Original Face – Part 2
In my last post, I described the experience of two women with the Original Face koan presented in the form of a single sentence: “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?”
Due to the circumstances that brought them to me, the single sentence version had to suffice. Nevertheless, I believe their work with that single sentence gave them each a helpful insight into their own true nature.
On the other hand, by using a single sentence, I deprived them of any surrounding context that might have helped them reach an even deeper realization. For that reason I want to examine Case 23 of The Gateless Barrier. There, a shortened version of that one sentence plays a pivotal role in a dramatic background story that raises subtle themes easily overlooked in our one sentence version.
For students working on Case 23, the story is told in a terse form that leaves out the events that led to confrontation between the two leading characters. That is doubtless because Chan monks in those days were already completely familiar with the events leading up to that fateful encounter. I will later add a few notes to fill out those details for newcomers. Meanwhile, here is a paraphrase of that terse story.
The Monk Myo pursued the Sixth Patriarch [whose name was Huineng (Hway-neng)] into the mountains. Seeing him getting ever closer, Huineng placed the robe and bowl of the Fifth Patriarch on a rock, and sat down to await his pursuer. When Myo arrived in a state of great anger, Huineng calmly said to him, “This robe and bowl should not be taken by force. There they are; take them if you wish!" Suddenly shamed by the truth of this statement, Myo tried to lift the sacred objects but could not. Trembling, Myo said, “Truly, I am not here for the robe and bowl. I am here to learn the truth of the Dharma. Please, lay brother, instruct me!” The Sixth Patriarch replied, “Do not think of good, do not think of evil. At this very moment, what is the original face of Monk Myo?” Hearing these words, Myo was deeply enlightened.
Since this story begins in medias res (in the middle of things), here are notes to fill in the background.
Huineng was an illiterate woodcutter who had a deep spontaneous enlightenment on hearing some monks recite a sutra. For him, the turning words were, “[Just] Bring forth that mind that has no fixed abode.” In this phrase, you should hear an echo from my earlier posts, “Bring Me Your Mind, Parts 1 and 2, where I said:
“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 reveals the heart-mind to be a relentless roving of attention. The nature of the heart-mind is endless searching” (italics added here for emphasis).
Huineng asked the monks where he could find a teacher and they referred him to the Fifth Chan Patriarch. According to the traditional history of Chan, each Patriarch passed on their robe and a bowl to a single person worthy of leading and protecting the still emerging Chan sect. You should also know that Huineng is credited with completing the task of transforming Chan from an offshoot of Indian Buddhism under Bodhidharma to an authentically Chinese synthesis of Buddhism and Daoism. Because of this, there was no Seventh Chan Patriarch. Instead, Huineng had multiple successors who established multiple lineages of transmission that (in theory) branched into the many Zen lineages we have today.
On his arrival at the Patriarch’s distant monastery, Huineng was assigned to the kitchen, since he was an illiterate layman and not a monk. Some time later the Patriarch, who was quite old, asked all monks to submit a poem proving they were worthy to become the next Chan Patriarch. In response, Huineng asked a monk to write down a poem that expressed Huineng’s understanding of the Dharma. Huineng then posted the anonymous poem on a wall at night. (That poem will be the subject of a future post.)
When the Fifth Patriarch saw the poem, he realized that the author was deeply enlightened, but said nothing. After some inquiries, he summoned Huineng to visit him secretly. There he gave Huineng his robe and bowl, thereby making him the Sixth Patriarch. At the same time, he warned Huineng that he should flee that same night, since many senior monks would be jealous and assume Huineng had stolen the robe and bowl.
The next day, discovering that the robe and bowl were gone, several monks set out in pursuit of the kitchen worker they believed had deceived their aged Master. Among them was Myo, a monk who had been a general before repenting for the deaths he had caused. Despite his years as a monk, he still retained a hot temper. After the other monks gave up and turned back, his strong will and physical strength allowed him to press on. That brings us to his confrontation with Huineng in the mountains.
We are now in a position to see how this theatrical tale enriches and modifies the single sentence version of Original Face treated in Part 1.
First we should note that Huineng’s turning words to Myo do not include the bit about “before your parents were born”. Why not? One answer is that this phrase is redundant. After all, Huineng’s admonition has already said, “At this very moment” (i.e. “Right now”). This negates the past and the future completely if we grasp that, for Zen, only the present moment embodied here and now is real. Our conceptions of the past and future are riddled with delusion (or as Buddhist philosophers of that time would put it, “are just images produced by the imagination only”).
The question then becomes, “Why does the classic collection of koans known as Entangling Vines add the clause, ‘before your parents were born’ to its version of Case 23?
