Zenju Earthlyn Manuel in conversation with Ann Marie Davis

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Zenju Earthlyn Manuel, Ph.D., is an author and ordained Zen Buddhist priest in the Suzuki Roshi lineage. She created the Black Angel Cards: 36 Oracle Cards and Messages (Kasai River Press), which are being used around the world as a tool to help access one’s true nature and to ease suffering especially for black women. She is the author of a popular Kindle free e-book/essay Be Love: An Exploration Of Our Deepest Desire. Her recent book, The Way of Tenderness: Awakening Through Race, Sexuality, and Gender with a foreword by Buddhist scholar and novelist Charles Johnson, is available now at Wisdom Publications. For her complete biography and an extended list of her publications see Zenju.org

Ann Marie Davis, whose pen name is A.M. Davis, was born and raised in Oakland, California. She is storyteller/poet, a speaker on behalf of the Earth. In 2007, she walked away from her job to devote her life to her creativity. Upon attending a silent meditation retreat, she found space of time in her racing mind, and discovered that she was not her thoughts. This led to daily meditation, retreats, and becoming part of the East Bay Meditation Center community. She recently discovered Joanna Macy’s work, and the trajectory of her life finally made sense. You can find more of her work at annmariedavis.com.

Excerpts follow of a conversation between and Ann Marie Davis and Zenju Earthlyn Manuel on April 25th of this year in her home in East Oakland.  You can also listen to an audio recording of the full conversation by clicking here or on the Soundcloud link below.

The Way of Tenderness


On your website, it says that you “apply spiritual teachings to our lived experience in the context of race, sexuality gender and hold these experiences as gateways to absolute freedom.”


There’s a long list of places in which individuals and people are marginalized in society. I feel that these things that we’re dealing with are the exact gateways to enlightenment, which is kind of funny because they leave that out completely on spiritual paths. But yet people are there, embodied in various ways and having experiences because of that. If we didn’t have those experiences then the path would just be pretty boring and dull and we wouldn’t be there. We wouldn’t even have any suffering to work on.

It has to be included. That is to me is the way of tenderness, because people usually push it off. And it becomes very abrupt. Like, “You can’t bring that here.” Or “Why are we talking about race?” Or any of these things that are of the world. But we are of the world. The Way of Tenderness to me is to bring this forward. I always say, why would we be given all of this to ignore as we go through life trying to be well and do better? I know there are lot of books on race, sexuality and gender from some great teachers. I don’t feel like I’m teaching that in this book.

“The Way of Tenderness: Awakening Through Race, Sexuality and Gender.” The “through” part is the most important part of the title. Working through it, not around it. There’s a lot of teachers I learn from, Angela Davis, and bell hooks, and Alice Walker, Tony Morrison, all of these great teachers that came before me, we’ve learned a lot from them. June Jordon. There’re so many. And I am not speaking in the realms that they spoke in, although they do combine spirit in some of their work. I felt that I wanted to talk about it from the realm of dharma, our spirituality because they’re not taught there. They’re not considered dharma teachers, yet they are. The dharma is life. I thought to try to talk about it differently, as much as I could. I don’t know if I succeeded, but to talk about it in a different light, to try to push open what I felt was becoming a stuck dialogue, like for the last 20 years, two decades, the same conversation. People were learning words and sounding like they’ve been to diversity training or something. And people were working and it was annoying to me. Because I felt like now it’s a time as human beings we can go a bit deeper. Now that we’ve gotten the critical analysis down and to a certain extent, some may be just coming to it. That’s okay. But I feel as those who know it, we are the ones that have to go further to take this movement, and bring it, and integrate it into our lives. Not just my talking about it all the time.

Embodiment and Oneness


So do you think that the American approach to this teaching without race is American or do you think it just got filtered through the American culture? I feel like they’re not talking to me. I feel kind of left out.


Yes. It’s generalized. I actually feel many of the pioneer teachers are actually taking the teachings from where they got it, India, China and Japan, and while there are many differences, especially in India where there is the caste system, the other places were a bit more homogeneous. And so oneness was easy to talk about. We’re all Japanese, we’re all Chinese. But here, when you get to this country, you’ll have something else. You’ll have a different landscape. The teachers who came before, which were mostly white men, they were original pioneers, shaped the teachings to their like.

They really like it kind of amorphous not fixed, not colored, not raced, genderized or sexualized. They just decided, this is not part of the teachings. And so as I studied I realized, like you said, you do not feel like you’re there when they’re talking about “we’re all one.” Not when you go to the store. Or when the police stops you or whatever. Or they say only men can do this and women can’t. These are the kinds of things that have to be spoken to in this country because that’s who we are.

