The Circle of the Way by Barbara O’Brien – Behind the Scenes in Zen-dom (book review)

The Circle of the Way by Barbara O’Brien (Shambhala Publications)

The Circle of the Way by Barbara O’Brien (Shambhala Publications) is an ambitious attempt to accomplish two key approaches in understanding Buddhist history. as our perspectives of Buddhism have broadened (and hopefully also deepen). First, the re-telling of Buddhist history is marked by a dropping off unexamined stories as we acknowledge and cope with its romanticization and impact of its appropriation by the West. Second, as we become more aware of the complex intersectionality of our inner and outer environments, aspects of Buddhist philosophy and practices that may not address the issues in our times are being deeply questioned.

Academic and popular press publications in the last few years have been sharp examinations of what we think are the roots of Buddhism and reshaped what we believe are its principles. Author/scholars like David McMahan, Erik Braun, and Ann Gleig have provided incisive and insightful challenges to Western views and uses of Buddhism. Ira Helderman and Candy Gunther Brown have brought attention to naivete in thinking that the complex religious and sometimes political field of Buddhism can be neatly flipped into Western psychological practices with impunity.

This is a time of choppy waters and sudden storms whether one is a historian, researcher, practitioner, or student of Western Buddhism. In this context, O’Brien’s book is a brave one, especially if we place it in the lineage of previous authors who tried to make sense of the fables and enduring mythology of Zen history.

In the introduction, she confronts head-on the muddiness of Zen history, the knowledge we prefer to have avoided: broken lineages, (purposely?) muddied history, dogma, assumptions of a linear progression from Theravada to Mahayana – even the assumptions that the latter is the evolution away from a less developed form of Buddhism. Of course, there’s also the erasure of the feminine lineage, the wise women of Zen. (While searching for the published books on Zen women, I happened across this blog, Zen Women.) This is a lot to take on and I’m tentative about saying that O’Brien, despite being a scholar in the field, does it all to the degree that is required. Then again, I doubt any historian committed to a transparent investigation of several thousand years of the history of anything could do full justice to the topic.

The first two chapters offer a rich and complex story of Buddhism and then Zen. More particularly, it places “The Six (or so) Patriarchs” in the context of a wildly developing region whose political capriciousness is as much Zen-ish as are the teachings and teachers who cooked in that broth. When O’Brien describes Zen as it made its way through China’s geography and political turmoil, the going gets a bit rough. There’s too much to put into the chapters and the interactions become complex. It’s not a criticism of the author as an acknowledgment that trying to convey this part of history as a thick understanding is difficult for reasons that lie in the modern mind.

First, we do love our thin slices of Zen history, the dramatis personna and their perplexing statements of our quality of mind. The wild, often inebriated teachers, chopping off arms and fingers, cutting up felines and making perplexing exits with slippers as hats have appeal far more than the emperors, concubines, and their progeny who stymied or advanced Buddhism.

Second, we love a linear, logical progression in both our lives and those of others. We also love a Just World where the good are rewarded and bad punished. That it contradicts all manner of understanding of Buddhism in general and karma, in particular, is a cheap delusion. The messiness of Buddhism’s history means no one has the right view but it is, itself, a Right View. And that in turn means, we need to stop waving our mind flags and get down to the real work of Buddhist practice.

O’Brien has made a valiant effort and the challenge of getting through the middle part of the book is a personal one. I am too much a fan of the brazenness of Ikkyu and the morose Dogen. So, I do encourage you, Dear Reader, to persist through to the last chapter, Zen in the Modern World. Or perhaps, start there at the finish. If we can tolerate a different view of our perspectives of our present history, moving back in time may not be so discomforting. (Spoiler: O’Brien thankfully does not give the current cultism of secular or what a colleague calls “bubblegum mindfulness” any space. I’m grateful!)

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.

women ancestors

Today is International Women’s Day. A heartwarmed cheer to all of you who take the time to share your insights!  May you feel honoured today as you so deserve!

Over the weekend, I have been reflecting on the various women in my life who have influenced – some only by nefarious comparison – not only my choices but also my way of being.  Growing up equally willing to climb trees and play with dolls, I never really thought of gender as a defining aspect of my life.  Some time in my educational path, someone pointed out that my unresolved feelings towards my mother underlay my love of all things unconventional for females.  “There are things unconventional for females?” I asked.  “Whoddathunk.”

But seriously.  I admit a penchant for strong, uncompromising women.  Coming from a matriarchal lineage of such types, it is not surprising that my first role model was a professor called the “Tasmanian Devil.”  Others have been equally powerful and relentless in their determination to stand up for their values and never apologize for their standards.  If all this sounds too harsh, I’ll freely admit, it can be and has been.  I learned many lessons at their feet; some I’ve modified a tad because apparently, it’s not de rigeur to bring grown men to tears, even in the cause of saving the world. For the most part, I feel a measure of success in taking what was good in their teachings.

I also feel a measure of failure.  There are still times when I desire community so much I will sacrifice common sense.  Times when exclusionary tactics trigger a cloying “oh please let me in.”  Times when I want to be that limpet in the front row, sighing at the dharma teacher, exuding “save me!”  In a recent email exchange with a Zen Woman, I was asked pointedly if I really did not desire “the Good Daddy” to make this spiritual path “all better.”  The truth?  I don’t anymore – if I ever did.  Certainly, I’ve been caught in the games of emotional vampires who demanded adoration in exchange for protection, who baited the hook of their needs with morsels of dharma.  And, I’m proud of the scars left from tearing out the hooks they embedded deep in my being.

