a. What is Zen?
Snow in a silver bowl.
b. What is the way?
The clearly enlightened person falls into a well.
c. What is the blown-hair sword?
Each branch of coral holds up the moon.
“A Silver Bowl Piled with Snow” is Case 13 of the Blue Cliff Record. “The Blown Hair Sword” is Case 100. In Case 13, Baling actually asked, “What is Kanadeva’s school?” referring to Kanadeva who was the 15th Ancestor of Indian Buddhism. Here, the School of Kanadeva just means Chan or Zen. Swords were tested for sharpness by blowing a hair across them. If the hair fell in two the sword was sharp.
These three questions and answers are listed in the Commentary to Case 13 of the Blue Cliff Record. Baling studied with the grand master Yunmen, and when you had an awakening, it was the custom to present a poem to the teacher. Baling was nicknamed “The Mouth” for his eloquence. Instead of a poem, he offered these three koans to his teacher. Yunmen responded, “On the anniversary of my death, just recite these three turning words, and you will have repaid my kindness in full.” After Yunmen died, Baling used these koans as a memorial service each year.
– PZI Miscellaneous Koans, Case 74
Those who have used koans have described them as a poetic technology for bringing about awakening, a painful but effective gate into the consciousness of the Buddha, an easy method of integrating awakening into everyday life, the most frustrating thing they have ever done, an appalling waste of time, a tyranny perpetrated by Zen masters… Well, you get the idea — about koans, opinions differ.
Allison Atwill Sensei describes the making of her amazing art piece inspired by the koan, “Each Branch of Coral Holds Up the Moon.” January 24, 2013.