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.
A Belated Preface
Now that we have discussed a few koans, I feel I should be clearer about the intentions shaping this blog. If this were a book, my objectives for the book would customarily be outlined in a preface that preceded the Introduction. The reason there was no such preface is that the issues I want to raise now would have made little sense until we had worked through several koans with the approach I am using.
To my knowledge, no other published introduction to koan practice takes the approach I take here. What I want to disclose in this belated preface are the ways in which my treatment of koans may transgress some longstanding taboos of the Zen tradition. What follows is a technical discussion directed to Zen practitioners who understand the Buddhist scruples involved.
Do I Transgress?
The word “transgress” may seem a little overblown but it is part of Zen rhetoric in dialogues between Zen Masters in which one Master will take a position and then ask, “Do I transgress?” This means, “Is the position I just took in accord with the Dharma or not?” Unless the other Master can then expose an error by “one-upping” the first Master’s position, the first Master wins the playful “Dharma combat” by which Masters hone their skill in expressing the Dharma in words or actions.
Here are some ways in which my approach may transgress Zen Buddhist norms. Again, this discussion is meant for my sisters and brothers in the Dharma familiar with those norms.
First of all, my blog provides an overview of how koan training proceeds over time. I have said that teachers will, over a series of interviews, tell the student to “become one” or “become more intimate” with the koan in question. The teacher provides no explanation of why these admonitions are critical, leaving students to decide how to understand these phrases. This is a process that can take the student weeks, months, or years to resolve.
By saying in my Introduction that the teacher wants the student to “show rather say” the point of a koan, I am providing an overview that short-circuits the traditional Zen learning process. Others have commented that Japanese koan training resembles the apprenticeship process in Japanese arts and crafts, including the martial arts. There, the Master demonstrates silently and the apprentice imitates. Whatever explanations the Master provides come in pithy comments on the apprentice’s performance. The process is not designed to bolster self-esteem. Rather, it is intended to get the apprentice to try even harder to master the ineffable aspects of the art or craft.
In contrast, by providing an overview of koan training, I have provided a conceptual description that Zen teachers in both Asia and the West never provide to their students. Instead, they expect students to piece together the dynamics of koan work for themselves over time.
Secondly, I risk transgressing traditional norms by flatly stating that the appropriate way to demonstrate the point of a koan is not through conceptual explanations, but through action or words that are gestures demonstrating awareness of that point. Again, this clue on how to proceed short-circuits the traditional learning process in which students must discover this stratagem for themselves by trial and error.
Even worse, with each koan I discuss, I point toward a range of actions that might embody the point of the koan. My goal in doing this, figuratively speaking, is to lead my readers to water hoping they will drink. By this I mean that I don’t want to give them “the answer” to any given koan. Instead, I try to point them in the right direction by leading them to the water’s edge.
Zen absolutely prohibits sharing the traditional “answer” to a koan with a student who has not yet completed their work on it. This restriction is amply justified by the fear that a black-market trade in koan “answers” will thwart their effectiveness in Zen training, where koans are used to create an uncomfortable but desirable existential crisis that can push students to reach a new understanding of their lives. I risk transgressing because, in pointing readers in the right direction, I may be depriving them of the frustration necessary for a crisis powerful enough to trigger a deep awakening.
Finally, I should disclose another motivation that shapes this blog. I retain a keen interest in Western philosophy, which I believe is undergoing a major tectonic shift. I also take a keen interest in neuroscience, which is increasingly resetting the agenda for Western philosophy. I further believe that koan practice has revolutionary implications for philosophy that will be validated by future neuroscientific research.
These interests also appear to transgress the norms of Zen Buddhism. After all, the koan literature is replete with stories of Buddhist scholars who abandoned their philosophical debates in favor of Zen’s tacit path to awakening. Indeed, many modern commentators have framed Zen as anti-philosophy, or perhaps more accurately as “un-philosophy”. My own view is that Western philosophy has always offered the un-philosophy of skepticism. I believe a proper understanding of Zen can lead to a shakeup of philosophy even more profound than those made by Hume or Wittgenstein.
