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All the teachings of Chan have one purpose: liberation. Yet, according to the styles of different Chan masters throughout the ages, Chan was presented differently. Among all the Chan masters, it was the teachings of the sixth patriarch Huineng (638–713) that established the foundation of the tradition, even though his teachings can be traced back to India through the Indian monk Bodhidharma (d. 536?), who was later named the first patriarch of Chan. After Huineng, five historically significant Chan lineages arose but only two survive: the Caodong and the Linji. In Japan, Chan became Zen, the Caodong lineage became the Soto, and the Linji lineage became the Rinzai. A popular conception of the huatou method is that it is a distinct attribute of the Linji line and that other Chan lines did not teach this method. This is a mistaken view, at least for China. All lines used this method. However, it is safe to say that it was Chan Master Dahui Zonggao (1089–1163) who gave it its special place in the Chan tradition. At about the same time, Chan Master Hongzhi Zhengjue (1091–1157) of the Caodong sect was advocating Silent Illumination, although in his discourse records he also seems to have used the huatou method. Through the transmissions of the lineage masters, both methods survive till today.
The huatou method is closely connected to the gong’an. The Japanese pronunciation of this term is koan, which means “public case,” as in a legal case or events in the judicial system in premodern China. In Chan, a gong’an is an episode or case in the life of a Chan master, an episode that often bears directly upon the enlightenment of that master. Later, many gong’ans became subjects for practice, or investigation, by Chan practitioners. In actual practice, the entire gong’an is not always used because it can be complex and lengthy. Therefore, the early Chan masters would extract the essential point or the critical phrase or word from a gong’an and use it as a tool for practice. A huatou may consist of a fragment—a question or a word—derived from a gong’an. However, not all huatous are necessarily derived from gong’ans. Some are obscure in origin while others can simply be given by a master to a disciple as a method of practice.
Literally, huatou means “head, or crux, of a saying.” A great modern Chinese master, Xuyun (1840–1959), explains a huatou as that which occurs just before a thought arises in your mind. To practice huatou the practitioner recites the sentence or fragment in a questioning manner but without theorizing or analyzing in order to find an answer. If you tried to reason out the meaning of a huatou, this would be looking at the tail end of the thought, not the head. In theory, to investigate the huatou means to examine that which occurs before thoughts arise. But what is that which lies before thoughts arise? What does the huatou point to? Our original, liberated mind. This is also called the “buddha-mind.” To conceptually understand this is not enough; certainly it has no bearing on our vexations and life problems. You have to personally experience this. In practice, you must abandon concepts, knowledge, and previous experience until the huatou becomes the only thing in your mind, and you must eventually smash through the huatou itself.
Meditating on the Breath
When you first sit in meditation, your mind may be unsettled and you may have wandering thoughts. To calm your mind before taking up the huatou, you may practice breath meditation. You can do this by counting the breath or by following the breath. To count the breath, begin by relaxing and breathing naturally. Then starting with one, mentally count each exhalation until you reach ten, and then start all over with one. Repeat this cycle while experiencing the breath going in and out of your nose. If you lose the count, just go back to one and start all over again.
At some point you may become clearly aware of the breath going in and out without giving any numbers to it. If you can continue to do this, place your awareness at the tip of your nose, experiencing very clearly your breath going in and out. Or, you may also place your attention on the abdomen as it rises and falls with your breathing. At this point, you will be practicing following the breath. Of course, if you prefer, you can immediately practice following the breath without first practicing breath counting. However, for some people, beginning with breath counting is easier for calming the mind.
As you practice breath meditation, you may continue to have wandering thoughts. As soon as you become aware of this, just let go of the wandering thoughts and return to your breathing method. If this happens while counting the breath, just start counting again beginning with one. Eventually your wandering thoughts will taper off, your mind will be more settled, and you may begin practicing your huatou.