I do think the oneness without the balanced-ness of life is true. It’s there, but there also is the relative experience of life. They both are together. They’re both one. They’re married together. But people really like the absolute world of balanced-ness. We love to talk about oneness, and peace, and harmony and all of these things. And they think the minute you bring your life in, the relative truth is felt to be like, “Oh no, you just took away the balanced-ness.” But that’s impossible because it’s all together. It’s all one.

We have nothing to do with peace and oneness. It’s just there. There is a oneness that already exists before any of us opened our mouths or opened our eyes to this world. We don’t take that away. Our work is to work through the relative truth of our lives, to understand the nature of life through these bodies that we have. Then through that you meet the balanced-ness. You meet peace. You meet silence. True silence. Not just quietness. True silence. And true stillness and peace.

That’s just based on my experience of walking the path and studying myself, which is important in learning how to be a practitioner of Buddhist teachings. I feel it’s a miss when people want to just be in absolute world and everything else. You remain silent, and if you speak then you must not be enlightened. I am totally the opposite. If you speak, you are probably more enlightened to me than those who don’t. Those who don’t are still grappling with how to integrate the balanced-ness into their everyday life.

How do you do that if you’re not speaking to your embodiment, even if you are a white male, wealthy, homosexual? You should look at that. Study it. It’s important. It’s not just for us to study. Those who aren’t in the dominant culture. Everyone must study. Why dominant? Why non-dominant? Why superior? Why inferior? What really is that? And that is what’s worth studying when we’re on any path.

It’s kind of like looking on a garden. Now, why is that plant? What would make that plant survive and thrive and what would make this plant? What’s happening with this plant? Why isn’t it surviving when there’s all this beautiful soil that the earth has provided? Then you have to go and work with it. You work with that plant to help that one survive. You may have to move it around and all these kinds of things. That’s why we have maybe people of color groups, or women’s groups, or groups in which the soil could be generated toward the life of that particular embodiment.



So what advice would you have for activists of color? We’re trying to stay grounded while we do the works that ground us into some kind of spirituality. And then we have to be immersed in painful times. You talk about tenderness being underneath anger and I’ve had a hard time getting away from anger because it’s easier.

Even when I’m angry, it’s still excruciating to just watch everything. And I think it’s more immediate for people of color. I think it’s always been and it’s not new. And I read that you worked through that. Tell us why it’s important?


Well, I haven’t worked through it. I work with it still. And how to work through it differently. And it used to take me out. Anger had me. It still can get a grip. It’s very… I had a wonderful thing called hypertension that helped me realized that how much of that restriction was going on in my body. And I didn’t want to take the medications, because the medications lead to everything else. Then you’re going to have liver, kidney… it just keeps going. I didn’t want to live that way and I knew… I feel people of color had rage, which is an accumulation of anger. Sometimes when people are talking about anger in the Buddhist realm, it’s like it’s not just a little bit of something happened yesterday and it pissed me off. It’s more of, like you said, it’s generational. I believe it’s embodied too. It’s imprinted in us as well. What I came to study was that… and say a lot… I just did a talk on anger with Buddhist Peace Fellowship. And what I said in there too was that anger is a fire, right. It’s fire. And we are in the time of fire right now and great fire. I think it’s not a mistake that we’re here and this is happening. I think this coming, this time, it could have happen 10 years ago or 20 years ago. But I think this time it’s different because we have a different understanding of what we need to do, and better skills on how to do it. And a better capacity on how to do it. Even though it’s hard, I do feel we have a better capacity to deal with what’s happening now. I don’t advocate getting rid of anger. I advocate finding when to use it and when to diffuse it. When to use it and when to diffuse it. Because it’s going to be there as a human being. Every human being has anger. And so we have to find when is the use of it going to lead to your end result, what you want, or when the use of it is going to hurt you. When it’s destructive, it’s a fire and it is just going to take you out. Then maybe it will. Maybe we will burn to the ground in it. And in that, in ash, just like a volcano. Volcanoes create new earth. In there is new earth, so maybe we’re not going to be able to maintain even what we believe. Or maintain all the justice systems we put in place. So maybe all of it is breaking down; the justice systems, the injustice systems. All of it together is burning down and something new is coming in. We just don’t know what it is. We’re so used to our justice systems. They’re used to their injustice system.

And so what’s going to happen now? So, I don’t advocate that as activists, whatever our activism is – it could be in any realm – that when anger comes up, you shouldn’t be angry. I disagree with that. I think you are angry and then now what? How are you going to use it? How are we going to hold hands in it to do the work and not create it? Because we’re starting to do it between each other. I’m noticing, even in the activist world different factions are starting, because it’s all over. It’s a fire everywhere. We’re not exclusive of that. We’re not going to be excused from the burning. I feel it’s important for us to find, “Well, maybe this is a time to diffuse and this is a time to use.” Like I said, if you know it’s going to get to your end result and not without destroying people, or harming people, or hurting people. But to be clear.

