The zen koan, “What is your original face?’ has no correct answer. That is the point. The state of mind is the answer and if one is lucky enough, able to put into words a description of the state of mind to answer the koan. Koans are different from those other thought-provoking questions like “Where’d I put my car keys?” which is also a question which can evoke a state of emptying the mind.
Koans cannot be answered with our analytic minds, but are a conduit for meditation. Our quiet mind in meditation is simultaneously the question and our minds seeking the answer. When our mind can’t grasp or solve the question, our minds open up to an alternative awareness, one that is perhaps more intuitive, more flexible.
Nobody can tell you the answer; it is to be discovered and answered based on one’s own insight and awareness. ‘What is your original face?’ comes from another koan: “Show me your original face before your mother and father were born”. Who are we? Where did we come from? Where are we going? It’s the feeling of stifling loneliness that no one knows when we close the door in our darkest place. The koan originates in the teachings of Hui-neng in the Platform Sutra: When you’re not thinking of anything good and anything bad, at that moment, what is your original face?
Original face– our state of “beginningness”, of original pureness
Meditating on our essential being can jolt a person’s mind into an “Aha” or “Whoa” state of awareness. We have all at one time or another had that momentary flash of awareness: perhaps it came while laying in bed at night, in eyes closed, total darkness, trying to imagine ceasing to be, the notion of our death– trying to grasp the state of non-being, imagining the world with us no longer in it. Where am I if “I” no longer exist?
Descartes said, “I think, therefore I am,” but our self-knowledge and identity are intensely more complicated. We are an amalgam of outer appearance and actions, our inner speech and mental processes. Further complicating this is our predisposition to non-stop mental tape-loops playing mind-reading of others’ attitudes toward us, their possible interpretations of us and replaying situations in our minds or inventing possible scenarios, making up a lot of the debris floating around in our brains: the monkey mind. But all of this is still not who we are. Our original face illustrates how we are both the subject and object — and neither. We think our thoughts but we are not our thoughts. I am the creator of my thoughts and the thoughts– and neither.
D’où Venons Nous? Qui Sommes Nous? Où Allons Nous? (Where do we come from? What are we? Where are we going?) a painting by Paul Gaugin (1848-1903), puts this contemplation about the struggle for meaning and our true nature in visual form. Gaugin was exploring death and renewal with imagery of humans in the cycle of life, in various emotional states, pondering the meaning of existence. The blue idol which is believed to represent The Beyond from where we originate and must return.
Paul Gaugin, 1897 Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, Mass.
Various spiritual traditions explore the theme of the return journey; in Christianity, there is the Prodigal Son story. Buddhism has The White Lotus Sutra about a prince who had been banished from his homeland. He longs to return, and does so with his father’s help . These stories symbolize the spiritual return, the journey home, the discovery of our pure nature– our true self – with acceptance and forgiveness.
This theme is also repeated in Buddhism’s Vajrasattva mantra, also known as the Diamond Sutra. Vajrasattva, which means “diamond-being” is a young, princely bodhisattva, depicted seated on a white lotus of pure light, symbolizing our essential purity. He holds a diamond bell, and when it rings we are to hear the “wake up call” to our own true nature.