I gave this teisho during our first ever Full Moon Zen Zazenkai (one-day retreat) today. You’ll find a recording of this talk after the text.
This koan is Case 13 in The Blue Cliff Record:
A monk asked Pa Ling, “What is the school of Kanadeva?”
Pa Ling said, “Piling up snow in a silver bowl.”
Many Zen koans share three qualities.
First, someone is asking about the Great Matter of Life and Death. They may not phrase or frame the question quite that way, but that is the question nonetheless.
Sure, the monk in this koan may have been reading one of the Mahayana sutras attributed to Kanadeva, trying to clarify some fine point of his stream of Buddhist thought. But Pa Ling took this seeker’s question for what it really was: a question about the monk’s own life.
What is this experience of life and death? Who am I?
Second, the response to the question about the Great Matter in many koans leaves one scratching one’s head, at least if we try to approach the koan discursively; didactically. Approached that way, the koan seems paradoxical.
Finally, many koans are brief. Something vast and deep is expressed in just a few words.
This lovely koan has all three of these qualities.
Kanadeva was an Indian sage, a student of Nagarjuna, who lived in the Second Century and is widely considered to be one of the greatest Asian philosophers. Nagarjuna is regarded as the 14th ancestral teacher in the mythical line of succession that begins with Shakyamuni Buddha and extends to all Zen teachers alive today. So Kanadeva is our 15th ancestral teacher.
According to Buddhist lore, when Kanadeva first met Nagarjuna, his teacher, Nagarjuna gave him a bowl of water. Kanadeva, the story goes, dropped a needle into it.
Good luck finding that needle, and fishing it out if you do! If you manage to grab it, you may well get Kanadeva’s point—literally be pierced by it, which is the only way we can ever truly get anything, of course.
Who knows whether Pa Ling’s answer to the monk’s question—this image of snow in a silver bowl—was consciously connected to the story about Kanadeva’s first meeting with Nagarjuna. Pa Ling’s response undoubtedly emerged, stream of consciousness, in his imagination as the monk posed his question. Whatever else it may have been influenced by or connected to, it certainly was connected to that very teacher-student meeting; to that moment.
If we approach this koan, or any other, primarily in a discursive way, we won’t find what we’re seeking.
What did Pa Ling mean?
Is this image from a scene at the temple where he taught, with which the monk also would have been familiar—perhaps a bowl that collected rainwater during parts of the year, and snow in the winter? If so, why did Pa Ling offer this image?
Was this a line from a poem long forgotten?
Why a silver bowl? Silver is a precious metal. Was it an altar bowl? The altar would have been indoors, where snow doesn’t fall. Why bring the bowl outside, or the snow inside, to pack it full? Was Pa Ling saying something about the absurdity and futility of filling this—this emptiness that’s always chock-full?
I don’t know. Even if we knew, would this knowledge answer the monk’s question, which is our question, too?
Still, what a lovely, captivating image Pa Ling rendered. We’re still talking about it, captivated by it, centuries after his encounter with this nameless seeker, as if we were that monk. As if the snow were still falling.
We are that monk, and the snow is falling, still.
A koan is not a paradox, just as our lives are not a paradox. Koans invite us to encounter life as if it were not a paradox. They can teach us to do that.
I grew up in a small town high in the Colorado Rockies, in the Sangre de Cristo mountain range, near a peak called Mount Shavano, which was visible from any spot in the broad valley in which we all lived. There’s a deep crevice in the face of Mount Shavano, in which a glacier has formed. In the spring, when the snow melts and the valley, and all the peaks that create the valley, turn green and brown and gold again, ice and packed snow remain in that crevice, revealing the shape of an angel.
Growing up, the Angel of Shavano was always visible above us, throughout the spring, summer and fall, when the packed snow from endless winter storms had disappeared down the edges of our mountain bowl, flowing into the tributaries, streams, and rivers that sent life giving water in all directions, to California, the Midwest, even Mexico.
Year after year, the angel went into hiding again, when winter came. Ever-present, and hidden in plain sight.
I loved those winters. Standing anywhere in that valley as the snow fell. Especially at night, when the sky was blueblack, the moon cast silver across the valley, the air was still, and it was so silent you could hear a pin drop in that snow bowl.
Stick out your tongue right now and catch a snowflake.
Reach down and scoop up some snow. Pack it in the silver bowls that are your hands.
Cock your arm. Aim.