So, how does one use anger when you’re overwhelmed with it? If you’re the kind of person that gets where anger takes you out, then you can’t use that anger. If you have an anger that you feel you can use, you see something… I mean I write through that. That’s what that book is. There’s a lot of fire in that book. It’s just written with the water, but it came from the fire. What is the anger showing me? Because fire is illuminating, right? It’s illuminating. You can see. Or you may not see because you’re so overwhelmed with it. It’s the most overwhelming emotion that we have, is anger. The anger, if we can see through it, then that’s the anger we can be effective with, if we can. If we’re overwhelmed, then our work is to work out how to diffuse the overwhelmness and there’s a lot of ways to do it. Our way is meditation. And my Zen lineage is Zazen in meditation to help to not get rid of it, but to be able to help us see through it even though we’re overwhelmed. We’re overwhelmed. We use the breath and we use various other chanting, other rituals, ceremonies. It’s everything, not just breath. It’s all studying the teachings. All of these things, to help see through the anger, rather than just being overwhelmed. There is a way of transforming that overwhelm into something, an anger that you can use. Beginning to look at your story of yourself and where is it coming from. Is your anger… not only is tenderness beneath anger, but there is grief, and sadness and shame, feelings of inadequacy. Right now we feel like we lost. And there really is no winning and losing. We haven’t lost. We haven’t lost anything. We have to know that. There’s no winning or losing. Let’s not play their game.


Explain how there’s no loss.


On a relative level, yes. We’re losing healthcare, education. That’s the absolute voice saying there is no loss. There is no winning and losing. What is happening is things are changing. We need to pay attention to what is changing and what needs to change. I tell my students, just please stop eating the poison. I’m telling myself that, because if we’re not going to have health and we didn’t have it before, then we have got to, better get your garden together, and you better start sharing, and you better do your best, because this is not going to happen for you.

Maybe we don’t want it to (happen). How many pills do you need? Maybe we don’t want that system. Maybe a new system will come through of a health system that’s more like what we want. More holistic. More dealing with our mental wellbeing, because the mental wellbeing is connected to the physical wellbeing, altogether. So, when someone says you’re thinking a certain way, “Oh well, okay. You’re feeling this way, so let’s deal with your kidney, but also let’s deal with your emotional wellbeing at the same time.” Try to bring it together.

Maybe we’re looking for something. We know we want that, we want that. Every four years it’s going to put it in, next four years take it out. Next four years put it in, next four years take. Are we going to go through that? I don’t know.  I don’t care if you’re a person of color or not. It doesn’t matter. Just if you’re a living being. We all cannot live that way.

When (anger) comes up, really know where you’re at. I was listening to… I guess it was a scientist. I don’t remember names. That anger comes up in the frontal lobe of the brain and that’s the same place that happiness comes up in. Anger feels really good. It feels really good. And that’s why it’s very hard to let go of, very hard to work with because you’re feeling really good at being angry. And it helps you from feeling hopeless and helpless. It’s to understand that. To understand you’re in that realm. But to really see if in fact this anger is going to lead to something effective for everybody. That takes a little bit of time. It doesn’t mean that you’re not (angry). I don’t think we could ever not be. I think that’s just being human.

The reason why it’s so big and overwhelming is because anger’s up here [points to her forehead]. All other emotions are other places. Anger is quite the juice that we were given as people, animals, everybody. All the animals have it too. They’re just like us and they have to decide, “You know, am I going to go after that there? Is it worth it? Yes, my cubs.” Or whatever, whatever they’re doing out there, they decide when, where, how, what. They don’t just have haphazard killing. We’re like really interesting species here. I feel we’re going to be learning. I’m glad to be alive right now, even with how horrible it is.

But I don’t allow my mind to be fed with all the stories. Even when a legislation is taken, and this is taken and that is taken I’m not focusing there, because I can’t. You know why? If I’m focused there I can’t sit here and talk to you. We cannot have a conversation. I cannot use my energy to bring wellness, and to bring transformation and to bring peace. I need my energy and I’m not going to be sucked up there. I don’t care what he is doing or it or what is doing. I don’t care about his hair. I’m not interested. I don’t care about his wife. I’m trying to get prepared for whatever we need to be prepared for. I’m not going to be distracted by that. Because whatever’s going to happen, we better be right here with each other. Right here. Right here with each other, otherwise we’re not going to make it. That’s how he won it, because everybody’s so focused on the tweets. His name was evoked, invoked, invoked, invoked and I said, “Oh my God, this guy is going to win.” Just because we keep saying it. Whether we’re saying good or bad things, that doesn’t matter. That is the way of a psychic mind. It goes with what’s invoked. He is better than any commercial ever, because he just keeping saying the name over and over and over. People started getting it, but he was in already. The voices that he represents, we’re not sure who they are really. They’re not sure themselves. Because they never probably said, “Oh my God, we have our own president.” Whatever. These voices were unacknowledged and unheard.