So Why Do I Risk Transgressing?
The main reason I take the risks just described is because I regard the koan literature as one of the great cultural treasures of the world. I regard it as fully equivalent in value to our classical Greek and Roman cultural legacy. The koan literature is not just a cultural treasure of East Asia, it is the rightful inheritance of all peoples.
I take the unorthodox view that broad access to the koan literature has been overly restricted because of its use in the formal training of Zen Buddhist monks, nuns, and lay people. I therefore try to make this cultural gem accessible to everyone, whether or not they will ever practice Buddhism.
This puts me in a position similar to proponents of secular Mindfulness, who critics accuse of peddling mere stress reduction without spiritual implications. In contrast, I believe that secular Mindfulness leads a small percentage of practitioners to want to go deeper. This is how some people find their way to Buddhism.
It is my hope that the access I provide to people curious about Zen koans will lead some percentage of them to embark on the koan path by finding a sangha and a teacher who can help them.
Finally, I believe the approach I take in this blog is in furtherance of my vows to save all beings and my vow to “not spare the Dharma assets”, that is, to generously share the treasures of the Zen koan way.
My brother and sisters in Dharma will have to judge whether my efforts transgress, and if so, whether they can be forgiven.
Bring Me Your Mind – Part 2
In Part 1 I described this koan as asking us why Huike was enlightened by Bodhidharma’s comment, “There, I have pacified it for you”. I said this koan arouses negative feelings in us because those same words do not have any life-changing effect on us. I framed the koan in this way because I thought it was helpful to spell out how we find the motivation to struggle with this (or with any other) koan.
Now, however, I need to make clear that the question of motivation is secondary to the student’s primary task, which is to find a way of demonstrating to the teacher that they understand the deep meaning of the exchange between Bodhidharma and Huike. Again, such a demonstration must take the form of showing rather than saying what was understood by Huike.
In Part 1, I added that I would explain how showing rather than saying applied to this koan, despite the fact that Huike was awakened by something Bodhidharma said, not something he did.
I said there that sometimes the words Masters employ are called “turning words”. These are words that are more like an action than a transfer of information. They are like a rough shaking to awaken someone from deep sleep. The mark of a great Master is the ability to see when a student only needs a little bonk on the head to awaken. In Huike’s case, the bonk came when Bodhidharma affirmed that Huike would never find his mind, and so there was nothing to pacify, and all such efforts were a waste of energy. With that sudden understanding, Huike set down his heavy mental baggage, removing the burden he had carried for so long.
In Part 1, I also said I would provide some suggestions to help you find an acceptable response. One such clue comes from a scroll discovered at the start of the twentieth century in the Dunhuang caves on the Silk Road that carried trade from China to the West. These caves housed a complex of Buddhist temples from the fourth through the fourteenth centuries. These were a repository for Buddhist scrolls and art, some of which survived untouched in walled-off niches.
One of the texts recovered from the caves is called ATreatise on the Ceasing of Notions. It is made up of conversations between a Chan Master and a disciple. One of their exchanges was probably meant to help the student understand our present koan:
[The student] suddenly rose and asked, “What is called the heart? And how is the heart pacified?
The Master answered, “You should not assume a heart, then there is no need to pacify it. That is called pacifying the heart.”
If you truly understand this Master’s answer, you will see why Huike was liberated. If not, let me expand a little on that answer. First of all, the heart referred to here is the heart-mind represented by a single character as discussed in Part 1. By saying, “You should not assume a heart-mind”, the Master is saying that though we usually assume that the heart or mind is a “thing”, it is not. A “thing” is an object, something that people can “oversee”, “handle”, or manipulate. The heart-mind is not something that can be overseen and handled because it is unlimited. For instance, we cannot exhaustively list all of its elements.
This view of the heart-mind is supported by a story with which most experienced Zen students are familiar. It is the story of the first meeting between Hui Neng and Nanyue, a student who traveled a long way to study under him. Hui Neng is credited with completing the establishment of Zen in China five generations after Bodhidharma.
