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


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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