The Face
Rev. Gyoko T. Saito

When I was in high school in Japan, we had a very stiff and dignified teacher of mathematics who had a deep crease in his forehead. The rumor among students was that when he was a student at Tohoku University in northern Japan, he never had time to enjoy the skiing which is so popular in the north, because he was too busy studying mathematics. Because of that deep crease, most of the students believed the rumor.

When I first came to the United States, I felt great loneliness because I could not speak English. The deaf-mute cannot speak because he cannot hear. Because I could not understand others' speech in English, I felt like a mute. But my inability to understand English did not mean that I didn’t understand people. Just as when I was in high school my friends and I read a long personal history out of the deep crease in our teacher’s forehead, so now I could understand people’s faces even though I couldn’t understand their English. Somehow, a face reveals the unconcealable truth. People think they can hide everything, but so long as they show their faces to others, the truth is always revealed there.

Every Sunday we have been chanting the sutra called Tan Butsu Ge, which begins KO GEN GI GI: "… what a radiant face he has, like the peaks of the Himalaya mountains! What a brightness in that face which cannot be compared to any light…" I do not know any statement since the beginning of human history that so praised the truth appearing on the face. The sutra says that even the brightness of the sun cannot compare with the brightness of the face; if the two were compared the sun would be as dark as black ink. If we don’t understand this statement then we don’ t understand Buddhism at all.

Shinran picked This Great Eternal Life Sutra (also known as the Larger Pure Land Sutra) from many, many sutras, as the real essence of Gautama Buddha’s teachings. He didn’t try to justify his assertion with logic. He just said: When Gautama Buddha was meditating, his face was so radiant that his student Ananda interrupted him with: "Why do you have such a radiant face?" That beginning of the sutra is itself the reason that Shinran called it the greatest sutra.

Some moderns, with their scientific mentality, may comment that it is ridiculous to say a human face shines out more than the sun. Such a person is a fool. He is to be pitied. He could never have had that experience of seeing his lover’s face so bright that its own details were lost in its shining! One has lost his humanity who cannot understand the brightness of a baby’s smile, which melts the rigid coldness of the adult mind. This is my simple and concrete proof, from our own experience that Shinran’s statement about the Eternal Life Sutra is true.

Perhaps you are still not convinced. You think it’s ridiculous to say Gautama Buddha’s face is brighter than the sun. Let me explain more. A person must be emotionally defective if the loss of a loved one doesn’t make him experience despair for the brightening future of his own life. When he loses a lover, a person has his life thrown into utter darkness. The poet has said, not even the light of the sun can penetrate the darkness of the mind in such loneliness and sorrow.

Ananda was one of Gautama Buddha’s oldest disciples and had been with him a long time. Yet suddenly he was astonished to discover that Gautama Buddha’s face was so radiant. This shows that Ananda’s insight had grown deeper. (But Gautama Buddha wanted to make sure, and asked Ananda, "Did you come up with this question yourself, or did someone else tell you to ask it?")

Everyone in the world enjoys seeing actors on the stage. But, since the beginning of history, comedians have been pessimists! A human being who doesn’t live up to his inner life is like a comedian living this double life. His face is fixed like a Noh mask. But if even such a person touches the true light, then he sees his own nature. To meet the teacher is to find out the double-faced nature of one’s own life, and then to die to such a life. The person who laughs continually, as if he had a nervous tic, and never shows sorrow on his face, as if he were wearing a mask, never lives the inner truth. Die to all that life. This is the beginning of Buddhism. By touching the light, we start to see ourselves, and at first we really feel: How terrible to show our faces in front of people. But when we really awaken, we can see the individual life history on everyone’s face, and always the true self is revealed through the individual face.

I realize now that the difficulty I had communicating in English was not the real trouble. The real trouble lay in not knowing the true face. Ananda discovered the radiant face of Gautama Buddha, the brightness of his teacher’s face, which was such that it made even the sun dark. The answer to Ananda’s question, "Why do you have such a radiant face?" was this: "I am looking at all the Enlightened Ones, instead of preaching to an audience. Not only all people, but the trees, the stones…" To see people and all of being in that way is the whole secret of why Gautama Buddha’s face was so radiant.

To meet, Buddha to Buddha, means to discover such a reverent being within oneself. To pay respect to one’s own reverent being, this is the essence of Nembutsu. And this is what is manifested in the face of Gautama Buddha, the shining one, which drew Ananda’s attention to it.

This article appeared in the BTC Bulletin, and was published privately by Joan Sweany in "Meditations on Birth and Death" by Rev. Gyoko Saito.

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