Catherine Gammon

The composition is the thing seen by everyone living in the living they are doing, they are the composing of the composition that at the time they are living is the composition of the time in which they are living… Gertrude Stein

Notes on The Hidden Lamp

The following review was written for the San Francisco Zen Center blog Sangha News, and appeared there on November 12, 2013.

The new koan collection, The Hidden Lamp, edited by Zenshin Florence Caplow and Reigetsu Susan Moon, takes as its manifestly traditional starting point the collecting of one hundred Zen teaching stories. The radical difference is not simply that the stories feature women as students, adepts and masters, but that the commentaries and reflections paired with them are offered not by one living teacher, but by one hundred, all women, and from many lineages and Buddhist traditions.

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This diversity brings a palpable vitality to stories that include both the classic and the contemporary, and a single reflection can suddenly shift with startling effect from a traditional way of reading to a wake-up call grounded in engagement with the collective present, as for example when Pat Enkyo O’Hara turns from explication of a koan presenting a playful encounter between Iron Grindstone Liu and Master Guishan Lingyou, to ask,  “What does this koan teach us today? Is it not that New York melts the arctic ice; that karmic threads of colonialism have woven twenty-first century violence; that restitution across the globe rests in our hearts, here at home?”

In a similar spirit are moments like this from Susan Murphy:

In a life-world on the brink of crumbling in mass extinctions, while human forms of insanity are roundly certified as “business as usual,” how will you actualize the cry of the rooster with this whole great body and mind of fields, mountains, and flowers?

And from Joanna Macy:

My attention, too, is so preoccupied with what we, collectively, are doing to our world…. My spiritual practice calls me to come to terms with the destruction we humans are causing. I wouldn’t want an “enlightenment” that would keep me from knowing and feeling the ways our actions are unraveling the very web of life. I want to be present to the suffering that comes with “the spirit of the knife and the axe”—the spirit of bulldozer and chainsaw, of deep sea drilling and mountaintop removal, of factory farms and genetically modified seeds.

And from Natalie Goldberg:

All the meditating in the world doesn’t stop a rape in the Congo. Some effort needs to be made; we must be willing to get our white clothes dirty. We don’t need more wisdom poured into an empty vessel. We need to be willing to hear about horror, broken bones, economic collapse, betrayal.

It is tempting to go on, but these moments that bring timeless practice face to face with contemporary crisis are not the only treasures here.

Most Zen students are likely to be familiar with the expression “the bottom falls out of the bucket,” but how many of us know its origin in the life, work, and enlightenment story of one particular woman? How many of us who chant a dedication to our women teachers that ends with the name Chiyono know who Chiyono was? No doubt such details are not new to every reader, but for me coming across them was one of the many delights of this book.

The story of Chiyono goes like this: In the midst of long and deep practice, on a full moon night, she fills her old bucket at the well. The bucket breaks and the moon’s reflection falls away with the water. This is Chiyono’s moment of awakening, not unlike the possibly more familiar stories of a monk awakening after years of study and practice when his broom sweeps a pebble to ping against bamboo, or another who awakens on seeing a peach tree blooming.

Chiyono’s enlightenment poem expresses her understanding and gives us the well known image:

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.

In her reflection on this story, Merle Kodo Boyd offers a fresh take on the image itself:

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. I have come to trust the true freedom of living where the moon does not dwell.

In her own commentary on the koan “The Old Woman’s Relatives,” Caplow captures the spirit of the whole collection when she writes:

But you must understand that it is the asking that matters, not the answer. Because every real asking, every real meeting comes from the place where the Buddha glimmers in the depths. In the asking is the answerer; in the answer is the asker. And in the meeting of the two, there are mountains, rivers, and the whole earth.

The Hidden Lamp is a large and spacious collection, rich with the voices and years of practice of these hundred living women and two and a half millennia of women forebears, known and unknown. I have sampled here only a few of them. For all their richness and diversity, these stories and reflections share the central wisdom expressed by Emila Heller:

Taking refuge in a community of practitioners for so many years gave me the gift of knowing that we are all suffering, and my faith is that there is the possibility of an end to suffering.

May it be so.

The Hidden Lamp: Stories from Twenty-Five Centuries of Awakened Women
Edited by Zenshin Florence Caplow and Reigetsu Susan Moon
Foreword by Norman Fischer
Wisdom Publications
Paperback
440 pages, 6 x 9 inches
$18.95
ISBN 978086171659

Review and a Reading

A lovely first review of Sorrow at Necessary Fiction.

And a recording of the reading at the August 24 Brooklyn launch at Brooklyn Zen Center — here. (With thanks to Ian Case and Terence Caulkins)

photo by Noah Fischer

photo by Noah Fischer

Launched and Surveilled

After a brief visit to Pittsburgh to see some friends—

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here with Nancy, Rannigan, and Amy at Dobra tea

—and to launch Sorrow at the wonderful East End Book Exchange

 launch reading

—and a long day on the train back to New York, then a quick overnight with Heather and Nick and the splendid Cordelia (recently practicing the mokugyo at Brooklyn Zen Center)

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—I am now heading back to Wellspring House, a peaceful writing retreat in Ashfield, Massachusetts.

