may 12 2016 – month of daily flower & buddha photos – day 12
yellow blossoming apricot tree (detail, painted porcelain vase, China) May 11 2016 photo ©
rosy cheeked peachy face Dainichi Nyorai (Maha Vairochana Buddha), Japan c1900 hand-painted porcelain, photo May 11, 2016 ©
We Buddhists do not discourage ourselves from learning things and accumulating knowledge. We can have as much worldly knowledge as we need, in dealing with the world in a dualistic way. We do not forget, however, that we have our own home which is, from the first, perfect and self-sufficient. Baso said, “If an individual is of superior character and intelligence, she will, under the instruction of a wise guide, at once see into the essence of things and understand that this is not a matter of stages and processes. She has an instant sight into her own original nature.” …It is not learning. It is not mere knowledge.
— Ven. Nyogen Senzaki, Commentaries on The Gateless Gate
Senzaki-sensei, my family friend Uncle Nogie, gave me my first koan when I was a very young child. “Without thinking good or evil, in this very moment, what is your Original Face? – What face did you have before your parents were born? — Show me your Original Face, the face you had before your parents were born.” (Case 23, Mumon’s The Gateless Gate).
Sensei accepted my response. My parents, and the other adults in our sangha, mostly took this as a fond indulgence.
But Sensei also stamped his seal on a crayon drawing I had recently made on one side of a piece of paper. On the other side, I had written with crayon one word in wonky block letters, utilizing my pre-literate (mis-)understanding of what writing entailed. At that time, I still believed that letters written or printed in a particular sequence as symbolic “pictures of words” made sense only as representations of what one was thinking when one chose to put those letters down on paper (or carved them on wood, etc); that otherwise the letter-symbols and their possible sequence were arbitrary. Of course my pre-literate written word made no alphabetical sense in English or any other written language: one or two of the letters were written backward, one was upside-down, and at least one was not quite of the English alphabet in any direction.
Uncle Nogie had explained that an acceptable understanding of a koan must be presented “without using words or pictures.” Nevertheless, as a second part of my response, I happily shared my recently made crayon drawing with its one word written text. I felt it indicated that with the “face” I had before my parents were born I had already understood the koan before I had been asked to respond to it.
The drawing, made using all my available crayon colors, was a large round color field filling most of the sheet of paper, with some blank spaces within the circular field left uncolored. It was a depiction, symbolically, of everything, including nothing, as nothing also must be included when depicting everything. The carefully hand-printed, but arbitrarily chosen sequence of sometimes alphabetically-nonsensical block letters standing alone together in a single row near the bottom of the otherwise blank reverse side of the paper was my written “depiction”/transcription of the word for this circular everything (-including-nothing). This unpronounceable “word”, I explained to Uncle, (but in simple phrasing) was the name or sound of everything, when this sound-name was written down as a one word sequence of symbolic letters.
Sensei studied my wonky circle drawing and goofy lettering appreciatively, listened critically to what I had to say, then stamped his seal on the drawing, followed by a few kind words, which I no longer remember. I do recall however that he mentioned that passing this one koan was just a beginning; that there were 1,500 further koans that one may pass as well. I had only the vaguest idea how many that number represented, but it certainly sounded like a lot. I thought it sounded like a great deal of fun to have that many koans to deal with together with Uncle Nogie. The innocent beauty of the child’s mind.