What is your Original Face?
One version of this week’s koan is worded, “Do not think of good, do not think of evil. At this very moment, what is your original face before your father and mother were born?” Of course, in our common sense understanding, you had no face before your parents were born. (This koan is often used in popular accounts of Zen to show how “irrational” Zen is.) How should you respond?
Some Zen Masters have preferred to use this koan, rather than Mu, as the first or “barrier koan” for beginning students. Whereas Mu begins with an obscure point of Buddhist doctrine, this one brings you more quickly to your wit’s end. This is important. Being at your wit’s end is the best place to be if you want to reach a radically new understanding of who you are.
The expression “original face” has been used since the earliest days of Chinese Zen to refer to the ultimate reality you can perceive only when you have removed all the delusions you harbor about “reality”.
The phrase, “original face”, is pivotal in a famous koan about a confrontation between a early patriarch of Zen and a jealous monk afflicted with a murderous anger towards him (Mumonkan Case 23).
I will discuss Case 23 in the next post. In Case 23, the patriarch asked the monk, “Do not think of good, do not think of evil. At this very moment, what is your original face?” – that is, a question without the clause about the time before your parents were born.
In what follows, I take an approach that differs from our previous koan discussions. Here, I report on the responses of two unnamed women, both newcomers to Zen, with whom I discussed this koan in the form, “Do not think of good, do not think of evil. At this very moment, what is your original face before your father and mother were born?”
The first woman was a generous, loving person with a keen artistic sense and a devotion to social justice. Friends had referred her to me for counseling as she coped with late stage ovarian cancer. She has since died. At the time of our conversations, she was struggling with her terminal diagnosis, torn between an admirable spiritual acceptance of her situation and an understandable anger about the unfairness of her fate.
She expressed this anger largely in political terms. She bitterly resented the gender inequality manifested in the fact that research on ovarian cancer has historically been underfunded when compared to prostatic cancer.
She was aware that this political anger was also acting as a channel for her personal grief. I found her self-awareness remarkable; she was a truly wonderful person. Proceeding with the great caution, I suggested she consider this koan.
As homework between meetings, I asked her to meditate on what her original face might be. In our next meeting, she declared that her original face was “the face of God”. I congratulated her for this lovely summary of her hopes. We spent the balance of that conversation specifying what “the face of God” meant for her. She said her statement did not represent a faith in God so much as it did an appreciation of the beauty of the universe just as it was.
As I have said previously, beginning students will often begin koan work with a response based on their favorite linguistic concepts and metaphors. This is to be expected, and in traditional Zen, the teacher will often end the interview at this point by exhorting the student to redouble their efforts and ringing a hand bell to summon the next student.
Given her situation, I felt that encouraging her to expand on the implications of her metaphor was the most productive and compassionate way to proceed. I therefore told her that her appreciation of the universe just as it is constituted a wonderful step in the right direction. Still, I told her that in Zen we must show our attitude rather than describe it in words.
In our final discussions, she said she had come to see that her internal conflict between anger and acceptance was also part of the universe just-as-it-is, part of being human, and therefore part of the face of “God”. When I asked her to express this with her body, she simply lifted her shoulders and dropped them in a shrug of ultimate acceptance, adding “I’m OK with it”. I thanked her for this presentation.
I met the second woman only once. She was a medical technician who was performing an electronic “device check” on my recently installed pacemaker. I noticed her cheerful and benevolent expression as she readied her equipment. While I waited, I quietly read a book I had brought with me. She glanced over and asked me what my book was about. I told her it was a book about Zen koans. She asked what koans were and I gave her the example of the original face koan, including the words, “before your parents were born”.
She answered instantly, “Why, that would be my face right now!” Impressed by her assurance in saying this, I asked her how she came to that answer. She said that she had been deeply influenced by an undergraduate physics teacher who argued that time was an illusion and that everything that had ever happened or would happen in the future was actually occurring simultaneously in the present moment. On hearing this, she had an immediate intuition that this was true. She added that she has held that view ever since because it allows her “to be more carefree”.
I was delighted by her answer, since it was in complete accord with my own view of Dogen Zenji’s “Being Time” (Uji). Rather than mention that, I told her that I admired her explanation very much, but that with koans, one should show your original face rather than describe it in words. At this, she stopped calibrating her equipment and turned her gaze to me with the warmest, most serene smile on her face. Her smile held a hint of Mona Lisa’s amusement at the seriousness of the person painting her – or in this case, the person questioning her. I thanked her for her presentation.
There is a noteworthy difference between the responses of the two women that I will discuss in the next post on Case 23 of the Gateless Barrier.
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