Stories from Twenty-Five Centuries of Awakened Women
The 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.
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.
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.