They were unacknowledged and when it happened they go, “Oh. We forgot they were over there,” or we just didn’t think…” And then they just use the same tools we use, Facebook and Twitter, and there you are. They making sure they do something every week. They’re making sure, just to keep us–


Even if it’s a distraction from the biggest bomb ever.


Right. Obama did the same thing. As soon as he got in. Afghanistan. Because that’s how we live. That’s how we survive. This country survives on the selling of bombs and missiles and we sell them to countries so that they could fight with us on an equal plane. They used the bombs we bought. You know they’re not building missiles in Afghanistan. They buy them from us. We’re the suppliers, all over the world. Then we said “now we can have a war because now we have even weapons.” Our industry is war. It’s very lucrative. They may just bring in a particular kind of machine gun into Africa, into the Congo. Little by little. Here’s some money and then right behind the money are the guns.



I just don’t know what to make of the human species, because everything we do just feels so crazy. Like self-annihilation. Just running on crazy. Maybe you could speak to it. I have to be the peace and I’m not the peace.


You are. You are the peace. You are the peace. Don’t ever say that. You are the peace. Just because you might not feel what you… because we think peace has to be a certain thing. It’s not. It is what it is for you. And it is what it is what you see. You’re doing the work and it is very discombobulating so it might not feel peaceful, which is another thing than peace. But you are peace.

To be peace sometimes is to do this work. These fires that lead people like Angela Davis and Martin Luther King to do. And say. It’s these fires. And can’t we say they’re peace too? Malcolm X and all these people who took their fires, saw something and decided, “I’m going to do this even though it’s crazy and it feels crazy.” I think the craziness is just part of being human, part of life. Life is not very neat. We would like it to be. So when we’re really feeling like “Oh my God, it’s just…” that is your time to just pause.

When do you rest? You have to rest. You have to rest everything. And like a soldier, they have to go. Warriors, they go away, go fly, they come back to the hut. This is old now, ancient times. Get up rejuvenated and out. You go again. This is from the beginning of time. This, what we’re dealing with is just different. But it’s from the beginning of time. And where it’s going lead, we don’t know.

I think eventually the earth does its own thing. The earth dumps us off. “Shhhhhh.” The earth takes care of itself. That’s what it is. It takes care. It says, “Okay, no more water. No more good air.” Then only the things that can go underground… It’s only those animals. That life survives.

Then something else comes from that. This is not new. This is the way. Historical ecology is really amazing, and we’re a part of that, and we’re in the middle. Where we’re going, we don’t know. We talk about change. Well, the climate’s been changing from the day we were born and before that, and so now it’s going towards something else. The earth is going to do what it’s going to do. And we can help do some things for our part, or just to stop the destroying. But are we doing that for our benefit or for the earth only?

Are we really trying to just survive?


She’s better off without us.

The Practice


She might be. Well, I’ve been practicing for 30 years. It’s my life. Sometimes when people say, “What’s your practice?” I say, “Well, I don’t have one.”  I feel like that. I don’t have a practice. I have a life that is filled with the things I learned during my practice. It’s quite natural for me to I feel mostly in a meditative state from the time I wake up to the time I go sleep. Even if things are happening and they’re really awful, because awful things can happen during the day. The microaggressions for being who I am, what I look like and how I move.

I used to be very hurt by some actions. I would go into my job sometimes just in tears from being harassed, for being queer, not having hair and all kinds of things. It doesn’t matter what color, what race. It’s just like, “Okay.” So that’s why I don’t lean toward, oh, all black people. But, then they kind of have a problem with queerness. You lead toward queerness and you have problem with whiteness. There’s just no place. I had to find my life and be able to live it fully.

The sitting practice of meditation which I did very intensely… That’s because that’s my nature. I don’t think mediation’s for everybody. I can see sometimes students. I don’t think that’s their practice. Maybe they should drum, be a drummer, which I was. I learned drumming and it had the same meditation in it. You have to find something that brings you into concentration and stillness. It doesn’t have to not make noise.

So you could be a drummer. You could paint. You could dance. Sing. And if it brings that to you. If you’re just singing, and you’re a performer, and you’re always thinking about your song, then that’s probably not your stillness practice. You have to have something in your life that makes you still. I think I have it quite naturally after all these years of practicing.

After sitting so long and chanting, and doing rituals, and ceremonies and other practices, that those things have helped me to make stillness very much an under occurrence, like it’s in my blood now. It’s like the medicine so deep I can’t hardly be anything else, which sometimes could be problematic. Because when you’re supposed to be a little bit less still it’s hard for me to move out of that. I have to say like, “Okay, this is not the time for that. You need to make a move here. Really take a stance. You’re getting a little too comfortable in that stillness.”



