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. 

Never before in the history of Buddhism have women been as prominent or empowered as Buddhist teachers. Nor, until now, have scholars and translators brought to the West so many of the old Buddhist stories about women. Finally, the lamp can be uncovered, for the benefit of everyone. 

—Florence Caplow and Susan Moon

Ohashi Awakens in a Brothel 
Japan, 18th century 

Ohashi sold herself to a brothel to support her impoverished family after her samurai father lost his position. She served diligently and became a poet and calligrapher, but she was plagued by sadness for her former life. Later she met Hakuin, who advised her that enlightenment was possible in any circumstance. He gave her the koan “Who is it that does this work?” 

Ohashi was terrified by lightning. One day, during a violent thunderstorm, she sat zazen on the veranda of the brothel in order to face her fear. A bolt of lightning struck the ground in front of her. She fainted, and when she awoke, she saw the world in an entirely new way. Hakuin later certified her enlightenment. 

Ohashi was eventually redeemed by one of her patrons, Isso, and they were married. Later, with Isso’s permission, she became a nun renowned for her wisdom and compassion. After Ohashi’s death, instead of making the customary memorial tablet, Isso had a statue of Kannon carved in Ohashi’s likeness, and donated it to Hakuin’s temple. 

Reflection by Judith Randall 

Ohashi sold the only thing she had. Strong and courageous, this young woman did what needed to be done. Valuing her family’s well-being above her own, she faced her fear and entered into an impossible solution. Her generosity flowed out over her fear. What must it have been like to have the idea come to her? To imagine giving away her body, her very life? To ponder it? To tell her family, and then to leave them and the only life she knew, not knowing if they would ever see one another again? Imagine the dilemma and shame of her samurai father, trained to value honor above life. Imagine the arrangements, the travel, the first customer. Practicing renunciation, giving over, she was already on the bodhisattva path. In her own way, she was valuing honor above life. 

Ohashi’s chances of meeting Hakuin and receiving his teaching were extremely rare. One had to be born into a male body to become enlightened, according to traditional teachings, and prostitution certainly didn’t count as “right livelihood.” Hakuin told her: “Enlightenment is possible in any circumstance.” This bell of Hakuin’s teaching rings in our ears even now. This circumstance, right here, right now. My circumstance, not someone else’s. He gave her the koan “Who is it who does this work?” 

As I write to my dharma pen pals in prison, who are practicing deeply in an environment that seems anything but conducive to samadhi, these words encourage me and encourage them. Reading news of torture, murder, the hideousness of war, I feel deep despair about the cruelty that human beings are capable of doing to one another. When I remember Hakuin’s words, space opens and my heart softens toward torturer and tortured. Hearing the life stories of my dharma friends, amazed at the terrors they’ve lived through, I am awed by their resilience. Who is it who sits in the jail cell? Who is it who wields the torture? Who is it who has lived this life? 

Ohashi intentionally sat zazen in the midst of her terror of lightning. She offered herself to the experience, letting go of control over the outcome. Yielding to the unknown, she gave over, not relying on anything, fiercely determined. The moment the lightning struck—a very loud crack of thunder, brilliant light, the rain pounding down—she had no thought, no reaction, no feeling. She fainted, and upon awakening, she “saw the world in an entirely new way.” Did she think she had died? In a sense, she had. 

Being asked to sit in the dharma seat and give a talk is quite frightening for me. When the invitation comes, panic and shortness of breath rise up in me. My body contracts. A great “No! I can’t!” shouts silently inside. Then shame: “All your training and practice comes to this?” My mind freezes like jammed radio waves, and I can neither think nor receive any internal guidance. 

Yet I yearn deeply to share the power and beauty of this practice. It is this yearning and some kind of fierce determination to meet what arises that helps me move forward. I reach out to trusted dharma friends and teachers, and meet the fear again and again. “Who is it who gives this talk?” I ask, grateful for Hakuin’s question. 

Ohashi’s life says: See the fear, just say yes, and see what happens. When I can do this, another world opens up, a world where ideas begin to gather around a subject, where energy fills the belly and calms the mind. The “I” that thought it was giving this talk and was so anxious steps aside. Something begins to enjoy engaging the process. Ohashi’s life says: fearlessness is not the absence of fear, but the willingness to walk into it. When I walk into my fear, practice there, sit upright in the middle of it, completely open to the experience, with no expectation of the outcome, anything is possible. Ohashi’s life says: When our circumstances look impossible or terrifying, there is a way. It may look like the way is even more impossible than the circumstances, but if we step into it, with eyes and heart open, take one step off the hundred-foot pole, something will be revealed.

