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“Show me your original face, the face you had before your parents were born.”⏤Zen Koan

When I first read this Buddhist saying, I was startled. It was an “aha” moment, finding a term for something I felt I’d been looking for all my life. Even though I had never heard this idea before and had yet to study what it means in Buddhism, I began framing my own inquiry into memory and identity as a search for my Original Face.

Of course, this idea has been the subject of lengthy discourses ever since it was uttered by Zen Master Huineng in the 7th century, but for the sake of brevity here (and with the admitted risk of oversimplifying), I find Buddhist teacher Roshi Joan Sutherland’s distillation of the teaching to be extraordinarily clear:

“Before the engines of thought and feeling start revving, before you’re making judgements or starting to act out of some motivation like trying to win or please…before the whole mad story of You heaves into the picture, complete with family legacies handed down through generations…who are you?” (from pages 66-67 of Sutherland’s book Through Forests of Every Color: Awakening with Koans)

Does this concept conjure reflections on your own life? If not, how do you visualize or think about inquiries into identity? For you, is it an exercise of looking into the past, your own, or generationally? Is it an exercise of looking into the future? A little of both? Or something else entirely?

Whatever you carry out of your province, you carry out in your face.