redrawing the sky – book review of The Hidden Lamp

The Hidden Lamp: Stories from twenty-five centuries of awakened women by Zenshin Florence Caplow & Reigetsu Susan Moon (compilers & editors) is a book you approach with Post-It notes, a spiral notebook, sharpened pencils, and a willingness to have your practice turned right-side up. One cannot be in the Zen circles, squares, or rectangles for long these days before the issue of the silenced voices of enlightened women teachers will present itself. If not in your own practice, then certainly in any ritual where there is a calling forth of ancestors. The women are there, just not always visible or summoned in chants for as long as the male ancestors have been. In fact, my first encounter with the matriarchal lineage was in the preparation of the blood line for jukai. We painstakingly wrote out the winding blood lineage from Shakyamuni to our root teacher and also created a lineage of our female ancestors starting with Mahapajapati (“Keep your heart set on this.”) to the honoured nuns, closing with a collecting net, “And all the Women Honoured Ones whose names have been forgotten and left unsaid.”

Forgotten and left unsaid. This is, of course, the over-arching storyline of women since beginningless time. The silencing of our voices, the blanket thrown over our intellect, the disregard of our offerings. Finding our voice, taking out the lamp from under the bushel, shining in our accomplishments and realizations has required a long steady trudge through social conditioning and sometimes physical and emotional threat. As one of the first women in a University Chemistry department, it was not uncommon to be told to wash the glassware of my male colleagues or be ignored in seminars. When we finally formed a group of like-minded peers, we called it Women in Science and Engineering – W.I.S.E. A reminder of who we were and what we had to offer, WISE stood as a counterpoint to the constant surges of disapproval, baiting, and sexual innuendo. The absence of acknowledged Awakened Women in Buddhism is simply a part of this over-arching theme.

Caplow & Moon do well in making it right in this book of koans, teaching stories, and spiritual journeys of Women Honoured Ones. It’s a rich, full, and textured collection of Ancestral Awakened Women with commentaries by Contemporary Awakened Women. And, weighted as it is with the lightness of their being truly human, it is a book which can leave you chuckling, laughing, crying, and getting whacked with insight and revelation. Sometimes all at the same time.  The stories and koans are drawn from many sources and not just Zen sources. They open each chapter like a bell sounding to awaken the reader. The commentaries are by women teachers from far-flung corners of Buddhist approaches to the dharma. In both spirit and content, the book is inclusive. Leaving nothing out, it needs to add nothing.

I particularly liked the opening chapter on koans, their history, and how to work with them. It was a delight to read the counterpoint between Rinzai and Soto and I treasured Daido Loori’s words of the process as “one’s own intimate and direct experience of the universe and its infinite facts.” Then, of course, there was Dogen’s approach which is a more “scenic, or panoramic route” (quoting Steve Heine). Caplow & Moon point out that koans and stories about and by our women ancestors differ in important ways from those we find in the traditional (dominantly male) koans. These stories have street cred, the women live and live out their dreams, desires, and sexuality in the Everyday. They are not reified, sanctified, or sanitized versions of you and me; they are profoundly intimate and complete.

Themes of the koans are intricately woven: intimacy, relational, rebellious, with a Wow factor that tips the water bucket over and scatters the moon. The stories are to be savoured, to be inserted into our life as an enlightenment ear worm, intended to “nourish the spiritual embryo.” The commentators offer insights and perspectives that also right the practice. I enjoyed reading Sunya Kjolhede’s reflection of working with Mu as a practice of “surrendering to and merging with a lover!”   Her realization that our response to our life koan is indeed “so plain,” so “obvious,” resonated deeply with me, remembering a similar moment in the middle of a particularly intense sesshin. Other stories struck me forcibly too: Chen’s insight to a world of “knife and axe” with people blinded to the vision of the mountain flowers, Punnika’s response to the Brahmin caught in karma as ritual and his realization of karma as intention, Zenkei Blanche Hartman’s brilliant commentary on precepts and our fragile humanity, the nameless nun asking Zhaozhou of the “deeply secret mind” and Ikushin Dana Velden showing us how we find it the mystery of just who we are. Other stories and commentaries speak to our purpose, our bodies, our hearts, and our indefatigable spirits. I particularly like the inclusion of stories about couples (Bhadda Kapilini and Mahakassapa), families (Mushim Patricia Ikeda’s commentary about her son; Senjo and her soul), and children (Kisagotami’s Mustard Seed).

