Multiplicity in Oneness

· Beyond Fear of Differences, Teachings · , ,

by Rev. Zenju Earthlyn Manuel

Inclusiveness underlies oneness. Being aware of the multiplicity in oneness requires that we recognize the collective nature of our lives. It is crucial that we see the variety of lived experiences within oneness in order to see who we really are as living beings. We have mistaken our sameness for being human. Our sameness stems from the fact that we share the same life-source as a flower or a bee. But we are nonetheless inherently different in form. When we speak of race, sexuality, and gender—when we speak of our embodiment—we speak of all of us, not just “those people” over there. 

Some misperceive “difference” to refer only to people of color, “race” to refer only to black men, “sexuality” to queer people, “gender” to white women, “class” to those with have inherited wealth or those who live in poverty, and so on. And notice black women are hardly considered on the continuum at all. Whether or not we see ourselves in terms of these groups, we all participate in these consciously and unconsciously created constructs (or delusions, if you see them in that way). Because there are multiple expressions of life, we all partake in race, sexuality, and gender. We all partake in the nature of oneness and the challenges that exist within it. We are all raced, sexualized, classed, and so on. This can be difficult to see.

The body, distinct in its appearance and character, is the location of awakened experience. Inclusivity lies at the heart of understanding multiplicity in oneness as a way of tenderness, as a way of facing the challenges of the body as the location of awakened experience. We may think that oneness should exclude marks of diversity like race, sexuality, and gender, yet oneness is inclusive of everything in our lives. We are interrelated despite our varied embodiments and ways of living. Race, sexuality, and gender are not merely labels or categories, but involve tangible lived experiences for each of us. We cannot experience life without a body, and we live our lives with the categorical names given to our bodies.

There is no single group of people who are “carriers of the oneness of nature”

You may not share this line of thought, and feel that the topic of this discourse is only for those who suffer within particular groups, and therefore have an ax to grind. We may attempt to refrain from identity out of fear of opposition and conflict, not seeing its transformative capacity. We all react, respond, yell out, hold back, cry, laugh, or curse, when these so-called labels are activated. If race, gender, and sexuality are merely labels, merely words, we should be capable of moving through life without being affected by them, as if they all were truly only illusions. Some say that these are only words, and pretend to be unaffected and uninterested until the words include or exclude them, until they find that they, too, are affected and experience a sense of harmful discrimination.

We must acknowledge the relevancy of our lived experience, even within the absoluteness of our being, beyond our material embodiment. There is a relational self on the path of spirit. In other words, our identities in terms of race, sexuality, and gender can- not be ignored for the sake of some kind of imagined invisibility or to attain spiritual transcendence. We are not capable of being “unembodied” Selves, nor are we meant to be. We cannot become the Self that we can- not touch, that does not suffer, that has no name, no color, no eyes, no ears, no nose, no tongue. No matter how many labels we drop we cannot become that Self.


I Once Saw a news panel on how to be an ally to those who are systematically oppressed in society. The panel was comprised of a diverse group of selected activists recognized for their work in the area of social justice. When asked how one becomes an ally to the marginalized, with a big smile, one man said, “I won the lottery because I’m white, male, and heterosexual. So I must use my privilege to help others.” This man had learned to acknowledge that privilege exists for some in our society, but I was stunned by his claim that his particular embodiment was actually richer than those of others. I was further stunned by the lack of response to his claim by the moderator and the brown and black activists, who seemed to implicitly agree that his embodiment was “better,” and that he bore the great responsibility that comes along with the great power afforded by his body. While I did understand that the panel was agreeing with his front row seat in political power structures of our country, it was the joy on his face in regards to his embodiment and ownership of privilege that said he somehow embraced white superiority.

