Zenju Earthlyn Manuel visits the Pacific Zen Luminaries series to talk about her practice of invoking the shamanic roots of Zen and entering the gates of darkness we walk through.

“By participating in Zen rituals and ceremonies, I have a strong sense in me that something had been suppressed in it’s transmission…this sense brought me closer to the practice,” she writes, asking if “the shamanic bones or indigenous roots of Buddhism were unearthed, would the practice make more sense to practitioners, especially to black, indigenous, and people of color?”

“When we are turning away from rituals and ceremonies in Zen or Buddhism, are we turning away from what little is left of what the indigenous people contributed to the practice or used to sustain themselves in the practice?”

One evening, after about seven years of intensive Nichiren practice, Zenju suffered a headache so severe, she begged out loud: “Please relieve me of this pain and I will serve in the way that I was born to do. Even if I lose everything, I will remain a humble servant.” She believes something heard her because that night she had a lucid dream of a Black Angel as an oracle.

The next morning, her headache gone, Zenju’s mind was filled with messages and images. She drew the images “without knowing how to paint” and transcribed “messages I did not understand,” eventually making a set of oracle cards, which were later published. “Whether or not that experience was kensho, I had a glimpse of the source of all things manifested in the world.”

“The real magic is not in honoring the historical Buddha as a shamanic ancestor…It is the practice of experiencing Buddha as a reflection of our own magical or enlightened nature. In making offerings to the Buddha, one is making offerings to one’s own buddha nature, to one’s own capacity to awaken.”

“Zazen is a prolonged ritual of seeing and listening. It is a shamanic process and a way of life…How can we go through the portal of zazen and not ever hear the cries of the earth? Do we not dream as Buddha did? Do not the spirits of nature affect our lives? These exploratory questions deepened my curiosity about seeing Zen meditation as shamanic journeying.”

“Dharma transmission is a private process between teacher and student. I found it to be the most shamanistic of all Zen rituals and ceremonies…” She included in her transmission ceremony altars to black women writers who had transformed her life, spirits of Vodou that were to her were like Zen, and the shawls received during six years as a head drummer and singer of a Native American Sun Dance ceremony. “That was my way of becoming a dharma heir as my whole self,” she writes,” How do we as communities recognize as Zen practice family of mixed race and heritage?”

“After engaging in the dharma transmission ritual, I wanted to disrobe for many reasons. A prominent one was a feeling of having joined a family in which I was comfortable in ritual but uncomfortable in relationship.” Zenju describes how endured an “onslaught of attention” as a teacher of color. She added, “I wanted to be of no-rank, as they say in Zen, and go on about my business, leaving behind the projects of a Zen teacher.”

“In the San Francisco area, there is a place called Goat Rock Beach, where the Russian River meets the Pacific Ocean. On their way to each other, it appears as though it is a river meeting the ocean. But it is simply water meeting water. We bring our fire, earth and breath; we bring our human selves…I am grateful for the journey. We are only passing through to learn, to grow, to love, and then to return home.”