Illustration by Roberto La Forgia
Illustration by Roberto La Forgia

The Zen Mirror of Tokeiji 
Japan, 13th century 

The convent of Tokeiji had a great mirror. The founding abbess, Kakuzan Shido, would meditate before it in order to “see into her own nature.” Later generations of nuns would practice zazen in front of the mirror, concentrating on the question, “Where is a single feeling, a single thought, in the mirror image at which I gaze?” Each abbess of Tokeiji wrote a verse in response to the mirror practice. The following verse was composed by the fifth abbess, Princess Yodo: 

Heart unclouded, heart clouded;
Standing or falling, it is still the same body. 

Reflection by Zenju Earthlyn Manuel 

“Where is a single feeling, a single thought, in the mirror image at which I gaze?” When we ask this question, at once we enter the purpose of our lives, which is to look upon our lives and discover who we are as living beings. We enter a dark abyss in which we encounter our heart-mind and body. On the journey of discovery we fall through the sky. At times the sky is clouded and at other times it is unclouded. On the earth we plant our feet and still we stumble. What are the clouds and what takes them away? What makes us stand or fall? 

Looking into a mirror may seem easy, but being honest with what we see is difficult. A few days before my 59th birthday I looked into the mirror to see if I looked old. I asked, “Am I old? What is old?” I did this exercise for five minutes a day, for seven days. 

On the first day, I didn’t see anything because I was afraid of seeing an old lady. My eyes constantly turned away. 

On the second day, I spent time plucking the hairs from my chin. I could see them clearly, especially the white hairs against my dark skin. They provided a nice distraction. 

On the third day, I thought I should grow my hair longer so that the thinning parts would disappear. I remembered my mother’s hair thinning in the same places when she was my age. Still, I didn’t want to see my mother in me or see an old lady in myself. 

On the fourth day, as I looked in the mirror, I wondered what an old lady looked like. So I spent much of my day examining women as I walked in the world, deciding who looked old and who didn’t. 

On the fifth day, I decided I must be old because my neck skin was beginning to sag like I had seen in the so-called old women the day before. 

On the sixth day, I cried in front of the mirror. I felt I had no control of my stumbling into old age. I felt my death was closer than ever before. 

On the seventh day, I saw fear in the tightness of my lips, confusion in the brow. I thought what a tough journey life was. Then I looked deeper, without an idea in my head, just the question “What is old?” and I saw a courageous woman willing at least to look at herself. 

There are many mirrors. A physical mirror can reveal expressions on our faces. The mirror of zazen allows us to look into the heart-and-body mirror. 

When I look in a mirror I see a black face. In the past I have responded to being black with painful emotions. However, through zazen, when I see my black face I am awake to the suffering that arises. I see the old pain rising in the moment of looking in the mirror. I wait for my response to pass (as it is guaranteed to do), and in that passing I see more of who I am and not so much how I appear. 

When we face the mirror of zazen, our minds tend to face ourselves as objects first—our skin color, age, gender, sexual orientation—all the ways we are embodied and move in the world. We begin to unfold stories about “I.” If we are willing to look long enough in the mirror of zazen, past seeing ourselves as objects, we have the potential to see that we are nature itself—we are born and will die, just as the trees, flowers, and animals in the wild do. And sometimes, in zazen, we can see that the mirror is clear. There are no clouds, no dust. The human condition is set aside. I am not old, middle-aged, or young. I am fulfilled in my own spirit. And in this recognition I feel the connection to my ancestors, to those who came before me, or to a life larger than my own. I am returned to an open field in which there are many possibilities. 

This open field is my original home, where there is no blackness, no old age. As Princess Yodo wrote: “Heart unclouded, heart clouded; / standing or falling, it is still the same body.” 

I say: In the silence of my open field, face clear, face colorful; dancing or sitting, it is still the same body.

Illustration by Roberto La Forgia
Illustration by Roberto La Forgia

Ikkyu and Kannon’s Messenger 
Japan, 15th century 

Ikkyu Sojun was a 21-year-old monk when his beloved teacher died. He was distraught and wandered aimlessly, praying to Kannon, the Bodhisattva of Compassion. His mother was so worried about him that she assigned a servant to follow him surreptitiously. 

