Green Koans Case 12: The Original Face

Clark Strand

A Zen master asks, “Show me your Original Face, the face you had before your parents were born.”

Three Little Kittens

Original Face/Original Self – The term appears most famously in Case 23 of the koan collection Mumonkan, or “Gateless Gate,” in which the monk Myō, jealous that the Sixth Patriarch Enō has received the robe and bowl of their master, chases him through the mountains and tries to take them by force. Enō places the robe and bowl on the ground and invites Myō to take them. However, Myō finds that they are too heavy to lift. Overwhelmed with shame, he asks to be given the teaching instead, and Enō responds, “Without thinking good or evil, in this very moment, what is your Original Face?”

What face did you have before your parents were born? The question isn’t hard. It’s like asking a sunflower what it was before it was a sunflower, or the wind before it was wind? A true Zen master never asks to see something that isn’t already there.

That’s one way of saying it. Another is this.

Millions of years ago, a snub-nosed fish roamed the watery shelf below the continents wearing a face that had been passed down to it by countless species through deep time. That fish passed its face to amphibians, and amphibians passed it to reptiles. Reptiles passed it to mammals, and mammals passed it down in exact accordance with the dharma—from the great apes to Australopithecus, and from Australopithecus to Homo habilis, and from Homo habilis to Homo erectus, and from Homo erectus to Homo sapiens, and from Homo sapiens to Homo sapiens sapiens, who became so sapient (or “wise”) that they discarded it—or tried to. Because really, how can you throw away your face?

Three little kittens,
They lost their mittens, and they
Began to cry. What!
Lost your mittens, you naughty kittens!
Then you shall have no pie!

Green Koans Case 1: Shakyamuni Touches the Earth
Green Koans Case 2: Shantideva's Sword

Green Koans Case 3: The Great Compassionate One's True Eye
Green Koans Case 4: One-Page Dharma
Green Koans Case 5: The Person of the Way
Green Koans Case 6: The Green Yogi
Green Koans Case 7: Rain of the Law
Green Koans Case 8: Bashō's Last Words
Green Koans Case 9: General Stone Tiger
Green Koans Case 10: Joshu's Oak Tree
Green Koans Case 11: A Brahman Takes a Bath
Green Koans Case 12: The Original Face
Green Koans Case 13: Seki's Amida

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BrandonNicholas's picture

Wouldn't it be nice if the Census Bureau,
when asking what rAce we are,
gave Us the option of "joker" (instead of "other")?

myers_lloyd's picture

This very moment is unattainable.

Dominic Gomez's picture

"This very moment is unattainable."

Yet is ever "as plain as the nose on your face".

Dominic Gomez's picture

Eno's question is akin to other etiological issues, such as what is the meaning of life or what or who is God (i.e. what does God look like). In the latter case, the very nature of God is such that his appearance is not like anything we can describe. In Exodus 33:20 he's quoted as saying, "You cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live.” In Ezekiel 1:26-28 God is somewhat described as looking like "glowing metal, as if full of fire...and brilliant light surrounded him. Like the appearance of a rainbow in the clouds on a rainy day, so was the radiance around him.”

Buddhism is cause and effect. It's all about etiology. But its universe wasn't magically created by some supernatural deity at some point in time long ago. The universe (i.e. life itself) has always been, is always present, and shall eternally be. In this case, Eno's and Myo's "original face" (their original cause) is what each of them are "seeing" (more accurately experiencing) at this very moment.