*

On the way to Penn Station a few hours ago, on the D train, I found myself noticing that of the people in my immediate vicinity (I counted twelve), seven were engaged with or plugged in to their electronic devices, the others engaged with old-fashioned devices—a book, a subway map, El Diario, a nail file & hand cream, and sleep—only one other person, like me, awake with nothing in hand.

This observation presented itself as a facebook post, although I could not at that moment connect to facebook, and then I thought that posting this observation on faceback (and also posting it here a few hours after the fact) would make me part of the surveillance apparatus of our time.

These thoughts may be in the foreground because I have been reading two very interesting and very different books on the subject of surveillance, Cypherpunks: Freedom and the Future of the Internet, by Julian Assange, with Jacob Appelbaum, Andy Muller-Maguhn, and Jeremie Zimmerman, and a recent book of literary scholarship that looks at Western cultural history on issues of privacy and observation, self and panopticon, The Watchman in Pieces: Surveillance, Literature, and Liberal Personhood, by David Rosen and Aaron Santesso.

Side by side, and in the context of the Edward Snowden revelations, these make fascinating reading. (I first read Cypherpunks last fall when it came out, and sad to say it reads much less abstractly now, these ten months later.)

*

One aspect of being surveilled is going out in public and presenting oneself—so that I found after the launch event some photos of myself reading  (thankfully distant and fuzzy but evenso looking, to my eye, rather dowdy and grim) appearing on facebook. (What? I look like that?)

Well, I do, apparently, the camera says so. Or maybe I think I still look like this?

with Ken et al

But no, just something in between—time to return to those Dobra photos…

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Great thanks to everyone for all the generous support for the coming of Sorrow!

Necessary Fiction

Many thanks to Steve Himmer at Necessary Fiction for inviting this reflection on the genesis of Sorrow:  Research Notes: Sorrow

I just had an evening with the wonderful writers with me this week at Wellspring House and had the opportunity to read this small essay aloud. May every reading be so intimate and warm.

Now I’m counting down and packing up for an overnight in Brooklyn and making my way to Pittsburgh for the launch.

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Saying thank you

Over the last few weeks I’ve been preparing for the imminent publication of my novel Sorrow by offering words of gratitude on Facebook to my publishers and to the wonderful writing women who have given words of praise for the book, Eve Ensler, Kellie Wells, and Toi Derricotte.

Following are my words of thanks, and their generous words of support.

From July 22

As publication day for Sorrow approaches I have the opportunity at last to celebrate the beautiful work given to this book by Jeff Condran and Robert Peluso, my wonderful publishers at Braddock Avenue Books, and to begin to express my gratitude to those who have given their voices in pre-publication support.

Today I want to send a shout out of thanks to Kellie Wells, author most recently of Fat Girl, Terrestrial, for these extraordinary words:

“What Sorrow illustrates with such dark and devastating beauty is that the heart that is forced out of innocence into terrible knowledge will one day utter its grief, and when it does, the sound, like its source, will be unimaginable. One of the many astonishing things about Catherine Gammon’s novel is the exacting emotional and psychological candor with which it is written. Never does the book blanch for the sake of false comfort; never does it allow the reader to dodge harrowing truths, those truths humanity most urgently needs to confront. It is a work of profound courage and integrity.”
– Kellie Wells, author of Fat Girl, Terrestrial

From July 26

As I pack and clean and prepare to say goodbye to Brooklyn, it’s time to pause and share an immeasurable thank you to the fabulous Eve Ensler for everything she is and does and just also now for these glowing words supporting Sorrow, out in two weeks from Braddock Avenue Books (and available for pre-order). Eve writes:

Sorrow is a devastating, gorgeous, impossible, unstoppable book—powered by unbearable desire, murder, a stunning turbulence of language and story. The real triumphs of this novel are Anita, Magda, Danny, Tomas, Cruz—people you will never forget even though tragedy, abuse, and circumstance did their best to render them invisible. A tour de force.”
– Eve Ensler, author of The Vagina Monologues and In the Body of the World

Huge gratitude, huge love, Eve.

From July 31

From the deep, productive peace of Wellspring House in Ashfield, Massachusetts, a final word of gratitude for the gift of early praise for Sorrow, today to the incomparable Toi Derricotte for this generous offering:

“Think of a female Dostoevsky. Think of a female Raskolnikov. Gammon’s modern turn on the classic tale takes us into the mind, heart and soul of a woman who has been the victim of sexual abuse in childhood; but, in so doing, she illuminates the dynamics of power and redemption to which we are universally subject. Sorrow is a stunning page-turner and unforgettable.”
– Toi Derricotte, author of The Black Notebooks and The Undertaker’s Daughter

Immeasurable gratitude to you all

Sorrow is available for pre-order at http://shop.braddockavenuebooks.com/shop/braddock/sorrow.html
For free pre-order shipping use the discount code: GAMMON

pre-order SORROW

Ready for pre-order … http://shop.braddockavenuebooks.com/shop/braddock/sorrow.html

Free shipping on all pre-orders, use the code Gammon at checkout…

And here’s a photo of the ARC…

sorrow ARC

 

 

We have a cover…

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