“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?
Yes, it conjures reflections on my own life and makes me think of genetics, ancestry, and soul.
Cool. There is definitely something on an “old soul” feeling to the idea of Original Face for me. I like that you brought that word into play.
Your reflections make me think about a school of Christian mysticism that distinguishes between “image” and “likeness,” as in ” the image and likeness of God.” Image is given, eternal–we are all already made in God’s image. Likeness is something we strive for. I like the both/and of this teaching. Maybe our “original face” is a way to glimpse the image of pure, divine self.
Ooo, thanks for bringing Christian mysticism to the table. The distinction between “image” and “likeness” as you describe it makes me think of transient versus eternal. Great food for thought. I like your hypothesis on “original face,” too.
I’m thinking about the many stories we tell about ourselves over a lifetime- some of which change, some of which stay much the same-, and about our very human longing to be truly seen. Is our unique essence our original face? What are the ways we hide and protect this essence as something quite tender and precious, and when/how does essence or original face shine through, knowing itself to be tender and precious and also unable to be harmed, unable to be taken away from us? And yes, eternal? Ah, so many questions!
I am drawn to all that you are posing here. I heard this comment the other day and now I forget where: “The stories we tell about ourselves shape the way we see the world and the way the world sees us.” (I may have paraphrased that thought too liberally from the original quote, but that’s the general idea– possibly it is a derivative of Rebecca Solnit or a social science researcher named Dr. Molly Crockett, both of whom I have listened to lately)…So if we hide our unique essence, what happens to our stories then?