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“What is Zen? – Snow in a silver bowl” – Baling

This is the koan we sat with during our recent retreat. There is another koan that asks this same question, “What is Zen?” In that koan the response to the question is, “The heart of the one who asks.” The visit of this second koan led to a third, hybrid koan, “Snow in a silver bowl is the heart of the one who asks.”, or alternatively, “The heart of the one who asks is snow in a silver bowl.” I noticed how reversing the order changes the way the koan interacts with me.

Then a third koan came along to join the conversation. Yunmen was asked, “What is it?”, to which he responded, “One teaching upside down.” The question, “What is it?”, feels like the essence of every Zen question. In that way, asking “What is it?” is the same as asking “What is Zen?” One of the hybrid koans that unfurled from that was, “Snow in a silver bowl is one teaching upside down.”

In addition to the resonance with the questions, I find a resonance in the responses also. There’s a kind of upside-downness to the koan about snow in a silver bowl. Another hybrid koan was, ‘One teaching upside down is the heart of the one who asks.’ I again noticed the way reversing the order in the koan changed what it reflected back to me.

Perhaps it was the Yunmen connection that served as an invitation for yet another koan to come along and join in. In that koan Yunmen was asked, “What is the teaching that nourishes for a lifetime?”, to which he responded “Say something in response.” That Zen is a teaching which nourishes for a lifetime has been true for me and so the question again is “What is Zen?”

More hybrid koans emerged. In one, the response to the question “What is the teaching that nourishes for a lifetime? became, “Snow in a silver bowl.” In another the koan became, “Saying something in response is the heart of the one who asks.”

The combinations and permutations keep coming, most recently the resonance with “Stop the sound of the distant Temple bell.” and the list goes on, but I won’t.

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