A famous patriarch of the Zen tradition once asked, “Before your father and mother were born, what was your original face?” Of course this original face is meant to represent our fundamental Buddha-nature which transcends the conditioned world of moms and dads, families, households, towns, and nations, even the cosmos itself which looms above us on a dark, moonless night.
This is rather an unusual question to ask! It is not a question that would come from Plato all the way down to the present age with its wise men. This kind of question takes the typical Westerner a little time to get used to—to reestablish their bearings, so to speak.
Many, many years ago with I first read this question I was a little taken back by it. Eventually, I began to see the wisdom of such a question. It quickly takes the Zen adept to the territory of their own mind; there to look for this mysterious original face.
I have used it as the basis of a more direct and penetrating request: “Show me your original nature.” Granted, that most anyone would be nonplused by such an almost rude demand it, nevertheless, serves to get to the core of the matter rather than just beat around the bush.
I am sure that most people would be tongue tied to be able to show me their original nature because they have never looked within, that is, looked beyond the internal chattering that goes on in their everyday, illusory minds. To be in this condition and taking this limited mind to be all there is, is the sorry state of the human race. This is why Zen is such an enigma. Nobody knows where Zen is coming from because nobody has penetrated beyond their illusory minds.
For those who have met this original nature face to face, which is the light of Mind that moves these bodies around, it is almost impossible to convey to those who are only aware of the illusory mind, that there really is an original face and an original nature. Zen is not for everyone. Few want to see their real face.