From the beginning of my life

I have been looking for your face

but today I have seen it.

Today I have seen

the charm, the beauty,

the unfathomable grace

of the face

that I was looking for…

~ Jalal ad-Din Muhammad Rumi, “Looking at Your Face”

Our faces are a mirror on our minds, reflecting the whole range of our human experience: wisdom and sorrow, ignorance and joy. In the same way, in Zen we call Buddha Nature our “original face”, and it too is a mirror, but a mirror on the vast universe. We come to know that face in the koan: “Before thinking good or evil, what is your original face before your parents were born?” There is a natural wisdom in our face, before we add on any assumptions and judgments. Before we add knowing. Our practice is merely to recognize that.

At our fall meditation retreat, one of our teachers recalled a story she had heard recently during a dinner party with an ordained Zen monk, who was a new acquaintance. “What were the first intimations of finding your way into Zen?”, she asked the monk. This monk had some years before served as an Emergency Room medical resident at a large hospital in New York City. One day, a mother brought in her child, who was clearly ill, but with symptoms that could indicate a wide range of possible maladies. It might be just the common flu, which has symptoms of fever, headache, and neck stiffness, as well as irritability and drowsiness. Less likely, it could be something more serious, like spinal meningitis, which often shows similar symptoms. Failure to act quickly could result in nothing (flu) or possible death (meningitis) for the child.

Bringing to bear all of the skills and knowledge he had acquired through many years of study, he could not find a definitive answer. Standing next to him, watching silently, was a renowned pediatric specialist under whom the resident was training. The veteran physician murmured softly: “The answer is here. You are missing something.” The monk-doctor rechecked every possible symptom and still did not know what to do. The specialist said quietly: “Look at the mother.” Reflected in the face of the mother was a deep knowing that her child was in grave peril. Modern medicine was unsure, but the mother’s face was not. The resident treated the child for meningitis.

Look at the face of the mother. There is a wisdom there beyond cognitive knowing. It is a face that is vast and clear and deep.