The Hidden Lamp edited by Florence Caplow

Stories from Twenty-Five Centuries of Awakened Women

The Hidden LampThe Hidden Lamp is a rich source of feminine wisdom, a compilation of one hundred stories, some a mere paragraph long, each one chosen by one woman and commented on, sharing a contemporary perception of how that text speaks to her.

We as readers have the opportunity to receive the wisdom of the original text, reflect on it ourselves, observe the comments of the woman who has chosen to share it with us, often with a personal anecdote in this unique collection of twenty-five centuries of awakened women – those who in Buddhist terms have gained enlightenment.

Most well-known Zen stories or koans (according to American Zen Master, poet and author Zoketsu Norman Fischer) come from three collections Blue Cliff Record (12th C), The Book of Serenity (12th C), and The Gateless Barrier (13th C) and are an almost exclusively male domain.

In this collection, we find the long missing stories of women, shared in a unique collaborative style between its editors and commentators. Many of those interpreting the texts are Zen teachers and many others come from a wide range of Buddhist traditions and lineages, lending the collection an open-minded virtue, accessible to all, whether male or female, and regardless of knowledge of Buddhism philosophy and practice.

“Koans are powerful and succinct stories, most often about encounters between Zen teachers and students. They can be playful and humorous, mysterious, opaque or even combative.”

It is an invitation to consider what has been said, to ponder it and respond ourselves.

Reading the stories make fables seem like children’s stories. These excerpts often require an extraordinary stretch of the imagination to understand and there will be some we are simply not ready to interpret.  For those who have studied them, their revelations have often taken months or even years to realise.  Thanks to the commentaries, we can at least read of another’s insight although this does not in all cases necessarily bring clarity. We must accept that we are not yet ready for their learning.

Joko Beck

Charlotte Joko Beck

One of the first stories came from Peg Syverson’s reflection after listening to Joko Beck* give a talk. A young man raised his hand and bluntly asked “Are you enlightened?” to which she replied “I hope I should never have such a thought!”

Peg Syverson shared that she had thought of this exchange many times since she first heard it, that many of the things this teacher of hers said, surprised her. She likened it to another story of a Japanese master Nan-in, serving tea to a professor, pouring the tea until the cup filled and then overflowed, and still he continued to pour until the professor said, “It is overfull! No more will go in!”

“Like this cup”, said Nan-in, “you are full of your own opinions and speculations. How can I show you Zen unless you first empty your cup?”

The responses are often unexpected and penetrating. Their meaning isn’t obvious on first reading, they require us to look at the question, and at what those who ask are bringing along with the question. Syverson recounts her own audience with Joko, the question she was required to ponder and respond to, then despite several weeks of contemplating an answer, when she gave it, would receive another insightful, thought-provoking response, which upon reflection, changed the nature of her relationship with her son, the subject of her initial question. The clarity of the teacher’s mind in responding so succinctly is astonishing.

The answers seem nearly always to require that you go away and reconsider the exchange, eventually revealing the answer that perhaps was always within you. It is a kind of active learning, rather than the passive receipt of an interpretation and response, which can easily be set aside or forgotten.

The Hidden Lamp is not a book to read in one sitting, it is a reference to draw on now and then and a rich source of ancient feminine wisdom and modern thought, whose content is valid for one and all. Some of the names of the women in the book will be well-known and others less so, however their contributions might as well be nameless, as it is the story that brings the richness to the reader, the reputation of all the contributions having already been established.

His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet

His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet

Personally I always have at least one text of Buddhist thought/philosophy on the bedside table, I find them a quiet source of intellectual wisdom that easily resonates with my own world view.

Whether it’s a collection like this or one of the many excellent works of the Dalai Lama, or the pocket books of Pema Chodron, they all share a wisdom that comes from the practice of kindness, empathy and altruism while providing a prism of compassion through which to observe our everyday thoughts and encounters. A kind of preventative medicine for the mind, these awakened beings have spent years pondering the nature of suffering and both their practices and their words are a thoughtful guide and nurturing remedy to all negative emotion or thought.

* Joko Beck (American, 1917 – 2011) was a pianist and mother of four, who began Zen practice in her 40’s, founded two schools and wrote two books Everyday Zen: Love and Work and Nothing Special: Living Zen.

Note: This book was an Advance Reader Copy(ARC) provided by the publisher via NetGalley.

28 thoughts on “The Hidden Lamp edited by Florence Caplow

      • I know. I just cannot wait to start reading it. Thanks so much for reviewing it. You have no idea how happy I am that I’ve found you and your blog:)


        • Thank you Fransi 🙂

          I know you’ll enjoy the quote on the right-hand side of the page, it actually reminds me of something I might read on one of your posts.

          I am intrigued to know more about Joko Beck now, I had never heard of her before reading this book and while there are so very many others who appear, in that kind of random, serendipitous way, it is interesting that I chose to highlight her message, even before researching more into who she was.


  1. I’m glad you pointed out in your comments the quotation from Jo Beck in the right-hand side of your page. Otherwise I might have missed that gem. Makes me want to go back and reread some of her writings. I have her “Everyday Zen” on my bookshelf. The book you just reviewed is one I think I should add as well. But that whole idea about how all that comes to us, seemingly good or bad, is just what is needed to teach us what will most help us, is particularly powerful, and stirs up lots of resistance. I’ve been pondering that one these last few weeks in light of some traumatic events in my life, and finding it both humbling and freeing. Thanks so much for writing this post–just what I needed –my guru for today 🙂


    • Thanks for sharing that Deborah, it’s good to know you already have access to such wisdom and can call on it in difficult times when it is hard to make sense of things. If it weren’t for the knowledge that there are lessons to be learnt from any hardship, I think it would be that much harder to deal with, maybe it’s part of our survival instinct. I shall be looking out for a Joko Beck to put on the shelf alongside this collection, her work touches a chord everywhere. Bonne Courage my friend.