The Hidden Lamp is a book for all times and a full practice. It is good medicine, as Ursula Jarand reflects on Miaozong’s Disappointment.

a tree without roots


Yesterday was the Feast of All Souls, part of the celebration of the Day of the Dead, and the transitional time between light and dark. It’s a time of going inwards, into the depths of a warm hearth, a warming heart. It is a time of entering into that liminal space where we meet our ancestors and ourselves as ancestors.

As part of sangha practice, we went for a meditative, contemplative walk through Beechwood Cemetery. Seven of us gathered on a brilliant, cool morning, holding our hearts wide open; this was the closest we were likely to get to a charnel ground practice. To set the frame of our walk, I read from The Hidden Lamp, a fabulous book of koans and stories written by Zenshin Florence Caplow & Reigetsu Susan Moon (review to come later this month!). One hundred tales to shake us up, offered by Awakened Buddhist women over the past 2500 years. Where else could their tellings be honoured than in a vast cemetery.

At the parking lot, I read the story from ninth century China about Seven Wise Women who decide to take their spring journey in the charnel grounds rather than a park. Upon arriving and seeing the first corpse, one of the women says, “There is a person’s body. Where has that person gone?” Another exclaimed: “What?! What did you say?” And all seven were enlightened.

It goes on to tell us that Indra was so taken by their achievement that he offered them whatever they needed “for the rest of their lives.” They declined saying they preferred “a tree without roots, some land without light or shade, and mountain valley where a shout does not echo.” Of course, Indra had none of these to give to which they asked how he could liberate others if he didn’t have these things.

Cheeky. But then that’s what wise women tend to be. Irreverent, impossible, impish, cheeky monkeys.

So we walked, considering the many ways our trees had roots, wandering through the light and dark of the pathways in the cemetery and in our minds, hearing the echoes of our ancestors and descendants.



The subtext of our walk was to discover the ways our roots shape our identity. Noticing the names on the gravestones, recognizing some from street names and local businesses. Some of us stopped at places and silently contemplated the story told by the birth and death dates on the tombstones. Father and mother whose three children each lived less than a year. An anticipatory gravestone with the birthdays of husband and wife followed by a dash and a blank – that space of not knowing yet acknowledging that it is inevitable.

We stopped at the gravesite of little Susan Anna Crerar whom I wrote about some time back. We considered her origins (I must admit I played Colombo rather well!) and enjoyed the sparks of information that each person offered. And in the face of being surrounded by over-bearing markers far from her family, the question lingered, “Where had Susan Anna gone?” Where would we go without these roots, light and shade, and no one to hear our voice through the generations?

After placing flowers and sage at her grave, we continued our walk to the military section where her father was buried. The discussion and sharing flowed around the cultural norms of the time when Susan Anna lived and died ever so briefly. From what we know, such losses were shushed up and swept away in silent grief. Her mother, Verse, was described as having “not been feeling well,” a terse avoidance of loss. Perhaps if our trees had no roots such pain would be easier to bear. Perhaps if there was neither light nor dark, we would never lose our way. Perhaps if there was a valley without echoes, we would never be reminded of our sorrows.

Or perhaps we would learn that such things shape us but don’t define who we are.

Then where could we not go?

brewing the dregs – a review of Nothing is Hidden by Barry Magid

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The practice of Zen is a beautiful, transformative, profound, imperfect, corruptible, culturally conditioned tradition and way of life of which I am part and which I am responsible for maintaining and passing on. The medium is the message: there is no Zen apart from Zen teachers and Zen students, doing what they do, devising ever new recipes for brewing the dregs we all need to live and practice.

