What's she pointing at? Do you see?
Saving face is a big thing in Thailand. The wrong look, word or gesture can give instant insult to a person without any intent on the part of the offender. Moreover, if you are a foreigner with limited knowledge of Thai customs - and that's just about every foreigner - it's often impossible to know that you have offended someone, as they won't tell you to your face, as that would be considered losing face, too! Being too honest with others is a real no-no in many situations, with lying much-preferred to inconvenient truths. (And this despite the fourth precept of Buddhism being not to tell untruths!) Thai will people go to extraordinary lengths to save face, lying about their background, their financial situation, their work, their family, etc. so that they look good. To challenge any of this is to incur a loss of face, which is a taboo that most Thais are extremely reluctant to break.
Saving face isn't just done to make oneself look good, however, as the Thais are largely a group-orientated people, as are many Asian peoples. From this perspective, if someone looks good, this reflects well on their family, their employers, their neighborhood, their community, and their nation. To make someone lose face can insult not only that person individually, but also any or all of the groups mentioned above. This group-identity has many positive aspects to it, of course, as it motivates Thais to work for the common good of their families, communities & nation. On the downside, if someone makes a mistake or does something considered wrong, this will reflect on this same group, leading to much condemnation from others within such groups - sometimes to the person's face, often behind their back.
Of course, saving face is not unique to Thailand, and people all over the world will say & do things to make themselves and their associated groups look good. To insult someone or their family is taboo in most if not all societies, and some people will go to great lengths to gain honor, independent of the cultures hay were born to. In Thailand, however, foreigners that live in the country for any decent length of time are struck by the all-pervasive obsession with face-saving amongst the Thai people. And this despite Thai culture & psychology being imbued with Buddhism for many hundreds of years. Buddhism, it should be noted, does not encourage face-saving activities, and in the scriptures accepted by Thai Buddhists, whilst the Buddha often encourages his audience to be truthful, he never teaches that they should save face.
If we take the term 'saving face' literally, and it is interesting to note that many languages share this way of putting it, including in Thai where the terms กู้หนา้ ('goo-nah') & รักษาหนา้ ('raksah-nah') can both be translated as meaning to 'save face.' It does appear to be a common human experience that retaining honor or not being insulted are related to one's face. It's also interesting to note that people are not born with a sense of having a face, and do not usually recognize their own face in a mirror until they are at least eighteen months old. This has been corroborated in scientific studies, as has been the discovery that most animals do not appear to recognize themselves in mirrors. To date, only the great apes, bottlenose dolphins, orcas, elephants & (interestingly) European magpies have passed the so-called mirror test.
This is related to self-awareness, the ability to view oneself as separate to what one actually experiences one to be where one is. Returning to the visual sense, we never actually see our own faces where we are, first-person. The eyes are pointed outwards and cannot turn around and view the face of which they are part. Being able to recognize the face in the mirror as one's own is indicative of a sense of separate self here, distinct from all the other people and animals that we encounter. Acute self-awareness results in the desire to be seen in a good light in the eyes of others. We want others to think good of us, to respect us, and to posses the self-esteem that comes from this. This is 'saving-face,' and it is called such as it is wrapped up in our actual face. Having a big face is problematic, however, for it breeds competition where there is limited opportunities for people to save face. This results in face-to-face confrontations, where my saving face is, at least to some degree, at the expense of you saving yours. We are in a face-off situation.
In Zen Buddhism, there is a famous saying which goes something like, "What was your original face before you were born?" Originally ascribed to an ancient Zen master called Huineng (638-713), the saying is one of hundreds used by subsequent Zen teachers to awaken their students to the truth of Zen. It is one of the most potent, and it's strength surely lies in its reference to the 'original face,' the discovery of which is considered one's entry into the enlightened life. But, what is this original face, and what is its relationship to our everyday faces that we see in the mirror, and spend so much time trying to 'save?' Well, unless we have the time to seek out a living Zen master & study with him for many months if not years, we're unlikely to find out. And yet, if this original face is innate to all of us, and it's discovery is the simplest of things, as claimed by numerous Zen masters, might there be a short cut? Well, this author believes so, and the secret lies in that object already referred to several times - the mirror.
