Updated: Nov 7, 2020
“What is your original face?” is a classic query in Chinese and Japanese Zen Buddhist lore—so often that “original face” has become a Zen cliché.
The source of the “original” original face is a Chinese Zen Buddhist scripture [sutra] known as the Platform Sutra of the Sixth Patriarch, composed in China between the 8th and 13th centuries. The platform is the podium from which the Buddhist teacher spoke. The scripture's key themes are direct perception of one's true spiritual nature and the essential unity of action, meditation, and wisdom: “When you're not thinking of anything good and anything bad, at that moment, what is your original face?”
Over time, other Zen teachers mention the “original face:”
"Sweep away thoughts!" means one must do zazen [meditation]. Once thoughts are quieted, the Original Face appears. Thoughts can be compared to clouds. When clouds vanish, the moon appears. The moon of suchness is the Original Face. Thoughts are also like the fogging of a mirror. When you wipe away all condensation, a mirror reflects clearly. Quiet your thoughts and behold your Original Face before you were born! — Daito
The founder of my own teacher's sect added his two-cents in the 1200s:
Cease practice based
On intellectual understanding,
Pursuing words and
Following after speech.
Learn the backward
Step that turns
Your light inward
To illuminate within.
Body and mind of themselves
Will drop away
And your original face will be manifest. — Dogen
Finally, even a contemporary musician takes up the theme:
There's a light bulb in everyone
Bright enough to swallow the sun,
Every mask will be erased,
There is just the original face. —Stuart Davis
The world as a stage, as theatre, or as an illusion—a self-created reality—is an oft occurring historical and religious image. Science has known for a while that our organic human seeing, hearing, feeling faculties delineate how we view reality—how we construct a reality. Humans see, hear, feel, sense differently than a cat, a dog, a deer, a raccoon, an alligator, or a fish.
Some religious traditions that predate science hold a similar opinion: In the Hindu tradition and in Australian and some north American aboriginal traditions, it is thought that our human existence is a dream, out of which we awaken to something or somewhere else. Another analogy is that humans create reality internally and cognitively accept or rationalize our projection as accepted truth, or not. Occasionally, the human “sense of self,” may feel irrational or unacceptable. “I just don’t feel myself today.” “I’m out of sorts, I don’t know who I am.” “I’m not acting like the kind of person, I know I am.”
What is your “self?” Who are you, right now? How did you get to be who you are? Is your “self” innate, or created? Is your self created by you, or by your parents, or by your experiences? What makes up the character you play on the world’s stage?
Zen Buddhists might synthesize all those questions into one: “What is your original face before your mother and father were born? Look behind the mask, beneath the costuming, the makeup, and the dialog. Go deep! Try this.
1) “All the world's a stage,
2) And all the men and women merely players;
3) They have their exits and their entrances,
4) And one man in his time plays many parts,
5) His acts being seven ages. ///// At first, the infant,
6) Mewling and puking in the nurse's arms. /////
7) Then the whining schoolboy, with his satchel
8) And shining morning face, creeping like snail
9) Unwillingly to school. ///// And then the lover,
10) Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad
11) Made to his mistress' eyebrow.///// Then a soldier,
12) Full of strange oaths and bearded like the pard, [the leopard]
13) Jealous in honor, sudden and quick in quarrel,
14) Seeking the bubble reputation
15) Even in the cannon's mouth. /////And then the justice,
16) In fair round belly with good capon lined, [a particularly delicious fowl]
17) With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,
18) Full of wise saws and modern instances;
19) And so he plays his part. /////The sixth age shifts
20) Into the lean and slippered pantaloon,
21) With spectacles on nose and pouch on side;
22) His youthful hose, well saved, a world too wide
23) For his shrunk shank, and his big manly voice,
24) Turning again toward childish treble, pipes
25) And whistles in his sound.///// Last scene of all,
26) That ends this strange eventful history,
27) Is second childishness and mere oblivion,
28) Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything. “
(William Shakespeare—from “As You Like It” Act II Sc. VII)
The first two to four lines of this passage are almost cliche—most people know them by heart. But the total passage is amazing in so many ways. The language, of course, the economy of distilling life down to seven stages described so that one can relate still: Infancy, youth, adolescence, young adulthood, maturity, old age, dotage, and death. At what stage are you?
Original face exercise number one is of my own creation. I've completed it at least 3 times in my life and found each examination enlightening.
Examine your persona from who you are now based upon the 7-stages that Shakespeare has presented us—you be the playwright! My first examination was at the cusp of five. the second six, and now, at the cusp of seven.
Define the character that you now play, costume, mask, your movements, your dialogue, your entry into this role, and maybe anticipate your exit.
If you're brave and can take the heat, ask someone close to you to help you define your character!
Do the same thing with all the different stages you've passed through and all you have not yet reached.
Regarding the past, memories may be foggy, ask someone who might know, or look at old pictures, letters, or diaries and try to elicit more detail in the character.
Write it down! Journalize, by hand, or type it, or speak it into your phone and then transcribe it. This is stuff you will wish to save and return to. This exercise is for you. The info for you. We do this in live gatherings and many participants find the deep examination of their present and past characters extremely valuable.
Find a quiet place, undisturbed. You can do it in one or more long sittings, or in any number of small entries. Go deep! Accept! Say yes to everything, good, bad or ugly!