Nothing is Hidden: The psychology of Zen koans by Barry Magid is a refreshing exploration of koans and the process of how they work on us. Magid, one of the dharma heirs of Joko Beck, describes his own journey with koans as a “complicated relationship.” Trained in both the Rinzai and Soto traditions. Magid also brings his incisive thinking as a psychoanalyst to the practice of seeing what is “cutting us off from life as it is.” Chapter by chapter, Nothing is Hidden takes us through familiar koans (and some new to me) with a steady pace, shining a new light on each and drawing out sweet juice from the dregs Magid brews. More than just teaching, Magid is surprisingly human and vulnerable in his connection; he speaks of his own journey with Joko Beck in loving terms and holds her insights firmly close. He is fearless in pointing out the lack in modern Zen teachers and students to be themselves fearless while never descending into finger-pointing. In fact, in this search of our true nature, he advises like Master Tou-shuai in the chapter Hui-neng and the Original Face:

Pointedly Tou-shuai asks, where will we look for this true nature? This is a case in which, instead of trying to turn our gaze to follow the pointing finger up into the sky, all the way  to the moon, we should stop and look directly at the finger itself and forget all about the moon.

Caught in the intellectual seduction of “solving” koans, we forget that ultimately this is the workings of a koan: to point us back to ourselves, to return us to just who we are in the process of becoming. At every turning away from this, Magid meets us and blocks the automatic sloppiness of our practice. He flips concepts neatly away from the catch phrases we’ve acquired from hanging around Zen types and Zen gatherings. Starting with Mu (but do we ever end?), he flips the koan by pointing out that the gatelessness is not the absence of a gate for us to get through the obstacle of the koan. It is “wide open just as it is”; it gateless because there is no gate, no wall in which to house the gate, no form, no structure to tear down. It’s exactly this illusion of a separation from our inner self and others that keeps us searching for a gate when none is necessary, Magid teaches in page after page. And the practice is in not becoming obsessed about the knots which bind us but in “re-owning both our perfection and our failures.” However, given our innate tendencies to fool ourselves and get stuck in our desiring mind, the desire to transcend can become a trap in itself. On this Magid is forthright:

Rather than conceal our true motivation behind a veil of high-minded aspirations, we should use practice to honestly explore what has brought us to practice in the first place… (w)e inevitably will discover that we all have a “secret practice,” a personal psychological agenda and fantasy about how practice will relieve our suffering by eliminating those parts of ourselves that are the root of our problems or by actualizing some superhuman ideal.

Guilty as charged. As are most of us, including Zen teachers and their students. Magid is unrelenting in pointing out over and over, the frailties and vulnerabilities of teachers. He takes a pragmatic view (quoting Kant) that we can’t make anything that is straight out of “the crooked timber of humanity.” And he remains equanimous without offering license to their transgressions.

With this and all aspects of our practice, Magid offers a practice of “seeing the grasses by moonlight,” seeing the purloined life hidden in plain sight.  He draws generously from his work as a psychoanalyst, explaining our drives, self-states, and giving the koan work a slant towards the psychological. In this arena, Magid bring some important lessons to Zen; that Zen teachers have much to learn about teacher-student relationships from the growth (and growing) pains of psychotherapists, particularly in the areas of preventing harmful re-enactments of old patterns of attachment and rejection. Ironically, riffing on the theme of harm and the only chapter I felt disappointment about was his exploration of Ch’ien and Her Soul (Are Separated) as parental neglect to the point of (metaphoric?) trauma. This particular fable-cum-koan is rich with teachings about not-one-not-two, denying our true nature, narcissistically following our desires, regret, restitution, grace and forgiveness. But that’s just my hobby-horse.

This is a book in which we need to brew the dregs of our mind; sweet tea seeps from almost every page. I’d advise buying the book and embracing the art of writing large in the margins. It will amount to writing your own life, large and unrestrained.

the dog ate my zabuton: life koans we die by – part 3

DSC_0010It’s going to be a couple of months of dealing with koans¹. Maybe it’s not a stretch to say it’s going to be a few lifetimes of dealing with koans. Notice I wrote “dealing with” and not “working with.” As someone who not only flunked out of koan studies but also remedial koan practice, I’ll not be your bright North Star – other than to serve by nefarious comparison. I also think we tend to deal with something more than work with it (which implies some level of commitment) because we rarely know it’s a koan until smacked full in the face with one.


The Dog Ate My Zabuton Koan

I walked in and said, “Teacher, the dog ate my zabuton so I couldn’t practice.”

She tipped her head to the right and smiled. “How did the dog manage to eat your zabuton?”

‘She doesn’t get it,’ I thought. Aloud I replied, “The dog ate it. He just did. Maybe he’s not a good Buddhist.”

“Ah. Or maybe he’s just a dog. Where was your zabuton that your dog could get to it?’

