Monday, September 30, 2013

Uncovering the Lamp

by Harsha Menon

Book review of Wisdom Publication’s The Hidden Lamp: Stories from Twenty-Five Centuries of Awakened Women (scheduled to be released by Wisdom Publications November 12, 2013), compiled and edited by Zenshin Florence Caplow and Reigetsu Susan Moon.

The upcoming publication of The Hidden Lamp could be said to be a before-and-after moment of female representation in Buddhist literature. This unparalleled volume of one hundred koans featuring women, with additional reflections by present-day female Buddhist teachers is an incredibly well-researched, original, and heartful offering to not just Buddhists, but to spiritual seekers everywhere.

The Hidden Lamp’s diverse collection of contributors ranges from priests and teachers, not just from Zen lineages, but from across the full spectrum of Buddhism. The contributors are professors, authors, monastics, scholars, teachers, anthropologists, activists, attorneys, physicians, librarians, poets, artists, filmmakers, midwives, and therapists. By compiling 100 koans and other stories (the words koan and story are used interchangeably in The Hidden Lamp) of the Buddhist female experience, editors Caplow and Moon create a text that penetrates intentionally, the same way a koan has been traditionally employed in Zen Buddhist practice.

Oxford Dictionary defines koan as “a paradoxical anecdote or riddle without a solution used in Zen Buddhism to demonstrate the inadequacy of logical reasoning and provoke enlightenment.” In the vast teaching experience of the editors of The Hidden Lamp, they note: “We have noticed that some people feel a wave of anxiety at the word koan. They associate koans with something mystifying and impenetrable, with right or wrong answers and with grimacing Zen masters holding big sticks. But these stories are intended as mirrors for your own life and practice.”

Caplow and Moon offer that stories called koans first appeared in ancient Chinese Zen Buddhism and are most often about encounters between Zen teachers and students. They mention that very few stories about women were included in the classical Zen collections of koans. By adding reflections of contemporary female Buddhist teachers to the koans, the editors fill a void that has previously existed where female voices have been minimal. This is skillfully achieved by foregrounding and affirming female spiritual experience.

One of the hallmarks of Buddhist teaching comes directly from the Buddha himself, whereby the Buddha encouraged his followers not to take his teachings on his authority, but rather to self-introspect and test any view or belief by the results it yields when put into practice, as referenced in the Kalama Sutta. In this way the Buddha taught his followers to discriminate and question, and in the process to cultivate a self-reflexivity and a self-intimacy that facilitates awakening.

Koans have long been used as teaching tools in Zen Buddhism, but editors Zenshin Florence Caplow and Reigetsu Susan Moon both expand and disrupt the more traditional, historical use of this teaching device to include and amplify Buddhist female voices and experiences. The editors refer to three principal Chinese collections of koans after which The Hidden Lamp is modeled: The Blue Cliff Record and The Book of Serenity, both from the twelfth century and The Gateless Barrier from the early thirteenth century. As the foreward in The Hidden Lamp points out: “Most well-known Zen stories are from these texts” and the editors explain that the three principal collections come from an almost “exclusively male practice milieu” and that the style is what they call male—“terse, uncompromising, powerful, full of slang and humor, sometimes (but not always) useful—and, in general, withholding.”

The editors’ motivation in compiling these stories was to address an imbalance that manifested as an absence in what has been available to those interested in Buddhism: “the invisibility of women ancestors and their wisdom.” What this new compilation offers are koans and stories that unilaterally feature female seekers.

Thus, The Hidden Lamp affirms the experiences of Buddhist women. Such a compilation is a breakthrough for all us, male or female, monastic or lay, Buddhist, or just seeking. By subverting and inverting the paradigm of what a koan has been previously taken to be, the editors actually create a text that is in and of itself a koan—one that confounds, destabilizes, and shatters limited thinking, inviting one to take a step further down the path to enlightenment. As the reader progresses through the text, the lamp becomes more uncovered, the light more accessible, more visible, warmer even. It is this process of discernment that facilitates an intimacy with the reader’s own internal wisdom. The Hidden Lamp is a graceful illumination.

The text also provides suggestions for how to practice with The Hidden Lamp. Emphasis is placed upon reading slowly, re-reading and engaging the material, not necessarily in chronological order. Readers are encouraged to approach the koans from their own present-life moment, and to work with phrases throughout the day and in meditation practice.

The Hidden Lamp also references restoring a balance in commonly available Buddhist literature. By creating a space where feminine voices can shine, a wholeness comes to the practice. By utilizing the teaching tool of a koan, historically modeled and taught in what the editors opine as a more masculine model, an integrity arises. What was missing is now brought forward and can be brought into balance.

Harsha Menon: Awakening Buddhist Women Blog Coordinator

Harsha graduated with a master's in Theological Studies (South Asia concentration) from Harvard and holds a BA in Religious Studies from New York University. She attended the 2013 International Sakyadhita Conference in Vaishali, India and is a member of Sakyadhita International. Harsha has worked for many years on issues of women's empowerment in South Asia and the United States. She is also a documentary filmmaker specializing in using film for social impact.

Zenshin Florence Caplow: Soto Zen Priest

Zenshin Florence Caplow is a Soto Zen priest in the Suzuki Roshi lineage. She has been practicing Vipassana and Zen for twenty-five years and is a dharma teacher, field botanist, essayist, and editor. She is an itinerant monk, generally found somewhere west of the Rockies. She recently coedited and contributed to an anthology of nature writing, Wildbranch, and her essays can be read in Tricycle, Inquiring Mind, and on her blog: Slipping Glimpser, Zen Wanderings and Wonderings.

Reigetsu Susan Moon

Reigetsu Susan Moon has been practicing in the Soto Zen tradition for thirty-five years and is a lay teacher with the Everyday Zen Sangha. Her previous books include the cult classic, The Life and Letters of Tofu Roshi and This is Getting Old: Zen Thoughts on Aging. For many years she edited Turning Wheel, the journal of the Buddhist Peace Fellowship. She teaches writing workshops, is a serious student of photography, and an enthusiastic grandmother. She lives in Berkeley, California.

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