So, on this one day of honouring my women ancestors, I remember some of the most important teachings.

I am not just this bent and sometimes broken creature,who can only be saved through dependence and subversion.

I am more than any one person can see through their own needs.

I am strength beyond words, weakness beyond cries, concepts extinguished so absolutely that I can only be met in a gaze that sears all guile.

As are you.

So, on this day of honouring my women ancestors, I invite you~

To walk away from all that keeps you too small for your world.

To see yourself as beyond labels and injunctions.

To take what is truly you, in all its power and surrender, and throw it into the face of what holds you back.

To know that you are not the first to be told you will be someone’s saviour, someone’s salvation, someone’s cause – even if you are in this one instance.

To see that refusing to be a Saviour, bring Salvation, be a Cause, is to keep yourself for what is far more challenging: an honest relationship.

To understand that turning away from sainthood is turning towards your humanity.

To be wary of anything that elevates you up from the solid ground into which your roots are driven.

To be open to all things that make your eyes widen with awe and wonder – especially if it’s your reflection in the clarity of your actions.

To be your own best friend, lover, and partner to the last moments of that marathon, that walk, that day, that breath.

Thank you for practicing,


both hands clapping

In all this chasing after concepts of emptiness, it’s easy to lose sight of the essentials.

“Old Lady O-San” was an enlightened student of Zen master Tetsumon.  She was later tested by Hakuin who posed the koan about one hand clapping.  Ever the pragmatist she replied:

Rather than listen
to Hakuin’s sound
of one hand clapping,
clap both hands
and do business!

from Zen Antics: 100 Stories of Enlightenment transl. & ed. by Thomas Cleary

Shall we get on with our lives?  What needs two hands to grasp, hold, hug, support?

Be kind, be sweet, take a stand, get grouchy, and if he’s not available go for dopey – he’s always been my favourite anyway.

See the universe through the reeds, the forest through the trees.

Thank you for practicing,


back in the igloo


I certainly did not expect this to greet me on my return from far away places.

Best Buddhist Women Bloggers of 2009

I’m quite speechless.

Of course, thankfully, that was a brief moment of aphasia before John Pappas, intrepid householder practitioner, threw up this challenge:  Vote for the Hottest Male Buddhist Blogger.

Now, I’m fascinated.  Do I smell a cultural reversal?  Not that I’m complaining, mind you.  Other than a lack of …ahem…. “life-seasoned” bloggers, that’s a nice collection of  … er… intelligent young men.  My daughter might have been proud to partake in the poll if she wasn’t busy riding wild ponies in New Zealand.

And there are interesting statistics unfolding.  Within minutes of John’s Hottest Male post, the views soared to 302 with 11 comments.  The Women Buddhist Bloggers?  Interestingly, 73 views and 2 comments (as at 1343 today).  So, it would seem that even when we (playfully) objectify the men (karmic payback?) and extoll the intellect of the women, something doesn’t fire up the engines.  Sadly, I wonder what the numbers would have been if John had done a “Vote for The Buddhist Hottie Blogger of 2009” and linked it to Bitterroot Badgers’ self-portrait.  I’m willing to bet without mention of gender, the clicks would have melted laptops everywhere and expectations would have been trashed (Sorry, BBBB!  It’s an instrumental exploitation of your cute mug!)

Well, I’m glad The Dalai Grandma lead our pack.  We need some sane, steady Wise Women at the helm. I’m proud to be supported by and surrounded by the women in my life who have the strong back and soft front of practice.

In all seriousness (as much as I can muster):  Thank you, John, for your consistent support of everyone without discrimination or preference.  Zen Dust, Zen Dirt is an important vehicle for householder practitioners.  You do a great job being in service – and isn’t being in service the true intent of practice.

I leave you all, on this snowy day, with a piece of poem Hawthorn by David Whyte:

Our pilgrim journey
apart or together,
the thirst
of everything
to find its true form,
the grain of the wood
around the hatched knot
toward the light.

Thank you practicing,


enso & mu

We end the week of enso traces in Enso: Zen Circles of Enlightenment with No. 55 Mu by Kojima Kendo who was one of the leading Soto Zen female monastics of the 2oth century.  She was 97 and in the last year of her life when she traced her Mu Enso.  The calligraphy combined the enso and the regular script for mu off-set to create white space for the mind to fall into.   Kojima Kendo dedicated her life to social service and creating equity of practice opportunities among monks and nuns.  In her time as abbess, she fought for moral and financial support of the order of nuns whose ordinations and transmissions were not recognized.  Sadly, not too much different from today.

In preparation for my precepts ceremony, jukai, at Upaya Zen Center, I became engrossed by the matriarch lineage I had to prepare.  The penetrating influence of Dragon Lady teachers like Roshi Joan Halifax and Sensei Beate Stolte intensifies the strength of being Zen Women.  Daily, I practised Kojima Kendo’s Mu Enso, starting first in the tradition of calligraphy students by copying it as faithfully as I could.

But mu and enso don’t lend themselves to being borrowed.  Eventually, Kojima Kendo’s playful and energetic enso gave way and set mine free to be just what it is.

Of course, no enso practice is complete without a bow to the ultimate process enso: the Ox Herding Pictures.  For that I defer to my dear dharma friend & a quietly irreverent teacher, Barry Briggs at Ox Herding who has challenged my no-mind since I entered this virtual realm.

I would also encourage reading John Daido Loori’s teachings in Riding the Ox Home:

Thank you for practising,