How do I take a step toward loving people? I think it’s kind of a goal to move from just hatred to love and I feel like I’m kind of stuck with people who can’t see my humanity. And I don’t want to be robbed of my humanity further by hating them. I have no idea, so maybe you can help.


Yeah. Do you hate you?


I am still recovering from my childhood where I was taught to hate myself because of internalized racism. So, that’s where I am. That’s the answer.


Yes, because that’s where the hate is. And it’s so hard to work for that love out there, and waiting for that love to be returned. You’re just constantly opening your heart and constantly wanting to be received as who you are. It would be so sad and I still can feel the sadness of those times when I wasn’t acceptable.

I’m not acceptable in this world as who I am. To the way they present it. Individuals may, accept me, but not generally.

I go places sometimes and it got to the point I wouldn’t even go to the store almost, because I got so tired. I’ve been actually attacked. Right here in Berkeley by some students. I don’t know. I think I’m like a target. Like a walking target somehow. Maybe because I’m short or something like they can just jump on this one. “Look at her. She’s a dyke,” or whatever, but they don’t even know. Maybe I’m not. I’m like “is there a sign on my back?” I think I’ve had people run from me. Just run to the other side of the street.


I’ve had people walk across the street when they see me. Or just stop still. Grown assed men.


Right. And stare. Yeah. That is a horrible feeling. And so I think the only way I could work with it and stay alive, because my goal is to stay alive, but to live fully. Not just be alive. I don’t want to just like, “Okay, I’m alive.” I want to enjoy life just as much as I see everybody else walking around.

What I did is begin to see what parts of myself I really hated. I don’t like the way I look. How did I get there? I don’t like the way I look. And I had to work really hard at seeing that I was really beautiful. It’s like, “Oh my God, I’m beautiful.”

I remember the moment. I said, “Wow. I should have known this all my life. Oh my God, I’m so beautiful. I’m so African. Oh my God, look at my nose.” My body, I thought I was fat and I said, “Oh wait a minute, this is the African body, so anybody that has a butt is fat.” But I’m going to have a butt. I’m African. That doesn’t mean you’re fat. It’s just a different shape.

I actually learned this at Zen Center, because I was there. “You have to go in and live in the center.” How many black people do you think were there?


You. Just guessing.


Okay, so yeah, and one or two others. And I wanted to run out the door so many times and something said, “Stay, stay, stay because this what you’re dealing with now is what you’re dealing with in the world, and if you could get this here in this container where at least there’s the dharma. You could say, “excuse me.” Because the teachings are there. You will see something of yourself. That’s what I did. I began to see this beautiful gorgeous black woman and not superficially. Because we had a lot of black pride, and all that, and the name changes and all that. But deep down, a lot of us didn’t move.

I could see the ignorance of even my own self. I started calling it “internalized treason” as opposed to “internalized hatred.” I could still know that even in all of the oppression there was still love. Like in the moment, like “Oh my God, I’m the only black thing here, queer thing, black queer, oh this is too much.” Then I turn away from myself and accept what they’re saying I am, which is this strange creature that shouldn’t be here.


So you have some kind of awareness that you’re doing it and that removes it?


Yeah, the pain. Pain is the awareness. As soon as you hurt, as soon as you start suffering, because that’s what the practice is about. A lot of people, they think of practice is to become calm. The practice is when you’re in pain. If you’re not willing to look at it, I always tell people, go to the beach and have fun. Have a cook out. If you’re not really wanting to do all of that, you don’t have to. It’s not required. But for me it was required. Because I wanted to live fully and liberated.

That pain and that tenderness, that’s why I said that’s the way of tenderness, the way of tenderness is to go through this tender place. And there’s different levels of it. There’s a paralyzing tenderness. Then it kind of moves to more subtle quiet grief-like (tenderness). Then there’s the liberated one in which you’re still tender, but you’re just like [she claps] on. You’re there and so that’s how you’re present. And so that’s the indicator. As soon as that comes up, like oh, somebody walked across the street, you have to let that be them. You have to let that be their fear. When the pain for you comes up, you comes, you can, next time the next person comes, walk stronger and faster and make them run faster across the street. You know? Just like, “Woo, move.”

Sometimes I use it. I’m like, “Oh good. I’ll get up and sit here and I know no one’s going to sit with me.” No one sits with me on the bus. No one. They will not in public places? No. No one sits next to me.


Black people don’t?


Black people, they’re very, I would say oriented. Like, queer people they’re not going to sit. They don’t know what I am. Now, they don’t know if I’m transgender. And I’m not. Because everything now is, there’s suddenly no… lesbians or queer people, because they’re so busy trying to be welcoming to the new movement. And I can understand it. I don’t care if they confuse me with that. I haven’t had a problem with being confused with gender fluidity. I don’t have a problem with it.


