There is a saying, well known in Zen Buddhism, ‘Show me your original face, the face you had before your parents were born.’ Such propositions are called koans, and the seeker is expected to meditate on his or her koan—to live with it, so to say—until its meaning is intuitively grasped.
To attempt to ‘explain’ a koan is not to fathom it. A Zen master seeks not an explanation but a sign that the enquirer has penetrated something of the state of consciousness that inspired the koan—that he or she knows through direct experience where the koan is ‘coming from’, as we might say. However, this particular koan may be fruitfully discussed, because it can deepen our understanding of similar teachings found in the Yoga of Self-Knowledge.
In the case of our original face, we may argue that the only face we have is the one that reflects back at us in the mirror. But the Zen saying is not referring to the face that is part of our physical appearance. It goes deeper than that. In one sense it is suggestive of that phase of our nature that Jesus was referring to when he enjoined us to be like little children. Notice he said ‘little’ children—children who are still totally open, sincere and free from the adult self-regard that makes us ambitious, envious, proud and so on. Very small children charm us because they are free from these ‘mature’ attributes. They remind us of a time when we too were clear and unburdened. They remind us of our original face.
But the teaching: ‘Show me your original face’ goes deeper than the innocent state of mind that might have been ours when little—before we became worldly wise. For we are speaking of ‘the face we had before our parents were born’. Another formulation of the same koan is ‘What is your real self—the self that existed before you came out of your mother’s womb?’ The implication is that there is something immortal, unborn, at the core of our being, which seems to be associated with our life and appearance as a person, but is really untouched, completely free, infinite, all knowledge, all bliss.
It takes faith to believe in such a spiritual nature—that this could possibly be our original nature. But even now, at this present moment, there is something within us that is not caught up in the thoughts and emotions, but, as it were, witnesses them, lights them up, revealing them to itself as the ultimate principle of awareness. Our bodies and minds function in time, but our true Self is timeless, unborn, undying, and transcends our apparent individuality.
Why is meditation important? First, the practice will help us to cast aside useless and troublesome thoughts, and experience the eternal now, with the freshness and freedom of the child, now enhanced by the conscious awareness and understanding of the adult. Ultimately meditation will give us insight into our ‘original face’, the pure, self-luminous consciousness that is the essence of our being. And if we know this, we know the most important fact in the world—the fact which underpins all religion, all philosophy, all quest for beauty, truth, fullness and fulfilment.