Our inner Self

The original face is the true Self

 This original face is a well-known Zen riddle where the pupil is asked, “When you were born, just when you were born, your face was covered with little wrinkles. When you were young, your skin was smooth. When you get old, your skin is covered with wrinkles again. Now, what is your true face, your original face, which you had before your parents were born?”  It’s quite easy to work out a philosophical answer to this. We can say well, of course, the true Self has no attributes. These wrinkles or absence of wrinkles, they’re all attributes. True Self is beyond attributes. The original face is the true Self.

The teacher never accepts those things. If the pupil persists in them, he hits him quite hard. Now, he has to go and find the original face. They can think,  “Well, I know it, I can quite easily say. These attributes, these passing things, reputation, money, poverty, illness, they’re not me. They’re passing attributes.”  In actual fact, when something happens, I find they may be masks but they’re actually me.

Hakuin was a great Zen master, very famous. A girl in a neighbouring village became pregnant. Her father was a very strict man. She thought she might escape punishment by saying that Hakuin was the father of the child. As she’d expected, the father said nothing.  When the child was born, he took it to the temple, threw it in front of the priest and said, “It seems that this is yours”. He shouted at him for a few minutes then went.  Hakuin said, “Is that so?” He lost all his reputation. He took the baby around when begging for milk. He who had been so great was now totally disgraced. One day, the true mother saw him with the child, and her mother’s heart was touched. She went to her father and said, “No, it wasn’t”. She told him who it had been. Her father also was touched, and they took back the child.

How many could say, when their reputation, a great reputation, has been totally destroyed, “This is not me. This is not my true face.” The method of presentation of the truth can vary according to the tradition in which it’s being expressed. We can say that the Indian tradition has been strong on analysis – for instance, the Sanskrit language. The first grammar, which still holds and is a masterpiece – our modern philologists still follow it and admire it – was about 400 BC.

The Greeks – no-one can say they were fools, but it never occurred to them to analyse their own language until in Alexandria about 200 AD, when they had to teach it to foreigners. Then the first Greek grammars were written. The Japanese never had grammar until the 16th century AD. They had no interest in analysis and perhaps no confidence in it, but they were great poets. There are five million poets in Japan. Many of them are women. The language has developed, not in the way of analysis, but in the way of creating poetry. We know from some of the historical incidents in the Middle Ages that the peasants in Japan in the 12th century, were well acquainted with poetry.

The presentation of the truth in China and Japan was not done so much in an analytical way. In fact, the Chinese failed to understand the subtleties of the Indian logic. It was presented much more in the form of vivid incidents on which the pupils were to meditate and finally live, until something awoke. Each of these methods has its strong points and its weak points. The strong point of the Indian analysis is you get precision. The weak point is that one’s liable to become a word-knower – a man who knows words and who feels the words, in a way, are enough: “I know them”.  It doesn’t have the actual experience. When we walk, we balance ourselves by reference to vertical things around us. If they construct a room in which the pillars are all slightly leaning, the average man falls over because he’s aligning himself with them. A man who’s been trained in balance has an inner sense of balance. He doesn’t rely on outer verticals to keep his balance. If a man who is deceived by the leaning verticals shuts his eyes, immediately he can feel the balance. That’s not with him all the time. With a trained man, it’s with him all the time. He can stand easily on one foot in a twisted environment.

In the same way, the first experiences of inner realization are often had in meditation, so to say, when the outer twistings are removed – but it has to be with him, finally, all the time.  An inner balance has to be developed, so to say. There must be direct experience. We can be exalted by perhaps a lecture or by some wonderful landscape or work of art, or perhaps by music; but when we go back, we’re still the same.

The Chinese use many vivid examples. Some of them to our ears are not particularly refined but they do make the point quite well. One of the things they say is that if the inner self, what we feel to be our inner self, is distorted and darkened, then no amount of elevating thoughts and ideas put on top of it will make much difference. The Chinese say, a stray dog has run up the steps of your garden and made a terrible mess on the top of the steps. You go out and you say, “Oh, how disgusting”. You get rose petals and you scatter them over the top and you go, “Oh, isn’t that beautiful now?”, but there’s still a terrible smell.  It’s said in the same way, unless we go deep into ourselves, then a surface of spiritual knowledge or practice won’t make much difference. We have to be willing to penetrate – and that will mean disturbance.

Some of the great Buddhist stupas in India were destroyed. The foundations still remain. Some of them are enormous, bigger than the area of this room. A flat brick foundation. It’s good thing to build your village on.  In one or two cases, it’s known that these villages on the brick are on top of the depths of a stupa. In those depths, there will be treasures but somehow, the villagers never get around to getting together and moving off and digging. “It’s too much of a business and the auntie is coming next Thursday. Then after that, we always go there, and one couldn’t change one’s house. It’s all unthinkable.” Things remain as they are.

This can happen in our lives while we’re fairly comfortably off. There has to be a willingness, and in fact, a compulsion in the end, to go much deeper. While the present mask is reasonably satisfactory, we are liable to stay there. Sooner or later with everybody – and later in life in some ways is favourable – there will be a desire to go deeper to find the original face. It’s called in one of the systems, the eighth consciousness. However, this is just another word.

The Chinese are sometimes asked about spiritual learning. The man came to a Zen master and said, “Should I study? Should I study the sutras and the holy texts?” The teacher looked at him and he could see this was a very arrogant man. He said (again, this to our ears doesn’t necessarily sound very attractive, but it has a deep truth in it), “When a man gets the infection called roundworms, the worms live in him and they eat the food. He eats more and more, but he doesn’t get healthier. The worms thrive inside, and finally, he dies. You have in you the worms of arrogance and pride. The more learning you take in, the more your arrogance will increase, but it won’t help you. You have to learn, for the sake of truth and realization, not to nourish arrogance.”

A Japanese Jesuit, who didn’t read Spanish, told me once he was in the West and he wanted to consult a point in the spiritual exercises of Loyola, the Spaniard who founded this movement, this order. Those spiritual exercises are written, it’s said, in the most wonderful Spanish. Well, he couldn’t read Spanish. He knew English and German. He went to a Spanish colleague, and he said, “I suppose you haven’t, by any chance, a translation into German of the spiritual exercises which I could read.” The Spaniard said, “Oh, certainly, yes. I always read them in German.” He said, “What? You? A Spaniard? This marvellous Spanish classic and you read it in a German translation?”

He said, “Yes. The fact is, I’ve had to study that Spanish text so much to pass examinations and to do research papers and to study the frequency of word occurrences and sentence lengths that now it’s all dead for me. When I read it in the German, the meaning jumps out of the page at me.” To learn but to keep our learning alive.

Talks in this series are:

1 Our inner Self

2 Our fears can be illusory

3 The purification of the memory 

4 The eighth consciousness

The full 52 minute talk is here The Original Face

© Trevor Leggett



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