How to investigate the Hua Tou in Chan and Zen Meditation – by Great Master Hsu Yun

What is a Hua Tou?

  • Hua – means word
  • Tou – means head

So Hua Tou means “Word head”.

So you say a word – any word – because a word is a thought.  Then you investigate what the awareness in the space before the word or thought arises.  Before the thought arises – that’s the hua tou.  So where does the thought come from?  What is it that is saying it?  Who is it that is saying it?

How to do it

The typical method of Chan and Zen meditation is to:

  1. Say the Buddha’s name – Amitofo (the name of Amitabha Buddha).  You can say any name that you want, but in Zen and Chan, it’s usually the name of the Buddha Amitabha.
  2. Then you ask yourself, “Who is it now that is saying the Buddha’s name?” – and then you ACTIVELY investigate to search for the answer mentally – questioning ourselves to find the essence of who we really are.  
So who are you really?  What are you?
Are we our ephemeral shifting identities and roles that we assume in day to day life?
If so?  Then what happens when we take off those masks and are no longer acting in those roles?  Are we any less of a human being?


Don’t just parrot answers that someone has told you when doing Zen – that’s useless and helps no one – it’s not from what you know directly

When doing your investigation and questioning – it’s useless to just parrot an answer that you read in a book somewhere, like these days, people are saying, “There is no me, because Buddhism is the religion of no self and the Buddha said there is no self” – that’s just parroting an answer (in this case, an incorrect answer).
You can also parrot a correct answer too, like “It’s my Buddha Nature saying the Buddha’s name!” but just parroting answers is not the same as realizing your Buddha Nature.
Perfunctory answers will not do!


Master Hsu Yun teaches the basics of Chan/Zen Searching

Let us examine the Hua Tou, “Who is it who now repeats the Buddha’s name?” Of all the Hua Tou questions, this is the most powerful.
Now, this Hua Tou may be stated in many different ways, but all the ways indicate one basic question, “Who am I?”
Regardless of how the question is stated, the answer must be found in the same place that it originated: in the source, the Buddha Self. The ego cannot answer it.
Obviously, quick and facile answers are worthless. When asked, “Who is it who now repeats the Buddha’s name?” we may not retort, “It is I, the Buddha Self!” and let it go at that.  For we must then ask, “Who is this I?”


What sort of Questions do you have to ask yourself in Chan?

So you ask questions to find out who you really are – what makes you, you?  What is your essence of being?  Because your essence will still be present and will still remain – even if the unessential identities that you previously assumed are eliminated:
  • What is it that makes my mind conscious of being me?
  • What is my mind, anyway?
  • What is consciousness?
Our questions become more and more subtle and soon begin to obsess us.
  • Who am I?
  • How do I know who I am?
These questions go round and round in our minds like tired and angry boxers. Sometimes, we may want to quit thinking about the Hua Tou, but we find we can’t get it out of our mind. The bell won’t ring and let us rest. If you don’t like pugilistic metaphors you could say that the Hua Tou begins to haunt us like a melody that we just can’t stop humming.  So there we are – always challenged, always sparring.


Don’t just go through the motions – you have to actively search for the answer

Needless to say, a Hua Tou should never degenerate into an empty expression. Many people think they can shadowbox with their Hua Tou and just go through the motions of engagement.

While their minds are elsewhere, their lips say, “Who is repeating the Buddha’s name? Who is repeating the Buddha’s name? Who is repeating the Buddha’s name?” This is the way of feisty parrots, not of Chan practitioners.
The Hua Tou has meaning. It is a question that has an answer and we must be determined to find that answer.


Back to the main question – Who are you really?

I know that “Who am I?” sounds like a simple question, one we ought to be able to answer without difficulty. But it is not an easy question to answer. Often it is extremely puzzling. 
In fact, many people reach a point in life when, apart from any Chan technique, they really do begin to wonder who they are.


