The Old Woman’s Miraculous Powers

Magu, Nanquan, and another monk were on pilgrimage. Along the way they met a woman who had a teashop by the side of the road. The woman prepared a pot of tea and brought three cups. She said to them, “Oh monks, let those of you with miraculous powers drink tea.” The three looked at each other, and the woman said, “Watch this decrepit old woman show her own miraculous powers.” Then she poured tea into each cup and went out.

–Zen koan from 9th-century China

Forty years ago, I sat down on a black cushion, feeling separate and alone, longing to find big meaning in my small life. Who am I and what am I supposed to be doing? I’ve been sitting here ever since, with a few tea breaks. I find, to my shock, that I’m now 73, the cushion has become a chair, and I still don’t know who “I” am.

I wear the green bib of a lay Zen teacher, and now and then I lead Zen retreats and classes. I love exploring the Buddhist teachings with others. But I doubt my own wisdom. How can I call myself a “teacher”—a Buddhist teacher—when I am still full of self-doubt? It’s not like teaching someone how to crochet. That I can do. But to be a Buddhist teacher would imply a depth of understanding I don’t possess. Or do I?

Teacher or not, I study the old stories. It was a joy for me to work with my dharma sister Florence Caplow a few years ago to compile a book called The Hidden Lamp: Stories from Twenty-Five Centuries of Awakened Women. We gathered together 100 stories, stories too long neglected, about wise Buddhist women of the past—nuns and abbesses, housewives and slaves, queens and prostitutes—and paired each with a commentary by a contemporary woman teacher. I pay homage to all those grandmas and great-grandmas, generation beyond generation, and most of all I love the nameless crones of ancient China, who always seem to be hanging around by the side of the road, surprising Zen monks on pilgrimage with their wisdom. One offers directions; another has a teashop, another serves rice cakes. These old women have gotten into my bones.

A few months after The Hidden Lamp was published, I received an email out of the blue. 

“I’m Koren, a nun of Zen Monastery Sanboji in Italy, near Parma. We would like to invite you in our Monastery. . . . We are interested at explorer koans about buddhist woman, your book is wonderful!” The monastery offered to pay my airfare to Italy.

I had never heard of this place, but somehow, they had heard of me. I didn’t know whether Koren was Italian or Japanese, young or old. Later I would find out that Koren was eager to bring forth women’s teachings and that her idea had been blessed by the center’s founder, the Italian Zen master Tetsugen Serra Roshi. But at first all I knew was what I found on Sanboji’s website: a cloud of pink cherry blossoms in front of a white temple building with black roof tiles, and mountains—the Appenines—piled in layers behind it. I said yes.

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Stefano Ravera/Alamy Stock Photo

More than a year later, I got off the plane in Milan feeling as if I had stepped off a hundred-foot pole, as the Zen saying goes. I went out through the security gate into a blast of heat—it was the hottest summer on record in Italy.

Two Italian monastics, a man and a woman, were waiting for me, easily recognizable by their black Zen clothing and the man’s shaved head. The woman was holding flowers out to me. She hugged me as though I were her long-lost friend. She was Koren of the email, with short dark hair and bright eyes; the man was Issan. She spoke only a little English; he spoke a little more. I got into the car with these two strangers, who treated me as if I was exactly the beloved person they were expecting. But who were they expecting?

We drove for two and a half hours, out of the city, through fields dotted with round bales of hay, past rows of poplars, on roads that got smaller and bumpier, into the mountains, until finally we came down a long driveway to the monastery. We stepped through a big wrought iron gate. My guides led me past several old stone farm buildings, through a formal garden, and along a wooden walkway to a new building in the style of a traditional Zen temple.

We put our shoes on the shoe shelf, just like in California, and entered the daytime darkness of the zendo, which was shuttered against the heat of the sun. The smell of the tatami mats on the floor made me feel at home. A Zen temple smells like a Zen temple, in Japan, in Italy or in California. Everything was familiar and everything was new.

“Do you want to offer incense?” Issan’s question startled me. As a sign of respect, he was inviting me, the visiting teacher, to greet the temple before the retreat. I agreed, we approached the altar, and he ceremoniously handed me a stick of incense. Nervous because I had never officially greeted a temple before, I started to put the incense into the wrong bowl. Issan’s hand appeared before me, pointing to the bowl in front of Buddha. He stepped back silently as I planted the stick in the ashes. Everything was fine. There was nothing in the room but kindness—it lapped around me as I made my three full bows. It felt spooky, this cobblestone ghost town. Who was feeding the chickens? Who was watering the geraniums?

It felt spooky, this cobblestone ghost town. Who was feeding the chickens? Who was watering the geraniums?

Koren led me to the visiting teacher’s quarters. Inside, I was greeted by an impressive scroll: a red-robed Bodhidharma peered out at the spacious room from under his heavy eyebrows. My futon bed floated in the middle of a wide tatami sea, with two brightly colored paper cranes perched on my pillow.

