The Hidden Lamp

Female Bodhidharma</em> by Kitagawa Utamaro (1753–1806)

Three contemporary women teachers shine new light on centuries-old stories of women and awakening.

The Old Woman’s Enlightenment

Japan, eighteenth century

An old woman went to hear Master Hakuin give a lecture. He said, “Your mind is the Pure Land, and your body is Amida Buddha. When Amida Buddha appears, mountains, rivers, forests, and fields all radiate a great light. If you want to understand, look into your own heart.”

The old woman pondered Hakuin’s words day and night, waking and sleeping. One day, as she was washing a pot after breakfast, a great light flashed through her mind. She dropped the pot and ran to tell Hakuin. “Amida Buddha filled my whole body. Mountains, rivers, forests, and fields are all shining with light. How wonderful!” She danced for joy.

“What are you talking about?” Hakuin asked. “Does the light shine up your asshole?”

Small as she was, she gave him a big push, saying, “I can see you’re not enlightened yet!” They both burst out laughing.

Shinge Roko Sherry Chayat’s Reflection

The unnamed old woman is a prototype often cast as someone initially dismissed, but whose cutting wisdom takes male protagonists by surprise. There are many stories from China and Japan in which monks’ puffed-up views of their own attainment are skillfully skewered by such a figure.

The old woman in this koan may have been a follower of Pure Land Buddhism, which developed in fifth-century China and took root in Japan in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. She would have been taught that by living a meritorious life and by continuously praying to Amida, the Buddha of Infinite Light, she would be reborn in the Pure Land, leaving the suffering of this life behind and entering Amida Buddha’s radiant realm in the Western Land.

Hakuin was a ferocious and daunting teacher when dealing with his ordained trainees, but he cared deeply for the peasants who lived in and around Hara, where his temple was located beneath the looming presence of Mount Fuji. With compassion and humor, he was able to make Buddhist teachings keenly relevant to these villagers, whose heavily taxed lives were filled with hardship and privation, sickness, and early death.

How shocking it must have been to the old woman to hear Hakuin’s words, “Your mind is the Pure Land and your body is Amida Buddha.” How could it be that her own mind, filled with all its delusory thoughts, was the Pure Land? How could her wrinkled, decaying body be Amida Buddha? Still, Hakuin had said, “Look into your own heart,” and with the trusting nature developed by her faith in Amida Buddha, that is what she did.

It’s the same for us, after all, no matter how many times we’ve chanted Hakuin’s “Song of Zazen,” which begins “Sentient beings are fundamentally buddhas” and ends “This very place is the Lotus Land of Purity; this very body is the body of the Buddha”—until we awaken to this living truth, we’ll “seek it far away.”

How do we awaken? Only by looking into our own hearts and probing ever more deeply can we realize what the Buddha taught: “Attha dipa: You are the light.” Unfortunately, that essential trusting nature is often overridden by our sophisticated and skeptical worldview. And beset by the fracturing, multitasking circumstances of our twenty-first-century lives, how many of us can steep ourselves in our Zen practice “day and night, waking and sleeping”? Yet if we are true students of the Way, this is what we must do—take up the koan, or the current challenge presented by our lives, and bravely plunge into it.

As is frequently the case with a profound breakthrough, it was while the old woman was simply doing her daily tasks that she experienced the actuality of what until then seemed but a promise. We must take note, however: she was just washing a pot, but she was completely absorbed in Hakuin’s statement.

Filled with the joy of her en-light-enment, feeling the endless dimensions of that light within and without, she ran to Hakuin, who immediately tested her, with words crass enough to shake a realization that wasn’t genuine. No longer a timid mouse, the old woman responded like a dragon, with the confidence that comes with genuine insight, challenging Hakuin, revealing the sameness of their awakened mind within the differentiation of male/female, renowned teacher/status-less student. Instantaneously they burst into great laughter, mirroring each other in joyful recognition.

Chiyono’s No Water, No Moon

Japan, thirteenth century

Chiyono was a servant in a Zen convent who wanted to practice zazen. One day she approached an elderly nun and said, “I’m of humble birth. I can’t read or write and must work all the time. Is there any possibility that I could attain the way of Buddha even though I have no skills?”