How to apply this method of Zen searching

Example 1

Let’s, for example, consider a middle aged woman who might have reached the point where she’s no longer sure of who she is. She’s having what psychologists nowadays call “an identity crisis“. Perhaps her children have grown up and moved away and her husband no longer finds her attractive. She is depressed and confused.
Suddenly she realizes that for her entire life she has identified herself in terms of her relationship to other people. She has always been somebody’s:
  • daughter or
  • sister or
  • employee or
  • friend or
  • wife or
  • mother.

This woman now begins to wonder, Who am I when I’m not being someone’s daughter, wife, mother and so on? Who exactly am I?

In other words – if you eliminate the things that are unessential (things that are not your essence) then you get the essence. 
If you eliminate all the things that you usually define yourself by – what are you when you’re not doing those things?  If you eliminated all those identities – you are still you – the essence of you hasn’t diminished in the least.
Those identities are merely different masks that you temporarily put on and take off.  But none of those identities are the essence of who you really are.


How Living your Life to Satisfy Ephemeral Identities can lead to so much Suffering

Perhaps she reviews her life and sees that when she was attending to the needs of one person, she wasn’t available to satisfy the needs of another and that those who felt neglected by her, criticized her, while those who received her help, just accepted it as if they were somehow entitled to it. Being criticized on one hand, and being taken for granted on the other, has caused her much suffering.
Worse, she may realize that in satisfying the demands of these external social relationships, she neglected the requirements of her internal spiritual life. Now she feels spiritually bankrupt and wonders why she invested so much of herself in others, why she saved nothing for her Buddha Self.
But a bond holds two parties together. It is not a one- way ligature. Is it not because we desire to be loved or respected, feared or admired that we allow or encourage these attachments?
Is it not our desires for the people, places, and things of Samsaric existence that ultimately cause us bitterness and pain? Of course it is.


Even when you’re NOT being a wife or husband, even when you’re not doing motherly things or boss things or employee things or student things – all these things are just temporary identities that we assume – but are not the essence of who we really are – because they can all be eliminated – yet we still remain.  So what are we, really?


Example 2

There was once a man who worked at a food market.  Every day he would steal food and bring it home to his family.
His wife and children grew strong and healthy and used the money they would otherwise have spent on food to purchase clothing and other objects.  They told him he was the best husband and father anyone could have.
Soon, the man’s brother, seeing this prosperity, asked him to steal food for him also; and the man complied. His brother praised him. “You are the best brother a man could have,” he said.
Next, a friendly neighbor who was having financial problems begged him for help; and the man stole even more food. His neighbor was so grateful. “You are the best friend a man could have,” he said. The man felt important and appreciated. In his desire to be loved and respected, he did not realize that he had become a common thief.
Before long he was caught, tried, and convicted for the thefts. He was sentenced to spend years in jail.
  • Which of the people he had helped volunteered to take his place in jail for even one night of his sentence? None.
  • Which volunteered to make restitution for even half of what he had provided? None.

Sadly the man learned that his family was embarrassed to admit being related to a thief.

Sadly the man learned that his friend was voicing relief that a neighbor of such low character was now safely in jail. And so, as we wonder who we really are we must reflect upon our ego’s foolish desires and the pathetic ways it will grovel for affection.


If we can strip away all the temporary masks that we wear and define ourselves by to get to the essence of who we really are – who are we really?  What are we?

When we ask, “Who am I?” we must also wonder whether we identify ourselves in terms of our wealth or social positions.
  • What would happen if we lost our money or were cast out of society because of a flaw in our pedigree?
  • Are we our bank accounts, our social circle, our lineage?
  • What about our jobs?
  • Are we our occupations?
  • If a musician injures his hand and can no longer play his instrument, does he cease to exist?
  • Is he deprived of his humanity because he has been deprived of his identity as a musician?
  • Do we identify ourselves in terms of our nationalities, our cities, our neighborhoods, the language we speak, or the sports team we support?
  • Do we lose part of ourselves if we move to a new locale?
  • Are we our bodies?  If a man has a head, trunk, and four limbs, what happens if he loses two limbs? Is he only two thirds of a man? Think of how foolish this would be if he and his brother were equally to share an inheritance and his brother claimed that because he was missing an arm and a leg he was entitled to only two-thirds of his share!