As the story goes, Hui Neng saw Nanyue coming up the mountain to his temple. When the latter got close enough, Hui Neng called out to him, “What is it that comes thus?!” Without hesitating, Nanyue called back, “To call it 'a thing' is to miss the point!” Hui Neng immediately saw his promise and took him in.
Now, among other things, Nanyue was saying that a person is not a thing. If so, then what is a person? We conventionally identify a person as an individual heart-mind in a particular body. But what is a heart-mind? Can we truly say it is limited to a body separate from everything else, or might that one body extend to encompass the universe in every direction as Dogen Zenji proposed?
There is one thing we can say about the heart-mind: it is ceaseless activity. And what kind of activity is that? As discussed in Part 1, introspection through vipassana meditation reveals it to be a relentless roving of attention. The nature of the heart-mind is endless searching for something, ranging over everything helpful or harmful in the world. It will never stop, and when you realize it will never stop and that this is just the way we are, you realize that there is nothing for you to do but watch its acrobatics with a certain distance and, yes, amusement. At that point you realize that your restless heart-mind is not a threat to you. That is, it is not a threat to you if you are content to let it be, and as long as you don’t believe in it’s rambling, contradictory, commentary. As the Master in the Dunhuang text said, at that point there is no need to pacify it, and that state is called pacifying the heart.
So how should you demonstrate your understanding to the teacher? You must directly “point out” your heart-mind by showing this relentless searching, as if hoping to find something you believe you have lost. Have fun coming up with your own way of directly presenting this absurd heart-mind that causes us so much trouble.
Bring Me Your Mind
This week’s koan involves Bodhidharma, the legendary Buddhist sage who came to China from South Asia and is credited with establishing the Zen school there around the year 500.
Bodhidharma criticized early Chinese Buddhist sects for writing commentaries on sutras rather than devoting themselves to meditation. For that reason, the older Chinese sects called the new school “the meditation sect”, since Chan (ch.) and Zen (jap.) mean “meditation”.
Here is a simplified form of our koan: Huike (pron. "Hway-Kuh), a promising Chinese disciple, begged Bodhidharma to help him find peace of mind. The Master replied, “Bring me your mind and I will put it to rest”. Huike said, “I have searched and searched for my mind and cannot find it”. The Master replied, “There, I have pacified it for you!” On hearing these words, Huike suddenly had an insight that liberated him from his mental suffering.
On hearing this story for the first time, Zen students have no idea why Bodhidharma’s concluding words had such a powerful impact on Huike. They cannot fail to notice that hearing those same words has no such liberating effect for them. Negative emotions arise, including feelings of inferiority (“I am not smart enough”), envy of other students who “get” this koan, and frustration (“Damn it, why don’t I get it?!”)
Such frustration is a blessing in disguise; it means that the koan has its hooks in you. As Mumon says about another koan, “A hook is lowered into the water – the greedy will be caught!” The greed here is a delusional craving to “win the contest” they believe the koan poses. Eventually, students who are honest with themselves will realize that the koan has become “existential” for them and that they must persevere until they resolve the distress caused by the koan. This distress is unpleasant, but like labor before childbirth, is necessary for the birth of awakening.
During interviews about pacifying the mind, teachers will ask the student to express the point of this koan. As I cannot say often enough, teachers will manage to make clear that they want you to express this point by showing it rather than explaining it.
Why do teachers insist on this? According to tradition, this guidance comes directly from Bodhidharma himself, in the form of a fourfold definition of Zen:
A special mind-to-mind transmission of enlightenment
Without dependence on the written word,
Directly pointing to the heart-mind,
Realizing one’s own nature and Buddhahood.
Modern scholars believe this terse summary comes from a later Chinese Master, not Bodhidharma. No matter, since this succinct definition of our practice has been cited by teachers ever since. Let’s parse this definition to see where the insistence on showing rather than telling comes from.
