I’d like to talk about what studying with a teacher means, and this koan points to that very precisely. As some of you know, it’s the question put to Monk Myo as he chased Huineng after Huineng received dharma transmission from the Chan master they both studied with. The Monk Myo had been a general, ambitious and determined; Huineng was a woodcutter, illiterate and new to Chan, yet it was he who received dharma transmission. Myo chased after him, determined to get the transmission for himself, but at some point met with great doubt. Apologizing to Huineng, he asked him for a teaching, and Huineng asked aloud: Without thinking good or evil, in this very moment, show me your original face. Sometimes it’s referred to as your original face before your parents were born.
Studying with a teacher doesn’t mean hanging out or getting low-priced counseling. Whether you do formal koan study or you wish to work with the situations of your life, the point is the same. In fact, one translation of Genjo Koan, which refers to the koan of your life, is actualizing the fundamental point, which points directly to studying with a teacher.
What is actualizing? What is the fundamental point?
In life there is ground and figure. Ordinarily we’re completely taken up by the figure of our life, the people, the action, the give-and-take. The ground in which the figures get drawn and in which they act is often ignored. Some scientists theorize that since human beings are primed for survival, our brains are always on the lookout for people or actions that could threaten us and less inclined to pay attention to the ground, the big picture.
When people first start to study with a teacher, they talk about what brought them to practice, which is essentially the events of their life: the drama, the ins and outs, the figure. After sitting a while they slowly begin to experience life as it is, not the story of their story as seen through projections and scripts, as dealing with the satisfaction of wants and needs (or lack thereof). That’s when they begin to experience the ground of things, which feels softer and more primal than the figure.
We get born, we die. We are conditioned by cause and effect, by parents, society, and culture, by the needs of the body, by its aging and passing. But the Buddha said, I set my eyes on the deathless. There is something that doesn’t die and isn’t subject to yes or no. That’s what I mean by ground. It’s not mystical; it’s right now, that sense of life that doesn’t get warped because you feel good or bad or because life is going or not going your way. None of those matter. You see life as it is, for its own sake, not as a function of whether it fulfills your wishes or not.
I’m not talking about resignation.
When we forgive life for not being what we thought, expected, wished, or longed for it to be, we forgive ourselves for not being what we might have been also. I wear my Three-Tenet Mala for a very specific purpose now, and that is to remind myself not to indulge in self-judgment, but rather to dwell in not-knowing as much as possible. No self-judgment is also no judgment of life. No condemnation of my self results in no condemnation of life. Our usual handle on life is to condemn it, to find fault. Bearing witness is to have no such handle, to just bear witness.
I’m no different from other people, I want fulfillment of my needs and wishes and I take action for that purpose. But that’s different from wanting to control things, and from feeling like a victim when I can’t. Always I ask: What is my prison? The prison is the handle I’m using all the time.
Private study has to do with opening up a space in which the mind is not building its prison, of helping the student to see not a way out, but that there was never a prison to begin with. Private study does not require answers or solutions, but rather cultivating a space that helps you let go of that prison. In that space, you will notice joy and aliveness and a sense of having a link to eternity. This is the neighborhood of awakening. Then the space will close up, perhaps leaving a sense of loss. But it will open up again. You can just notice these things without grabbing them. Over time you will find yourself living more and more in this space.
Show me your original face before your parents were born. Regardless of the situation you bring to a teacher, the teacher will always find some way to throw this question back to you: What’s your original face beyond the kids, beyond the sick husband, beyond the demands of the job, beyond the needs of your parents? What is that original face? Where is it? What does it feel like, taste like, smell like?
Don’t get impatient and harsh with yourself. Our concepts and frameworks of thinking can often stand in our way, but that’s human. With great compassion, without condemning yourself, go on.
There is nothing linear about this. You will still experience painful states of mind and you’ll think this practice isn’t working except for providing you with some refuge of stillness and rest. But with the help of teachers and sangha, and even without changing the content of the life, you can transform oppression into freedom. The question is, how much do the bars of our lives open, so that we can experience our lives not as doomed or fated by circumstance, but lived freely and peacefully?