“There is a true person of no rank coming in and out of the portals of your face.” – Linji
Recently, as I was hanging out with this koan about the person of no rank, I had the experience of seeing it as a disembodied face floating in air. I’ve known this koan for a while, but never had that experience before. Somehow the face was always been connected to a body. I got curious about the ‘face only’ version and started looking around for images that spoke to me about that. It was during that search, that I bumped into the image and story of KirtiMukha.
KirtiMukha is the name of a fierce monster with huge fangs and a gaping mouth. It is common in Hindu and Buddhist temples and households as the guardian of the threshold, the portal. Its image is usually located above the gate and doors of a temple, or home. The story of KirtiMukha began when a great king sent a messenger to challenge Shiva to give up his consort so the king might marry her. Shiva’s immediate answer was to explode with anger and to create a horrendous, emaciated, ravenous lion to eat the king’s messenger. The messenger pleaded for Shiva’s mercy, which Shiva agreed to. But, how were they to feed the ravenous demon lion? Shiva suggested that the lion should feed on the flesh of its own feet and hands. So the lion willingly ate his body starting with its tail, stopping when only his face remained. Shiva was so pleased with that he gave the monster the name KirtiMukha, ‘Preeminent Face’, and declared that its image should always be at the door of his temples, a symbol of Shiva himself.
The story of KirtiMukha reminded me of the ouroboros, an ancient symbol depicting a serpent eating its own tail. The first known appearance of the motif in the West dates back to the 14th century BC, where it appears on the tomb of Tutankhamen and in Egyptian funerary texts. That is about the same time the image appeared in Vedic texts in India in which Vedic rituals were compared to “a snake eating its own tail.” In alchemy the ouroboros is a symbol of the integration of opposites, the light and the dark. Placing an image of KirtiMukha above the gate and doors of a temple or home speaks to the integration of the sacred and profane.
No doubt, Linji, who is associated with the koan about the portals of the face, knew about KirtiMukha. Perhaps he was passing through one of those gates or thresholds when the ‘preeminent face’ of KirtiMukha caught his attention as it went in and out of the portals of his face. Perhaps he appreciated how the ‘true person’, the ‘preeminent person’, has no body as well as no rank. It is not a thing, but rather the very coming and going through those portals itself.