Lotus in Muddy Water

I read the following passage last night:

In times of famine the daughters of farmers in Japan sometimes allowed themselves to be sold to brothels in order to save their families. It was considered an act of self-sacrifice and filial piety. Under such circumstances, these women did not necessarily lose their self-respect; they were sometimes called lotuses in muddy water. (1)

I was deeply moved by this passage, my heart wrenching and my eyes tearing. I have been listening to the audiobook of The Hidden Lamp: Stories from Twenty-Five Centuries of Awakened Women. This fantastic text compiles stories from across the centuries since Buddha of women teachers, sages, and laypeople who embody Buddhist teachings, and pairs each story with a woman teacher of our time as a commentator. So, the roles women have played in the transmission of the teachings have been fresh in my mind.

I did not realize it until last night when I read the quoted passage, but I have been chanting something similar for years.

Lotus in muddy water

Photo by Dave Chan (2)

At sesshin (intensive practice periods) at Hakubai Temple, we eat meals in a style called oryoki. Oryoki is a precise method of eating that allows one to bring their practice into their eating, and to receive and serve food without talking. I’ll speak more on oryoki in a later post.

At various points during the meal we chant the meal chant in which we honor Buddhas, bodhisattvas and ancestors, remember the effort that brought us the food, make offerings, and consider the diligence of our practice, among other things. The final line of the chant, spoken by the leader, is:

May we exist in muddy water with purity like a lotus. Thus we bow to Buddha.

I have always thought of the muddy water as the world of suffering and delusion, and the purity of the lotus as an example we should follow when taking our practice into the world. But now my view of this verse is transformed.

In The Hidden Lamp, there is a story of Ohashi, a woman who sold herself to a brothel to support her family (3). She performed her work, but suffered from pain and sadness from dwelling on her life before the brothel. She met the teacher Hakuin, who told her that realization can happen in any circumstances, and she later awoke to her true nature.

Every time I chant this verse I will remember the women who maintained their practice and realized truth even amidst the most horrid circumstances. And I will do my best to follow their example by being a lotus in muddy water.


(1) Reb Anderson, Being Upright: Zen Meditation and the Bodhisattva Precepts (Rodmell Press: Kindle Edition, 2000), p. 115.

(2) I could not find the original photo from Dave Chan’s blogspot site, but you can find his work here: https://www.facebook.com/DAVECHAN0801. I retrieved the photo from http://brandybrost.weebly.com/blog/kuan-yin-vale-of-shadows

(3) Florence Kaplow and Susan Moon (eds.), The Hidden Lamp: Stories from Twenty-Five Centuries of Awakened Women (Somerville, MA: Wisdom Publications, 2013), p. 41.

To PhD or not to PhD…

That is the question I am currently considering. I received admittance to a doctoral program in the study of religion this week. I was delighted, to say the least, having considered long and hard whether this further educational commitment and career choice was the move for me to make. Working out my thoughts on Scholar Monk has been an important part of this process.

Many say that doctoral study will ruin relationships, take over your life, burn you out, beat you up. I am not interested in allowing any of this to happen. I see how academia encourages this sort of personal and interpersonal breakdown by putting the work before everything. There are so many unreasonable expectations placed on young scholars: publish incessantly, present papers at conferences all over, be educated in one place, do a postdoctoral fellowship somewhere else, and apply for a tenure-track position in an entirely different location, uprooting your life and family with each move. That is the only path to success.

Cherry blossom and moon

Blossom Moonlight by Megan Morris (1)

I say, “no thanks.”

Even though my spouse and I have discussed the possibility of further education, I knew once I was admitted that this would have to be a family decision. And it has prompted a wonderful discussion between us regarding our near-term goals, visions for our family and our free-time, and perhaps most importantly, to set our intentions.

I intend to root my work and study in practice. The slope can get slippery and it can be easy to fall into the “work-first” mentality. It is clear to me that of all things that would come first, scholarly work is not it – family and practice stand out as two very clear alternatives.

Clear and critical assessment is undoubtedly necessary in coming to a decision about doing a PhD. But ultimately, I feel that it is my job to get out of my own way and be open to the unfoldment of the universe. Thinking has its limits, and at some point the time to think through things has come to an end.

So, do it; don’t do it. Does it really matter? Or as the eminent martial arts master, Oogway, has said,”Noodles. Don’t noodles.” (2) Give up the past and future, along with cognition, and allow yourself to be.