The nun answered her, “This is wonderful, my dear! In Buddhism there are no distinctions between people. There is only this: each person must hold fast to the desire to awaken and cultivate a heart of great compassion. People are complete as they are. If you don’t fall into delusive thoughts, there is no Buddha and no sentient being; there is only one complete nature. If you want to know your true nature, you need to turn toward the source of your delusive thoughts. This is called zazen.”

Chiyono said, with happiness, “With this practice as my companion, I have only to go about my daily life, practicing day and night.”

After months of wholehearted practice, she went out on a full-moon night to draw some water from the well. The bottom of her old bucket, held together by bamboo strips, suddenly gave way, and the reflection of the moon vanished with the water. When she saw this she attained great realization.

Her enlightenment poem was this:

With this and that I tried to keep the bucket together, and then the bottom fell out. Where water does not collect, the moon does not dwell.

Merle Kodo Boyd’s Reflection

For several years now, I have kept a picture of Chiyono and her bucket on the bulletin board above my desk. It is a delicate nineteenth-century woodblock print of a young Chiyono standing in pale moonlight, a bottomless bucket at her feet, a puddle of water spreading across her path. The artist is Yoshitoshi.

I was drawn to Chiyono’s verse the first time I heard it. I was seized by the words, “With this and that I tried to keep the bucket together…” But I did not know that she is also thought to be Mugai Nyodai, whose name we chant in our morning dedication to our women ancestors. She was the first Japanese woman to receive dharma transmission and founder of the first Zen Buddhist convent in Japan.

When I first heard Chiyono’s verse, I had been practicing for ten or twelve years. I was keenly aware of the constant tension of “keeping the bucket together.” I understood that the intent of practice was to relax my grip on the old bucket, but conditioning runs deep and the sense of personal identity is strong. Hearing the words “with this and that” I felt the exhaustion of years of vigilance, all aimed at protecting my idea of myself. I felt the exhaustion of being my own obstacle.

Our Zen practice is medicine to this conditioning. All the practices within Zen challenge the illusion of the perfect bucket—zazen, the teacher-student relationship, ritual, sangha relationships. As much as I may wish to appear competent at all times, I cannot immerse myself in Zen practice without a willingness to come apart. Sometimes it’s appropriate to stop patching things back together. What, then, allows us to leave the bits and pieces scattered on the ground, like the splinters of the bucket around Chiyono’s feet?

We are conditioned to keep the bucket from falling to pieces. Unique personal circumstances can intensify this general conditioning. I was in the first generation of southern black children consciously raised to enter integrated schools. In such circumstances, everything seems to ride on “keeping it together,” especially in public, and so we were conscientious and hypervigilant in order to prevent disaster.

And yet we Zen students have chosen a path that calls us in the opposite direction. In spite of our conditioning, we are called to awareness rather than vigilance. We are on a path of “no water, no moon.” Our conditioning tells us that it is a risky path, and yet we sense its offer of freedom and feel called to take it.

Ironically, it was precisely that conditioning of “keeping it all together” that gave me the courage to walk into a Zen center for the first time. I had been trained to tolerate the circumstance of being “other,” to maintain a public identity in places where I was allowed but possibly not welcome. Like the schools and libraries of my childhood, Zen centers offered something that I deeply needed, a place to experience my life in the world more deeply. I hoped I would be welcome at a Zen center, and I also knew that it could be otherwise. To walk into this uncertainty, I relied on being outwardly upright while keenly aware of inner fears.

As Zen students we live between Chiyono’s first two lines and her second two lines, between keeping things from falling apart and letting them fall apart. Knowing how to “keep things together” is a valuable skill. It was knowing how to care for things that led Chiyono to continually patch the bucket. When it fell apart, she made excellent use of that circumstance as well. Our liberation deepens with the refinement of our capacity for flexibility and discernment.

Seven Wise Women in the Charnel Ground

China, ninth century

Seven wise sisters planned a spring journey. One of them said, “Sisters, instead of going to a park to enjoy the spring flowers, let’s go together to see the charnel grounds.”

The others said, “That place is full of decaying corpses. What is such a place good for?”

The first woman replied, “Let’s just go. Very good things are there.”

When they arrived, one of them pointed to a corpse and said, “There is a person’s body. Where has the person gone?”

“What?!” another said. “What did you say?” And all seven sisters were immediately enlightened.

