"on her face like / Renoir / might have painted"
Photo by Vascelle Andre
Osho Zenju Earthlyn Manuel’s powerful new book Opening to Darkness was written during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, when the entire world was trapped in fear and there was nowhere to flee. This period of deep darkness, which coincided with a rise in anti-Black sentiment, inspired Zenju Osho to ponder if there is a way to live in unsettling times that most humans have forgotten. “I felt called to share teachings about darkness, so I asked myself, ‘What do I, a Black-bodied person who has lived my entire life through systemic oppression, know about darkness? What is it about darkness and blackness that terrorizes us so much that we run from it, rather than go deeper into it? How can we experience dark times with the skill of an awakened one?’”
Zenju Osho—an ordained Zen Buddhist priest and drum medicine woman who is also a prolific author, poet, artist, and teacher with a doctorate in Transformative Learning—explains that when faced with darkness, most people try to rush through it, attempting to reach the light as quickly as possible. “But suffering will always be part of our existence. There will always be a different challenge, a different life experience. When we hurry to get out of darkness, we’re essentially hurrying to get out of our own lives. We can’t end inevitable suffering, but we certainly can change how hard we struggle against it.”
While Zenju Osho is not asking us to wallow in our suffering, she is certain that all suffering is fodder for awakening and that nothing is excluded. “Pandemics, racial oppression, natural disasters, illness, disability, death—why can’t they be the earth, the soil in which we come to understand human nature and ourselves as human beings? Humans have spent centuries contemplating how to emerge from darkness from every angle—psychology, sociology, religion, politics, and so on. We have not spent time learning how to dwell in darkness.”
"Pandemics, racial oppression, natural disasters, illness, disability, death—why can’t they be the earth, the soil in which we come to understand human nature and ourselves as human beings?"
Zenju Osho sees dwelling in darkness as an intentional, sacred, and compassionate act. It is an “entrance into the vastness of life—opening without grasping for what can’t be grasped. Darkness is the birthplace from which all things and all people emerge into being and to which all will reenter at some point in the future.”
Opening to Darkness invites us to embark on a quest of self-exploration that includes excavating the roots of our prejudices against darkness, as well as our resistance to it. “Our soul needs dark experiences to ascend, to evolve into a consciousness of vastness.”
Drawing from teachings gathered over decades on many paths and during her own direct spiritual transmissions, Zenju Osho explains that in her book we may “recognize the root of Zen Buddhism and the influence of African and Native American indigenous traditions, lucid prophetic dreaming, ceremonial drumming, and more.”
The comprehensive curriculum Zenju Osho crafted centers around Eight Gateways through which to enter into the mystery of darkness, laid out as a mandala. To offer insight and companionship on this daring journey, she introduces us to eight Dark Mother deities from different realms, whose energies we can learn to embody. Each Dark Mother models the elements of harshness and sweetness that exist within darkness. Each one holds wisdom into which we can lean for support, protection, and nourishment in dark times.
“The mandala in this book appears on the page, but it is created as you travel through the Eight Gateways,” writes Zenju Osho. “You’ll find guided stillness exercises to help you experience a mandala of darkness within you. You will be the mandala as you walk through these gateways. Hopefully, you will access the authentic nature of darkness within you despite the distortions imposed on darkness that are learned and experienced by everyone.” She instructs, “In creating the mandala of darkness within you, you turn from striving toward a light that is imagined or manufactured. Instead, you open to a light shaped by darkness.”
Zenju Osho’s contemplative exercises, meditations, and visualizations are intended to help us develop our intuition, as well as to assist us in finding the courage to release our limited self-protective boundaries so we can better understand the nature of darkness and access more of our potential as human beings. “I’m opening us to darkness on a spiritual path, which is hard to concretize. On a path of spirit, we are learning to see a different place—to see life, to see death, to see it all. Our eyes have to be open while they are closed. We are not trying to grasp anything. We are just letting it happen, letting it be.”
Zenju Osho cautions us not to attempt to sanitize the Dark Mothers. “They all destroy what needs to be destroyed, and humans dislike destruction.” For example, at the first gateway—an invitation to see into the true nature of darkness—we meet fierce Mahakali. “Mahakali uses her sword to cut away from our heart and mind that which is not in alignment with the wellbeing of all,” writes Zenju Osho. “Mahakali will destroy only what needs to be destroyed in us. She is a Dark Mother of this earth and is capable of discerning the nature of reality in terms of how we are conditioned as human beings. She is not outside of us. We are all fierce in a purposeful way if we allow it. And this fierceness can be used in experiences of darkness.”
We are not meant to re-energize our suffering while engaging the mandala, but to “settle upon suffering as if it were a pillow made of soft earth and we were lying awake in the dark—feeling expansive, fierce, and capable in the dark.” Zenju Osho also clarifies that through engaging the Eight Pathways and the Dark Mothers therein, we are embarking not on a quest to gain a vision, but rather on a quest in which a vision of life surfaces on its own. “It spontaneously emerges from where it has always been.”
For Zenju Osho, the essence of darkness and her life experience of being Black are intertwined. She believes that our disconnection from essential darkness and blackness has created a pervasive terror and anxiety when we are up against what and who is considered dark or Black, which leads to the oppression of blackness. “I live in a Black body. When I say ‘darkness,’ I mean ‘blackness’ too, and when I say ‘blackness,’ I mean ‘darkness’ as well. These states of being are interchangeable for me and maybe for others, and, therefore, I explored darkness and blackness as one spiritual experience.”
Zenju Osho shares that her intention in writing Opening to Darkness was to highlight the fear and anxiety around darkness and blackness—as well as darkness and blackness being rendered inferior to lightness and whiteness. She encourages us to try “holding darkness and blackness without the elevation of lightness and whiteness, even for a moment.”
Zenju Osho assures us that this call to darkness is not meant to harm or frighten us any more than we’ve already been frightened in our lives. Rather, it’s meant to reduce the feeling of being haunted by dark experiences; by what we haven’t been able to welcome into our lives. “We have come into life without understanding what life is,” she writes. “Where did we come from? Where are we going? Without the answers, we are frightened. With the answers, we are frightened. Difficulties are part of life. No difficulties mean we are not alive. No disruptions mean we will not change.”
Holding a vision of a future where darkness is embraced rather than summarily rejected, Zenju Osho writes, “When it truly no longer matters what our appearance is based on the color of our skin, based on gender, or based on anything thing else concocted or fixated upon by human beings, a distorted darkness will be replaced in this world with the pure darkness from which we were born.”
When difficulties come, which they inevitably will, Zenju Osho’s advice is to “breathe into that darkness that is vast as the night.” She says that, while it may look empty, the dark sky is in fact full of life. “Darkness comes to everyone as a great connector, because we all have come from it. The greatest courage is to be open to darkness, to see all that life brings, whether it is acceptable or not. When darkness is welcomed, then nothing and no one is rejected.”
Listen to Osho Zenju Earthlyn Manuel read one of her invocations to darkness, "Opening to the Absence of Light,” from the Audible version of Opening to Darkness. The Audible version, which Zenju Osho narrates, is a valuable companion to the print book for auditory guidance through the many meditations and blessings.
Shared with permission of the publisher, Sounds True, from the audio book, Opening to Darkness: Eight Gateways for Being with the Absence of Light in Unsettling Times by Zenju Earthlyn Manuel.
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