But it’s interesting that people are still… no matter what happens in the country I’m still the pariah. It’s just the way I’ve lived all my life.  

All my life and I’ve learned, and through the practice, I had to have a practice to survive. Otherwise I think I would have committed suicide. And I’m really sure about that, because I thought about it a lot and I didn’t do it.


Thank you for not doing it. You know, there is New Age notion that you bring whatever you embody, like you just bring more of that into the world. I had this idea that, like when I see a lot of suffering, sometimes I get so affected that it knocks me down. I’ll see suffering, then all of a sudden I’m there with somebody, and it just feels so painful sometimes.

And I kind of react by thinking, “how am I going to ever be joyful and peaceful because now the world is in such a state?” There’s just suffering everywhere, and I’m trying to hold it. And then I judge it, because I’m holding all this suffering and I’m like, “Wow, now I’m suffering.”

And the world is messed up and I’m just grappling and wrestling with all this.


Yeah. I know the feeling. And I remember when suffering changed for me and how I view it. I’m a very sensitive. It sounds like you’re a sensitive person and most of us are if we’re awake. We’re sensitive and so when we see tragedy and war, it’s like what’s going on over the country, the Syrians, everything, everywhere.

I think there is a way in which that our being connected and feeling is important, that we actually have an intimacy with the suffering that we see and feel. That’s what’s happening. So now, do we allow this to be just a place of intimacy so that we can continue doing what we do? Or is it a place in which you now become so overwhelmed by it that you’re not going to be effective in the work around what the suffering is?

What we can practice to be happier, peaceful or joyful is to let that go. That will steer you into a manufactured joy and peace and happiness. What we’re looking for is a kind (of joy and peace and happiness) that can exist alongside the suffering. What I found out around suffering, is that I kept looking. At one point I could say, “I suffer the suffering to suffer the suffering and I stop suffering the suffering.” Which meant suffering was no longer a center. It existed, but it wasn’t center stage.

Center stage was what I do in my life, and how I do it, and how I impact people and how people impact me. Looking like that. And then knowing suffering has visitations and I can look at it. One thing we get tired of is, “Oh, there’s so much of it,” but then I became more excited about suffering because I could see something in it that I could use. Like I said, the book, a lot of that is my suffering, too. As you see, there’re some stories in there.

You can bring your creativity through, your activism through as long as it’s not coming from the place of injury. Now, if I had written that book from how injured I was in those experiences, it would have been a different book. It would have way different feeling.

Not that it (would have been) a better or a worse book, but it would have had a different feeling. I didn’t write that book from that place, from that place of how wounding it feels when someone runs across the street when they see me and really all I want to do is say hello. It’s not from that place. I’ll be suffering, but at the same time it doesn’t take over my entire moment, my entire life.

That takes practice. It takes a lot. It doesn’t happen instantly. When I say practice, it’s practice looking at yourself, and holding yourself and understanding the nature of life and the ignorance of people today and before, because we don’t feel interrelated, we don’t feel like we’re in relation. And I don’t feel in relation. I’m kind of glad some of the people who walk across the street, because I don’t want to talk to them. Then I have to say, “Oh, you’re the same way. Oh, there is a way in which you…”

Not that I am in control, though. I can’t make power, because of certain people who can just… “If I ignore you, you’re dead.” Like what we have now in this country. These (people) ignore whole populations… we’re going to struggle, like what’s happening now.

You still have to understand it. You still have to understand interrelationship, and the ignorance, and to not buy into it and to create more pain. When suffering arises, when the fire arises, think of it as a volcano in the new earth that will be made. You just can’t see it, you can’t feel it and you may not be able to design it or shape it. Sometimes we just pick up the fire too quick. We’re like, “Ah…” and just burn. Let it do its thing. Let it become the new earth.


Just sounds like you just have to have faith and patience, and just keep centered.


And take time out. I feel like a lot of us don’t take the time out. I’m talking to myself too, in terms of just stopping, resting and listening. Just take time out from it all, because maybe you’re addicted to it. Find out if you’re addicted to all of that chaos. But you’ve got to stop. If you’re addicted to it, even your work in it, then is from the addiction. Or you’re constantly hurt. Then your work is from the work.

You got to want to come clean. You want to come clear. You want to come full. You want to come well. You want to be ready and concentrated as much as possible to do the work. When we’re not… I love this thing  Thich Nhat Hanh said, because we’re all trying to be compassionate, especially activists. We’re trying to be compassionate and do compassionate action and he said, “If you want to be compassion, you got to have energy.” I was like “What?”

