“Before thinking good or evil, what are your original hash browns before they were cooked?

~ drawn from Gateless Barrier, Case 23

This koan, or course, is usually rendered “What

was your original face before your parents were born?” But this is a rather malleable koan, as they all are, and we can play with it a bit. The koan fundamentally asks: What is our life experience before we formed a picture of what it should be? Before we added layers of judgement and expectations?

Recently hiking in the granite batholiths of the Sierra Nevada mountains near Desolation Valley, I recalled a backpacking story from some long time ago. Our last year in high school, my friend Dave and I planned a week-long trek through the Desolation wilderness area. We split the food duties: I was to provision breakfasts and lunches and he would buy dinners. I bought a bunch of oats, raisins, and honey for breakfast along with some mixed nuts, crackers and cheese for lunch. He bought seven packets of dried Lipton vegetable soup for the whole week of dinners; no rice, dried cheese, or lentils. By the fifth day, we were getting pretty hungry.

That morning, I thought I would raise spirits a bit by pulling out our one breakfast treat: a box of dried Ore-Ida hash-brown potatoes. I got up early, reconstituted the the potatoes in water, and cooked them in our single pot. Finishing up the cooking, I served Dave his half. He looked hard at the pile of potatoes on his plate, and exclaimed loudly, “They don’t look like the picture on the box!” At an utter loss for words, I ate my potatoes in silence, packed my gear and left without a word. A day or two later we met up again.

Real potatoes, of course, never look like the picture on the box. Nor does our life always look like the one we had pictured or wanted it. The point in Zen is to experience our original life, original face, and original hash browns before the picture on the box was printed., before the judgement of good or evil sets in. Perhaps then, we can enjoy our life, and our potatoes, with just a bit more relish.