I have read that Entangling Vines is used in the Rinzai sect of Zen as a kind of test of a student’s mastery of the koan curriculum, a bit like the oral exam of a Ph.D candidate. Perhaps, then, this clause is an added hurdle meant to make sure the advanced student realizes this point about past and future.
Another virtue of this clause, as I have said before, is that its use with beginners forces them more quickly into a quandary of the kind that can produce their first breakthrough insight, or kensho.
Second, we should notice another subtle difference in the one sentence version of Part 1. That one sentence version is addressed to you, but in Case 23 we are in effect invited to enter the mind of Monk Myo to understand what he was experiencing.
You don’t have to be a gifted empath to enter Myo’s mind. In fact, it should be easy to identify with him. We have all been angry and we have all been resentful. We are sometimes overwhelmed by negative emotions to the extent that we later admit we momentarily “lost it” when dealing with a perceived adversary (including loved ones!) In short, it is easy to identify with Myo, because he is you.
When Huineng reminds Myo of the meaning of the bowl and robe, he suddenly realizes his murderous rage was a violation of his vows. In remorse, he pivots to asking for help, even though Huineng is only an illiterate layman.
Third, the most important reason that the dramatic tale in Case 23 adds a deeper dimension to the koan is that it raises an even more fundamental point that might otherwise be missed. The novel element introduced by Case 23 (and accentuated, if one knows why Myo set out in pursuit of Huineng) is passion.
In contrast, the one sentence version is comparatively drama-free and invites the kind of conceptual interpretation that both women in Part 1 initially articulated in words, each in her own way. Nevertheless, each woman was ultimately able to embody their words in physical gestures that included their facial expressions and, in the case of the terminally ill woman, an utterance that in Western philosophy of language is called “a speech act”.
And how does the passion or “drama” in Case 23 lead us to a new dimension of understanding of our own true nature? Put another way, why did Huineng’s pivotal phrase constitute “turning words” that triggered Myo’s deep enlightenment? Once again, we may feel left behind, just as we did if we didn’t initially understand, “There, I have pacified your mind for you!” in the Bring Me Your Mind koan.
The key to Case 23 is in the very first sentence: “Do not think of good, do not think of evil.” You should consider what impact this admonition has on our answer to the question, “At this very moment, what is the original face of Monk Myo?”
By telling Myo to look at himself before asking himself whether he was being good or bad, Huineng was telling him (and us) that our original “face” or nature contains both good and bad. The word “original” here has some distant kinship with “original sin”, except that in Buddhism, our "original sin" is our primordial ignorance, not our disobedience. In case 23, “original” implies that we will always (i.e. forever) be the source of both good and evil because that range of behaviors is just the way human beings are! From a Zen point of view, only when we accept this fact are we truly free to choose our path.
So what did Myo see about himself when Huineng uttered his turning words? When he tried to lift the robe and bowl, he saw that something mysterious would not allow it. When he felt remorse, he humbled himself and sincerely asked for help. These were both positive emotions from a Buddhist point of view because they opened his eyes to see his original face. And what did he see when he dropped all pretensions about right and wrong? He saw that he contained multitudes, including a person easily tempted into a murderous rage born of ignorance in the form of self-righteousness.
In demonstrating your understanding of this koan, you must play the part of Myo. Truly, you must demonstrate that you are Myo climbing that mountain right now. Otherwise, how will you “entangle your eyebrows” with both Myo and Huineng? How can you say you have truly “met them” unless you bring them into the interview room here and now?
To be other than Myo runs the risk of thinking yourself better than he was. In order to “not be better than Myo” you must show Myo, not at his best, as when remembering his vows and seeking help. No, you must show him failing his vows and yielding to jealousy and resentment. How else will you embody your understanding that all human beings are fallible? As another koan asks, “Why does the perfectly enlightened person fall into a well?” Surprise! Even enlightened persons make stupid mistakes that expose them to censure or ridicule. (This tragicomic wisdom is what endears Zen to me.)
Returning to our two women, I would comment that in the end the woman with ovarian cancer demonstrated that her vision of God was not all sweetness and light, but also included her own sorrow and anger. I can't possibly convey how convincing her presentation was at that moment.
The younger woman had a much sunnier view of life, doubtless due in part to her youth and health, and was able to express it in her demeanor. This was a good demonstration of what Zen calls, “Sun-faced Buddha”. A caring teacher would nevertheless have asked her how she would feel on the day her mother died. The teacher would ask this in order to be sure she knew that there is also a “Moon-faced Buddha” within each of us. The ultimate truth lies in realizing that both of these Buddhas emit light.
“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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