Our mortal face, which we spend so much time trying to save, is to be found in the mirror; this we can see simply by looking at our reflection. Something that many of us spend hundreds, maybe thousands of hours doing during our oh-so short lives. But, it is surely to be found here, this side of the mirror too, isn't it? After all, if it is the nature of a mirror to reflect, then it must be reflecting something here, mustn't it? But, this is all mentation. A more direct method would be to actually look and see what is here, this side of the mirror. So, if you can find a mirror - or some other decent reflective surface - please take a few moments to induct the following exercise; its results may radically change your self-view.
Look at your reflection in the mirror. Notice the outline of your head and the shape of your face. Are they oval like an egg, or more rounded? Notice your hair (or lack of!), and if you have some, how long is it, what is its colour and texture? Examine your facial features: eyes, eyebrows, nose, mouth, cheeks, chin etc. Take a while over this, making sure that you haven't missed any important identifying characteristics of your particular face, the one that separates you from everyone (and everything) else. Now, point your finger at where your face actually is…or where you'd expect to find it. What do you really see here? Do you see a eyes, a nose, a mouth, hair, ears, or anything else indicative of a face or head? Be honest, for this is really important: What do you see, right now? Do you find a face, or do you find what Zen Buddhism calls your original face, what is in fact no face at all? The only face I can see when I look in a mirror is there - in the mirror. Here, there's no face at all, just this spacious awareness that can recognize that face, but is no face at all itself.
This method of self-enquiry is surprisingly modern. Surprising because it's so obvious, and mirrors as well as other reflective surfaces have been around for a long, long time. And yet no-one seems to have noticed the dramatic difference between what we assume is here, and what can be actually seen. No-one, that is, before the Twentieth Century philosopher Douglas Harding, a man that this author met several times during the Nineteen-Nineties. In his many books and innumerable workshops Douglas Harding tirelessly promoted this direct insight into our true nature. The above exercise, among many other similar techniques, were developed by Douglas and friends to share this vision with anyone interested in seeing who they really are. And, as he was apt to say, what a waste of a life to live it and never actually look to see who's living it!
Douglas Harding was not a Buddhist, but he did appreciate its teachings regarding this central reality, along with other traditional ways of approaching it, such as Christian mysticism & Islamic Sufism. His encouragement that we look for ourselves and see what we really are echoes the Buddha's teachings in the Kalama Sutta. In this well-known discourse, the Buddha instructs a group of confused townspeople that they shouldn't believe something just because it comes from scripture, a priest or monk, logic, surmising, or opinion, but from experience. He also presented people with a variety of mindfulness & meditation techniques to examine ourselves. Buddhists have since added to these practices with countless other methods, some clearly adapted from other traditions, such as the tantra found in Tibetan Buddhism which came from tantric Hinduism. In the forest Buddhism of Thailand, mantras such as Buddho are used, something not found in the scriptures of Thai Buddhism, but used to great effect nevertheless. The exercises of Douglas Harding can also be incorporated into Buddhist practice, assisting us in waking up to our true nature. After all, one of the titles given the Buddha in the Dhammapada is 'the seeing one.'
So, returning to the initial concerns of this article, that of saving face and its negative effects, which is better - saving face or no face? Well, looking back here and finding no face to confront others with, I find a spacious awareness instead. This empty knowing is capacity for others to appear in, rather than a closed off ball of flesh & bone with which to keep them out. If we live from this original face rather than our human ones, we are open to others rather than trying to get them to acknowledge how great we are. Rather, as this spaciousness, we are more likely to acknowledge the worth of other people, and without intending it, go up in their estimation in the process, as they see an openness & kindness in us that is lacking in so many 'face-savers.' As to that driving hunger for prestige & having a big face - and the inevitable suffering that comes from it when things go wrong - this too will be let go of if we live from the no-face that we see when accepting the current view in.
In conclusion, face-saving is a natural consequence of living from the illusion that we have a face here at centre - and it is an illusion, for if we look, we don't see a face, head or brain, but a vast aware space ('Buddha Space'). Of course, we do have these things, and if they need pruning or painting, or some medical procedure performed on them, it's quite right that such stuff occurs. But, when looking back here, we don't see them, and - more importantly - what we see instead is this alert void full of the world. If we live as space for each other as opposed to thinking that we're in competition all the time, trying to be Mr (or Mrs, Miss, or Ms!) Big, we find that we don't seek to save face all the while. Instead, we will seek to help one another to be free of the desire & ignorance that give birth to excessive face-saving. And all this by simply noticing the unborn no-face from which we are coming!