Hua Tou

Zen’s hua-tou practice recently seems to be enjoying a renaissance among the small contingent of Zen Buddhists speckling the globe.  In part, this may be due to the growing awareness that this was Hsu Yun’s personal favorite Zen practice that he spent much of his life advocating.  One of the best contemporary descriptions of hua-tou practice has recently come from Stuart Lachs who offers his personal experience with it and suggestions for anyone wanting to try it.[Note 1]

In the Buddhist world, other techniques are far more popular than the hua-tougong-an (koan) study, sutra study, Pure Land (e.g., reciting the name of the Buddha), Vipassana, mind-blanking or void meditation, pranayama, sound meditation, etc.  While these are all fine practices, and all give the same results if they are done correctly, each is unique in that it “fits”, to a lesser or greater degree, with each individual’s personality and mental framework.  Some will find it more expedient to practice Pure Land, for example, than to practice Zen, and some who practice Zen will find it more expedient to practice sound-meditation than the hua-tou method.[Note 2]  What makes hua-tou practice distinct as a practice is that it engages us to look directly into the nature of Being.  

While I would like to try to make this practice as simple as possible to encourage everyone to give it a try, I feel it necessary to list a few pre-requisites for, as simple as the practice is, it requires that we bring to it a few essential ingredients: great motivation, great concentration, and great desire.  Our motivation must be such that we are willing and eager to change the priorities in our lives to take up this practice which will engage us throughout the day for weeks or months.  Our concentration must be such that we can hold onto a topic and concentrate on it for an extended period of time without being easily distracted by other thoughts, sounds, sensations, etc., and our desire to understand who we are as living, sentient, beings must be strong and unwavering.  If these conditions aren’t in place when we start the practice, we are better suited to cultivate them first through beginning Zen training exercises: to learn to concentrate, for example, we might do breathe counting exercises, yoga, the Healing Breath or other pranayama exercises (for those with academic aspirations, study math, the sciences, philosophy, arts, etc.).  As for having strong motivation and desire, that is something that we either have or don’t, and only we can know.  Most often these qualities are generated from a deep sense of dissatisfaction with our life and a strong urge to want to change it (i.e., suffering and desire to escape from suffering).  Without these pre-requisites in place, attempting the hua-tou will likely be, at best, an intellectual exercise and, at worst, make us frustrated to the point that we give up before we realize its fruit.

I should also mention that Hsu Yun stressed the importance of having great faith in the method.  This will be necessary for some who might otherwise dismiss the practice as being too difficult for a perceived questionable outcome, but for others who bring sufficient desire it will be irrelevant.  In my case, I found the practice itself to be immensely compelling and that was what spurned me to start it and to continue with it.

Huà-tόu { 話頭 } is literally translated as “word head” but is also translated as “critical phrase”.  Before the term was appropriated by Zen teachers it was used to refer to the main idea of a literary passage.  In Zen, it refers to the nature of the origin or source of a thought, word, or phrase that arises in one’s mind, or, more poetically, to “the mind before it is stirred”.[Note 3]

All hua-tous have one thing in common.  See if you can figure out what it is from these six common ones:

  • Who is it who now repeats the Buddha's name?
  • Who is dragging this corpse about?
  • What is this?
  • What is it?
  • What was my original face before my father and mother were born?

Obviously, they are all questions:  what they all have in common is a “?” … which is, of itself, also a hua-touHua-tou practice is about looking deeply into the nature of being by asking ourselves an open-ended question which we lock into our brains and return to again and again.  The objective is not to answer it, but to play with it, letting it taunt, tease, and torment us.

If you think you’re ready to begin the practice, here are the rules:

  1. Select a hua-tou.  If you like Pure Land practices, choose the first one, if one of the others seems to hit a meaningful target, choose that one. Once you choose your hua-tou, stick with it and don’t switch to another one.  If you are concerned that you may have chosen the wrong one, that’s the ego interfering with things. Don’t let it manipulate you!  Once you get going with the practice you’ll come to see that they are all the same and you can use any of them and even come up with your own, but when starting out, it’s essential to work with only one.
  2. “Lock in” your hua-tou.  If you have a regular sitting meditation schedule (always a good idea!), use this hua-tou for your entire sitting period.  Focus your entire being on it.  Don’t give in and give yourself some artificial answer to the question like “I am just sitting here trying to figure out this hua-tou.”  Open your mind, allow great doubt to overwhelm you.  Perform this “lock in” session daily for three weeks.  After that time the hua-tou will be firmly implanted in your mind and will be with you all the time, to greater or lesser degrees depending on what you are doing.
  3. Let the hua-tou consume you day and night but push it back when you have to do things that take concentration in other areas – caring for a child, driving a car, typing an email, etc.  Just because it’s not at the center focus of attention doesn’t mean it’s not still working on you.  I liken this to an experience we’ve probably all had – we lose a key or something else of importance and spend a long time looking for it without success.  In frustration, we finally give up and do something else, but a few hours or days later we have a eureka moment and suddenly know where to find it, and there it is.  The question of where it was had lingered in the back of our minds even though it wasn’t dominant in our attention.  The hua-tou does this too.  Work the hua-tou intensely whenever you are doing something that doesn’t take a great deal of attention, like washing dishes, walking down the street or along a mountain path, getting dressed, etc. Apply it to whatever you are doing.  If you find yourself forgetting to attend to it, just bring your mind back to it non-judgmentally.  The amount of effort it takes to force yourself to do it will lessen as you continue the practice. In a short time the practice will happen automatically.
  4. Be merciless! If you feel the hua-tou practice is not working for you, ask yourself “Who is it who thinks the hua-tou practice is not working?”  Your mind can be your worst enemy with this practice and can sabotage even the best of intentions.  When it fights you, turn the hua-tou back onto it.  Be merciless!
  5. Observe the results of practice. Notice as you do the practice how your mind becomes stronger, your attention more keen, your awareness more expansive.  You will also find that the practice itself changes, first in subtle ways, and later in more dramatic ways. 
  6. Take the practice seriously, but lightly.  It should not be a chore or a burden but something to enjoy doing (although perhaps in a somewhat perverse way!) . 
  7. Avoid preconceptions. Everyone has his or her own experiences to tell about this practice.  Don’t develop expectations of what will happen for you based on accounts from others.

Feel free to post questions or related topics for open discussion below.

Note 1. See The Hua-Tou practice: perspectives and examples of an ancient and potent Chinese Chan practice

Note 2. Actually, the hua tou method stands alone as a practice and is not dependent on any particular religion or philosophy.  It’s available for anyone to try.

Note 3. Empty Cloud, The Autobiography of the Chinese Zen Master Xu Yun, translated by Charles Luk, Element Books Limited, 1988, p. 229.