The Buddha Bowl

A Great Story Parable

by Paula Hirschboeck

Note: This is a fabulous parable to act out in a group. For a downloadable version of this parable, scripted for three parts, click here: Buddha Bowl SCRIPT in PDF format.

Click here for Guidance for incorporating this parable into a STARDUST RITUALl


This Great Story Parable was published in the Winter 2002 issue of EarthLight magazine, with the following editorial note by Connie Barlow:


Since 1957, scientists have known that all chemical elements (other than the simplest hydrogen and helium) were created not In the Beginning — not at the moment of the Big Bang — but very much later, and in the depths of massive stars. All the carbon and calcium in our bodies, all the silicon and oxygen in sand and computer chips — all these elements, every single atom, came into existence inside a star.

Imagine that! Inside a star! For many of us moved by the cosmic epic offered by science, there is no realization more magnificent than this: We know that we are stardust — recycled stardust from the generations of stars that preceded the birth of our own sun. Only stars at least eight times the size of our sun can take this path of elemental creation. And those that do are so busy burning hydrogen and helium into the full spectrum of elements that they blaze and die in a mere 10 million years, rather than the expected 10 billion year life span of our own modest star.

It is one thing to create the palette of elements; it is another to launch them into the galaxy. A star that forged the Periodic Table as far as iron will collapse upon itself. Then, rebounding in a supernova explosion of unimaginable brightness, the remaining heavy elements churn into existence — all the gold-leaf in an ancient Koran, all the silver in a Hanukkah menorah, all the copper in a bronze Buddha, all the tin in Christmas tinsel.

All the complex atoms in your body and everything around you were at one time streaming away from just such a dying star. This is truly a miracle of Creation. The birth of chemical elements manifests divine creativity, however one may think of God. Does it not make sense to celebrate this common reality?

We can begin by telling the story of stardust in ways that inspire and delight. And we can further cultural wisdom by weaving into this story the teaching of values and virtues. What emerges will be parables of the new Cosmology. Following is one of the first. Paula Hirschboeck draws from her Zen tradition for this story of stardust. How many more renderings of this same story will the future call forth?

The Buddha Bowl


Zen Buddhism has a teaching tradition based on koans. Koans are short stories or conversations designed to awaken the human potential for insight into the nature of reality. Usually the teacher gives Zen students koans apppropriate for the next level of their realization.

A koan does not make logical sense. In order to open the mind and heart, the student surrenders to not-knowing by meditating (zazen) within the mystery of the koan. Zen has many stories of students struggling with life's predicaments through koans.

The great masters often embellished and commented on these little stories. An example is the famous Blue Cliff Record of 100 koans compiled by Zen Master Hsueh-tou (980 to1052). For the past one thousand years, teachers have been adding their commentaries to these koans. A long conversation!



Emperor Wu had an ancient treasure, a bowl made from the skull of a revered Buddhist master. Whenever he drank tea from the delicate polished skull, he felt at one with the wisdom of the ages. It was his "Buddha Bowl."
One day a nun from the nearby monastery was serving the emperor his tea. Fu was a rather dreamy Buddhist nun and, on this particular day, she spilled a few drops of tea on the emperor's hand. The hot liquid burned. The bowl fell, shattering into numberless pieces. Fu stared at the white bone bits on the black stone floor. "Like stars strewn through the night" she mused. Then she heard Emperor Wu shouting: "My precious Buddha bowl, gone, because of your clumsiness!"

Fu looked up and met the emperor's eyes. " You must find me another," he warned, "or I will have your skull, nun Fu!" Kicking aside the bits of broken skull, Emperor Wu stormed out.

Fu returned to her monastery, approached her teacher's door, knocked three times as prescribed , and soon heard the answering bell admitting her. She bowed. Then she told of her predicament.

The two nuns sat in silence. The Zen teacher spoke a koan for Fu:


Fu bowed and left. The koan rang in her ears. As she repeated it, the words echoed within her skull. They reverberated through her bones.

The Emperor's official tea ceremony was to be held at the next full moon. When Fu went into the monastery garden, she saw the white sliver of the new moon appear in the west as the sun set. She sat zazen into the night until even the dimmest stars appeared. Each evening for the next twelve days, Fu practiced zazen in the monastery garden, breathing her koan into her bones.

By day the nun was assigned by her teacher to work in the little Zen garden. There she raked patterns into the sand around the carefully placed rocks. Sunlight glinted off the myriad bits of quartz — of silica — at her feet. "Daytime stars," thought Fu.

Each evening Fu watched the stars appear and scatter themselves into deep space. Breathing in the dark, sitting without end, she surrendered herself to the koan. It was taking her deeper and deeper into the emptiness of space, to the time before the light of stars was born.

Body and mind dropping off into astonishing Radiance . . .
Everything arising together out of that Radiance . . .
The Starburst breaking open the wonder of the Universe.

Fu herself became this Vastness. She became Vastness watching Itself unfold. Fu was light and air and water and earth. She became the Universe of stones and bones, sunshine and sand.

On full moon day, Fu shaved her head. She softly touched her smooth round skull. She whispered her koan: " Find your Great Self. The Buddha Bowl of the stars shall appear for you to use at will." It was time to return to Emperor Wu's palace and prepare for the tea ceremony. The sun was setting.

Emperor Wu appeared in his finest silks, welcomed his noble guests, and took his seat. He held out his hand, waiting for the new Buddha Bowl.

Fu stood before him, her hands clenched at her sides. Suddenly she flung open her fingers. Sand scattered across the floor. At that moment the light of the full moon shone through the eastern window on to the black stone floor. The sand glistened as brightly as stars in the night sky.

"Receive the Buddha Bowl of the stars," spoke Fu.
"Know it as your very Self.
Star, Sand, Stone, Bone —
All take refuge in the one Being of the Universe.
Will you take refuge in the Self which is not separate, but is one?"

Fu bowed deeply. She waited until she heard the rustling of silks. When she rose, Emperor Wu was there, serving her a cup of tea.


PAULA HIRSCHBOECK teaches Philosophy and Environmental Studies at Edgewood College, a Dominican Liberal Arts School in Madison, WI, where she also serves as a Zen Buddhist chaplain.

This parable was originally published in the Winter 2002 issue of EarthLight magazine (


This is a fabulous parable to act out in a group. For a downloadable version of this parable, scripted for three parts, click here: "Buddha Bowl SCRIPT in PDF format".

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