By Daniel Scharpenburg
“Sometimes the questions are complicated and the answers are simple.” ~ Dr. Seuss
Buddhism is an umbrella term that describes several different beliefs and practices that are designed to bring us closer to enlightenment.
“What is enlightenment?” is a question beyond the scope of this article, but I’ll just say it’s the unleashing of the full human spiritual potential.
The Buddha taught a few methods for cultivating insight, and his followers taught a lot more. I’m writing about two significant methods that are used in Ch’an (or Zen) teachings.
The Gong An (or Koan) is well known. “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” etc. The Hua Tou, however, is not as well known, but to me it’s a more useful technique. These are two similar techniques on the surface, so I am going to compare how they are similar and how they are different.
Hua Tou is a spiritual technique. It’s literal meaning is something like “word head.” It’s a style of meditation that is designed to bring the practitioner directly to the origin of thought. Thoughts manifest as words in our minds, but that isn’t what they really are.
The Hua Tou involves focusing the mind within by asking oneself a question over and over that begins with the word “who” or “what.” Master Xu Yun used the hua tou, “Who is dragging this corpse around?” Master Han Shan used the Hua Tou “Who is hearing?”
Other common Hua Tous include: Who is it who now repeats the Buddha’s name? What is this? What is it? What was the original face before my father and mother were born? Who am I?
There are many other techniques and practices in the Dharma, but Hua Tou is unique because it invites us to look directly into the nature of our being.
The Hua Tou method follows the advice given in the Surangama Sutra. We focus the mind on the ear and turn the function of hearing toward its empty source. Through this method, enlightenment can be attained. If the mind starts to get distracted from the question, then the method is lost and the discriminating mind has defeated the meditative method. Losing the Hua Tou is referred to as Hua Wei, which is translated as “word tail.” This is when the mind loses all interest in following the hua tou and instead gets distracted by the endless chatter that fills our minds all the time.
Through practicing the Hua Tou properly, the light of wisdom will manifest and enlightenment will be realized here and now.
The Hua Tou is simply asking yourself a who question. It can be done either in sitting meditation or in daily life. Practicing it within sitting meditation and then bringing it to your daily life is what is usually recommended. It is not limited to seated meditation or any other specific context, unlike some other techniques.
Example: I am sitting and meditating and asking myself over and over in my head “Who is sitting here meditating?” Any time I have a stray thought, I bring myself back to the question. I might also ask :
“Who is having this stray thought?” In this way, I am deconstructing the Self.
Master Xu Yun said this about the Hua Tou: “The important thing is to stick to Hua Tou at all times—when walking, lying or standing. From morning to night observing Hua Tou vividly and clearly, until it appears in your mind like the autumn moon reflected limpidly in quiet water. If you practice this way, you can be assured of reaching the state of enlightenment.
In meditation, if you feel sleepy, you may open your eyes widely and straighten your back; you will then feel fresher and more alert than before. When working on the Hua Tou, you should be neither too subtle nor too loose. If you are too subtle, you may feel very serene and comfortable, but you are apt to lose the Hua Tou. The consequence will then be that you will fall into the “dead emptiness.” Right in the state of serenity, if you do not lose the Hua Tou, you may then be able to progress further than the top of the hundred-foot pole you have already ascended.
If you are too loose, too many errant thoughts will attack you and will find it difficult to subdue them. In short, the Zen practitioner should be well adjusted—neither too tight nor too loose. “In the looseness there should be tightness, and in the tightness there should be looseness.”
Many people think that Gong An study is the essence of Ch’an Buddhist teachings because it is a practice that is so well known and occurs in so many monasteries. A Gong An is a discussion between a Ch’an master and student that is recorded and considered spiritually important.
The Gong An supposedly expresses through words or actions the awakened mind of someone who has attained enlightenment, usually Master. But, the enlightened state of mind isn’t always understandable by the student because they don’t always understand the context.
It’s said that even reading the dialogue of such an exchange can be enough to cause a breakthrough. This is often presented to the student in the form of a riddle. A famous example is “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” The student is supposed to figure out the answer with intuition rather than logic. Gong Ans have been used to test a student’s level of awakening.
Additionally, some Gong Ans are dialogues between teachers and students that make no sense at first glance. For example: A certain monk asked the Master Tung Shan, “Who is the Buddha?” The Master strangely answered, “Three pounds of flax.”
A Buddhist monk asked the Master Chao Chou, “What is the meaning of the arrival of the Bodhisattva from the west?” The answer was, “The cypress tree that is in the garden.”
The student is supposed to study these seemingly nonsensical conversations and to try to find meaning in them.
Studying the Gong An is supposed to shock the student’s mind into perceiving the Empty Mind Ground. The purpose is to provoke great doubt and to test a student’s progress.
The teacher gives his student a specific Gong An and asks for an answer. Often the student can’t answer right away and has to spend time trying the penetrate the meaning of the Gong An. It’s said that sometimes students spend years and years working on a single Gong An.
If the practitioner’s mind is fully engaged in the gong an, then the desire to know the answer gives rise to great doubt, which goes to the core of the self. If the practitioner gets through this doubt and solves the gong an, it’s said that this can bring them into contact with the Empty Mind Ground.
The Hua Tou is always a question and the gong-an doesn’t have to be one, it’s often a dialogue or a statement. The words of the gong an are irrelevant to the experience it is supposed to bring. The Hua Tou, on the other hand, uses the question we’re asking to dig through our minds into our essential nature. Gong An practice is a little mysterious, trying to bring enlightenment to us through an absurd dialogue, statement or question. Hua Tou practice is more direct, taking us beyond thoughts by directing all of our minds into one very simple question. Part of the Hua Tou method’s power is in it’s incredible simplicity. The Gong An method could be said to take the opposite approach by expressing our true nature in complicated riddles and dialogues.
A Hua Tou is like a Gong An that only asks a specific question that can’t be answered by intellectual thinking. In both cases they can’t be solved by the intellect, but only by transcending the intellect. Also, both of these methods are energetic. Other methods like silent illumination are more stable and gradual.
Hua Tou and gong an are sudden methods, designed to shake us to the core and bring us to enlightenment now instead of at some point in the future. Historically it wasn’t uncommon for Ch’an Masters to use some combination of both methods.
Daniel Scharpenburg is an authorized teacher in the Ch’an Guild of Huineng, in the lineage of Ch’an Master Xu Yun. He has been practicing Buddhism for over ten years. He created a meditation program for children at the Rime Buddhist Center in Kansas City. He calls his teaching Far Out Zen. He considers himself a Zen Iconoclast and Radical, in the vein of Ikkyu Sojun and Layman P’ang. He is wary of systems of religious structure and authority. He believes in taking the Dharma out into the world, in teaching those who other Dharma teachers might not be willing to teach. He has studied under Buddhist teachers in several different traditions. Find out more about Daniel on his blog and connect with him on Facebook.
Editor: Dana Gornall