“Grandpa,” my granddaughter asked me over the holidays, “why do you have hair in your nose?”
At the time, Allegra had tucked herself snugly into my lap, and I was reading her a story. She is now three-and-a-half, the age of unending and sometimes unanswerable questions. On an earlier occasion, she had asked me why the sky is blue, and I replied as best I could. But this question was of another order.
As I looked down at her open, eager face, I remembered George Orwell’s observation that small children, being small, view adults from the least flattering angle. More happily, I also recalled the explanation a longtime friend provided when his grandchild asked him a similar question. Putting on his best poker face, he explained that when we have reached a certain age, our hair can no longer make it to the tops of our heads, so it comes out our ears and noses.
I considered offering this explanation to Allegra but thought better of it, knowing that my son, who once asked such questions himself, might not appreciate my filling his daughter’s head with misinformation. So I offered the rather lame explanation that as people get older they have hair in their noses. Fortunately my son, overhearing our conversation, judiciously noted that all of us have hair in our noses. With that, the matter was laid to rest.
I tell this story in part because I tend to dote on whatever my granddaughter says and does but mainly because Allegra’s spontaneous question exemplifies a quality common to children her age: the quality of radical innocence. Had she been a year or two older, I might have suspected a streak of mischief in her question or caught a hint of Grandpa-baiting, concocted to provoke an entertaining response. But the tone of her question was entirely neutral. Her inquiry was an expression of pure curiosity, free of judgment or critique. And it arose from a source unsullied by social conditioning.
In the Zen tradition, that source goes by a variety of names, including “original nature,” “original face,” “true self,” “true nature,” “unborn buddha mind,” and, most often, “buddha-nature.” Whatever you choose to call it, this primal source of wisdom, compassion, and equanimity is considered to be our true essence and that of the world at large. “Buddha-nature,” Zen students chant in their morning service, “pervades the whole universe.” To be out of touch with one’s buddha-nature, as manifest in one’s “ordinary mind” and everyday activities, is to propagate delusion. To awaken to it, principally through seated meditation (zazen) but also through conducting an awakened, ethical life, is a central aim of Zen practice.
And how does one accomplish that purpose? In the Rinzai Zen tradition, a school sometimes dubbed “samurai Zen,” the practice of returning to one’s essence is likened to the swift, decisive action of a sword. In the iconography of Zen, that action is embodied in the figure of Manjushri, the bodhisattva of wisdom, who wields a flaming sword and represents wisdom cutting through delusion, time and again.
That revelatory action may occur in a micro-second, but its enabling external conditions include long hours of formal sitting—as many as ten a day during the retreats known as sesshin. Shinge Sherry Chayat Roshi, abbot of the Rinzai monastery Dai Bosatsu Zendo, describes this aspect of Zen practice as “the great deconstruction process of Zen,” in which “that small self, that constructed self, that imposter self” is exposed for what it is, and one’s “true self” is revealed. Grounded in silent, motionless sitting, the process is also one of active questioning:
Who am I? What is this? Questioning everything. That is the study we’re doing . . . Studying the self, relentlessly questioning, becomes an infinite regress—like that blue Morton’s salt canister with a picture of a girl carrying a yellow umbrella who is holding a blue Morton’s salt canister with a picture of a girl carrying a yellow umbrella who is holding a blue Morton’s salt canister. . . no end to it.
By such means we “study the self,” as Zen master Eihei Dogen exhorted us to do. “Body and mind fall away,” and our “original face” comes into view.
In his poem “Innocence,” the 17th-century Anglican clergyman Thomas Traherne recalls his childhood, when “all within was pure and bright / No guilt did crush, nor fear invade / But all [his] soul was full of light.” And in his closing line, he declares that he “must become a child again.” Good luck with that, one’s seasoned mind replies. But to spend time with a three-year-old child is to be reminded that the state of radical innocence—one’s “true nature”—is more than a literary conceit or romantic ideal. It is a reality that one can witness, investigate, and with luck restore, whether serendipitously and in a moment’s time, or through the disciplined, arduous practice of zazen.
Shinge Sherry Chayat Roshi, “Sanctity and Responsibility,” in Teachings by Shinge Sherry Chayat Roshi, Zen Studies Society, 2016. Privately printed.
Photo: “Return to Innocence”