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?