‘When You Are Thinking Of Neither Good Nor Evil, What Is Your Original Face?’

In the Platform Sutra, Huineng, the sixth patriarch of Chan (Zen), is confronted by a monk seeking enlightenment.

“Since the object of your coming is the dharma,” Huineng tells him, “refrain from thinking of anything and keep your mind blank. I will then teach you.”

The Platform Sutra informs us that only after the monk “had done this for a considerable time” did Huineng then raise the koan: “When you are thinking of neither good nor evil, what is at that particular moment, venerable sir, your real nature [literally, original face]?

It is unnecessary and unhelpful to raise the koan–any koan–before a certain state of consciousness has been attained. There is no point in putting a koan–“What is mu?” or “What is your primal face before your parents were born?” or simply “What are you, really?”–to someone unless that someone is truly primed for it.

We can imagine that the monk in this case underwent years of training so that he could come to a certain state such as samadhi or great concentration. And that state was precisely the condition for his really taking in and being penetrated by the mystery that is this koan about the original face.

The general lesson is clear: one must ripen before ultimate questions can carry the scent of mystery. Only then can the question, like a dagger through the heart, cut through everything, leaving one not for dead but for the beginning of life.