For the beginner new to Chan's tactics, attacking a hua tou may seem too abstruse, too hard, and too alien to know how to approach it. As easy as it might be to sit and count our breaths, be mindful of our thoughts, or concentrate on a mantra for a half-hour, investigating the baffling question, "Who am I?", can be so daunting that we quickly and happily toss it aside, discounting it as nonsense. Yet we can't neglect the fact that Empty Cloud considered that pondering this one question is a powerful and direct entrance into Chan's precincts.

One hour and then another.
Inexorably march, step by step.
Whenever I meet you, we each smile.
But who is it who drags your corpse around?
~ Chan Master Hsu Yun (Empty Cloud)

"Who drags this corpse around?" This is one of Chan's now famous mind-puzzles, or hua tou's, thanks to our great Chan Ancestor Hsu Yun. And it takes us right to the essence of Chan.

For the beginner new to Chan's tactics, attacking a hua tou may seem too abstruse, too hard, and too alien to know how to approach it. As easy as it might be to sit and count our breaths, be mindful of our thoughts, or concentrate on a mantra for a half-hour, investigating the baffling question, "Who am I?", can be so daunting that we quickly and happily toss it aside, discounting it as nonsense. Yet we can't neglect the fact that Empty Cloud considered that pondering this one question is a powerful and direct entrance into Chan's precincts.

People of every era have had a tendency to look wistfully back to the "good old days." Even some of our most highly regarded Chan teachers -- Han Shan, Linji, Hui Neng, and Hsu Yun -- spoke of how much harder it is "now" than in the "olden" days. But it's no easier to practice the Buddhadharma today than it was in a different age - for the nature of the human condition -- the human psyche -- has not changed; the obstacles remain the same. The Buddhadharma is always right here, even if we don't see it. No matter where or when, the attainment of enlightenment is never anything more than the process of recognition, detachment, and disengagement from those mental processes that construct the ego, the separate "I-ness" of samsara's domain.

We may consider that monks living in monasteries, or in their isolated mountain retreats, have it easier than we do when it comes to attaining enlightenment. Certainly, in a monastery we may practice our spiritual life with less difficulties and distractions. Practicing the Noble Eightfold Path may since Right Effort, Right Mindfulness and Right Concentration are easier to practice in such a rarified atmosphere.... But, if we have to place artificial limitations or constraints on our practice, then what we are "practicing" is not Chan. Hsu Yun warned us about this point:

"There are cases of the enjoyable state of purity and cleanness realizable in stillness but not realizable in disturbance. For this reason many meditators avoid disturbing conditions and look for quiet places. They do not realize that they have already agreed to become servants of the demon of both stillness and disturbance."

Even in our modern world we find ourselves struggling to find the right conditions for meditation and the cultivation of a spiritual mind amidst the chaos of our lives. We may consider that investigating the hua tou is best left to those who have already attained a fair measure of peace and solitude or are adequately cloistered to attend to it adequately… But we must remember Buddha's words of encouragement: anyone can attain enlightenment, and nobody can start from anywhere other than where they are at the moment. As Hsu Yun emphasized, to separate conditions of "stillness" from "disturbance" in order to find the ideal condition for meditation is to have already succumbed to error. Although the hua tou may seem exotic and more suited to bald monks sitting in misty mountain temples, it is in fact well suited for all of us.

As we start to delve into the self-referential, recursively obtuse question, "who am I?" we might quickly conclude that there is no value in trying to answer a question that seems to break all the rules of question-asking. But there is. The key is to foster great doubt, to put our minds in the free state of "unknowing" - the half-way balancing point between asking and answering. The result of a "rational" mind pursuing the answer to an irrational question leads to a natural tension -- a tension that comes from demanding an infinite answer from a finite mind.Breakthrough from this tension is the desired result of hua tou practice.

At first, it is like being told to open our eyes in a dark room entirely devoid of light and being told to really look . In working with a hua tou or kung-an we use the same faculty we use to explore the world of the senses: the mind; but we turn that faculty inwards instead of outwards. Instead of using our sense of sight to look outward we use the sense of mind to look inward. At first all we see is darkness, but before long that darkness becomes illuminated from within by a most brilliant light. Hsu Yun's comments on hua tou practice:

"Hua-tou practice means to turn inwards your hearing to hear your self-nature. Unremittingly and one-pointedly turn the light inwards on that which is not born and does not die. Unremittingly and one-pointedly turn inwards the faculty of hearing to hear your Self-nature. To 'turn inwards' is to 'turn back'. 'That which is not born and does not die' is nothing but Self-nature. When hearing and looking, follow sound and form in the worldly stream. Hearing does not go beyond sound and looking does not go beyond form. When going against the mundane worldly stream, meditation is turned inwards to contemplate Self-nature. When hearing and looking are no longer in pursuit of sound and appearance, they become fundamentally pure and enlightening and do not differ from each other. We should know that what we call 'looking into the hua-tou' and 'turning inwards the hearing to hear Self-nature' cannot be effected by means of the eye to look or the ear to hear. If eye and ear are so used, the mind will pursue sound and form -- the result will be that the mind will be affected by external things: it will 'surrender to the mundane stream'. If there is singleness of thought abiding in that 'which is not born and does not die', without pursuing sound and form, this is 'going against the mundane stream': it is also 'looking into the hua-tou' or 'turning inwards to hear the self-nature'."

The skeptic, uninterested in putting the effort into the hua tou, will often rhetorically ask, "Why bother?" For him there is no good answer. We have to be at the right place in our lives for this practice to be meaningful, for it requires that we have the motivation to furiously seek to find ourselves. Once we're at that stage, and do the hard work, the hua tou will help us "deconstruct" our ego-driven perception of reality - which is fundamentally the cause of our suffering that we seek to be freed from.