This young man’s claim is a useful example that allows us to see how labels create a lived experience, and how that lived experience affects others. The absence of a collective or communal view of his life contributed to the shaping of the lives of those who didn’t “win the lottery” because of the color, sex, etc. He spoke as if he were lucky by birth (it takes luck to win the lottery, after all), and that his luck set him apart from those who have no luck—those who have to advocate in order to be treated as human. I don’t mean to downplay the gift that this young man was giving. I am simply pointing out how even in his giving and the black and brown activists receiving, we perpetuate notions of light as superiority and dark as inferiority, and how this leads directly to a mentality of hatred. Such mentalities lead us further away from the possibility that being born black or brown is also winning the lottery.

If he won the lottery in his birth, then we all have, because we have all been born. It is not the responsibility of one kind of people to liberate another while holding on to the winnings. By seeing some groups only as “allies” we cause them to appear to be “carriers of peace and wellness,” and those who fight for what ought to be their birthright to be “carriers of pain, suffering, and disruption.” There is no single group of people who are “carriers of the oneness of nature.” No one group or person embodies nature or possesses it in a way that allows it to be defended or handed over. We have all won life and the right to live it is our birthright. This is the true essence of social justice—the spirituality of it.


While All Of Us may not identify with labels of race, sexuality, gender, class, age, disability, and so on, we all cling to such appearances because of our embodied interrelationship. An acknowledgment that these constructions were created together and are cultivated together is crucial for this old dialogue to open and breathe, and to be life affirming and transformative in its opposing nature. It’s about whether or not we are interested in such aspects of life, about whether we will attend or neglect the collective suffering of all living beings.

If we have created “race,” we are all involved in the lived experience of it, whether we individually view ourselves in terms of race or not. When we are treated by others or act ourselves with a consciousness of race, we can count on an impact of that consciousness on everyone we interact with. If oppression is a particular kind of suffering for some, then it is a general type of suffering for all. Do we all acknowledge this suffering? No. Are we all tender, in the sense of wounded soreness, to it? Because of the nature of our interrelatedness, the answer is yes. Whether we are aware of it or not, we are all connected to this wounded tenderness in some way. So why can’t we use it in the service of liberating action? We usually suppress our tenderness, because it leaves us far too exposed. But the feeling of woundedness is not the complete experience of tenderness. The complete experience of tenderness is to acknowledge that within the seamless life shared between us, we cannot parcel out hate to some with- out affecting the whole of humanity. When we reach that kind of tenderness—complete tenderness—liberation is won. Race, sexuality, and gender are born out of an awareness that “I am this.” The feelings and perceptions that follow this awareness give rise to an experience of life as appearance-based.

Race, sexuality, and gender are perpetuated when past experiences of them carries forward into the present. We carry historical atrocities, such as slavery, genocide, massacres, or holocausts, in our collective memory. The memory of these tragedies persists in society, creating unexamined biological myths. Biological myths (a term I borrow from Michelle M. Wright, author and professor at Northwestern University) are stories created about certain groups of people that lack accurate historical perspective or content. Bigotry and supremacy of all kinds emerge from biological myths. More importantly, an invisible hatred is justified by these myths, and the myth obscures our ability to directly experience one another and to see the oppression that functions as the norm in society.


The Biological Myths associated with my particular embodiment run rampant in our society. I have been mistaken for “the help,” a thief, a thug, a mammy (or someone to milk when in pain), an uncontrolled sexual object, and for a child (even though I am the age of most grandmothers). From my side, I have walked as an author, have been a nonprofit executive for twenty-five years, and am now an ordained Zen priest. I don’t name these earthly accomplishments to elevate myself. I name them to show that we cannot truly see each other. Even these things are not who I really am. We see the roles that we play and the biological myths that come with them. The roles I play in life are not life itself. The nature of my life expresses itself in many ways.

