The Hidden Lamp - Foreword

Stories from Twenty-Five Centuries of Awakened Women

It is a great relief to finally have access to this rich material. The editors have been kind enough to share the manuscript with me as they proceeded, so I have been using these stories and commentaries for some time, savoring them, sharing them with friends. You, as reader, will also plunge in with your experiences and reflections, because this text comes from the rawness of spiritual life actually lived, as you live.

It’s instructive to compare this “hidden” collection of koans and stories to the traditional Zen koan collections on which it is modeled, and for which it’s a foil. The three principal Chinese collections (all now in English) are the Blue Cliff Record (twelfth century), the Book of Serenity (twelfth century), and the Gateless Barrier (early thirteenth century). Most well-known Zen stories are from these texts. As the editors note in their introduction, it’s hard to miss the fact that these collections come from an almost exclusively male practice milieu, and their style reflects this: terse, uncompromising, powerful, full of slang and humor, sometimes (but not always) useful—and, in general, withholding.

The traditional collections often make reference to two opposing but complementary teaching styles: “the grasping way” and the “granting way.” The grasping way, the withholding way, gives you nothing because there is nothing to give. Whatever there is to be gotten must be hard-won through struggle. This is the way of the solitary hero. The granting way is the kindly way of clear and helpful teaching, in which even your confusion and suffering is part of the path. Practice always takes place in the context of others, so awakening is not something you “get” as much as the relief you experience when you recognize that your life is always right (even when it is difficult) and always shared.

It’s likely that in actual practice throughout the centuries, Asian monastics experienced both ways, according to temperament and circumstances. But the classical collections seem not to reflect this. At least for the Western reader, lacking cultural and literary context, the granting way seems more or less absent in the style and presentation of these old tales and commentaries. Now that The Hidden Lamp has seen the light of day, this absence is filled finally with presence—with bodies, voices, emotions, lives. Included here, that is, are not only the long-missing stories of women, but, along with them, a spirit and attitude of open-handed teaching that the commentaries and the text as a whole reflect.

It’s instructive too to compare compositional methodologies. Although both the Blue Cliff Record and the Book of Serenity were compiled by two authors (the Gateless Barrier has a single author), these works are not collaborative: one author simply takes the work of his predecessor and comments on it. The Hidden Lamp is, by contrast, a true collaboration, not only between the editors, but also in its inclusion of many commentators. And not only is the temporal scope of stories expanded, as the subtitle mentions, to twenty-five centuries, so is the range of who is included. Many of the commentators are Zen teachers, but many others come from a wide range of Buddhist traditions and lineages and teach in many different ways. This all-around openness and expansiveness offers many stunning moments unimaginable in other more traditional koan collections, like the alternative version of the story of Buddha’s home-leaving in which, with great regret for what they both know he must do, he makes love to his wife Yasodhara on the night of his departure, and the resulting pregnancy parallels his spiritual quest. Or the straightforward practicality of Roshi Jiyu-Kennett’s words about enlightenment: “But if you don’t keep your training up, heaven help you; you’ll be worse off than you were before.” All this goes to say that the virtue of the important work you now hold in your hands isn’t only that it offers for the first time spiritual stories of women, collected and commented on by women, but that it completes something that has been incomplete for some time, and in doing so offers a style of spiritual teaching particularly necessary for our trying times. This collection by and about women is not just for women. It’s for everyone—men as well as women. In bringing forward the voices of women, the balance that Buddhism (and all religion) has always promised but so far not delivered is now possible. This collection is for everyone who is looking to complete the broken circle that exists in all our great religions—and in our hearts and world.

Zoketsu Norman Fischer