Where Elk Cross
Before thinking good or evil, what is your original face before your parents were born?
~ PZI Miscellaneous Koan
In our tradition, this is considered a Dharmakaya koan, one that helps us understand that we and all things share an intimacy that cannot really be expressed in words. It is often one of the first koans we take up, and usually the teacher directs our attention inward: what is your face in all its uniqueness? But in a kind of magical way, when we lose ourselves in our face, we find that that face is far larger and more grand than we could have imagined.
Recently I was visiting a friend who lives in the southern Colorado Rockies, and for many days we went hiking in the woods. In hiking, we could hear the bull elk bugling, a haunting and rich sound. We would rest sometimes at that place between the dark fir forest and the white-barked aspen trees, a place where the elk cross over in the gathering dark to feed at night.
Sitting quietly in that forest of dark and light, I could know that my original face was not limited to my small face. The sunlight through the bright-yellow aspen leaves, the early snow high on the peaks, and young saplings pushing up through a part of the forest previously burned by wildfire. These too are my original face, and I can, we all can, take some deep solace that these things will appear and renew themselves moment by moment. “For whom do you dress up and apply make-up?,” the teacher Tung-shan asks, “The sound of the cuckoo follows me home/The hundred flowers fall, and still the cuckoo calls/I go deep into the jumbled peaks, and it’s call follows me there.”