What is Your Original Face?

In Case 23 of the Mumonkan, Hui Meng (Jp: Emyo) is jealous that Hui-neng (Jp: Eno; the Sixth Patriarch of Ch’an Buddhism) has received the robe and bowl of their master, and chases him through the mountains trying to take the robe and bowl by force. Hui-neng places the robe and bowl on the ground and invites Hui Meng to come over and take them. However, Hui Meng finds that they are way too heavy to even lift up. Overwhelmed with shame, he asks to be given the teaching instead, and Hui-neng responds, “Without thinking of good or evil, in this moment, what is your original face before your mother and father were born?”

What is being asked here is what is the “original face” or “primordial self” – that is, who are you really, before carrying any extra baggage like ideas, beliefs, feelings, or etc.? This means when notions of body, mind, self, etc. drop away – your “original face” will appear. Just because, as a product of causes and conditions, “you” and whatever you think makes you, well, “you”, may seem “empty” of an inherent existence – that doesn’t make it any more meaningless or shallow. Or more meaningful, for that matter. Mumon commented that,

You describe it in vain, you picture it to no avail,
Praising it is useless, cease to worry about it at all.
It is your true self, it has nowhere to hide,
Even if the universe is annihilated, it is not destroyed.

That is why it is futile to rationalize your “original face”. As I pointed out in my post Not-Self and the Three Seals, what is usually considered a “self”, “soul”, “I” or “mine” is simply a byproduct of various aggregates. All conditioned phenomena, including us, are in a state of constant flux and without any inherent existence. Furthermore, in the Sabbasava Sutta, Buddha explains that to either affirm or deny a self is a “thicket of views, a wilderness of views, a contortion of views, a writhing of views, a fetter of views” which further binds one to further suffering and stress”.

Let’s say, for example, you try to intellectualize your “original face” as simply genetic inheritance. If that were so, consider epigenetics. Basically, epigenetics is the study of changes in gene activity that don’t involve any alterations to the genetic code but still get passed down to at least one successive generation. Simply put, your genes are shaped in part by your ancestors’ life experiences. These patterns of gene expression are governed by the cellular material called the “epigenome” on top of, and just outside of, the genome. It is these epigenetic “marks” that tell your genes when to switch on or off, causing heritable effects in people. It is through epigenetic marks that environmental factors like the quality of air you breathe, the food and drink that you will consume, the stresses you experience, etc. can make an imprint on the genes that are passed from one generation to the next. Everything you do and experience can even affect your grandchildren – as much as you are affected by the diet and experiences of your own ancestors.

This could be likened to an example of karma-vipaka (as “action and result” or “cause and effect”) on the genetic level, in which your own life is influenced by the genetic inheritance from your ancestors – and the decisions you make and actions you take will also affect your descendants. There still is no inherent self to be found there, as it is still just the result of causes and conditions.

So, what was your original face before your parents were born? Obviously, there is no fixed “answer” to this question. In fact, this koan is supposed to put an end to any form of over-intellectualization, in favor of a more experiential understanding. This means that your “original face” is something that you have to come to terms with, and understand through your own practice. It may seem like all of this talk about seeing your “original face” really shouldn’t require much effort, but it requires us to look inward, in places that we are not accustomed to. When Hui-neng asked Hui Meng this koan, Hui Meng was covered in sweat, crying and bowing as he asked, “Is there or is there not any other (deep) significance (in Zen) than your secret words and teachings a minute ago?” The patriarch answered, “What I have told you is no secret at all. Once you have realized your own true self, the depth (in Zen) rather belongs to you!”

In the Fukanzazengi, Dogen wrote,

“Therefore, put aside the intellectual practice of investigating words and chasing phrases, and learn to take the backward step that turns the light and shines it inward. Body and mind of themselves will drop away, and your original face will manifest. If you want such a thing, get to work on such a thing immediately.”


About bodhipunk

Just another anarcho-commie dhamma punk.

Posted on 04/20/2012, in anatta, dharma, egolessness, emptiness, five skandhas, koans, not-self, three seals and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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