The literal meaning of Hua-T'ou in Chinese Ch'an (Zen) is "word head or sentence head." It is the state of mind before the mind is disturbed by thought. This is a clear state of mind while highly concentrated and focused. Hsu Yun called it "that moment that is neither disturbed nor dull." He further stated; "The moment before a thought arises is called the unborn." The Grandmaster said "it is the unremitting turning of the light inwards on oneself, instant after instant and exclusive of all other things." At another time he said "it is the turning of the light inward on that which is not born and does not die."
The ancient patriarchs pointed directly at Mind. When one sees self- nature, one attains Buddhahood. This was the case when Bodhidharma helped his disciple Hui-K'o to calm his mind and when the Sixth Patriarch Hui-neng spoke only about seeing self-nature. All that was necessary was the direct understanding and acceptance of Mind and nothing else. There was no such thing as investigating hua-t'ou. More recent patriarchs, however, saw that practitioners could not throw themselves into practice with total dedication and could not instantaneously see their self-nature. Instead, these people played games and imitated words of wisdom, showing off other people's treasure and patriarchs were compelled to set up schools and devise specific ways to help practitioners, hence the method of investigating hua-t'ou.
There are many hua-t'ous, such as "All dharmas return to one, where does this one return to?" "What was my original face before I was born?" and so on. The most common one, however, is "Who is reciting the Buddha's name?". Another is from the Hindu-Indian side of things when the Bhagavan Sri Ramana Maharshi suggests to his followers to ask themselves "Who am I?."
What is meant by hua-t'ou? Hua means the spoken word; t'ou means the head or beginning, so hua-t'ou means that which is before the spoken word. For example, reciting Amitabha Buddha is a hua, and hua-t'ou is that which precedes one's reciting the Buddha's name. The hua-t'ou is that moment before the thought arises. Once the thought arises, it is already the tail of the hua. The moment before that thought has arisen is called non-arising. When one's mind is not distracted, is not dull, is not attached to quiescence, or has not fallen into a state of nothingness, it is called non-perishing. Singlemindedly and uninterruptedly, turning inward and illuminating the state of non- arising and non-perishing is called investigating the hua-t'ou or taking care of the hua-t'ou.
To investigate the hua-t'ou, one must first generate doubt. Doubt is like a walking cane for the method of investigating hua-t'ou. What is meant by doubt? For example, one may ask, "Who is reciting the Buddha's name?" Everyone knows that it is he himself who is reciting the name, but is he using his mouth or mind? If it is his mouth, then after the person dies and the mouth still exists, how come the dead person is unable to recite Buddha's name? If it is the mind, then what is the mind like? It cannot be known. Thus there is something one does not understand, and this gives rise to a slight doubt regarding the question of "who".
This doubt should never be coarse. The finer it is the better one should singlemindedly watch and keep this doubt, and keep it going like a fine stream of water. Do not get distracted by any other thought. When the doubt is there, do not disturb it. When the doubt is no longer there, gently give rise to it again. Beginners will find that it is more effective to use this method when stationary rather than when moving; but you should not have a discriminating attitude. Regardless of whether your practice is effective or not or whether you are stationary or moving, just singlemindedly use the method and practice.
In the hua-t'ou, "Who is reciting the Buddha's name?" The emphasis should be on the word "who". The other words serve to provide a general idea, just like in asking, "Who is dressing?", "Who is eating?", "Who is moving their bowels?'', ''Who is urinating?'', ''Who is ignorantly fighting for an ego?'', ''Who is being aware?". Regardless of whether one is walking, standing, sitting or reclining, the word "who" is direct and immediate. Not having to rely on repetitive thinking, conjecture, or attention, it is easy to give rise to a sense of doubt.
Hence, hua-t'ou's involving the word "who" are wonderful methods for practising Ch'an. But the idea is not to repeat, "Who is reciting Buddha's name?" like one might repeat the Buddha's name itself; nor is it right to use reasoning to come up with an answer to the question, thinking that this is what is meant by having doubt. There are people who uninterruptedly repeat the phrase, "Who is reciting the Buddha's name?" They would accumulate more merit and virtue if they repeatedly recited Amitabha Buddha's name instead. There are others who let their minds wander, thinking that is the meaning of having doubt, and they end up more involved in illusory thoughts. This is like trying to ascend but descending instead. Be aware of this.
The doubt that is generated by a beginning practitioner tends to be coarse, intermittent and irregular. This does not truly qualify as a state of doubt. It can only be called thoughts. Gradually, after the wild thoughts settle and one has more control, the process can be called "ts'an" (ts'an means to investigate or look into). As one's cultivation gets smoother, the doubt naturally arises without one's actively inducing it to. At this point one is not aware of where one is sitting. One is not aware of the existence of a body or mind or environment. Only the doubt is there. This is a true state of doubt.
Realistically speaking, the initial stage cannot be considered cultivation. One is merely engaging in illusory thoughts. Only when true doubt arises by itself can it be called true cultivation. This moment is a crucial juncture, and it is easy for the practitioner to deviate from the right path:
(1) At this moment it is clear and pure and there is an unlimited sense of lightness and peace. However, if one fails to fully maintain one's awareness and illumination (awareness is wisdom, not delusion; illumination isSamadhi, not disorder), one will fall into a light state of mental dullness. If there is an open-eyed person around, he will be able to tell right away that the practitioner is in this mental state and hit him with the incense stick, dispersing all clouds and fog. Many people become Enlightened this way.
(2) At this moment it is clear and pure, empty and vacuous. If it isn't, then the doubt is lost. Then it is "no content", meaning one is not making an effort to practice any more. This is what is meant by "the cliff with dry wood" or "the rock soaking in cold water". In this situation the practitioner has to "bring up". "Bring up" means to develop awareness and illumination. It is different from earlier times when the doubt was coarse. Now it has to be fine - one thought, uninterrupted and extremely subtle. With utter clarity, it is illuminating and quiescent, unmoving yet fully aware. Like the smoke from a fire that is about to go out, it is a narrow stream without interruption. When one's practice reaches this point, it is necessary to have a diamond eye in the sense that one should not try to "bring up" any more. To "bring up" at this point would be like putting a head on top of one's head.
Once a monk, asked Ch'an master Chao-chou, "What should one do when not one thing comes?" Chao-chou replied, "Put it down". The monk, asked, "If not one thing comes, what does one put down?" Chao-chou replied, "If it cannot be put down, take it up". This dialogue refers precisely to this kind of situation. The true flavour of this state cannot be described. Like someone drinking water, only he knows how cool or warm it is. If a person reaches this state, he will naturally understand. If he is not at this state, no explanation will be adequate. To a sword master you should offer a sword; do not bother showing your poetry to someone who is not a poet.
Fundamentally, our experience as experienced is not different from the Zen master's. Where
we differ is that we place a fog, a particular kind of conceptual overlay onto that experience
and then make an emotional investment in that overlay, taking it to be "real" in and of itself.
AWAKENED TEACHERS FORUM
ZEN ENLIGHTENMENT IN A NUTSHELL
ON THE RAZOR'S