  2. This is a book I would like to read.
    I liked the metaphor of the cup. Life has encouraged me to empty “my cup” through experiences that life imposed on me. Those experiences are teachers. We can open our minds and our hearts to create meaning out of them.


  3. Well I, too, keep Pema Chodron on a shelf near my bed, along with several other books, including ‘Women in Praise of the Sacred,’ compiled by Jane Hirshfield. Something tells me ‘The Hidden Lamp’ will be joining them.


  4. Joko Beck is a treasure. In 1990, just over a year after the death of my husband, a friend gave me Everyday Zen: Love & Work. I was 43 and struggling with grief. As difficult as it was for me to make inroads with this book initially, there was much in it that brought me to a better place. My copy is now lovingly tattered. “We have to face the pain we have been running from. In fact, we need to learn to rest in it and let its searing power transform us.”


    • It seems like Joko Beck symbolised the beginning of a journey for you Patricia and I can imagine that her learnings took quite some time to reflect on and assimilate in that unimaginable situation you found yourself in. Thank you so much for sharing that snippet of your own story and the wonderful quote, which has already inspired others on this page. 🙂


  5. It sounds like a must have… and I love the quote from Patricia Sands… sounds a bit like Jung saying that when we are on our knees with the pain, that’s when we start to grow… and no tranquillisers to stop us getting onto our knees.!!!!


    • Yes, thanks to Patricia and others, I’m thinking that a Joko Beck on the shelf wouldn’t be a bad thing as well. I love that this volume provides us the opportunity to discover other enlightened women whose work is just there at the periphery, we merely need that right moment to open a page in a collection such as this to discover them and then follow the path to their own work. The best thing when we are on our knees is a helping hand I am sure. 🙂 Thank you Valerie, your posts are wonderful teachings themselves. Bonne Continuation.


  6. This sounds (and looks) beautiful, one to dip into. I like the idea of a preventative medicine for the mind and it works. My partner relieved a nasty bout of work-induced anxiety and depression with meditation.


  7. This looks like such a beautiful book, Claire! I love the fact that along with the Zen Koans, enlightened women share their own thoughts on each Koan. That Koan by Japanese master Nan-in is one of my favourites. I first heard it from my favourite English professor in college, and that is the first time I learnt about Zen Buddhism. Zen Koans and stories are always gentle, insightful and enlightening. I love the picture of Joko Beck. I had a friend who passed away earlier this year and he was 99. He looked very similar to Joko. It is interesting that people who have lived to be nearly a hundred and have seen a lot in life have a gentleness and serenity in their face, which makes them look very similar. So wonderful to know that you like Buddhist thought and philosophy very much. Thanks a lot for reviewing this book. I wouldn’t have discovered it otherwise. I will try to get it soon.


    • Forgot to mention a couple of more things. I have the DVD of the movie version of ‘What Maisie Knew’. So happy to know that you are reading the book 🙂 I want to read the book too.

      I was thinking of reading more Russian literature next year. And when I discovered that the Russian challenge and the Eugene Onegin readalong when I scrolled down this page, I was so thrilled 🙂 So glad to know that you are joining this challenge and this readalong. I am thinking of reading some of the classics, but also venturing out in the by-lanes and exploring some of the contemporary writers as well as reading other lesser known writers, like writers who were famous during the Soviet era and who produced wonderful literature (not propaganda for the government) but who are ignored now because they were regarded as writers who didn’t protest against the government. (for example, Alexei Tolstoy who wrote a wonderful novel based on Peter the Great’s life.) I don’t know whether you have seen Lizok’s Bookshelf. She blogs on contemporary Russian literature and also on literature of some of the lesser known Russian writers.

      Looking forward to comparing Russian lit notes with you next year 🙂


      • I’d like to see the movie too, I admit I have some difficulty reading Henry James, I am sure if he were writing today, his books would be half the length, there is so much padding around his narrative and endless introverted speculation, but I fell in love with the idea of him after reading David Lodge’s very brilliant Author, Author which I think anyone who read it would want to follow up with the works of Henry James. I do admire the women who put together the film script, because I am sure it was hard work to turn it into a contemporary story, fit for cinema of the 21st century.

        Good to know you will join the Russian Lit challenge, will you do the read along as well? I’m a little averse to challenges as it goes against my reading principle of having complete freedom to choose and to be influenced by previous readings, but I will join at the lowest level and in particular I want to read Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. Thanks for the link to Lizok’s bookshelf, I shall check it out. I did read Ludmilla Petrushevskaya’s collection of short stories this year, which was an interesting read, however I am not well acquainted with contemporary Russian literature.


    • How wonderful that you have come across the Nan-in koan Vishy and that you recognise that quality in Joko Beck. It sounds like you had an interesting English Professor.

      I am glad to have discovered this book and shared it with you all, as it is unlikely to be on the best-sellers list, but might just have some pearls of wisdom for dealing with the fast and demanding pace of life that many have to cope with today. 🙂


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