Reciting a Buddha’s Name
Another simple method for settling the mind is to mentally recite the name of a buddha, such as Amitabha, the Buddha of the Western Paradise. You could recite, “Homage to Amitabha Buddha,” or in Chinese, “Namo Amituofo.” Recite at a moderate pace—too quickly may cause nervousness; too slowly may increase wandering thoughts or make you drowsy. You may also add a number after each recitation, for example, “Namo Amituofo, one; Namo Amituofo, two,” and so on, to ten, and then repeat the cycle. However, focus on the words, not on the breath. Like working with the breath, the purpose of reciting a buddha’s name is to reduce wandering thoughts and stabilize your mind.
To Know Yourself
To practice Chan is to know oneself, and knowing oneself, one will be able to ultimately liberate oneself. But knowing the self is difficult, having control of the self is more difficult, and liberating the self even more difficult. Yet, it must be done because all ignorance and afflictions arise from not knowing who we are. Lacking control of ourselves, we have vexations, we have self-grasping, and we are thus in bondage to the self. The purpose of practice is to liberate ourselves from this bondage. To do this, we need concepts as our guide and we need a method of practice.
The basic understanding of Chan is that our sense of self arises from the interactions of the body, mind, and external environment. In terms of methods, the first principle is to detach from the sense of self that arises from the external environment, then to detach from the sense of self that arises from our body, and lastly, to detach from the sense of self that arises from the activities of our mind. The latter includes sensations, feelings, ideas, and thoughts, which are essentially all attachments. So, step-by-step, you separate, isolate, and narrow down the sense of self. Until you do this, you will not be able to truly use the huatou method to ultimately shatter the sense of self and reach enlightenment.
Beginners often find it easy to gain an entry into the huatou method by identifying the sense of self that arises from our bodily sensations. For example, be aware of the weight of your body sitting in meditation; be aware of the breath passing through your nostrils, and so on. These sensations are all feelings of pleasure or discomfort that you can recognize. Your awareness of these sensations is an aspect of the sense of self. Who is experiencing these things? That is what I mean by a “sense of self”—identifying the “who” that is aware, the “who” that is experiencing. So once this sense of self is identified, stay with it; do not allow the mind to wander. Stay with sensing and being aware; let your body be the anchor to keep the mind from floating away. For today, use this method to become clear about the self. However, if your mind is already concentrated and calm and you have no strong sense of self, then you can right away begin using huatou. Otherwise, if your body is still prominent in your mind, then practice watching your sensations for today.
There is no need to use a full-lotus or a half-lotus posture; just choose a posture that is comfortable for sitting so long as your body is upright. Relax the body and be aware of your breath going in and out. Through awareness of your breath, you will know and experience your own existence. You exist because of your breath, and you will have that so long as you are alive. So stay with the awareness of your breath. Doing this, you gain a sense of your own being. As you continue, your breath will slow down, become deeper, and sink lower. At that time, you may become aware of the rise and fall of your abdomen. Let that process happen naturally. Be aware of it, but do not think about it. Practicing like this, you will gain in concentration and steadiness and you may feel comfortable. Stay close to the awareness of your sense of self. If you do that, after some time you will be able to use the huatou method.
To relax your body, first, relax your eyes, your facial muscles, and your head. Then, make sure your shoulders and arms are relaxed, then your chest, back, and lower back. While maintaining an erect posture, be sure your lower abdomen is also relaxed. If you can maintain these basic points of a relaxed body, your breath will be smooth and unhindered. However, if any part of your body is tense, your breath will be short and constricted. If you relax your body in the manner I just said, your breath will naturally be smooth and unhindered; you will experience the rise and fall of your abdomen, and the breath will naturally sink down.
So, relax the body and be aware of your sense of self from one moment to the next. You do this by paying attention to the breath. If you catch your mind wandering, come back to your breath. Detach from the environment; pay no attention to it. If you get involved in things heard and seen, you will be overwhelmed by wandering thoughts. Just stay with your experience of this very moment, moment to moment, one instant to the next. And what is this present experience? It is your sense of self grounded in awareness of the body or the mind.