He said, “You have to have energy to be compassionate. If you’re tired you’re not going to have any.” That’s true. You don’t have a minute. You don’t have time for anything or anyone and you just become more and more angry, more irritated, and frustrated and so you have to stop and build energy. Take time to just be in the world and see it all happening. Watch it all happening. You don’t always have to be in the middle of it. It’s hard not to be if you’re kind of addicted to it like you’re if on Facebook, something happens and then you’ve got to chime in.


Or you’ve got to run to the airport just as I did. Yeah, I did. I ran to the airport when I heard, “He’s detaining people!” and I was on BART and I was down there holding a sign. I think it’s really important what you said. I know it while I’m on BART that it’s important for me, even though I don’t see it, for me to just be centered in the world and not to be sucked in.


And allow other people to come in, not just always you. Something simple like chanting. When you’re chanting with people, everybody’s chanting, some people take a breath and somebody else’s chant comes in there. And somebody else is going and their breaths just go different as you listen and chant. Singing’s like that.

And there is these moments when you’re not singing and someone else sings that note and sings that song, that word while you’re breathing. Then you come back in. And then they get to breathe.


I love that. I think that’s key.


Yeah. We can’t just go “Ph….”[outbreath] You die. You die. You die. We’re not built that way. We’re not. We’re not built that way. I mean we can run it that way. It’s kind of like running a car. It can run, and run, and run, and run. It can go a hundred and twenty miles. We don’t drive it that way every day. It’s like looking at where the spaces are, taking the space and taking the breath and the movement. Yeah. There are ways, all kinds of metaphors that are right there in front of us.

Fear and Letting Go


I look at things. I have to figure things out. Like, “I’m going to stay safe if I could just figure out everybody, if I could figure out everything and if I could just solve every puzzle.”


Yeah, get it. I think that’s a way of dealing with fear. Fear is under anger a lot, one of those emotions that drives anger and so I always tell myself and others, too. Like when I get to that place of great fear and it’s very intense, I just like, “Okay, just stay there. Just be afraid and see what’s going to happen.” I mean it could be a little thing for me.

That’s how much fear I have. Like if someone’s making a reservation for me, like someone just did. We’re going on a trip and I usually make the reservations because of my fear and my obsessiveness in what has to be there. And so I just took a breath and allowed the fear to exist and yes they did make a mistake on the reservation. I could see myself getting more intense about it. And then I shot off an email. Like, “This is what I’m going to do if this doesn’t work out…” Then they had already changed it, the mistake. It was already done.

If I had just waited a little longer. I think it’s that we’re traumatized with all of the things that have happened, so we try to manage our lives so that none of that happens again. Guess what? All the managing is still happening, right? It’s better to kind of just let go when you can and just have the fear and be fearful and see how big it is getting. Like, “If I don’t do that, this.” And then see.

Then suddenly maybe this happens. And then see, “Why is this happening?” There’re so many experiences I have with this daily because that’s how I am. I have someone make a soup. I’m a really good soup maker and I say, you make the soup. And it just wasn’t the soup I wanted. When I saw it I knew. I had a fear she wasn’t going to make the soup the way I wanted it. Then I had to look at that. Because then what you do is you start managing people and they don’t enjoy that. Or managing projects and everything gets tight.

When the soup came, it actually was the perfect soup. What I wanted was more creamy and I didn’t need a creamy soup. I needed exactly what she made, exactly what she made that day with broth and lentils. I said, “Wow.” I didn’t need what I wanted. I didn’t get it. This one I let go. I let the fear ride. I let it ride and it came to (that) I was getting what I needed.

That hyper vigilance leads to hypertension and hypertension leads to death. It leads to stroke. We’re all traumatized and people who have strokes are traumatized and the trauma is not dealt with. So I just try to help myself with practice, as much as I can in the breath and noticing when I’m doing what I don’t want to do or when it’s something that I shouldn’t do that’s going to put me in that much danger. Then I need to not do it. I think we have to (ask) what is dangerous and what isn’t. Is it really danger there or is it perceived?

You’re really trying to get clear of what’s perceived and what is really there, what is really there. We learn this in relationships, too. With friends and intimate relationships. We learn, especially traumatized people, it’s okay now. What are they going to do? Okay, wait a minute.

So there’s a real need to understand. One, you are traumatized and it’s generational for many of us. So then understanding that and knowing that what you’re perceiving may not be exactly what it is.

Suzuki Roshi has a great line and I use it sometimes when I really get crazy. That is, he always said, “It’s not always so.” And it’s really hard to hold it when you go, “Yes it is, yes it is, yes it is.” When you’re really like that, like “Yes it is,” just throw in there, “Not necessarily. Not always so.” And to see if there’s just a little bit of something there to just unlock and release you from that, that “Yes it is, yes it is.”