I scuffed my toe.

“Dog is dog,” she said. “And you know better.”


On the surface, the previous three posts have dealt with issues of the Plum Village Lineage Dharma Teachers and their document intended to resolve conflicts. You can read about it (in order) herehere, and here. Underlying the issues of what one global sangha has done to make it possible for individuals to seek support and recourse in cases of conflict in their sangha are an innumerable number of accretions and assumptions of what it means to be a Buddhist practitioner. Or more accurately, a practitioner of the Buddha’s teachings. These are very different paths and the former may not always end in liberation.

When we are caught in our need to belong, to not be criticized, to be accepted, we are vulnerable – and all the more so when the philosophy of the captor organization is couched in concepts of peace and love and oneness. In our fear of being disconnected from the tribe, we buy into the constructions that seem like Buddhism but are not. If you want to delve into the ways we have bought into a constructed institutional Buddhism, I strongly recommend reading NellaLou’s post Precisely the problem? Typical of her deadly swordship, she points out the ways we risk becoming a mindless cog in the massive machinery that can be Buddhism:

Institutions and systems are made up of processes. These processes get codified—more in theunwritten (sic) rules, rituals, codes of behavior, habits and hidden agendas (include shadows in that) by the laziness of participants than in what is actually written down if anything is written down at all. Laziness in that once comfortably ensconced in an institution, it’s pretty easy to hand off control and thought and critique to that institution and simply become a piece of the machine.


Some of that persuasive environment in a sick institution can include undermining individuals, coercion, guilt, enforcing conformity at all costs, punishing outliers, etc. This leads an individual to self-doubt and unmoors moral anchors making them far more pliable parts of the machine. It’s cult like behavior that leads to insecurity and increases dependence on the institution by the individual. It’s co-dependence all the way down.

This is the point: without transparent and courageous leadership, we – who are hitched to these massive vehicles – are easily dragged away despite our own moral anchors. At the same time, without our own inner leadership that must be unrelenting in its willingness to blast away personal delusions, we are fodder for anyone who talks the ethics talk. And who wouldn’t be? It gets tiring being oh-so-watchful over my anger, greed, and delusions. It wears me down to constantly check in on the wholesomeness or unwholesomeness of my thoughts, speech, and actions. It’s hard not to flip the truths of impermanence, nonself, and suffering on their heads and claim anything goes because nothing lasts, there’s no one to hurt, and samsara just is. So much easier to believe that if our leader is ethical, we are in a position to benefit from a received knowledge of their values.

But we know better. Truly. We know better in that moment when we turn away from something that doesn’t feel right. We know better in that moment when we said nothing because belonging was more anxiety-reducing and speaking out. We know better when the sound of our voice denying malfeasance carries into our spirit and rings false.

Yes, we know better than to think someone else can do the thinking for us. And we know that the cost of that unwholesome choice is ultimately having choice taken away. I’m not talking about the choice of staying in a corrupt organization. The choice we lose is the choice to honour the life we have and the death we practice.

NellaLou’s uncompromising conclusion:

If somebody doesn’t even want to confront blatant wrong doing, or question what they are being fed, or even take a look in the mirror (actually and metaphorically), how are they going to confront the great matter of life and death?

Living Truth IS the very matter of life and death.

NellaLou’s second post, Buddhist Exceptionalism, drives the point home. Believing that our path as practitioners of the teachings of the historical Buddha make us Buddhists is the first step in not knowing better. It is the first loosening of the knot that ties us to our “moral anchor.” Our attraction to the putative safety and support it affords us as captialized-B Buddhists is the first magnetic event that destabilizes our moral compass. We can continue down that path, caught by the desires of our teachers and sanghas who are caught themselves in their delusionary states. And pretty soon that capitalized-B is the way in which we keep people quiet or ostracized so that our world is not rocked by facts or reality, ethics or responsibility.

I told a friend last week that I have given up on Buddhism. I have.

But I know better than to give up on buddhist practice.


¹Mid-October will be a review of Barry Magid’s Nothing is Hidden: The psychology of Zen koans (Wisdom Pubs) and November features Zenshin Florence Caplow & Reigetsu Susan Moons’ The Hidden Lamp: Stories from twenty-five centuries of awakened women (Wisdom Pubs).