After Koren left, I opened one of the big casement windows and swung back the shutters to a view of faraway mountains and nearby blue cornflowers. Bare feet felt good on the tatami. How had I gotten here? I felt like a traveler in an old children’s book who had passed through a turnstile into an enchanted realm. Restless with a mixture of happiness and anxiety—was it really me, here?—I walked around the room and paused in front of Bodhidharma.

He looked at me with his penetrating, lidless gaze, and, because he was the only person at Sanboji who was familiar to me, I asked him for help. “Here you are!” I said out loud. “Thanks for bringing Buddhism from India to China so long ago. And now you’ve come all the way to Italy!” I was crying, but not with grief. “Who do they think I am? Am I the wrong person?”

I seemed to hear Bodhidharma reply: You’ve studied Buddhism for almost 40 years. You know me. You’ve explored the teachings and you’ve shared the teachings. You’ve given your life, in your own way, to this way. Where else should you be but here? I could feel my life of practice flowing through me like blood, making my hands and feet tingle.

The dinner bell rang, and as I stood up, Bodhidharma added: You can do this.

The next morning, I went for a walk along a ridge, past hayfields, and took a turn where a sign said Pagazzano. The neighboring village appeared before me, a cluster of red tile roofs in tiers on a hill, with the church steeple rising up in the middle. As I entered the village, I had the feeling of passing through another gate, into yet another world. I thought of the Zen vow that says, “Dharma gates are boundless; I vow to enter them.” My world, the Sanboji world, and now the world of Pagazzano—three completely different worlds, one gate after another.

I followed a narrow cobbled street up the hill, between gray stone houses, many of them crumbling into rock piles. A few, standing wall to wall between the ruins, sported bright window boxes of well-watered geraniums, splashes of red on the gray stone. Some chickens were clucking in a fenced yard. It felt spooky, this cobblestone ghost town. Who was feeding the chickens? Who was watering the geraniums?

I continued up the street until I came upon the church, and a little plaza with a fountain, and there at last was a live human being—an old man sitting on the wall.

“Buon giorno,” I said, using up almost half of my Italian vocabulary, and he answered me in a stream of cheerful Italian.

I asked with gestures if I could go into the church, and he indicated it was locked. He disappeared up the street and returned almost immediately with an old woman, wiry and upright, whose bright blue eyes matched her blue dress. She unlocked the door and led me into the cool arched space that smelled of stone.

Another old woman came in—an “American,” the first old woman said by way of introduction—and she spoke to me in fluent but accented English. She said she had been born in Pagazzano and had lived in New York as a young woman. Now, in her flowered housedress, she looked as though she had never left, except for her dyed red hair. She told me she was 91 years old, and the woman with the key was 90.

The church looked clean and cared for, though the lilies on the altar were plastic. I asked whether there were services on Sundays. No, the “American” said, only on Christmas, Easter, and special occasions like weddings.

“How many people live in Pagazzano?”

She conferred with the woman in blue. “About fifty, now, in the summer,” she said.

“How many live here all year round?”

Another conference, more subdued this time. “Eight,” she said.

“Eight?”

She nodded, blushing as if embarrassed for her village.

I felt like an exchange student coming from the present to visit the past. I’d been in Pagazzano half an hour, and already I had met a large proportion of the population: the man at the fountain and these two women, all of them erect and energetic, living on and on as the walls collapsed around them. I wanted to cry for the village and its unused church with the plastic flowers. I couldn’t imagine what it would be like to be an old woman living in the dream that was Pagazzano.

That afternoon the curtain went up at Sanboji. About 30 students arrived, along with Gabriella, my professional translator.

Half the participants were men, which was unusual for a Hidden Lamp retreat, and many of them were young. Their energy was fresh. Everyone, men and women, old and young, sat before me on their mats and looked at me attentively as I spoke.

I asked them to talk in pairs about an old woman who had nurtured them in their own lives—a grandmother, aunt, teacher. I watched them become more animated as they warmed to the topic. Back in the large group, they shared what they had discovered, while Gabriella, sitting next to me, whispered her simultaneous translation in my ear. “I never realized before how important my grandma was to me—she always gave me a bowl of hot chocolate when I came home from school.” I was touched especially by the openness of the young men, who spoke in their resonant voices of the old women who had loved them when they were boys.

During the weekend we studied several koans in depth, including “The Old Woman’s Miraculous Powers,” the one about the lady who demonstrates her miraculous powers by pouring tea for three monks on pilgrimage.

We talked about miracles. Not levitating, not walking through walls, but taking the dog for a walk, or offering chunks of Parmesan cheese to a visitor. I asked them to tell each other, in pairs, about their own miraculous powers. I don’t know what they said, but they looked engrossed.

When you’re at home and everything is familiar, it’s hard to remember how miraculous everything is. When you go to a new place, everything freshens up. I was far from home. So I, too, was freshened up. I was sitting in the teacher’s seat, alive—breathing, laughing. Still wondering, was this really me—this woman Sanboji had brought forth? It was a me I hardly trusted, but a me the Italians didn’t doubt.