Just to say it may not be. Just be very gentle. Be gentle with yourself. Be gentle and say, “Mm… I’m so intent on this. Maybe it’s not so.” Then you may have me go, “I knew it was,” but that’s okay too.”

Then you go, “Now what?” Mostly it’s not always so. Mostly what’s in our mind probably about ninety-nine percent of what we think about other people, and other things, and other places is not true. Mostly it’s not true. Mostly it’s not.

Like when the people walk across the street from you, it’s not true. See? It’s in your minds. It’s a perception in their mind.

They didn’t get you, you just probably (want to) say, “Hello,” but their perception is running wild. Their psyche is like…


“…She’s mean!”


Yeah. Because of TV and movies. You get accused of things that it’s amazing sometimes when I’m still considered a thug at my age.

I was like, “Okay. Well, maybe my brothers and sisters they are thugs. So they’re not bad people.” They’re not bad people, what they call thugs.

They’re not, but they treat you like that. Like it’s a bad thing. And so it doesn’t matter if I have a PhD or I’m an ex-convict. I am an ex-convict in the world. I’m not a PhD person. I’m not a priest. I’m an ex-convict. They don’t see nothing but that. And I rap.  They think I’m the age of rappers. I mean people treat me like that. I can tell. They don’t see. They can’t see or they don’t know the difference.

Even right in some of my own community. I’ve gone to Buddhist retreats, conferences. There was this woman. Tibetans wear red robes. Zen, we wear black. I had black on. I did a talk. The woman in red got all of the accolades and praise and they told her how good her talk was. So, they can’t even see (and this is in the Buddhist community) the difference. They couldn’t see the difference between me and her because of the dark skin. So, it’s a perception. What we see.

And then, what do we see? We have to be doing it too. It’s not one way. It’s not just a particular race or a particular sexuality, a particular gender. Everyone does this. And then when we speak of oppression, that notion of misperception leads to someone’s death. Or in excess, that perception becomes part of the system of oppression. That’s what we’re working on as activists. That part. That’s the danger. We all do it. But when it becomes part of whether someone gets fed or gets to leave the airport, because they’re a Muslim, then that’s the part where that perception becomes dangerous. And that’s what we’re working against and for. Peace of all people, freedom for everyone.

Thoughts on Cultural Appropriation


I still have a lot of triggers. If I go to a Work That Reconnects (event) or something. And there is just all this cultural appropriation. I wonder, “now, this is painful. Am I supposed to say something to them? Do I work on myself?” And I don’t know what to do with that. It seems like a hot bed of appropriation, in activists.


Yeah, I know what you’re talking about. And appropriation of cultures definitely I hear you saying this rampant. But I feel that their own cultures have been erased in so many ways and made invisible for themselves that they can’t see what culture is. I think that their attempt to take on that sometimes is an attempt to be crossing into space, to be cross-cultural. But it’s appropriation.

Appropriation is when that group or that person is taking on something from a culture and using it to their own benefit without even acknowledging where they got it from. There’s a group of young people in Europe who started selling these Miswak sticks that they chew on in many indigenous cultures (in) Africa and Haiti, and they’re selling them as a new toothbrush, and they just found out about it, and they’re the ones that know about it. This happens because (they are the) ones with the access. They have the access. Media access, the money to bring forth other people’s medicines, and music and food and all of kinds of things. When one uses it to one’s own benefit and it’s not there for their learning or their transformation.

Like, you could say that for me. I’m in a Japanese tradition. I have Japanese clothes, a Japanese robe, a Japanese name. Everything’s Japanese and I’m not Japanese. I have to be careful how I use that and what it means to me. Of course I’ve shaped all of this to my own way and being. But at the same time, am I using this practice for my life or am I out there now hocking myself as some person who knows all about the Japanese or Zen and the people? And I’m not. I cannot and I will not.

I feel that even in Zen, there is a lack. There’s a lack of Japanese presence. There’s white Westerners and then there’s Japanese. And they have their own places because they want to. For one, because they’re doing it differently than we do. And then there’s the Western World. It’s very complicated.

If you feel fit to support Rev. Zenju Earthlyn Manuel and the sangha please do so. General Donations to support Still Breathing Zen Meditation Center/Yudo-ji can be made through PayPal here. Still Breathing Zen Meditation Center is small with big work. They are a community with a commitment to peace.  All donations are tax deductible under the fiscal sponsorship of World Trust Educational Services.

Gratitude and support for Ann Marie Davis’ work can be directed to: https://www.paypal.me/hazeloutlaw

One thought on “Zenju Earthlyn Manuel in conversation with Ann Marie Davis

  1. I’m having a hard time trying to donate to Rev. Zenju’s PayPal. The link takes me to something that says I’m logged out, even though I’m logged in. Please help. Thanks!

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