Many fine books on women in Buddhism have appeared in recent years, providing a context for the previously mostly hidden history of the women who have sustained and nourished the Dharma through the centuries. Among these books, The Hidden Lamp sparkles like a bright pearl.
The Hidden Lamp includes one hundred brief core stories of Buddhist women from India to the West, from the Buddha’s time to ours. Not only are the stories about women, but they express key issues of gender and sexuality. They are taken from many sources, including, but not limited to, the traditional Zen koan collections. These stories are evocative and inspiring, and continue to echo in unexpected ways.
Most noteworthy in this book (beyond the core stories) is the range, depth, and sheer vitality of extended commentaries by wonderful women who are themselves teachers and practitioners. These teachers, each commenting on one of the stories, come from thirteen different countries and from many different Buddhist schools and traditions. The book’s editors, Florence Caplow and Susan Moon, have unmistakably revealed how the Buddhadharma is now blessed to be in a golden age of women guides, teaching openly or shining in quiet practice. This book is a true cause for celebration, for Buddhist men as well as women.
Another accomplishment of this book is to help free the term koan from proprietary parochial uses, and instead apply it more generally to skillful practice with evocative teaching stories. This is more in accord with the root of the koan tradition, which has been misunderstood in the West as solely applied to koan training programs in which students try to pass through preset curricula of hundreds of such stories to achieve some supposed mastery. The practical guidance provided by Caplow and Moon in the book’s introduction, and through the course of the book, demonstrates how these teaching stories can be broadly useful as ever-deepening sources of reflection and ongoing awakening.
Many of the commentaries in The Hidden Lamp rejoice at emotional intimacy as well as respect for sexuality. Zenkei Blanche Hartman, who was the first woman abbot of San Francisco Zen Center, comments on the story about an old Chinese woman who burnt down the hermitage of a monk she had supported for many years. She had sent a beautiful young woman to make advances to the monk, who proceeded to reject her coldly. The old woman patron was upset that the monk did not consider the young woman’s feelings, and had suppressed his own natural feelings. Hartman comments that having few desires does not mean squelching all human feelings. “The practice is not about suppressing desire or destroying our humanity, but about allowing it to flow out to everything.” She adds that she sometimes exchanges hugs with students in the interview room even though some might consider it inappropriate: “Since I’m old enough to be most people’s grandmother, I hope it’s all right. . . . People seem to have found it comforting.”
Vipassana teacher Diana Winston responds beautifully to a story about Punnika, a slave in Buddha’s time who had heard the Dharma and awakened, though she was still the lowest possible person in that caste-ridden society. Punnika was moved to challenge a high-caste Brahmin for the uselessness of taking a ritual bath in the river on a frigid day. When he understood and wanted to reward her with gifts, she refused and directed him to take refuge in the Buddha instead.
Winston sings Punnika’s praises, “What ovaries! What chutzpah! Talking to a Brahmin, contradicting him, telling him he’s got it wrong. Wow.” Winston challenges, “I say this to you and I say this to me because the time is now to speak out, loudly, with a clear true voice—just like Punnika—that liberation is possible, and that we’ve done it, and countless women have done it through time, and of course there’s more to go, but please, please don’t hide your awakening.”
Buddhist scholar and activist Joanna Macy, who has practiced in the Theravada and Tibetan traditions, reflects on a poem by Chen, an enlightened wandering laywoman of China’s T’ang period who noted that on the high slopes she saw only woodcutters busy chopping away with their axes. Chen wondered how they would see the glorious red mountain flowers. Macy feels affinity with Chen, given Macy’s own deep concern with what we are now collectively doing to our world, and her outrage at current mountaintop removal, deep-sea drilling, and genetically modified seeds. She appreciates Chen’s wisdom: not stuck on merely halting their axes, Chen calls on the woodcutters to see what they are missing: the beauty of the mountain flowers all around. Macy values Chen’s awakening from habits of destruction as well as her gratitude for our world.
Anne Klein, professor of religion and Tibetan Buddhist practitioner, writes about the Lotus Sutra story of the naga princess who instantly attained buddhahood by reflecting on the energies of the water element in which nagas abide. Klein relates this tale to her experience with a dzogchen master whose poetry flowed like a river in spontaneous song. He sang, “You must understand that you can become a Buddha in this very life.” And he asked, “Can you sing like that?” He saw Klein, like the naga princess, perhaps like all of us, “as fully capable of coming forth with [our] own heart song, the ultimate love song.”
Zen teacher Diane Musho Hamilton responds to the story of another modern Zen teacher, the late Maylie Scott. When a tearful student spoke of her intense loneliness, Scott simply said, “Please don’t ever think anything is out of place.” Hamilton reflects on how this response seems impersonal and cold, but then relates her own experience of deep, existential, panicky loneliness while taking a bath in a dingy hotel in midtown Manhattan, and how she finally came to feel that nothing was out of place. “The cry of our loneliness has a place at the table, and so does our tenderness. Our troubling questions are good company.”
Leslie James, longtime teacher at Tassajara monastery, comments on stories about her friend, the late teacher Darlene Cohen. Shortly before her death, Cohen stated, “I don’t believe in karma or any of that shit.” A student asked Cohen what she did believe, and she replied that she believed in skillful means, so she was willing to lie about anything. Her teaching and life provide a case history of skillful means in the face of crippling rheumatoid arthritis and the bout with incurable cancer that eventually took her life. James comments on how Cohen used these illnesses to help teach her students. Cohen never lost her femininity or lively playfulness. She continued to wear black lacy clothes from antique stores, and James tells of a time when Cohen and a friend hid behind a bush soaking passing workshop students with squirt guns.
The small selection of examples in this review barely scratches the surface of the beautiful, tender commentaries in this illuminating book. In The Hidden Lamp, editors Caplow and Moon truly invigorate the Dharma wisdom.