I divided everyone into small groups and asked each group to prepare a skit based on a different koan. In the United States this exercise has sometimes fallen flat, when people have felt shy. Not so for the Italians! There was wailing and gnashing of teeth, operatic singing, wild dancing, raucous laughter. Interpretive liberties were taken, and that was fine with me. A handsome young man played an old woman by the side of the road who directed pilgrims to Mount Wutai. “Right straight ahead,” she always said, but sometimes she pointed one way, sometimes another. Koren, my hostess, played an old woman bent over her cane, weeping over the death of her granddaughter. When three monks made fun of her tears, she suddenly stood up straight, gave a martial shout, and beat them to the ground with her cane in elegant karate moves. I didn’t need Gabriella to translate anything for me. Each performance brought down the house. Here, at Sanboji, the old stories were coming alive.

Before breakfast, on the last day of the retreat, Koren led us out through the monastery gate and up the road in silent walking meditation—a vision of 30 monks in single file through the hayfields, all one centipede. Then Koren turned up the cobbled street into Pagazzano, the same street I had taken a few days before.

There was nobody about as our silent line moved up the hill. We were hot and thirsty by the time we got to the fountain by the church, and following Koren’s example we broke ranks and drank from the spout.

When I straightened up, I saw the old woman who kept the church key. There, suddenly, was the brightness of her white hair, of her blue eyes. She was holding a pail of water with a rag hanging over the rim. She must have been about to wash the church steps.

She surprised me, just as people do in Zen koans; she seemed to have materialized out of thin air, smiling. She, on the other hand, seemed not at all surprised to meet 30 Zen monks at the fountain. She recognized me and gave me a hug, proving herself to be made of solid flesh. Koren greeted her, and they laughed together. So Koren knew her! I was startled to find that the worlds of Sanboji and Pagazzano were acquainted. They seemed to me to occupy two different universes, even though they were only about a mile apart. “What is she saying?” I asked Issan, who was standing beside me.

He grinned. “She invited all of us to come and live with her in Pagazzano, to keep her company.”

Koren said good-bye and we resumed our centipede form. As we made our way down the cobbled street in silence, I thought about the old woman washing the steps of the church that didn’t hold services anymore, watering the geraniums, greeting whoever came along. She was taking care of her dying village, completely cheerful. 

All of a sudden it came to me: I had met the Old Woman by the Side of the Road. The old woman in the koans, the one pouring tea and giving directions to Mount Wutai, was here right now.

She was an Italian woman in a blue housedress who had stepped through time while fetching water at the fountain. We monks had stopped for refreshment along the way, and there she was, water pail in hand, a visitation, come to encourage us. She was the Old Woman of Pagazzano.

All the way back to the monastery my heart was pounding with joy. The old woman is here right now. The old woman is here right now. From Pagazzano to Sanboji, the fields beside the road shimmered in the heat of the sun.

When we gathered in the zendo after breakfast, I was bursting with excitement. I said to the students, “A miracle happened this morning! Do you know what it was?” I imagined a chorus of voices would call out, “The Old Woman of Pagazzano!” But they looked at me with puzzled faces. How could they all have missed it?

“We met the wise old woman from ancient China,” I said. “Remember? At the fountain? Ninth-century China and twenty-first-century Pagazzano are the same place! The women in The Hidden Lamp are not dead. Their stories are not covered with dust.”

They saw it then, and nodded happily. Perhaps they, too, had had meetings during the weekend—meetings un-known to me.

The retreat ended and Sanboji emptied out again. The students went home, but I stayed on for an extra day and out of curiosity, returned to Pagazzano with Issan to see the cardinal of Parma on his biannual visit.

This time, the lilies were the kind that filled the church with fragrance. Issan whispered his translation in my ear as the cardinal gave a short talk about how the faith in Italy was still strong. When he finished, he invited questions. The Old Woman of Pagazzano observed that churches all around Italy were closing, and she asked if he would ever close this church. He said never, never—the village took very good care of the church and it was the cleanest in the region. This made me think it could be the old woman herself, with her water bucket and scrub rag, who was keeping the church alive.

Afterward, in the café next door, the village women passed around trays of homemade pastries. My blue-eyed friend poured prosecco for anyone who wanted it, including the cardinal, who sat informally at a big slab table with some of the local men. I watched her. She could have been pouring tea for monks on pilgrimage. She could have said, “Watch this decrepit old woman show her own miraculous powers.”

She sat down and tapped the space on the bench beside her, looking at me. I sat too, and we smiled and nodded at each other. I pointed at myself: “Susan,” and she pointed at herself: “Maria.” She was my host, I was her guest—as intimate as two palms pressed together, in a bow or a prayer.

To find myself a welcome guest at the village party, drinking prosecco with the cardinal of Parma—what a conflation of worlds, and what proof that all those worlds were one.

I was not quite yet an old woman by the side of the road, myself; I was old, yes, but I was still on the road. My road went right through Pagazzano, and the blue-eyed woman was there, like a mirror, urging me to show my own miraculous powers. 

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