Losing Face: My First Step towards the Saving Face of Amida
by Frederick Brenion

A talk given at Higashi Honganji's 100th Anniversary Conference, October 23, 2004

Our friends in Zen encourage us to seek out our "Original Face," that face we had before we were born. The funny thing is, when I think about it, I’ve never really seen the face I currently have! I may look into a mirror but the face I see is a reversed image. It is not really my face as it is. A photo gets it right, but when I look at it, some time has passed, and what I see is a face from the past. I have yet to see the face I have now. But you do! As I proceed with this talk I may look up from time to time and I might see some of you yawning or coughing. I might see my fellow temple members with looks on their faces that tell me that I am making a complete and total fool of myself. Or, I might see everyone here in rapt attention, hanging on my every word! Surely a Buddha is in this place your faces must be telling me! Yeah, right! However, it seems that I depend on your faces to show me what my face is.

Of course this "face" is not just my physical face. It is what is being expressed through this body that is supposed to be the reality that is me, that "face" that I want to show the world. Yet how much of this "face" is really real? In ancient times actors wore masks called "personas" that they spoke through. This is where our word "person" comes from. Carl Jung once remarked that, "The persona is that which in reality one is not, but which oneself as well as others think one is." Being a "person" can be a kind of mask which we then hide behind.

I may have been born with an "original face" but it quickly had a mask applied to it. Who applied it? My parents, my society, my culture; my relations, my friends, and, in time, myself. I was given a name to grow into, which became my label. I was born into a family, into a culture and society through which my experiences would then be filtered. I was taught a language and a history that shapes and constrains how I understand and express myself. I was given things to love, taught what to accept, and what to hate. I was given a religion and a way of life in which to live all these things. Layer by layer a person was formed. And in being so formed I in turn would continue to maintain and develop that form which I was given. Is there still an "original face" behind all these layers? If there is, it could only express itself, could only know itself, through what it was given. The true face behind our mask may get molded into the shape of the mask and know no difference. For most of us, our lives are on the level of "what you see is what you get." The original is reformatted and repackaged. And yet, from time to time, we get hints that things are not quite right with us, that things are not quite what they seem to be, that perhaps we’re not always what we seem to be. When this disquietude hits, most of us try to find something else to think about, something else to do. We find ways to keep these masks glued to our faces. But sometimes the masks just slip off. Sometimes, as it is said, we become unglued!

In my own case, the layers that went into my making did not seem to mix well. The primary ingredient was that of religion. The supernatural-based faiths of my culture and society had me enthralled whole-heartedly. Their promise of immortality of a never-ending ego, engulfed in praise and glory forever, was the major appeal of the face of the knowledge of my mortality that I had gained as a young boy. And as that young boy I was also a tremendous lover of books. And when told of the One, True, Infallible Book that could answer all questions, how could I not be hooked? But as a reader, I exposed myself also to the vast treasures of humanity: its sciences, philosophies, and wisdoms, and found much of value and goodness. But all these things were to be brought in and made subservient to the absolute dogmas that had been given to me and were now embraced by me. And there were conflicts. The "Infallible" Book had to be continually reinterpreted to fit the infallible facts of the real world. With every pinch of science, or dash of historical analysis, cracks and fissures appeared in my mask. These would be patched up by alternations in perspective or by changes in denomination. I had started life as a Methodist, became an Episcopalian, then moved into Catholicism within its Byzantine rites. I earned formal degrees in Religious Studies and Philosophy, as well as Library Science—my chosen profession. No matter what, I would see established that firm foundation that must be there, had to be there. All because I loved my mask. It promised so much, gave so much.

But the day came when the mask just simply cracked apart. The supernatural faith that was the glue of the mix could no longer hold things together. It desolved one day like smoke in the wind. In the face of all that that I knew I could no longer embrace what I was knowing more and more to be a fiction. I supposed that I could turn the mask inside out and wear a face of genteel humanism or quiet atheism, but either way all the material was flawed. Perhaps it would be better to simply be quiet and to turn one’s face humbly towards the ground away from all others. For how could I go out, how could I interact without a mask, any mask? Even more troubling to me was the consternation I would cause my family and friends by not being able to share in their masks, some that I had had a hand in making. And what if I was wrong? I have no right to remove or destroy the masks of others just because mine was a failure. So, for good or for ill, I maintained the fiction of the mask at least until I could see clearly what I needed to do.

In the midst of all these deep ponderings I did not realize that when cracks appear in our masks, there is a chance for light to shine through to touch the real face that lies behind. And it is possible too for whatever light that lies within to shine out as well. Who knows what people might then see! I did not know what I was about to see as I went off one day to our local bank. My daughter, then in high school, wanted to ride with me. As I drove in she turned her face towards me, and in a happy and cheerful voice she exclaimed: "Daddy, you know you’d make a wonderful Buddhist!"