(1) This Cherry Blossom Tree Art Print by Megan Norris can be purchased in various formats at http://fineartamerica.com/featured/cherry-blossom-tree-art-print-megan-morris.html.

(2) The full quote is “Quit. Don’t quit. Noodles. Don’t noodles. You are too concerned with what was and what will be. There’s a saying: ‘Yesterday is history, tomorrow is a mystery, but today is a gift. That is why it is called the “present.’ ” From the film Kung Fu Panda.

Scholar Monks: Hildegard von Bingen

This is part of the ongoing Scholar Monks series, which explores the lives and works of people who have chosen to further knowledge while grounded in practice.

While writing about Hildegard of Bingen, I have the rare pleasure of listening to some of the music she composed over 800 years ago. I’ve included some here for you to enjoy while you read (1):


Hildegard was a 12th century Benedictine nun based near Bingen, a town on the Rhein River in modern-day west-central Germany (2). She was sickly from a young age and was given to the church by her family at age 8. Hildegard grew up living at the church of Saint Disibod under the tutelage of of a female religious practitioner until she was ordained and later came to lead a community of women there.


Hildegard in the Saint Rochus Chapel, Bingen. Photo by Bob Sessions (4)

Although Hildegard had been experiencing divine visions since she was a child, she had kept them to herself (3). That is, until she received a vision at age 40 in which she was commanded to write and share her knowledge and experiences. Once she did, a monk sent her work to the Pope for approval and she got the papal stamp of divine authenticity.

From then on, Hildegard’s popularity and influence increased. She founded two abbeys, to the ire of male monks at Saint Disibod, and supervised both. She wrote extensively, including theological treatises, poems, texts on medicine and the body, sermons, and letters. Her letters were sent to many in power – kings, abbots, and bishops – directing them in how to live upright lives. She also traveled throughout the region to counsel and guide religious and political leaders. The nuns practicing under her recorded Hildegard’s visions in writing, art and music and a surprising amount of this work survives to this day. Hildegard may be best known for her musical compositions, which include over 70 chants, a musical play, and her Symphony of the Harmony of Celestial Revelations.


A depiction of a vision of Hildegard. Note her in the lower right-hand corner receiving divine inspiration. Photo by Bob Sessions (5)

I think there are several things we can glean as scholar monks from Hildegard’s life. First, she did not choose the ordained life. Her family gave her away, and long before that she was already experiencing divine visions. The life chose her. This is a common story among spiritual leaders and those with vocations (I think of Augustine being kidnapped and made bishop!), but perhaps a less common narrative among scholars.

Second, she bucked tradition. She did not allow the constraints of the time on her gender keep her from influencing many lives, including those of people in power. Hildegard used the authority granted her through her divine inspiration to push the boundaries of her time – socially, politically, and musically. And she did this from a spiritual base, looking to benefit others, not to further her own position.

Finally, Hildegard’s expression of her life work was not limited to any particular medium. Writing, music, art, consultation and guidance – all were manifestations of her divine inspiration. She even invented her own language with its own alphabet, a kind of secret code. The creative expression of Hildegard’s inspiration was unbounded.

I feel I have much to learn from the commitment, creativity and courage of Hildegard von Bingen.



(1) This track is titled “Honey and Milk Beneath Her Tongue – Favus Distillans, Dripping Honeycomb,” from Symphony of the Harmony of Celestial Revelations: The Complete Hildegard von Bingen, Volume 1, by Celestial Harmonies, 2011.

(2) Much of my biographical information is from “Hildegard, Von Bingen.” In Encyclopedia of Women’s Autobiography, edited by Victoria Boynton, and Jo Malin. ABC-CLIO, 2005. Retrieved from http://du.idm.oclc.org/loginurl=http://search.credoreference.com/ content/entry/abcwautob/hildegard_von_bingen/0

(3) Additional biographical information is from the excellent series on Hildegard from the Holy Rover blog by Lori Erickson at Patheos.com. To start, see “With Hildegard von Bingen” (January 28, 2014), at http://www.patheos.com/blogs/holyrover/2014/01/28/with-hildegard-in-bingen/

(4) Image is a photograph by Bob Sessions, retrieved from http://www.patheos.com/blogs/holyrover/2014/01/28/with-hildegard-in-bingen/

(5) Image is a photograph by Bob Sessions, retrieved from http://www.patheos.com/blogs/holyrover/2014/01/28/with-hildegard-in-bingen/