The first line refers to a “special mind-to-mind transmission”. This is not some spooky “paranormal” process; it simply means that awakening is an intuitive understanding between Master and disciple. This is an understanding in which both see the truth about our nature.
Despite all their efforts to define “truth” in words or symbolic logic, Western philosophers have failed to capture the "self-evident" nature of truth in which a person surveys a scene and directly sees what is. This instantaneous, wordless process can rightly be called “intuition”.
The second line says this wordless process is not only valid, it is only way to reach enlightenment. Awakening does not come from reading sutras and deducing a truth dependent on those words alone, but by seeing something directly without the mediation of words.
This second line is not to be underestimated; it is the pivot upon which the whole verse depends. (In Part 2, I will explain why – sometimes – words, including Bodhidharma’s final statement here, can trigger enlightenment. Such words are called “turning words” and I hope to clarify how such words operate in an entirely different way from our ordinary use of language, a way that accords with the admonition of the second line.)
But what do I mean by, “seeing something directly”? The third and fourth lines tell us exactly what we must do to directly (i.e. wordlessly) discover our true nature. The third line says we do this by “directly pointing to the heart-mind”.
“Pointing” is the crucial word here. Western philosophy recognizes a class of words called “indexicals”. The terms I, you, here, there, now, then, this, and that, are indexicals. That means that what they refer to is completely dependent on the context or situation – i.e. on the objects or people that are present there and then. The word “index” comes from the Latin verb “to indicate”. “Indicating” is defined as “pointing” or “pointing out”, and is why we call our first finger the index finger.
And what is it that we are to “point out”? It is our heart-mind. I hyphenate this word because Chinese and Japanese use the same character for both “heart” and “mind”. This is supported by the ancient Western use of “heart” to represent the mind as the “seat of judgment”. It is also in keeping with current neuroscience, which is showing that the supposedly “rational” mind is inextricably bound to the irrational emotions that we attribute to the heart.
And how are we to point out this heart-mind? It is not with our index finger. Yet in the realm of the heart-mind, we have something that is the full equivalent of an index finger. It is our attention, which ceaselessly points our minds towards this or that “thing”.
Thus, turning our attention to our heart-mind means watching how our minds work. Buddhism calls this mindfulness or vipassana. And what do we see when we watch our minds like a bird watcher?
1) We see that it is impossible to pin our minds down. This is impermanence.
2) We see that every object of our attention comes with an emotional reaction that teeters between pleasant and unpleasant. This is suffering in the Buddhist sense – i.e. even when the reaction is pleasant, that pleasure is impermanent, and we will suffer its loss.
3) We see that our attention ranges over the entire universe, and that everything that we can ever experience is already potentially “inside” our minds. This means that we cannot distinguish between what is “inside” or “outside” our minds. This in turn means that there is no permanent “self” apart from the universe. This is the absence or emptiness of self.
Thus, watching our heart-minds reveals impermanence, suffering, and the emptiness of self. Buddhists call these “The Three Marks of Existence”.
Now, what has all this to do with our koan about pacifying the mind? Well, it has everything to do with understanding why Bodhidharma’s “There, I have pacified it for you” liberated Huike. You must come to see for yourself why this is so. In Part 2, I will offer some suggestions that will hopefully help you in this regard.
In the meantime, I urge you to verify Buddha’s statements about the threefold nature of heart-mind. Please watch your mind at work for the next week to settle whether you can accept them, even provisionally, for now.
The historical Buddha told his listeners that they should reject his assertions if they could not verify them in their own experience. As the first empiricist, the first pragmatist, and the first psychologist, the Buddha rarely gets the credit he deserves for introducing a prototype of the scientific method for the study of mind!
“A Course on Koans” is the delusion-riddled work of Chris Kufu (“Wind in the Void”) Wilson, who began practicing Zen in 1967. He regards Taizan Maezumi, Robert Aitken, and David Weinstein as his root teachers. Each of them pecked at his shell until he “completed” the never-ending koan curriculum of the Harada-Yasutani lineage.
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