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Master Daito’s Original Face

Daito Kokushi (also known as Myocho Shuho) was a monk born in Japan just a generation or so after Dogen’s death and is widely celebrated in the Rinzai tradition. The founder of Daitoku-ji monastery – which still stands today – Daito is best known for the (probably apocryphal) tale of his decision to shun institutional pressure in his early years as a monk by choosing to live under a bridge among the beggars of Kyoto. He was finally drawn from this situation by Emperor Hanazono, with whom Daito subsequently had a lifelong relationship. The following text, which describes zazen and the idea of original face, was first written for Hanazono’s consort Senko.


All Zen students should devote themselves at the beginning to zazen (sitting in meditation). Sitting in either the fully locked position or the half-locked position, with the eyes half-shut, see the original face that was before 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 man, who has no name at birth, but afterwards various names are attached to him. The seventeen hundred koan or themes to which Zen students devote themselves are all only for making them see their original face. The World-honoured 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 others of the ancients that they had a great realization, or a great breaking-through, it means they saw the original face. The Second Ancestor stood in the snow and cut off his arm to get realization; the Sixth Ancestor heard the phrase from the Diamond Sutra and was enlightened, Ling-yün was enlightened when he saw the peach blossoms, Hsiang-yen on hearing the tile hit the bamboo, Lin-chi when struck by Huang-po, Tung-shan 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 that 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, man falls into hell with its many pains, or suffers 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 itself is verily the Buddha. What is called “seeing one’s nature” means to realize the heart Buddha. Again and again put down the thoughts, 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. [Yungchia] says: “Going too is Zen; sitting too is Zen. Speaking or silent, moving the body or still, he is at peace.” This teaches that going and sitting and talking are all Zen. It is not only being in zazen and suppressing the thoughts. Whether rising or sitting, keep concentrated and watchful. All of a sudden, the original face will confront you. 


Daito Kokushi (1282-1334)
From – The Roaring Stream: A New Zen Reader

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