May we define ourselves as our egos, our conscious sense of “I” or “me” or “mine”?

  • What happens when we sleep? Do we cease to exist?
  • What happens when our attention is completely focused on a problem or a drama or on some beautiful music?
  • When happens when we meditate and completely lose our sense of I-ness? Do saints who attain a selfless state cease to exist? And Shakyamuni Buddha, who was so bereft of Siddhartha’s personality that he could only be called “Tathagata” – the Suchness of Reality, Itself – did he cease to exist because he had no ego nature?

In trying to answer the Hua Tou, “Who am I?” or “Who is repeating the Buddha’s name?” we must examine our illusive identities, our shifting, conditional, samsaric identities. The Hua Tou will then reveal much to us.

Dear friends, break old attachments!

  • Dissolve prideful self-images and special relationships and create instead humble, generic varieties!
  • Don’t require friends. Try merely to be someone who is friendly, someone who respects all people and treats them all with kindness and consideration.
  • Don’t confine filial affection to just parents but be solicitous towards all elderly persons, and so on.

Once we detach ourselves from specific emotional relationships and extend ourselves to all humankind, a new strength of character begins to emerge.

The Hua Tou, “Who am I” is a Vajra Sword which, when wielded properly,will cut away the troublesome ego.

Suppose you are rich with lots of money – then all of a sudden the stockmarket crashes or you lose your money in for some reason – are you any less of a person when you had a million dollars compared to when you had just a few dollars in the bank?  No.  Your money is not your essence, your wealth is not your essence.


So say when you have your time in the limelight when you’re famous and well known – and everyone likes you.  Then something happens and they don’t like you anymore.  Are you anymore of a person when you’re famous?  And are you any less of a person when you lose your fame and people no longer like you?  No.  Your fame and social status is not your self.  These are just changing external circumstances – but no matter how your external circumstances change, it doesn’t touch the essence of who you are.

What remains when we eliminate all perceptions of the world that we receive through our senses?
If we stop up our senses by closing our eyes, being in a quiet room, sitting still, not smelling or tasting or thinking anything.  So we eliminate the whole world from being perceived through our senses (deactivating our senses and making our sensory activity quiescent) and even eliminate thinking, letting go of thoughts – we still remain, awake and aware that the world has disappeared from our sensory perception.
So the whole world has disappeared – yet we have not disappeared in the slightest.  So what are we really?  Who is the one observing the world and then is still there observing the disappearance of the world?
What is this essence of our awareness that is still present whether we send it outside our sense gates to partake of the sensory world, yet still remains there when our sensory world gets shut off?


Source for the quoted text:

One thought on “How to investigate the Hua Tou in Chan and Zen Meditation – by Great Master Hsu Yun

  1. Great post! As always, such profound and detailed insight!

    Example 2 is great advice, it reminds me of Upasaka An Shi’s advice that we should not prepare lavish banquets full of meat to offer as hospitality for the purpose of maintaining face.

    I just wanted to add that in Example 2 (the food thief) all those people who abetted the crime will be even worse off than the thief. In the Woe and Weal of the Faithful Sutra ( it is stated that ordering and abetting murder is a heavier offense than doing it yourself.

    Thus, by this principle, those kin and neighbors who requested and accepted his tainted largesse will be punished even worse than the thief himself. I believe so because the thief has stolen but he has also given. IIRC, I’ve read in a Chinese Theravada Dharma site that powerful ghosts come into being because they had both stolen and doled out generosity to subordinates, partisans and friends who are not virtuous merit fields. Thus, they are reborn in the Hungry Ghost realm as punishment, but for their tainted and impure generosity, they still enjoy the small reward of being a ghost lord, ruling over the completely bereft, acutely suffering and starving hungry ghosts around them (i.e. these are probably people like the greedy neighbor after they pass, since they not only sinned in secret but also have not done anything remotely good). When they are reborn as people, their residual merits allow them to become rulers or officials, but their previous greed means that their power will coincide with times of famine and chaos.

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