The Hidden Lamp


We are in the middle of the Hidden Lamp workshop with Sue Moon and Florence Caplow, which is a real delight. Through exercises, meditation, shared stories, and discussion, we are deepening our relationship with the teaching stories of our tradition and with each other. It’s been a great opportunity to cultivate a warm sense of sangha as a place of creative exploration, deep reflection, and shared wisdom. And in the process, we are restoring balance in our Zen studies by including the stories and voices of women, whose contributions have traditionally been overlooked or neglected in Buddhist traditions. There is something striking about this workshop that I don’t think I’ve ever witnessed at Appamada before: there is not a single male in it. It’s all the stranger since some of our male Appamada members recently attended the Reb Anderson retreat at AZC. Of course each person makes an independent decision about whether to join a particular event or activity, but the collective effects are quite noticeable. 

Here’s how the workshop was described:

The Hidden Lamp: Stories from Twenty-five Centuries of Awakened Women is a new book of one hundred stories of awakened Buddhist women from the time of the Buddha until the present. The book contains wisdom from every kind of person—parents, old women, teenagers, monks and nuns, prostitutes, servants, slaves—and these stories explore questions of life and death, sexuality, family, identity, and what it means to wake up as we really are in this world. Each story has a reflection by a different contemporary woman Buddhist teacher; in these pages, 100 wise women of the past meet with 100 wise women of the present.

In our weekend retreat, we will explore the teachings in The Hidden Lamp together, seeing what light they shed on our own situation, and how they illuminate our passage through life. Through silence, dialogue, story-telling, and writing, we will each continue the joyful process of uncovering the hidden lamp in our own hearts. People of all genders are welcome to attend.

The retreat will be led by the creators and co-editors of the book, Florence Caplow and Susan Moon, and by Peg Syverson, one of the contributors to the book.

I can’t help feeling what a loss it is for the men in the sangha not to have the opportunity to experience these two wonderful teachers of Zen. It may be just coincidence, but still, I can’t imagine a case of a woman who is a Zen student even having the thought that she would not attend a sesshin or teaching because the teacher was a man, and the teaching stories were by and about men, so it seemed like it must be a “man’s thing.” 

This fact, the fact that there were no men in the workshop, made me wonder. I began to reflect on all the little decisions I make every day, and their larger consequences. Those decisions reflect personal preferences, but they also reflect unconscious leanings, biases, habits, and other forms of conditioning operating below the radar. Clearly, the work of this practice is not to shame ourselves or others for these tendencies, nor to create stories to explain or rationalize or excuse them. We don’t need a speculative history of how they might have developed. If it helps you feel better, no one is without them, except possibly a Buddha. Still, we are engaged in this practice, and that means that we do need to do something with this knowledge. What? 

I think the first thing we need to do is to look. For this we need both willingness and a certain quality of fearlessness. We need to clearly see what may be operating only under the surface of our awareness. And often, as happened with the Hidden Lamp workshop, our tendencies are only apparent in the absence of something. Perhaps we are heartened to observe that we have friends who are men and friends who are women, friends of color and friends who are white, but then we begin to notice that our friends are all of the same general economic class or that we quietly make excuses not to visit those who are ill or dying. What’s missing?

Now, before you get uncomfortable, and defensive, this is not about shame, nor is it about something you have to rush out and correct. What I am saying is much more radical, and more difficult than that. Can you just look and discover the patterns and tendencies without guilt or shame or blame? Because the fact that we, as humans, universally do this breaks my heart. It breaks my heart not that we discern difference, or even that we feel more comfortable with, as my grandmother used to put it, “our own kind,” whatever that means. It breaks my heart for the losses we all suffer because of what we do with those distinctions. It’s a loss, too, to our larger enterprise of liberation and the end of unnecessary suffering. Separateness breeds suffering, and so it is very important that we clearly see the ways that we invest ourselves in separations of all kinds. This is our Bodhisattva vow. We may not be able to end racial prejudice, gender bias, ageism, speciesism, or class divides in our own time. But we can work to end them in our own lives. 