Biological myths obstruct our capacity to see multiplicity in oneness. Perhaps by relieving ourselves of ungrounded stories we can unload political concerns that have swollen nearly to bursting. Perhaps we can roll the dynamic of accepted and unaccepted differences among us from our heads into our bodies, into our hearts, to better feel, speak to, and encounter each other-even as we may only truly meet ourselves for the first time—in stillness, in ritual, or in ceremony. Not blind to color, deaf to anger and rage, ashamed of history, but ever present to the ways in which we have rendered some lives dispensable and others not. How can we use our spiritual paths to lead ourselves out of ignorance and deception? Is purification through meditation enough? I say we need more as many of us struggle to sustain a com- mitment to purification, whether it is medi- tation, praying in sweatlodges, indigenous ritual, or ceremony. We need the connected- ness we once knew.

Photo by B.C. Lorio

Photo by B.C. Lorio

When we recognize that we are all a part of the collective injury of hatred, we begin to face our unexamined fears. We do not have to go far to find ourselves in the midst of human struggles based on unacceptable differences. This struggle is an intimate tension inherent to life, and yet for some reason it is often considered tangential to contemporary spiritual teachings. Within many Buddhist communities, discussions of difference gravitate toward a superficial sameness or “no self,” without realistically addressing the suffering that has happened—that is happening— among human beings. Such suffering, when explored in Buddhist communities, is treated as a personal issue rather than as a collective injury. Those who shed light on particular mistreatments become the focus, rather than the mistreatment itself. It is quite possible for the majority of a community to stand aloof and watch, as if they are not affected by the mistreatment. This kind of experience can become the source of longstanding divisiveness and isolation.

Photo by Scott Lum

Photo by Scott Lum


There Is Nothing more powerful than looking out on nature and seeing the varied expressions of life, taking in its myriad forms that touch our hearts or that disturb them. We ourselves are just as magnificent as anything expressed in nature as nature. We need only be that magnificence. Yet when we try to “be” magnificent, discrimination and discern- ment enter into our minds. We leave out who and what we think is not magnificent. We exclude whatever we judge to be lesser in our minds, which leads to manipulative action and to formation of ideologies that blind us to the true beauty of ourselves as nature. The organic evolution of seeing ourselves as part of nature, as beautiful as nature, is what we have been working toward as human beings from the beginning of our time on this planet.

Yet we constantly move against each other, which is to move against nature. The inability to see the true beauty of nature in ourselves, as ourselves, causes injury, assault, and war for all sentient creatures. From our beginnings we have been confronted by our differences, and our inability to see them as the natural order of things has allowed discomfort and fear to develop in our societies and has turned us against ourselves. The destruction wrought by this process reaches beyond our own species to affect other living beings as well. We have been concerned with our personal and particular needs without much care for what it costs others. Who will pull the plow, harvest the crop, build, and sacrifice their land, culture, and bodies for us?

Fortunately our intelligence allows us to clearly see this destruction and disconnection. And we have, down through the ages, developed many means to attempt to heal, mend, and atone for our actions. Yet while our spiritual paths have assisted us, our aspirations to be “better” human beings may inadvertently hinder us. To be “good” people we tend to bypass the messiness of our lives in order to enter the gate of tranquility. Can the gate of tranquility really be as we imagine it? No matter which way we approach peace, it seems we must cross the burning threshold of human conditioning to enter it. So, before we leap to the universal, the true essence, or spirit, why not start where we are as human beings? We must carve a path through the flames of our human condition. We must see it for what it is, and bow to it—not a pitiful bow, but a bow of acknowledgment. By acknowledging our human condition, we acknowledge that we might not know how to end hatred and that we are not superheroes; we are human beings.

Zenju Earthlyn Manuel, PhD, is the author of Tell Me Something About Buddhism and an ordained Zen Buddhist priest. She is the guiding teacher at Still Breathing Meditation Center in Oakland, CA.

From The Way of Tenderness: Awakening Through Race, Sexuality, and Gender. Copyright © 2015 by Earthlyn M. Manuel. Reprinted by permission of Wisdom Publications.

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