One day Ikkyu came to a bridge and thought, “I will throw myself into the water. If my life is spared, it will be proof of the Bodhisattva Kannon’s protection. And if not, at least I will be good fish food. In either case, Kannon will not fail me.” 

Just as he was about to leap off, the servant appeared, caught his arm, and gave him a message from his mother: “It would be unfilial to harm your body. Enlightenment will have its proper day; please persevere.” 

Ikkyu did not jump off the bridge; instead he returned to the capital to pay his respects to his mother. 

Reflection by Mushim Patricia Ikeda 

“We’re standing in a very safe place,” my host said approvingly. He was the owner of the property, and we were standing in front of his trailer, watching my son’s dad, who was perched atop a tall eucalyptus tree, wielding a chain saw to trim off a huge limb. He was cutting it so that it would fall away from us. My toddler, Josh, was playing on the lawn in front of me, and we were quite a distance from the tree. It seemed like a relaxed way to spend a Sunday afternoon, hanging out in a eucalyptus grove and helping a friend. 

I remember distinctly how my body moved suddenly and purposefully without my willing it. In one fluid movement I lunged forward, grabbed my son and moved backward, just as the tree-sized limb torqued hard, changing direction and crashing onto the exact spot where my son had been. Its top fell on our friend’s Airstream trailer, damaging the roof. 

Raising children is a risky business. I could have lost my son that day, and my life would be very different. As it is, Josh is 23 now, interning as a quality assurance computer technician. Monday through Friday, he gets up early, puts on a tie, and takes the commuter train into San Francisco from our home in Oakland. 

Thus, when we consider the case of Ikkyu and Kannon’s messenger, we may ask: “Was the servant really Kannon, the Bodhisattva of Great Compassion, in disguise? Did Kannon propel my body forward to save my son? Is Kannon a powerful metaphor for our instinctual desire to protect our beloved children, or is she ‘real’?” 

The classic Zen Buddhist answer to all such questions, is, of course, “Yes.” 

Kannon is Avalokiteshvara Bodhisattva, the One Who Hears the Cries of the World. In Mahayana lore, this great being has thousands of arms and hands, holding thousands of implements and utensils, like frying pans and cell phones and wisdom swords, through which the work of compassion is performed daily, often invisibly. Compassion has many names: Kannon in Japan, Guanyin in China, Kwan Seum Bosal in Korea, Quan The Am in Vietnam, you, me, our family members, our friends, and sometimes complete strangers, animals, and plants. If we are alert to it, Compassion falls from the sky. 

I remember talking years ago to Ho, a Vietnamese man in Albuquerque who had escaped from Vietnam in the late 1970s with his young son, leaving his wife and other children behind. The family had never been reunited. Lighting a cigarette and staring into his coffee cup, Ho talked about how frightening it had been to be at sea in a small boat. He said that during a thunderstorm, a friend thought to spread out a nylon windbreaker and use it to collect rainwater for Ho’s child, who otherwise would have died of thirst. Since then, I have heard of Vietnamese boat people, floating on the open ocean without food or water, who saw visions of Kannon, or Quan The Am, in the air above them. These visions gave them hope that they would eventually reach a safe shore. 

Through the mercy of Kannon, his mother’s concern, and the servant messenger’s skillful intervention, Ikkyu got through his crisis of grief and went on to be a famously eccentric Zen monk, poet, calligrapher, master of tea ceremony, and frequenter of brothels. His body did not become food for the fish that day. 

I discussed all this over lunch in a Korean restaurant in Oakland with my dharma friend Jim Willems, who practices deeply with chronic pain, and who has had wide exposure to dharma and other spiritual lineages. This was much more relaxing than going head-to-head in a tiny room with a Zen master waving a stick, as has happened in my past. 

“The koan implies this question,” Jim said, “How were the fishes fed?” 

Perhaps the waters were cold and dark that day, and the fishes remained hungry. Or maybe it was sunny, and they rose cheerfully to the surface to gulp down mosquitoes. I was not there and I do not know. But I am glad that Ikkyu didn’t jump, and I am happy he went instead to see his mother, and I imagine that she hugged him with two of Kannon’s one thousand arms.

From The Hidden Lamp: Stories from Twenty-Five Centuries of Awakened Women, edited by Zenshin Florence Caplow and Reigetsu Susan Moon, © 2013. Reprinted with permission of Wisdom Publications.