A student asked the teacher, ‘What is Zen?’ The teacher replied, ‘A silver bowl filled with snow.’

Blue Cliff Record, Case 13

One of the pleasures of koan practice is to deepen our understanding of these stories with time and play. When I first encountered this koan and its answer, it was not a particularly surpassing experience. My response of ‘A black crow flies in the dark of night’ was nice, as images go.


A few days ago, I got a chance to plow through the pile of snow in the silver bowl. I was up in London, Ontario to witness Guy Gaudry’s dharma transmission. Driving through the vast and empty farmland, covered in two feet of fresh snow, the whole world was a dazzling bowl of white. Later, standing in a huge line in a cavernous airport security zone, with hundreds of grumpy dark-coated travelers, this too was a silver bowl filled with snow.

Guy took up this koan for his celebratory talk that night. He told an old story about an Inuit woman who badly wanted a baby, but was unable to conceive. Distraught, she went out onto the ice at night and came across a baby polar bear hardly visible against the snow. She took the bear home and raised it as her son. It became a great hunter and provider for the village, but the villagers turned angry and jealous, and wanted to run the bear off, or worse. The Inuit woman, again beside herself, did not know what to do.

There he ended the story, itself a complete silver bowl filled with snow. As the verse for this koan says, ‘If you don’t understand, go ask the moon in the sky.’