For the past fifteen years or so, I have watched the sunlight and the lamplight play across a pair of 1800 year olds on my dining room buffet. They’re Han Dynasty (200 BC – 200 AD) Chinese terracotta funeral figures, about 15 inches tall; one is an Archer with wide sleeved, flowing arms outstretched shooting a taunt bow and arrow (both now missing, but powerfully “implied” in the design). The other is an august, Confucsian Scholar figure with traditional puffed sleeves and long flowing skirt bound at the waist with a wide cloth belting in which a scroll is tucked. Both have faint paint traces of their former multi-colored selves. The nobility, grace and elegant line of these ceremonial works were probably buried in some ancient aristocrats tomb along with many other serving figures to make their after – life as comfortable as it was, presumably, in their before – death.
Putting aside the historical and cultural aspects of my two constant companions, I would like now to explore their implications for us, the living. What they represent (I do not know the Chinese word for it) is what we may call “face”. That is to say, that image of the supreme cultural values cherished by their community and throughout much of Chinese history. The term “Face” carries with it all the accumulated pride and respect of past generations and, going forward, perpetuates those values even unto the eternal. We could say that “Face” in our currently “modern” world, connotes much the same as always: “success,” “wealth,” “fame,” and “family” all add up to that which is critical –“Respect”. In other words, “Good Fortune,” whether Chinese or not.
Now “losing face” is all about the opposite; it means to lose, either slowly, through enduring a thousand cuts that never heal, or suddenly, in one fell toppling, all of our self image. Either way is very painful, not only because destruction of any construction is naturally painful, but more importantly, its the loss of what we have so heavily invested in as our “self ” and all that we think makes us somewhat human and somewhat happy. After all, as Allen Watts said, “ Images are more powerful than intellectual concepts.” In fact, we worship various images throughout our life span. Especially our own.
The specific and general weight of “face” changes with passing time. We can note what Watts said in the 1970’s, “Christianity has institutionalized guilt as a virtue” and no doubt add a long list of contemporary examples of face – alterings that carry with them the common burden of Guilt/Beliefs in our time. And, of course, the more difficult the Belief, the more our Faith is tested! Did I say “Faith”? I meant “Face”! Whatever challenges our Face values, is indeed a threat to the operating concepts of our much vaunted personal identity.
So the Good Life today is all about winning and keeping the Face while – in real time, actually…losing. We lose from the time we’re born, and we lose more than “Time”. Actually, we mostly never really get a grip! We keep losing our Self in dreams that don’t last, in the Constitutionally Guaranteed Pursuit of Happiness. A happiness which we may not have achieved yesterday, but which we will hopefully secure, tomorrow. We live and die in Yestermorrow!
But some few of us are somehow given to see behind the face of things; to not worship the face idea of any Gods except the One we are. In the timeless words of Plato:
The motions akin to the divine part of us are the thoughts and revolutions of the universe. These everyman should follow, correcting those circuits in the head that were deranged at birth, by learning to know the harmonies and revolutions of the world; he should assimilate the thinking being to his original nature”
Losing Face then, is all about re-cognizing our Self behind this mask we’ve innocently acquired and pay dearly for with each passing day. And that Loss, to be honest, is not bearable by any person; losing face leaves no self. There is no self to be gained.
To study the Budda way is to forget the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to perceive oneself as all things. To realize this is to cast off the body and the mind of self and others. When you have reached this stage you will be detached even from enlightenment, but will practice it continually without even thinking about it.”
Dogen, 13th century Zen Master
So, to return to my Archer and Scholar images, we may learn, in a kind of ultimately profitable losing of our ideas and ideals, some of the truth these statues represent:
The Archer tells us their is nothing to shoot for, to aim at, but to Be.
The Scholar tells us there is nothing real to think about with the mind, and that what we are is Not-Mind.
Together, these funeral figures are reminders of that which takes its face and form in time from the faceless and formless infinity which inspires it.