For most of the last 2,500 years, women have had to struggle mightily in order to practice Buddhism. In ancient China, Japan, and other Asian cultures, women were generally not allowed to ordain without the permission of male family members. They were kept home to be householders, slaves, laundresses, cooks, wives, and rearers of children. A few, determined to practice, even scarred their faces so they could enter a monastery without disturbing the monks with their beauty.
As a result, contemporary Buddhists all over the world practice in traditions where historical women’s voices are rare, and many of the teachings and practices have come down to us from a male point of view. This is certainly true in most of the familiar Zen stories and koans, like those in the famous Chinese koan collections: the Blue Cliff Record, The Gateless Barrier, and the Book of Serenity.
The three teaching stories and commentaries that follow were taken from the forthcoming work The Hidden Lamp: Stories from Twenty-five Centuries of Awakened Women, a collection of 100 koans and teaching stories about women from Buddha’s time to the present. In the classic Zen compendiums, each koan has a commentary written by the compiler. Here, each story has a short reflection by a different contemporary woman teacher. Included in the book are teachers from different parts of the world, diverse backgrounds, and many Buddhist traditions.
These stories are intended as mirrors for our own life and practice, not as inexplicable paradoxes or riddles, as koans are sometimes described in the West. In The Hidden Lamp we meet all kinds of people on the spiritual path, not just monks and nuns and teachers but also husbands and wives, teenagers, hermits, cooks, courtesans, and iron-willed grandmothers.
Each story is a gift from one woman ancestor to you, whether you are male or female. Yes, these are stories that feature women, but in truth these are human stories, human teachings. We 21st-century Buddhist practitioners can take these teaching stories into our own practice. We can bring them to life in our bodies and hearts, and they can wake us up to the truth that we are all connected, all of us, across time and space.
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