Monday, April 13, 2009

The Primary Buddha Face

“The primary face” is possessed by every one of us. According to Zen, it is not only physical but at once physical and metaphysical, material and spiritual, gross and subtle, concrete and abstract. The Zen master wants to see this kind of “face” presented to him by his monk. In one important sense “this face” must go through the baptism of “Do not think of good, do not think of evil,” and of “Have no thoughts whatever.” For the face we have on the surface of our relative psychological way of thinking is not “the primary face” demanded by the master.
(Taken from ‘Zen Buddhism: Selected Writings of D.T. Suzuki, p. 286)

Can you reveal your “primary face” right now? This is, as often described in Zen Buddhism, ‘the face you had before your parents were born.’ What on earth does it look like, this multifaceted façade? Is it, indeed, a mere façade at all? Well, yes and no. “The primary face” is not to be mistaken with your human face, limited by certain features, and yet, neither is it to be differentiated from it. Hopefully, this is making no sense to you whatever – for what we are after is completely beyond reach of the intellect. Thoughts cannot trap it…

What can possibly be concrete and abstract, and yet neither good nor evil? Your Buddha Face, to give ‘it’ another name, isn’t a something, but on the other hand, it isn’t the absence of things either. It’s abstract to the degree that it can’t be pointed to as being here or there, as our human faces can, and yet, these very faces are none other than the Buddha’s own. I can see my face in the mirror, and I can feel it here; it exists in a concrete way. This blob of flesh exists in the same (no-) space as my Buddha Face, however; they are two and yet not two; one and yet not one.

All this contradictory talk has a purpose, of course, which is to take us beyond the reach of the rational mind, to a place where we can experience that to which all this verbiage points: “the primary face.” If you want to see your primary Buddha Face, it isn’t really all that difficult. (I think the old Zen masters and their students are having us on, entertaining us with their jolly shenanigans.) Try out the following experiment in awareness with an open mind, and see what you come up with.

  • Gaze into the mirror and see your human face. That’s you, as Tom, Dick, Harriet, or whoever.
  • Now turn your attention to that which is aware of your reflected façade – what is that?
  • Does it have features of its own? Is it limited to a particular location? Is it beyond the concrete world of form, and, as D.T. Suzuki would have it, abstract?
  • And yet, is there a here and there right now? Is not the reflected face really located in the same place as that which is awake to it? Scratch your face – where does this happen but exactly where the Buddha Face is?

If we wish to experience what the Buddha, the Zen masters and forest monks have pointed to for thousands of years, we must cast off the rational part of the mind. Koans, or ‘Zen riddles’ are one course of action; constant mindfulness another. Alternatively, we might like to experiment with awareness, and see things in the light of no thing. “The primary face” that Daisetz Suzuki writes of above is always present, waiting to be looked upon by the very same awareness that is this beautiful, shining ‘Buddha Face’ that we all posses.


JD said...

On occasion I sit with the loacl Zen group here in my town. It is based on Seung Sahn's Korean style Zen teaching and I have heard that they use koans on some of the retreats that they do. I have always been a little intrigued about them and how they work since apparently some people are able to answer them with ease. I find myself interested in them even though I've never really sat in on one of there retreats and made a go at it. If I'm honest with myself i have to say I don't really believe I would know how to answer them correctly. Do you have any experience with Koans Gary? If so, are there really right and wrong answers to them or are they simply a spontaneous thing whose answer depends on the present moment and that moment's understanding? At any rate, I wish you well.

G said...

Your second explanation is nearer the truth of koans, Justin. :-)

Koans, zazen, samatha-vipassana, mantras, chanting, mindfulness exercises, etc. all exist as tools to liberate us from our own delusional minds.

I have some experience with koans, but no formal training in them, Justin. When I was a teenager, I read a book by Daisetz Suzuki that contains lots of koans and similar stories; my Dharma eye was opened whilst reading that book. (It was called 'An Introduction to Zen Buddhism.') Koans are a mystery to the rational mind, and will always remain so, as it is the spontaneous response of the 'no-mind' that's required to decipher them.

If you want to see your primary face, then look, don't think! ;-)


JD said...


So a book on Zen gave you a real experiental vision of the Dhamma? That's interesting. Maybe I'll try a retreat at the center and give it a go with the koans.

G said...

Well, the words of Dr Suzuki triggered direct seeing of 'the answer,' Justin. The incident is described in the following post:

Zen & the Rediscovery of the ObviousThe retreat at the Zen center certainly sounds worthwhile. :-)

Be well,

buddhist amulet said...


G said...

There is no 'really!'

Be well,

G said...

Camilyn and Mano,
Thanks for your remarks regarding mind power and positive thinking. From the viewpoint of seeing our Buddha Face, such efforts don't really come onto it, however. If we let go of our thoughts and live from our true Face, whatever thoughts arise will be seen as appropriate in that moment. Rather than mind power and positive thinking, this is no-mind power and no-thinking; thoughts then take care of themselves.