all colors. Blackness is an all-embracing path of everything that exists on this earth. Everyone and everything came out of darkness, therefore it is everywhere and in everything. Only our limited perception distorts this truth.

Since becoming a transmitted dharma teacher, others’ preoccupation with blackness—specifically, my blackness—has been nearly inescapable. I have been told by students and teachers of all races that my purpose is to speak and act against racial injustice. And I am to do this with the mahasangha looking on, feeling relief at having accomplished the diversity agenda. My black skin has been a desired commodity in some corners as an obvious marker of diversity, as if diversity is not a complete cosmology of the entire universe.

In such contexts, I have at times felt myself to be “the spook who sat at the door” (the titular character from the 1969 novel by Sam Greenlee), sitting in the seat of honor but not given an opportunity to shift the “mind and body” of the temple. I’m invited to give dharma talks but often only seem to impress the assembly with my dark body in Zen robes. I, too, see the beauty of this, when I look upon the photos of myself with my black Zen students. But this is not the superficial location from which I carry my robes, bowls, whisk, and staff.

Many, because I interweave my experience of blackness with Buddhist teachings, assume my teachings are limited to skin color. The assembly often seems perplexed by the turning of the dharma wheel from a lived experience unfamiliar to them, and many express confusion as to whether I am actually espousing Buddha’s teachings or just speaking about my skin color. This is not to deny that many do hear and receive the truth in my dharma teaching, but it can be hard-won when someone recognizes the Buddha’s teachings as being expressed from a different lived experience.

Conversely, I have been condemned for my participation in Buddhist centers that perpetuate racism. But who among us does not walk every day in the mud of the world? And yes, I have suffered within these places. Even while wearing Zen robes, some students and teachers do not see me as a legitimate Zen teacher, even within the institution in which I was ordained. Of course, this is humbling and keeps my head from swelling up while wearing the brown okesa. As my late Zen teacher, Zenkei Blanche Hartman, shared, “When bothered with not being seen, ask yourself, who do I think I am?” There is no answer, only a sober moment and space for nothingness to do what it does. The silence enters and the mountain speaks.

Yet the rage persists. Tears fall. I know it to be the sacred fire of passion, a burning, from which I am able to speak on injustice from a place that includes the liberating nature of all beings. My foremothers of justice and teachers, bell hooks, Angela Davis, Jamaica Kincaid, Nikki Giovanni, Alice Walker, Nikky Finney, and Toni Morrison have espoused these teachings from where they have walked and sat in this world. I bring the teachings of justice from these foremothers with me to contemplation, to Zen poetry, to offering flowers or incense, to the teachings of the earth.

For a dharma teacher, there is an unspoken rule not to feel or express rage. Rage is considered unenlightened. In our dharma communities, as in our day-to-day lives, we most often wear masks of politeness to conceal the rage we carry. Yet, to fully feel is to be fully human. If we can’t be honest about the human condition, then we can’t hear the cries of the earth or experience liberation. It’s true that rage, like fire—to which it is often compared—can be harmful, burning away everything in its path. But rage can also be life-giving, illuminating that which must be exposed before humanity can shift into a greater experience of interrelationship and love. I too feel rage, but rather than lash out from my pain and anguish, I’ve learned to use my rage to fuel a transformation toward awakening.

Too often, those in power do not know how to create a path of dignity and freedom.

Several white dharma teachers have confided to me that they are afraid of the rage expressed by students of color. But these students are right where they are supposed to be. Can we, as teachers of the dharma, meet them there? Can we teach them despite their rage? The rage expressed is not personal. It is a response to prolonged mistreatment coupled with a desire to further their practice of freedom. The rage is of exhaustion—we have entered the Buddha way to meet awakening and awareness, yet we spend so much of our time “proving” ourselves to be worthy of human dignity.

Many Buddhist centers, universities, and other institutions are working hard to alleviate the imbalances caused by oppression. But if this work is done only out of fear of rage, that fear can limit the work or cause inauthentic actions, such as elevating people of color into positions they are not yet ready for—a kind of developmental theft. Though well-meaning, diversity measures such as scholarships and sponsorships are not an adequate expression of Buddha’s core teaching of interrelationship. They do not alleviate the alienation or fear that motivates such offerings.

Fear of rage causes some Buddhist centers to put blackness or other forms of diversity on display, hoping to encourage other people of color to participate. Too often, though, those in power do not know how to create a path of dignity and freedom. People of Color are invited in and then used by others to conquer their fears or to practice—unskillfully—goodwill.

The relative experience of inclusivity, meanwhile, gets weighed down with the intention to unlearn harmful ways, which leads to trying to “fix” something. There is suffering in that. Inclusivity does not need fixing. It is something that already exists and has existed from long before where we were born. Everything is fully included. That is the absolute truth of diversity. Institutions, Buddhist and otherwise, must create a path of heart that leads to an experience of inclusivity, rather than manufacturing a kind of diversity that comes from the mind or is grounded in techniques that sidestep the Buddha’s clear path to the cessation of suffering.

I took my vows within the greater blackness, not the blackness of the wounding and trauma of oppression. The blackness of oppression was what remained when the greater blackness was robbed long ago of its true beauty, expansiveness, and mystery. When I plant my feet in the earth, I am on the path of Daikoku. In these times, our rage is a call to cultivate our heart–mind and to abandon a distorted sense consciousness of blackness and whiteness that ultimately manifests suffering when we lose sight of what it is to rest in the vastness of both and everything in between. Our lineage is the earth.

In naming my student Kokuji, I was bringing forth the teaching of Daikokuten from deep in my bones. I chose the name, with the help of Rev. Shosan Victoria Austin, because this particular student loved her blackness. My vision was that she would find, rediscover, and live Daikoku, the greater blackness, despite oppression. Her new name is free of the oppression experienced in this worldly life. She does not have to prove herself worthy. It has never been otherwise. In naming her this, I came to see that it is within the mystery of Daikoku that I carry my robes, bowls, whisk, and staff. Daikoku’s prosperity and the protection promised is the freedom from prolonged mistreatment.

May we all abide in Daikoku, the great blackness of prosperity and protection.

Zenju Earthlyn Manuel

Zenju Earthlyn Manuel

is a Soto Zen priest, author, and poet. A dharma heir of the late Zenkei Blanche Hartman in the Shunryu Suzuki Roshi lineage, her practice is also influenced by Native American and African indigenous traditions. Her most recent book is The Shamanic Bones of Zen: Revealing the Ancestral Spirit and Mystical Heart of a Sacred Tradition.