That means taking a step beyond clearly seeing our own patterns of painful separation and subtle boundaries. And to do this, we need first of all to learn to see everything in ourselves and in others like an anthropologist, with fascination and curiosity that is grounded in kindness. We need to face our own confusion and fear. We can use our Hakomi teachings in this way. The fundamental steps are to arouse our own loving presence and then to do tiny experiments in mindfulness, studying what we can discover about our own dynamics. These tiny experiments take us just slightly outside of our comfort zone, directly addressing one of our subtle patterns. That does not mean to put yourself in grave danger or outside the law! Just a little experiment to challenge our own boundaries. Say hello to someone you would otherwise ignore. Make a human connection with someone quite different from you. Then check in and get the data. How was that? If you are familiar with the IFS psychological model, you can check in with any parts inside you that were activated by the experiment. Help those parts to feel comfortable and safe with this new way of exploring the world. Just as a child will drop a toy off the high chair over and over again, studying the physics of gravity, you can repeat these small experiments in a wide range of situations and study the results. 

To meet others in openness and possibility is an act of generosity that dwarfs anything you might do with your money. To step outside of your own comfort zone to make the small effort toward real meeting is an act of creative courage. Usually we tend to wonder whether we would show courage in an extreme situation that hits us unexpectedly. Yet we can cultivate the capacity for courageous and compassionate action deliberately. Even within the sangha, you can do these tiny experiments in reaching out to others, in signing up for something that is outside your usual practice, in asking for help with something that confuses you or scares you. This is a safe place for the kinds of experiments that enlarge our world and our hearts. Interestingly, I sometimes see more expressions of that kind of courage in folks who are new than in more experienced practitioners, who may feel more settled and at home here. But I’m reminded of the verse that goes: 

The calm is on the water and part of us would linger by the shore,

For ships are safe in harbor, but that's not what ships are for.

—from  Ships by Tom Kimmel & Michael Lille

We are all adventurers in this life, and our adventure is both an inner journey and an outer one. Our practice is to pay attention to our direction and our speed, and most of all to know clearly where we are. No part of our mind, our heart, or our bodies should be hidden to the luminous awareness that clarifies the great matter before us. Life is much too important to be clouded, limited, and painfully constricted by our unseen prejudices, absent-minded exclusions, and unconscious motivations. If you want to wake up, you need to be a fearless warrior for your own clarity, wisdom, and compassion. I know this is extremely difficult, not only to marshal, but to sustain. How do I know this? Because this is my own ongoing work as well. We do not reach some exalted place where we can rest in comfort and ease, knowing that we have arrived. The rewards for this ongoing attention and effort are the luminous clarity and compassion that enable us to be a force of life, light, and care in the world. Our lives become infinitely vast and vibrantly connected to everything, everywhere. Our own lamp is no longer hidden. So I wanted us to play with this idea a bit together. 

We then did a short exercise in pairs. I asked the sangha to please remember, this is an exploration, not an indictment. 

One person served as the compassionate listener and witness and the other person was the explorer. Then we switched roles. This was my instruction. 

I will give you some sentence fragments for you to complete, but first settle into mindfulness, both partners, so that you can really discover together what is true for you:

I am uncomfortable when…[a person or situation]

Because it makes me feel…[not an idea, a feeling]

And so I…[my general strategy or tendency]

And because of that I miss…[some aspect of living]

One way I could experiment with this is…

Then we discussed the experience, both in the pair groups and in the large group. You might explore this exercise on your own with a compassionate listener as a partner. 


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Appamada is not just the occasional mindful thought or attentive state of mind, it’s actually a commitment to being attentive. It’s more than just a meditative state of mind, it’s more than just being mindful. It has to do with that primary ethical or moral orientation we have in life, with which we bring into being whatever activity we’re engaged in. Whether in formal meditation, in our interactions with other people, in our social concerns, or in our political choices, it’s the energetic cherishing of what we regard as good.

—Stephen Batchelor


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