Indra, Lord of the Gods, was moved by their awakening and showered flowers down onto them. He offered them whatever they needed for the rest of their lives. One of the sisters replied, “We have everything we need. But please give us a tree without roots, some land without light or shade, and a mountain valley where a shout does not echo.”

“Ask anything else, holy ladies,” replied Indra, “and I will gladly provide it. But I don’t have those things to give you.”

“If you don’t have them,” said the woman, “how can you help others liberate themselves?” At this, Indra took the sisters to visit the Buddha. When the Buddha learned why they had come, he said, “As far as that’s concerned, Indra, none of the arahants has the slightest clue either. Only great bodhisattvas understand this matter.”

Bonnie Myotai Treace’s Reflection

There is much to love and study in this story and many ways to appreciate it. But I don’t want to overlook the simple picture: a group of women freely discerning how best to use their time and taking some time to be alone together. So one of the first teachings here is the quiet reminder that women may need some time to walk with one another as these women do, literally, “amid the burning.”

It is much harder to maintain the walk of awareness without other women. Receiving the legacy of our grandmothers and mothers helps us. So does knowing that our sisters are beside us and recognizing that we are here to make a better world for our daughters and granddaughters.

But the story of the wise women also reminds us that facing what needs to be faced—walking toward the charnel grounds—can strike us as basically unpleasant. Aren’t there always sweeter ways to spend a day, if one has the option, than in the contemplation of death and impermanence?

But the lead woman cuts through: “Sisters, just go. Very good things are there.” As we take the step off the edge, here is a reminder to trust the perfect air. Our wise woman gently turns aversion on its head; the place where release from the suffering of decay will be realized might just be exactly where we least expect to find it.

The women make the journey we all make to face mortality. Arriving at the charnel grounds, they awaken. But they look at the sky, and it rains flowers. One of them asks, “Who praises us and showers us with flowers?” Indra, the god of the Earth, answers that it is he who is celebrating the women’s awakening, and he asks for the honor of taking care of all their needs for the rest of their lives.

In order to connect with the depth of the story here, and the gorgeous turning that’s about to happen, we have to connect with what is realized amid all the decaying corpses. What state of mind requires no support? What empowers the woman to say to this god that she already has everything he has to give her?

We can say that the women in that charnel ground were whole and perfect, but that had been true before they went on their walk. What changed? When they saw the corpses, when their minds settled, they became, in a sense, beings who were no longer turning from pain or mystery. When that occurs, what becomes available? Something invulnerable—and inarguable.

Still, we need to be careful. What Indra offered is what many women do without every day. I recently came across the haunting citation that fully seventy-five percent of the world’s poor are women. That single, bald percentage shook awake something that’s hard to put to rest: the matter of who eats and who goes hungry, of who has a roof and who goes unsheltered, of who is cared for and who is abandoned when ill or aged.

It is likely that the wise woman who talked back to Indra was not poor by worldly standards, but still, it would not be easy to turn down such an offer. Nevertheless, from her awakened state, the wise woman was able to claim with confidence that they had everything they needed. And with that natural confidence, she was able to take the meeting to greater depth. She simply redrew the sky. She is not turning Indra away but standing in utter intimacy. And a subtle point, one that I often find hard in my life, is to realize that a caress of raining flowers—or some such sign—can’t be depended upon to affirm our every difficult choice. To the degree that I depend upon that, I look outside myself, losing myself and my voice.

To “talk back,” in this sense, is to live from the heart of the matter. It is to remember that we are the daughters of ancient springtime, of beginningless time. Finally, an answer to “What do women really want?” The tree without root, the valley without north or south, the shout without echo: each moment so full it has no measure, no boundary, no remainder. Then, as we reach for food, or ordination, or to take the lead when it is called for, we “stand alone between heaven and earth” (as the Buddha proclaimed after his birth)—and walk together.


Shinge Roko Sherry Chayat is abbot of Dai Bosatsu Zendo Kongo-ji in Livingston Manor, New York, and head of the Zen Studies Society.

Merle Kodo Boyd leads the Lincroft Zen Sangha in New Jersey.

Bonnie Myotai Treace is the founder of Gristmill Hermitage in Garrison, New York.

All excerpts from The Hidden Lamp, edited by Zenshin Florence Caplow and Reigetsu Susan Moon. Published by Wisdom, 2013

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