When we eventually crack the code of the hua tou it may seem as if the mind implodes. There is actually some recent scientific evidence that sheds some light on why it happens.

James Austin, Professor Emeritus of Neurology at the University of Colorado and experienced Zen practitioner, describes in his popular text, Zen and the Brain, the process of Neuroplasticity that the brain undergoes during focused mental effort or meditation. The brain rewires itself, he explains from his research, forming new neuronal connections between different parts of the brain that were previously largely disconnected. Austin coins the term 'emergent properties' to describe the development of new neural pathways and mental capacities that Zen practice can produce. He writes "… at its higher physiological levels of emergent processing, our brain also develops remarkable new causal properties." He proposes that "…mystical experiences arise when normal functions reassemble in novel conjunctions."

It's interesting to compare and contrast this with Wu-men's (12th Century Chan Master) description of the process of discovering the answer to the hua-tou, "mu":

… make your whole body a mass of doubt, and with your 360 bones and joints and your 84,000 hair follicles, concentrate on this one word 'Mu'. Day and night, keep digging into it… It is like swallowing a red-hot iron ball. You try to vomit it out, but you cannot. Gradually you purify yourself, eliminating mistaken knowledge and attitudes you have held from the past. Inside and outside become one, and you are like a dumb person who has had a dream. You know it for yourself alone. Suddenly, 'Mu" breaks open! The heavens are astonished; the earth is shaken. It is as though you snatch away the great sword of General Kuan. When you meet the Buddha, you kill the Buddha. When you meet Bodhidharma, you kill Bodhidharma. At the very cliff-edge of birth and death, you find the Great Freedom."

A hua tou is designed to take us beyond where our minds alone can take us. By forcing the mind to its very limits, we enter into a whole new way of perception - adirect perception independent of the mind's filtering machinery.

The experience of studying a hua tou - the experience of great doubt -- is a purely private and unique one. It can't be held, measured, or viewed. It's slippery and defies description. Yet there are some general principles that can help when beginning hua-tou practice.

First, we must appreciate that our mind will revolt! We can't lock our ego away in prison and expect it to be happy there. Every moment of working with the hua-tou is a moment that the ego is unable to express itself - once we conquer the hua tou we break through this stage, commanding the ego instead of the ego commanding us. It takes a tremendous amount of courage and steadfastness to get through this stage.

Second, we must harbor great doubt - maintaining a wide-open, receptive, questioning mind. We thrust ourselves entirely into the experience of great doubt to develop and maintain the feel of pushing deeper and deeper into it. This is the point where we are finally able to "turn the light around" to look deeply into ourselves, exploring the uncharted territory that is the realm of the mystic.

Third, we must work with it all the time. Our Chan sect focuses not so much on zazen, or "sitting meditation" as it does on constant vigilance and self-reflective inquiry in our daily lives. As Hsu Yun said, the fact that we need a meditation hall at all is testimony only to our lack of progress. It has always been intended and expected that the serious student will keep the hua tou in mind at all times, even during the working day "off the cushion".

Again, Hsu Yun's comments:

A practitioner should keep under control all his six sense-organs and take good care of this hua tou by looking into where a thought usually arises, until he perceives his pure scelf-nature, free from all thoughts. This continuous, close, quiet and indifferent investigation will lead to a still and shining contemplation. The outcome will be the outright non-existence of the five constituent elements of being (skandhas) and the wiping out of both body and mind, without the least thing being left behind. Thereafter, this absolute immutability should be maintained in every state, while walking, standing, sitting and lying by day or night. As time goes on, this achievement will be brought to perfection, resulting in the perception of self-nature and the attainment of Buddhahood, with the elimination of all distress and suffering.

"Ancestor Kao Feng said: 'When a student looks into a hua tou with the same steadiness with which a broken tile when thrown into a deep pond plunges straight down 10,000 changs to the bottom, if he fails to become awakened in seven days, anyone can chop off my head and take it away.' Dear friends, these are the words of an experienced master, they are true and correspond to reality, they are not deceitful words to cheat people."

The fact that work on the hua tou is expected to continue during times not set aside specifically for meditation provides us with another indication that the examination of a hua-tou is not intended to be a rational, discursive part of the thinking process; it is rather about developing a "feel" of this doubt and slowly acquiring the skill to carry it with us at all times. We can argue with our spouse, play with our kids, be mindful of doing the washing-up, concentrate on tallying the monthly bills … all while being aware of the doubt, the "who is performing this action?": the "to whom is this happening" questions operating all the while in the background. There is nothing that can happen in our lives that we cannot use to give rise to this enquiring, doubting, mind. We can always ask ourselves "Who feels?," "Who thinks?", "Who is in pain?"

And as we practice, the easier it becomes to give rise to this feeling. When we least expect it, the breakthrough happens revealing the perfectly clear unambiguous answer to our hua tou. When that happens it is as if the energy of the entire universe is released within us. Mission accomplished!

May all beings be happy
May all beings be freed from suffering


Thank you for this most excellent posting for through this article I have been encouraged to again take up koan study- something that I have neglected in recent years! Omitofo!
I believe for the sustained doubt sensation we need to reject any answers the ego provides us. Sometimes the answers are very subtle, and allows the mind to abide in it. We need to be active in letting go of this minds need to abide in something. Ego mind searches for comfort, but have faith in the difficult and keep digging and never give up. May all beings be free from suffering