This was not a statement I would ever normally expect from my daughter, and I've come to expect just about anything from her! But I was struck by the lightening of her remark. And for the briefest of moments she gave me a view of myself that I would have never, ever had considered. And it was extraordinarily real. More real than anything I had ever experienced as being me. I was jolted hard, as a surreal feeling of unfolding transformation took hold. For an instant I held an image of just being, a face of tranquility and peace, and a sense of unbounded caring, walking through a great forest. There was a naturalness made present that had made all that I was before vanish like a shadow. And what I felt was a far better fit than what I had ever felt before. In that beautiful story of "The Ugly Duckling" the Duckling was about to give itself over to be put to death and instead is told "Why? You are a Swan!" Then the Ugly Duckling began to truly look, and then he truly saw. By a look and a word my daughter showed me to myself and only then did I see.

As I drove home my mind was reeling. My whole life was nothing but a complete and total fraud, a sham. My concerns about belief and unbelief were made equally unreal. I had merely acted out parts that were given to me. For a moment there was no mask. There was no actor. It had all been but play. I never was what I thought I had been. I had never been what I thought myself now to be. I was struck with what had been hidden within me, till now. Something that my daughter easily saw, that was plain to her. And I had only just now caught a glimpse of it! Real face. Original face. Shining through as a Buddhist face. Later I asked my daughter why she had made that remark, and all she could say was that she simply saw it in my face.

And now I am speaking here before you. What have I learned from seeing my face for the first time? I once read that "Buddhism is a religion of enlightenment and a way of life. It is not a religion of belief. Therefore, there is no dogma to believe and no creed to follow. Buddhism teaches to see and understand life and things correctly as they are, and teaches right living." (1) It is the method to undo our attachments to our opinions, our attachments to our masks. It is the religion that undoes our ego need for religion. It is the philosophy that brings an end to the endless questions of philosophy. No beliefs then, except perhaps that our beliefs are never the reality. No truth except that life is far better when I just let go of any and all opinion about truth. No dogma, just living. There are such wonderments and surprises in life that break the constraints of our truths. I see myself more often now as the silly and absurd being that I really am, and I find that I am enjoying the joke of it more. I even laugh more, like Kanzan and Jittoku, those beloved mad monks. In fact, I am inclined to believe that the highest act of Buddhist worship is for us all to just sit about the altar and to just laugh with each other and at ourselves. If there is any mark that a religion must have, if it is to be worth taking up, is that you can laugh with it and at it. And equally as true is the fact that we can also sit about the altar to just weep with each other and at ourselves. For in the face of our karmic actions, tears and laughter are the only real responses. And I have also learned that the greatest mistake that a Buddhist can ever make is to make Buddhism, the Buddha’s way of unmasking, into a mask. No masks allowed here, just faces.

And so I gaze out at all your faces here as we celebrate the one-hundred year presence of Jodo Shinshu in Los Angeles. We are here because we heard of a story that was told by Ananda, that he had one day seen the Buddha’s face, and it just glowed with light. And he asked the Buddha why this was. Buddha smiled and told him that he was gazing on the face of Amida Buddha and it filled him with joy. And he told Ananda the story of Dharmakara Boddhisatva, who after gazing on the face of his own Buddha-teacher, that he wanted to make a pure land that all could enter into and find this light. And Dharmakara struggled for eons to do this very thing. And I pondered what empowered him to become the Amida Buddha? What "Force" drove his vows? (2) Did Dharmakara himself have some "Other-Power" to rely on that brought him and his land to completion? It came to me that it was our own foolish and silly faces that is his "Other-Power." We are what motivated him to create his unbounded realm. When his land was completed it yet needed but one thing more. It was empty. It needed us. For he would not be a Buddha until all of us are Buddhas. And he must have gazed out across all the vast universes, and he saw your face, and even mine as well. Like me, he can not see himself, but he sees his own light, and his own life, reflected in all our faces, and it must have astonished him. And he cried out a new name to name and greet us, that name which became his own, for we can only greet each other as like unto like in that fair land. We too are astonished to see our own light and life reflected on his Face. That with his, and now our "Namu Amida Butsu", we see and greet each other as we truly are, light shining upon light, mask-less, and face to face.

1. From "Story of a Crutch" in "Everyday Suchness" by Gyomay M. Kubose
2. See "Jedi Shinshu" by Frederick Brenion at http://www.livingdharma.org/Real.World.Buddhism/StarWars-Brenion.html

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