On The Way: The Daily Zen Journal

January 22, 2000

Original Face

Daito Kokushi (1281-1337)

All Zen students should devote themselves at the beginning to zazen. Sitting in either the fully locked position, half-locked position or Burmese easy pose, eyes cast down in front, see the original face which was before your father or mother was born. This means to see the state before the parents were born, before heaven and earth were parted, before you received human form. What is called the original face will appear. That original face is something without color or form, like the empty sky in whose clarity there is no form.

The original face is really nameless, but it is indicated by such terms as original face, the Lord, the Buddha nature, and the true Buddha. It is as with a person, who has no name at birth, but afterwards various names are attached. The seventeen hundred koans or themes to which Zen students devote themselves are all only for making them see their original face. The World-honored One sat in meditation in the snowy mountains for six years, then saw the morning star and was enlightened, and this was seeing his original face. When it is said of other ancients that they had a great realization, or a great breakthrough, it means they saw the original face.

The Second Patriarch stood in the snow and cut off his arm to get realization. The Sixth Patriarch heard the phrase from the Diamond Sutra and was enlightened. Reiun was enlightened when he saw the peach blossoms, Rinzai when struck by Obaku, Tozan on seeing his own reflection in the water.

All this is what is called “meeting the lord and master.” The body is a house, and it must have a master. It is the master of the house who is known as the original face. Experiencing heat and cold and so on, or feeling a lack, or having desires – these are all delusive thoughts and do not belong to the true master of the house. These delusive thoughts are something added. They are things which vanish with each breath. To be dragged along by them is to fall into hell, to circle in the six paths of reincarnation. By going deeper and deeper into zazen, find the source of the thoughts. A thought is something without any form or body, but owing to the conviction of those thoughts remaining even after death, people fall into hell with its many pains, or suffer in the round of this changing world.

Every time a thought arises, throw it away. Just devote yourself to sweeping away the thoughts. Sweeping away thoughts means performing zazen. When thought is put down, the original face appears. The thoughts are like clouds; when the clouds have cleared, the moon appears. That moon of eternal truth is the original face.

The heart is itself the Buddha. What is called “seeing into one’s nature” means to realize the heart of Buddha. Again and again put down the thought, and then see the heart Buddha. It might be supposed from this that the true nature will not be visible except when sitting in meditation. That is a mistake. Yoka Daishi says: “Going too is Zen; sitting too is Zen. Speaking or silent, moving the body or still, one is at peace.” This teaches that going and sitting and talking are all Zen. It is not only being in zazen and letting the thoughts come and go. Whether rising or sitting, keep concentrated and watchful. All of a sudden, the original face will confront you.

Shuho Myocho (1282-1337)
Taken from A First Zen Reader Compiled and translated by Trevor Leggett (1960)


“The Original Face” is a sermon delivered to the Empress Hanazono by Zen Master Myocho, who is best known under the name bestowed upon him by the emperor: Daito Kokushi. Kokushi means literally “teacher of the nation.” Daito (1281–1337) was one of the great lights of the Rinzai sect in Japan. He hid himself for some time, disguised as a beggar, to evade fame.

The most important thing in connection with zazen – its real meaning as taught by Dogen – is often misunderstood. Some think that zazen is practiced to obtain satori (realization), and that when satori is complete, zazen is no longer needed. This is the Zen of ‘awaiting satori’ and it has a somewhat different flavor from the Zen where zazen is itself the Buddha action. In the former, zazen is practiced in the spirit of hoping for realization, and only up to that point; after satori, zazen is not regarded as important. But Zen master Dogen stresses that the true way and true tradition of the Buddhas and patriarchs is to sit in meditation for its own sake, and not merely as a means to an expected satori.

It is true that when concentrating on a koan, the whole life has to be thrown into the practice with satori as the aim. But the traditional zazen of the Buddhas and patriarchs is what is called the Samadhi of the Buddha-in-his-own-glory, and not at all zazen practiced as a means to satori. In the zazen posture the glory of the Buddha is manifest; it is the Buddha action and the Buddha way.

Zazen is the state where the Buddhas are in their own glory. The three actions of body, speech, and mind are impressed with the seal of Buddhahood and manifest the Buddhas. Soto Zen is the pure meditation in the seated posture, the zazen always practiced by the Buddhas, and therefore it is continued even after satori. It is not that realization is unnecessary, but they are mistaken who think that Zen is just something to be practiced till they scrape through to satori, and then to be dropped.

The traditional Way is eternal, and so zazen too is eternal. It is the Buddha action pervading all life and all the worlds. And so it is said that, in our zazen, practice is not different from realization. In the actual practice, there is the satori in that time and in that place, and furthermore both are eternal.

Dogen says:

“If all the Buddhas of the ten directions, countless as the grains of sand of the holy river, were to put out all their strength, and by their Buddha wisdom seek to measure the merit of a person in meditation, never could they even approach it.”

– A collection of discourses on Zen by Takashina Rosen, taken from “A Tongue-tip Taste of Zen”, in A First Zen Reader by Trevor Leggett (1960)

There is a quality in practice best described as pure intent – untainted by goals and levels and stages of enlightenments. One of the paradoxes of training is best expressed in the phrase “great effort, no goal.” It is how we keep our practice pure. This allows us the fullest participation in the present without the comparing mind judging where we are in practice and always measuring.

[your host, the scribe] Regularly we need to ask ourselves what motivates us in practice. How do we keep ourselves fresh and to remember to drop understandings and “enlightenments” which just become a kind of barrier to the present unfolding? How do we retain our beginner’s mind? We want a kind of flexible mind that moves easily in and out of situations, ideas, and opinions. We want to drop the habits of mind and old goals which get in the way of seeing freshly. Just as in meditation as we watch thoughts come and go, so we must bring this into our lives and allow attitudes and attainments to come and go also freely in a mind that doesn’t get stuck anywhere.

“When our real motive is self-knowing, when our aim is to learn who and where we are, we then act out of pure intent oblivious to any gain or loss.”

Flowing on,

Elana, Scribe of Daily Zen

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